Institute Report: Genesis Week 4

This week, we continued talking about Enuma Eliš and Genesis 1, beginning with a review of some of the similarities we talked about last week.

Similarities– 1) Opens with temporal clause. 2) pre-creation darkness 3) precreation cosmic waters 4) wind/spirit 5) division of the waters to create space for human existence 6) a solid “roof” created to restrain the cosmic waters from reentering that space.

There are also stark differences, which generally fall under the category of semi-polemical monotheistic reinterpretation. That is, while Genesis shares with Mesopotamia (as well as all the other ancient Near Eastern cultures we know of) a very different conception of the physical universe and some other elements, it differs sharply in who’s in charge.


  • Lack of combat– In contrast to Enuma Eliš, other creation accounts, and other parts of the Old Testament (per the last post), creation is portrayed as being free of combat with other deities or cosmic waters/chaos.
  • Monotheistic. – Things which are deities in creation accounts elsewhere are downplayed, removed, and made to be creations, such as sun, moon, stars, sabbath, the waters, and the “great whales” or cosmic sea monsters associated with the deified cosmic waters. See my post here.
  • (Well, kinda monotheistic, at least in comparison with its neighbors. Israelites likely believed in existence of other divine beings, though none really offered a challenge to Yahweh.  This is probably reflected in the several “us” passages (Genesis 1:26-27, 3:22, 11:7, etc.)  Unlikely interpretations of the plurals include 1) the “royal we” which does not exist elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible or the ancient Near East (though it does in the Koran!),  2) a plural of deliberation (which is possible but seems to be ruled out by the Hebrew grammar of 3:22) and 3) The Trinity, an early Christian interpretation. Most scholars today go with a reference to God’s Divine Council, a topic much discussed in LDS scholarly circles. (I wrote my senior paper on it at BYU, but see here, here, Michael Heiser’s Evangelical response published by FARMS, David Bokovoy’s response to Heiser, and a final word by Heiser, who has a helpful introduction to the topic. )
  • View of humanity. In Enuma Eliš,  humankind is created from blood of a slain rebel deity (associated with Tiamat), whereas in Genesis mankind is of clay and divine breath. In Mesopotamia, only the king was said to be in the image of deity, whereas in Genesis all humans
    share God’s image and likeness. While this may refer to human form, the more important sense is that one acts in God’s place; to be in God’s image is to represent God in some sense. By comparison, then, Genesis is quite humanistic and optimistic about human nature.

One student wisely tried to restate everything I’d done to that point, and I realized I’d left out something very important. Genesis 1 was not taken whole cloth from Enuma Eliš and rewritten as an Israelite one. Rather, Genesis 1 probably represents a long Israelite (oral?) tradition that, in its final form, was influenced and shaped by Enuma Eliš, in order to counter the “doctrine” of it and other creation accounts.[ft1] In other words, it’s like a particularly well-read-and-savvy (and sadly hypothetical) LDS missionary who adapts the gospel message to particularly respond to the doctrinal needs of an investigator in, say, a deeply Muslim setting.

The important thing to realize here is that much of the significance of the account is lost when we try to read it in a vacuum, in absence of its ancient context.

I then wrote Genesis 1:1-3 on the board with some Hebrew left in it, and went through it.

When ‘elohim began to bara’ the heavens and the earth (the earth being tohu-and-vohu, darkness upon the face of the Abyss, and a wind from ‘elohim rachaph-ing over the waters), ‘elohim said, “let there be light.”

The first thing to notice is that Genesis 1 uses ‘elohim exclusively, where 2:4ff uses jehovah ‘elohim as an odd combined singular. LDS usage of these two terms to designate Father and Son is not derived from the Old Testament, nor should we read it in there. It’s a convention that arose, as far as I understand, with James E. Talmage. Until then, LDS tended to use the terms with much more ambiguity. Joseph at least sometimes used ‘elohim as a plural, and the Kirtland dedicatory prayer (D&C 109) which addresses Jehovah several times becomes much less troublesome when we realize that the term is probably referring to God the Father there. As late as 1961 (as pointed out by John Tvedtnes and Barry Bickmore), David O. McKay could refer to “Jehovah and his Son Jesus Christ”. Or, put much less specifically, “The scriptures do not always specify which member of the Godhead is being referred to in a given passage.”- Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual, 6.

Second, we see that pre-creation, the primordial waters are already there (Abyss/tehom, “the deep”), and God creates from it, not from nothing i.e ex nihilo. (Ex Nihilo handout.) Even the NT picks up on this in 2Pe 3:5 “They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water.”

The heavens and earth constitute a merism, expressing totally through two opposing extremes, “day and night” “A to Z” “alpha to omega”, etc., meaning “everything.”

What state is it in? Before creation it is tohu and vohu, a phrase which does not mean empty, but non-productive, purposeless, having no place. And here, I begin to draw heavily on Evangelical Old Testament scholar John Walton and his theory of functional creation, which I’m still mulling over, but has much merit. It’s been talked about several places among the LDS blogs (Dave has three posts here, LDS Science Review here, here, and here for a sampling) Walton has been working on this for years; most recently in a scholarly volume, a popular volume (Google preview, PDF preview), various articles on Creation and Cosmology (from Dictionary of the Old Testament:Pentateuch), his commentary on Genesis (which I’m mostly enjoying), and older works. To get a good overview (and really, you should, because its explanatory power can’t be summarized in a paragraph or two), listen to this lecture of his (mp3).

Basically, modern westerners conceive of ontology (the nature of being or existence) as material, but ancient Near Eastern cultures had a functional ontology; to exist meant to have a function within an ordered system.  Creation is the process of bringing something into existence. In other words (to greatly simplify), Genesis 1 isn’t interested in material origins or where stuff came from; Creation is about taking the non-functional and assigning it functions, not manufacturing. Everything was there, mostly in place, and God assigns functions and functionaries throughout Genesis 1. We’ll talk about it more next week, but here’s an analogy.

A corporation doesn’t exist just because it has a building or a sign out front. Think of God as CEO, and the building is already there. What he does is assign employees their jobs, how they’ll interact, and what they’re supposed to do; once all of those are in place, the CEO takes his seat in the head office, and opens for business. Now everyone knows what to do, the company can begin to carry out those functions as assigned, as assured and watched over by the CEO.

Bara’ then, the word translated as “create” may well, under the hood, mean something like “to assign a function within a system.” Prior to being bara‘ed, it would be tohu and bohu, functionless. Walton lays this out in great detail with plenty of evidence from within the Hebrew Bible and texts from the surrounding civilizations. It solves a multitude of problems, and I’m quite excited about it.

What happens on Day 1, is that God “creates” Time; that is, he “divides” the light from the darkness. These are not physical things that can be spatially divided, like rocks in a jar. However, we can also understand the verb to mean “designate, distinguish” based on its usage elsewhere in Hebrew, and this makes all kinds of sense. If that seems like a stretch, consider our usage of the spatial term “set apart” in the LDS church. When we set someone apart in a new calling, we give them a new function within an ordered system, we designate or distinguish them differently than we did before. We begin with a period of darkness, then God calls for a period of light, which he designates “day” and the period of darkness “night.” The cyclical period of dark/light are assigned the function of Time. The functionaries of Time (sun, moon, stars) and further related functions (marking of holy days and seasons, etc.) will be so designated on day 4.

Next week, we’ll finish Genesis 1 and Walton, talk about theological diversity, genre, sources, and begin Genesis 2-4. Keep reading, and watch Galaxy Quest.

[ft1] Based on rare vocabulary and other things, some have suggestion that Psalm 104 represents an earlier poetic form of Genesis 1.

13 comments for “Institute Report: Genesis Week 4

  1. Creation is about taking the non-functional and assigning it functions, not manufacturing.

    Awesome: this is hugely helpful and useful. (And yes, I’m buying your book. After, of course, it is written, published, and for sale.)

  2. I want to echo #2. That idea is incredibly profound, and highly useful. It echoes back to Joseph’s view of spirits as uncreated intelligences that God found, and gave direction and purpose to. It would be beautiful, coherent, and consistent for the earth to be the same way.

  3. In contrast to Enuma Eliš, other creation accounts, and other parts of the Old Testament (per the last post), creation is portrayed as being free of combat with other deities or cosmic waters/chaos.

    I might just be misreading you here. I’m not sure whether “other parts of the Old Testament” belongs on the Enuma Elis side or the “creation is portrayed as being free of combat” side. Because as soon as you said that I immediately thought of Isaiah 51:9-11, Psalm 74:12-17 and Job 40:25-26 which many see paralleling Babylonian creation accounts. But maybe you are just distinguishing those accounts from Genesis 1?

  4. Ah, you posted that one of the weeks when I was ridiculously busy. Sorry for missing it. (I had rechecked your part III but missed part II)

    A couple of other questions though.

    Genesis 1 was not taken whole cloth from Enuma Eliš and rewritten as an Israelite one. Rather, Genesis 1 probably represents a long Israelite (oral?) tradition that, in its final form, was influenced and shaped by Enuma Eliš, in order to counter the “doctrine” of it and other creation accounts.

    What is the argument for a pre-existing ur-text influenced by the Enuma Elis versus an adaption of the Enuma Elis to the new setting? I ask because it’s at precisely this point that I can’t help but think of the relationship between the Endowment and Masonry. The two seem to parallel each other in some fundamental ways but also have some significant differences. Whenever someone raises the Masonic parallel as problematic I often raise the Enuma Elis and Genesis 1 (not to mention the other creation accounts I mentioned)

  5. I’ve been thinking about the implications of the concept of Functional Creation since I read this. It’s kind of rocking my world right now. I’m eagerly awaiting more of your thoughts on this.

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