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On the Use and Abuse of the Enuma Elish

September 16, 2007

Over and again these past few weeks I’ve been struck by how often folks bring up the Enuma Elish in connection to the biblical creation accounts (see recent discussions by Daniel Kirk here and here, as well as the recent comment by Jake McCary here). While the text is undoubtedly important for our understanding of Mesopotamian culture in the first millennium BCE, I think that seeing a direct relationship is a bit overstated.

The reason for my conservative view on the matter stems from a footnote by Jack Sasson in his article “The Tower of Babel as a Clue to the Redactional Structure of the Primeval History (Gen 1:1-11:9).”

Often met with as explanation for the P creation narrative is that is served as a polemic against the Mesopotamian concepts of creation as found in the Enuma Elish. That the last is not a composition which addressed itself primarily to creation, but to the exultation of Marduk and his city Babylon, is one reason to reject such a conjecture. But more seriously perhaps is the unlikelihood that a Hebrew priest would have access to, or information about, a highly secret account, recounted in the late afternoon, in the holy temple of Marduk, during the Akītu festival. We might perhaps better appreciate the difficulties that any ancient Hebrew would have had in reacting against the literature of his neighbors, when we acknowledge that J. B. Prichard’s ANET was not available to him for easy consultation. (p.452, n. 8  )

I think that Sasson’s sober assessment of the availability of the Enuma Elish to the biblical authors is something that gets too little notice in the literature of late.


Sasson, Jack M. “The Tower of Babel as a Clue to the Redactional Structure of the Primeval History (Gen 1:1-11:9).” Pages 448-457 in I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11. Edited by Richard S. Hess and David Toshio Tsumura. Sources for Biblical and Theological Studies 4. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994.

  1. Phillip permalink
    September 20, 2007 8:22 pm

    Jim…Thanks for pointing this out. I had missed it. (Why are all the best quotes in footnotes?) I am puzzled, however, because I have always been under the impression that the Enumah Elish was more widely known…at least in the larger oral traditions of Babylon. I don’t think you have to hold that Judeans of priestly stock would have had access to an actual copy of the work to believe that they might have known the general contours of the myth itself and understood all too well the implications. Of course, maybe I just don’t want to rewrite my lecture of Gen 1.

  2. January 11, 2008 11:04 pm

    I believe that they would have access to such literature in that it was also memorized and told as epic battles around camp fires. There is no such thing as pure culture and there were many exchanges through out the whole region. No they did not have ANET, however they may have patterned the writings after the writing styles and format of those time periods. We find these comparisons also in metaphors.

  3. jimgetz permalink*
    January 12, 2008 11:30 am


    We aren’t talking about a primitive society here. People weren’t sitting around campfires in ancient Babylon. The Enuma Elish is a calculated piece of literary propaganda told in an artificial epic style and containing more or less unique elements.

    That some of these ideas were older (e.g. the combat myth dates back to LUGAL.E and Anzu) is not my problem here. It’s when scholars claim that biblical authors actually knew the Enuma Elish. What Sasson is saying (and I concur) is there is little to no window of opportunity for biblical authors to have been exposed to this literary text.

    BTW: interesting cite.

  4. January 12, 2008 11:56 pm

    LOL I apologize for misunderstand the topic. If the text concerning the heroic acts of Marduk existed in epic format during the babylonian captivity I would think that the Hebrew would have been exposed to it. Just like the many forms of the epic of Gilgamesh were in circulation as it transformed through the society. Possibly we should ask what else motivates scholars to come to such a conclusion. I’m jumping in because this is the first I have read about such a hypothesis. Can you all list some authors who think this way. I would be intrested in taking a look.

  5. January 12, 2008 11:58 pm

    Sorry I ment other writers besides Sasson. LOL

  6. jimgetz permalink*
    January 13, 2008 10:43 am

    Well, I think probably a good starting point would be to look at Thorkild Jacobsen’s Treasures of Darkness, he’s got some amazing analyses of the text itself.

    For comparative material with ancient Israel, the bibliography is almost legion — especially when only a more generally knowledge of the epic format are proposed. While I haven’t read it yet (it’s the next on my reading list), Kent Sparks’ article in the newest Journal of Biblical Literature would probably be a good place to start — his bibliography will probably the most up-to-date.

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