Legends of the Fall

Did Genesis Originate in Babylon?

Enter The Dragon: Marduk, the bravest Babylonian god, patrolled the gate of Ishtar.
Getty Images
Enter The Dragon: Marduk, the bravest Babylonian god, patrolled the gate of Ishtar.

By Philologos

Published October 07, 2012, issue of October 12, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

As often as we read these words, which we do every Simchat Torah when beginning the annual Torah-reading cycle again, they never lose their majesty or their mystery, in their English translation as in their Hebrew original. What their translation contains no hint of, though, is something that, with the help of linguists and historians of the ancient Near East, may partially explain this mystery. Behind the account in Genesis of a solitary God creating the universe by Himself lies, it would seem, an old pre-Hebrew myth in which the world was created by many gods who battled with each other while creating it.

This hint is found only in the Hebrew, in the word tehom, translated in the King James Version (as it is by most other English Bibles) as “the deep.” Inasmuch as tehom is a word that occurs many times in the Bible, always — to judge by the context — in the sense of watery depths, this translation is not to be challenged. (In Modern Hebrew, mey tehom, “the water of tehom,” refers to all underground water.) It was only in the late 19th century, however, as archaeologists and scholars began to discover and decipher ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform inscriptions, and with them the mythology of the long-vanished Babylonians who wrote them, that an interesting similarity was noticed between the word tehom and the female Babylonian deity Tiamat, who figures prominently in Babylonian creation legends.

Tiamat, the goddess of salt water, along with Apsu, the god of sweet water, are the two original deities in Babylonian cosmogony, from which everything else came into being. In the words of the Babylonian “Poem of Creation,” whose composition probably dates to the 12th-century B.C.E., although the myths it retells are much older: “When there was no heaven, no earth, no height, no depth, no name, when Apsu was alone, the sweet water, the first begetter, and Tiamat, the bitter water… when there were no gods, when sweet and bitter mingled together — no reed was plaited, no rushes muddied the water — the gods were nameless, natureless, futureless — then from Apsu and Tiamat in the waters gods were created, in the waters silt precipitated.”

Apsu impregnates Tiamat with the gods of the Babylonian pantheon, and these gods soon begin to quarrel in the womb. “Discord broke out among the gods, although they were brothers, warring and jarring in the belly of Tiamat…. Apsu said: ‘Their manners revolt me. My will is to destroy them, all of their kind.’ When Tiamat heard this, she was stung, she writhed in lonely desolation, she said: ‘Why must we destroy the children that we made?’”

Apsu prevails, and Tiamat agrees to destroy her children, the gods, who by now have been born. Yet the gods get wind of the plan, kill Apsu before he can kill them and plot to murder Tiamat, too. Defending herself, she takes the form of a sea dragon and creates 11 sea monsters to protect her. The bravest of the gods, Marduk, goes forth to do battle with her and enlists a powerful wind to aid him. It “beat [Tiamat] in the face, so that when her mouth gaped open to suck [Marduk] down, the wind raged through her belly, which swelled tumescently. She gaped. And now he shot the arrow that split the belly, that pierced the gut and cut the womb… Tiamat was dead, her band routed.”

What, you ask, does this gruesome theomachy have to do with the sublime creation story of Genesis? Not very much perhaps — except that the Hebrew word ru’aḥ , usually translated in Genesis as “spirit,” has the primary meaning of “wind.” Was God’s spirit that mysteriously moved upon the face of the waters originally Marduk’s wind howling in the face of Tiamat? Is Genesis’s description of the universe at its inception, before the creation of light, a radically reimagined, reworked and de-mythologized rendering of the Babylonian legend, one in which primal matter is no longer represented by gods, and where monotheistic grandeur replaces polytheistic savagery?

It’s actually quite possible, especially since there is strong evidence that the story of Tiamat, or something close to it, was known to the Israelites of biblical times. Consider, for example, the verse in Chapter 74 of Psalms in which the Psalmist says to God, “Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength, thou didst break the heads of the sea monsters [taninim] in the waters.” Although nowhere in the Bible is there any actual recounting of such an episode, it is clear that a tradition about God having subdued the forces of the depths at the time of Creation existed in Hebrew circles, too. Between the tehom of Genesis and the Tiamat of the Babylonians came long centuries of intellectual religious development, but a connection between the two is highly likely.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.