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Creation and Cosmogony in the Bible

The Hebrew Bible commences with a majestic cosmological account of the genesis of the universe. According to Genesis 1:1–2:4a (the P account according to the documentary hypothesis), God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. The verb brʾ used in the very first sentence of the creation story does not imply, as most traditional commentators believed, creatio ex nihilo, a concept that first appears in II Maccabees 7:28, but denotes, as it does throughout the Bible, a divine activity that is effortlessly effected. The opening sentence in the story – many commentators think (but see Cassuto, Genesis, 1, pp. 19–20) – begins with a temporal clause, "When God began to create the heaven and the earth" (Gen. 1:1), continues with a circumstantial clause telling of the existence of the darkness and void (1:2), and then in two main clauses (1:3) relates the first act by which God, by divine fiat, created cosmic order out of primeval chaos: "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." The six days of creation fall into a symmetrical pattern of three days each, in which the creation of light and of day and night on the first day, of the sky on the second, and of dry land, seas, and vegetation on the third are complemented by the creation of the luminaries on the fourth day, living creatures in the sea and sky on the fifth, and land animals and man on the sixth. The refrain "And God saw that it was good; and there was evening and there was morning" usually follows the completion of each day's activity. The final act of creation, man, is preceded by a solemn declaration of purpose announced in the heavenly council, "Let us make a man in our image, after our likeness" (1:26). Man is then blessed by God, "Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it," and entrusted with sovereignty over the "fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth" (1:28). God, having found that all He had made was very good, ceased from further acts of creation and blessed and sanctified the seventh day (2:2). Another story of creation, Genesis 2:4b–24 (the J account according to the documentary hypothesis), describes a much more anthropocentric version of the origin of life on earth: with the ground watered at first only by a subterranean flow; the first man formed from the earth of the ground and animated by a breath blown into his nose, the first woman created from a rib of the man; and the two placed in the *Garden of Eden.

The main differences between the two accounts, whose sources reflect different epic traditions, are (1) the names of the deity: Genesis 1, ʾElohim; Genesis 2, YHWH; (2) in the first account the creation of plants (1:11ff., third day) precedes the creation of man (1:26, sixth day), but in the second before man there was no shrub in the field and the grains had not yet sprouted (2:5–7), trees being created only after the creation of man (2:8–9); (3) in Genesis 1:20–21, 24–25 animals were created before man, but in Genesis 2:19, after man; (4) the creation of man is repeated in the second account, but whereas in Genesis 1:27 male and female were created together, the woman was fashioned from a rib of the man in 2:21ff. The second account does not mention the creation of day and night, seas, luminaries, marine life, but commences immediately with the forming of man from the dust of the earth.

Conception of God

Though the style of the first account is much more hymnlike and sublime than the second, it does not reflect, as is usually assumed, a completely abstract, transcendental conception of God. First of all, though creation by divine fiat is found in connection with light (1:3), firmament (1:6), gathering together of the waters into one place and the appearance of dry land (1:9), vegetation (1:11), luminaries (1:14), marine life and fowl (1:20), animal life (1:24), there are also references to the actual making or creating of the firmament (1:7, wa-yʿaas), luminaries (1:16, wa-yʿaas), sea monsters, fish, and fowl (1:21, wa-yivraʾ), land animals (1:25, wa-yʿaas), and most important, the pinnacle of creation, man (1:26ff. nʿaaseh, wa-yivraʾ). Moreover, creation by divine fiat is not an abstraction first conceived by the author of the P account, but is found in earlier Egyptian (Pritchard, Texts, 5) and Babylonian cosmogonies. Second, that man was created in the image and likeness of the divine beings (Gen. 1:26) is interpreted by many modern exegetes in a physical sense, although the expressions must have lost their original corporeal sense in the biblical context (see Cassuto, Genesis, 1, p. 56). (For the image of the deity, cf. Ex. 24:10; 33:20–23; Isa. 6:1; Ezek. 1:26.) The terminology employed here has Near Eastern prototypes: In Egyptian literature, specifically in a cosmogonic context, man is described as being the image of his creator god (Wildberger; Pritchard, Texts, 417); in Mesopotamian literature the king is sometimes called the "image" (Akk. ṣalmu, Heb. ẓelem) or "likeness" (Akk. muššulu, Heb. demut) of his deity (for the views of Horst, Loewenstamm, and Wildberger, see bibliography). In Israel a "democratization" (Horst) took place in that not only the king but all of mankind is conceived as being created in the divine image. If this idea originally goes back to royal ideology, it would further explain man's unique task on earth. Just as the divine likeness of the king in Mesopotamia empowers him to be the sovereign of his people, so mankind is entrusted "to rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth" (Gen. 1:28). Finally, the plural verb naʿaseh ("let us make") and plural nouns be-ẓalmenu ("in our image") and ki-demutenu ("after our likeness"; Gen. 1:26) may refer to the divine council with which God consults before the important step of creating man; though other feasible explanations have been advanced (see commentaries). (For other references to the divine council, see Gen. 3:22; 11:7; I Kings 22:19ff.; Isa. 6:2 ff.; Job 1–2; Dan. 7:10; for the deity's taking counsel before creating man, see Enuma Elish 6:4, in Pritchard, Texts, 68.)

Mesopotamian Prototypes

The two versions of the creation story have often been compared to Mesopotamian prototypes. The translation given above in Genesis 1:1ff. and 2:4bff., "when … then," is analogous to the introductory style of Mesopotamian epics. Tracing a theme to the creation of the universe is a feature also found in as trivial a work as the "Incantation to a Toothache" (Pritchard, Texts, 100–1), and in as major a composition as the Sumerian King List (ibid., 265–6), "history" commences with the dynasties before the Flood.


For specific cosmogonic details the most important piece of Mesopotamian literature is the Babylonian epic story of creation, Enuma Elish (ibid., 60–72). Here, as in Genesis, the priority of water is taken for granted, i.e., the primeval chaos consisted of a watery abyss. The name for this watery abyss, part of which is personified by the goddess Tiamat, is the etymological equivalent of the Hebrew tehom (Gen. 1:2), a proper name that always appears in the Bible without the definite article. (It should be noted, however, that whereas "Tiamat" is the name of a primal generative force, tehom is merely a poetic term for a lifeless mass of water.) In both Genesis (1:6–7) and Enuma Elish (4:137–40) the creation of heaven and earth resulted from the separation of the waters by a firmament. The existence of day and night precedes the creation of the luminous bodies (Gen. 1:5, 8, 13, and 14ff.; Enuma Elish 1:38). The function of the luminaries is to yield light and regulate time (Gen. 1:14; Enuma Elish 5:12–13). Man is the final act of creation – in Enuma Elish, too, before his creation the gods are said to take counsel (Enuma Elish 6:4) – and following the creation of man there ensues divine rest. There is, furthermore, an identical sequence of events: creation of firmament, dry land, luminaries, man, and divine rest. Thus, it appears that at least the so-called P account echoes this earlier Mesopotamian story of creation.

Another reflection of very ancient traditions is found in Genesis 1:21. Since the entire story of creation refers only to general categories of plant and animal life, not to any individual species, the specific mention of "the great sea monsters" alongside, and even before, "all the living creatures of every kind that move about, which the waters brought forth in swarms" is striking. It is most likely part of the biblical polemic against the polytheistic version of a primeval struggle between the creator god and a marine monster which was the personification of chaos (see below). In Genesis this story has been submerged and only appears in the demythologized reference to the sea monsters as being themselves created by God, not as rival gods.

The second creation story, too, has Near Eastern prototypes: The creation of man from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7) is analogous to the creation of man from clay, a motif often found in Mesopotamian literature, e.g., the Gilgamesh Epic; the Hebrew name of the underground flow, ʾed, that watered the Garden of Eden, is related to either a cognate Akkadian word edu or to the Sumerian word ÍD, "river"; and the creation of woman from a rib may reflect a Sumerian motif (see Kramer).

Differences between Genesis and Enuma Elish

Nevertheless, the differences between the biblical and the Mesopotamian accounts are much more striking than their similarities; each of them embodies the world outlook of their respective civilizations. In Genesis there is a total rejection of all mythology. The overriding conception of a single, omnipotent, creator predominates. Cosmogony is not linked to theogony. The preexistence of God is assumed – it is not linked to the genesis of the universe. There is no suggestion of any primordial battle or internecine war which eventually led to the creation of the universe. The one God is above the whole of nature, which He Himself created by His own absolute will. The primeval water, earth, sky, and luminaries are not pictured as deities or as parts of disembodied deities, but are all parts of the manifold works of the Creator. Man, in turn, is not conceived of as an afterthought, as in Enuma Elish, but rather as the pinnacle of creation. Man is appointed ruler of the animal and vegetable kingdoms; he is not merely the menial of the gods (Enuma Elish). The story in Genesis, moreover, is nonpolitical: Unlike Enuma Elish, which is a monument to Marduk and to Babylon and its temple, Genesis makes no allusion to Israel, Jerusalem, or the Temple. Furthermore, the biblical story is non-cultic: unlike Enuma Elish, which was read on the fourth day of the Babylonian New Year festival, it plays no ritual role whatsoever in the religion of Israel.


In addition to Mesopotamian substrata, there are several Egyptian analogues to the biblical stories of creation, e.g., the existence of primeval water and its division; the breathing of life into the nostrils of man; man's being formed in the image of the creator god; the creation of plants, animals, fowl, and fish; and the light of day (see "Instruction for Meri-Ka-Re," Pritchard, Texts, 417; Junker, Hermann in bibl.).


Outside Genesis there are a number of allusions to the vanquishing by YHWH of a great sea monster and his minions, with some traces of a belief that this was connected to the creation of the world. In the biblical version of this combat, known from Mesopotamia (Marduk-Tiamat) and Ugarit (Baal-Yamm), the forces of the watery chaos, called Yam, Nahar, Leviathan, Rahab, or Tannin, are either destroyed or put under restraint by God (cf. Isa. 27:1; 51:9–10; Jer. 5:22; Hab. 3:8; Ps. 74:13–14; 89:10–11; 104:6–9; Prov. 8:27–29; Job 7:12; 9:13; 26:10–13; 38:8–11). Recently it has been suggested (see Jacobsen) that this epic account, whose source was thought to be in Mesopotamia, may actually have originated in the West (though where in particular is not clear), and subsequently influenced both biblical and Mesopotamian literature. It is noteworthy, however, that the stories of Genesis meticulously avoid the use of such legendary material, even eschewing metaphorical figures of speech based on this mythological conflict.

Another poetic version of creation is reflected in Proverbs 8:1–31, where Wisdom relates that she attended God during the creation.

Weinfeld has drawn attention to the fact that four mythological motifs of Genesis 1 – the existence of primordial material (1:2); God's working and His rest; the council of God (1:26); and the creation of man in God's image (1:26–27) – are repudiated in the cosmogonic doxologies of Second Isaiah.


IN THE BIBLE: F. Boehl, Alttestamentliche Studien … Festschrift fuer R. Kittel (1913), 42–60; H. Junker, Die Goetterlehre von Memphis (1940), 63; A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (19512); S.A. Loewenstamm, in: Tarbiz, 27 (1957/58), 1–2; U. Cassuto, Commentary on the Book of Genesis (1961), 7ff.; S. Herrmann, in: Theologische Literaturzeitung, 86 (1961), 413–24; E.A. Speiser, Genesis (1964), 3ff.; H. Wildberger, in: Theologische Zeitschrift, 21 (1965), 245–59, 481–501; N.M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (1967), 1–32; M. Weinfeld, in: Tarbiz, 37 (1967/68), 105–32. THE RABBINIC VIEW: A. Altmann, Studies in Religious Philosophy and Mysticism (1969), 128–39; E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal (1969), 161–9. For a general exposition of the traditional view see J.H. Hertz, Pentateuch, Genesis, Appendix A. CREATION IN PHILOSOPHY: Guttmann, Philosophies, index; Husik, Philosophy, index; N.M. Samuelson, Judaism and the Doctrine of Creation (1994); A. Altmann and S.M. Stern, Isaac Israeli (1958), 171–80; Z. Diesendruck, in: Jewish Studies in Memory of G.A. Kohut (1935), 145–58; S. Feldman, in: PAAJR, 35 (1967), 113–37; S. Wilensky, ibid., 22 (1953), 131–50; idem, Yiẓḥak Arama u-Mishnato ha-Pilosofit (1956), 97–120; H.A. Wolfson, in: Saadia Anniversary Volume (1943), 197–245; idem, in: Essays… J.H. Hertz (1942), 427–92; idem, in: JQR, 36 (1945/46), 371–91. IN THE ARTS: L. Réau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 2 pt. 1 (1956), 65–76, (1923), 1–34. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: CREATION IN PHILOSOPHY: H. Davidson, Proofs for Eternity, Creation and the Existence of God in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy (1987); idem, "Maimonides' Secret Position on Creation," in: I. Twersky (ed.), Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature (1979), 16–40; W. Dunphy, "Maimonides' Not-So-Secret Position on Creation," in: E. Ormsby (ed.), Maimonides and His Time (1989), 151–72; S. Feldman, "Gersonides' Proofs for Creation of the World," in: PAAJR, 35 (1967), 113–37; idem, "The Theory of Eternal Creation in Hasdai Crescas and Some of His Predecessors," in: Viator, 11 (1980), 289–320; idem, Philosophy in a Time of Crisis: Don Isaac Abravanel, Defender of the Faith (2003), 40–66. A. Hyman, "Maimonides on Creation and Emanation," in: J. Wippel, Studies in Medieval Philosophy (1987), 45–61; A. Ivry, "Maimonides on Creation" (in Hebrew), in: Jubilee Volume for Shlomo Pines, Part II (1990), 115–37; idem, "Neoplatonic Currents in Maimonides' Thought," in: J. Kraemer, Perspectives on Maimonides (1991), 115–40; S. Klein-Braslavy, "The Creation of the World: Maimonides' Interpretation of Genesis I–V," in: S Pines and Y. Yovel (eds.), Maimonides and Philosophy (1986), 65–78; S. Klein-Braslavy, Maimonides' Interpretation of the Story of Creation (1987); T. Rudavsky, Time Matters (2000); N. Samuelson, Judaism and the Doctrine of Creation (1994); C. Touati, La Pensée philosophique et theologique de Gersonide (1973), 161–286; S. Wilensky, "Isaac Arama on the Creation and the Structure of the World," in: PAAJR, 22 (1953), 131–50; H. Wolfson, "The Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic Theories of Creation in Hallevi and Maimonides," in: Essays in Honor of the Very Rev. Dr. J.R. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain (1942), 427–42; idem, "The Meaning of Ex Nihilo in the Church Fathers, Arabic and Hebrew Philosophy, and St.Thomas," in: Medieval Studies in Honor of J.D.M. Ford (1948), 355–70; N.M. Samuelson, Judaism and the Doctrine of Creation (1994); J. Turner, "Franz Rosenzweig's Interpretation of the Creation Narrative," in: Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 4, 1 (1994), 23–37.