Ancient Near Eastern views should be considered part of the history of the idea of evolution.
Ángel M. Rodríguez
Archaeologists have found a significant amount of written and iconographic materials in the Ancient Near East that have helped scholars to gain a better understanding of the Sumerian and Akkadian cultures and religions. More recently, there has been an emphasis on the influence of those cultures on Western thinking.
Egypt, however, has always intrigued the Western world to the point of fascination. Egyptian ideas are quite widespread in the West and are commonly found in popular media. Interestingly, some elements of the cosmogonies, theories of the origins of the cosmos or of conscious beings of the Ancient Near East, including Egypt, phrased in mythological language, have found a more sophisticated expression in modern cosmogony and some theories on the origin of life.
Origin of the Gods and Cosmogony in the Ancient Near East
Before Creation. Egyptians raised the question of origins by asking first, What was there before creation or beyond the actual cosmos? They recognized that there was no final answer to that question. When addressing that specific concern, they used statements of denial. Thus, for instance, Egyptian texts would say that before creation, there was no space, no matter, no names; there was neither birth nor death. Nothing had yet come into being. This formula was used to indicate a radical difference between what is and what was not. Here are some more typical examples:
● “When the heaven had not yet come into being, when the earth had not yet come into being, when the two river banks had not yet come into being, when there had not yet come into being that fear which arose because of the eye of Horus. . . .
● “When the heaven had not yet come into being, when the earth had not yet come into being, when men had not yet come into being, when the gods had not yet been born, when death had not yet come into being. . . .
● “When two things in this land had not yet come into being. . . .”1
But Egyptians also speculated that beyond the cosmos could be found what was always there―namely, darkness and a limitless ocean or primeval waters called Nun. This was a lifeless, motionless state of absolute inertness and non-existence.
Origin of Life. Since before creation there were no gods, then, properly speaking, creation does not begin with cosmogony but with a theogony, an explanation for the origins of deity, that leads to a cosmogony. In fact, one of the common and fundamental characteristics of Ancient Near East cosmogonies is that they all begin with a theogony. For Egyptians in particular, the next logical question would have been, how did “what is” come into being? How did the gods come into existence? The answer they provided was more developed than that of anywhere else in the Ancient Near East.
An Egyptian text states that Amun is the god “who was in the very beginning, when no god had yet come into being, when no name of anything had yet been named.”2 According to the creation theology that originated in Hermopolis, Amun was the creator god. The statement just quoted implies that he was already existent at the beginning or that he was eternal, but that is not the case. It is at this point in Egyptian thought that elements of evolutionary thinking surface. But before examining these ideas, it is helpful to know more about the main Egyptian theological centers.
There were four main theological centers in Egypt, each with different approaches to and emphases on creation. Some of the basic elements of the creation myths were common to all. In the theology of Heliopolis, the creator god was Atum. In that of Hermopolis, creation was the result of the action of eight primeval gods, though Thoth was also considered a creator god. In Thebes, the creator god was Amun, and the theological emphasis was on divine transcendence. And finally, in Memphis, the theology of creation included the idea that Ptah was the creator god. Its main emphasis was on creation through the word.
These different systems were notably similar in many ways and were not necessarily in competition with one another. The Heliopolitan theology of origins is best known and the most significant of the early Egyptian cosmogonies. It has provided the basis for all later speculations about origins in Egypt. In this theology the creator god is Atum, and the origin of this god goes into the realm of evolutionary ideas:
“The background of creation
I am the Waters, unique, without second.
“The evolution of creation
That is where I evolved,
on the great occasion of my floating that happened to me.
I am the one who once evolved—
Circlet, who is in his egg.
I am the one who began therein, (in) the Waters.
See, the Flood is subtracted from me:
See, I am the remainder.
I made my body evolve through my own effectiveness.
I am the one who made me.
I built myself as I wished, according to my heart.”3
The first sentence is spoken by Nun, the personified waters before creation. The speaker in the rest of the text is Atum, the creator god. The event took place a long time ago, when all that was there were the primeval waters. Atum describes and explains how he came into being in the absence of life. Therefore, the myth portrays an important Egyptian understanding of the origin of matter and life.
Atum’s existence begins within the waters through a process of self-development or evolution. The evolutionary process begins with the sudden appearance and development of an egg within the waters of non-existence. After a long, undetermined era, the egg/Atum rises and floats on the surface of the waters, where it will evolve into the primeval mound/hill where Atum will stand. At this stage Atum and the mound are a unity of undifferentiated matter—a cosmic stem cell. The egg and the mound are Atum at different stages of development: “I made my body evolve through my own effectiveness. I am the one who made me.”4
Such a description speaks of self-causality and total independence from anything else. The Egyptians are describing what would be called today a cosmic singularity, totally independent of any external force of divine origin. This is the moment when life springs into existence by itself.
The Egyptian verb translated “to evolve” means “to develop, change, evolve.”5 It is used quite often to refer to Atum as self-evolving. With the creation of space, air, and sky, Atum will evolve even more to become the sun-god Re or Atum-Re. This creation myth is a mythological expression of the spontaneous generation of a unique life from which all life will develop. This could be called an “act of spontaneous genesis.”6 This has led an Egyptologist to suggest that some Egyptian texts deserve “to be considered a contribution to the philosophical or scientific literature on evolution.”7
Some Egyptian ideas discussed above are also found in Sumerian and Akkadian texts. According to some, creation occurs by means of spontaneous generation and sexual reproduction. As in Egypt and in modern science, in the Mesopotamian civilization it was “assumed that everything now in existence went back to a simple element.”8 According to Enuma Elish, the simple element was two bodies of water. It is in the mixing of the two that they acquired spontaneously divine procreative powers personified as the god Apsu (sweet water) and the goddess Tiamat (sea water). It is within these two that the gods were formed.
The idea of spontaneous generation, implicit in the previous text, is explicitly expressed in a bilingual Sumero-Babylonian incantation:
“Heaven was created of its own accord.
Earth was created of its own accord.
Heaven was abyss, earth was abyss.”9
This is a case in which the “spontaneous generation of heaven and earth (namely, the universe) is proclaimed, but then we are told that there was in fact no heaven or earth but only a body of water, which is the implication of the third line quoted.”10 Within this body of water the gods apparently generated themselves. Another Babylonian text contains a prayer to the moon god Nanna-Suen, a creator god, expressing the idea of spontaneous generation: “O lord, hero of the gods, who is exalted in heaven and on earth, father Nanna, lord Anshar, hero of the gods. . . . Fruit which is self-created, of lofty form.”11
The concept of the self-generation of the Moon was quite common and was associated with the fact that during the month it grew in size, then disappeared and died, after which it returned to life through its own power. In any case, it was from these self-created deities that the rest of the cosmos came into being. In other words, the simple diversified itself. This idea is explored more carefully by the Egyptians.
Diversification of Life. Atum is not simply Atum but the totality of the cosmos. Like the cosmic egg in modern cosmogony, everything in the cosmos was compressed in Atum. In a sense it could be said that he “turned himself into the cosmos. Atum was not the creator, but rather the origin: everything came into being from him.”12 It is through a process of differentiation that undifferentiated matter will shape the cosmos. This process begins with the origination of Shu (male) and Tefnut (female). They constitute in Egyptian cosmology the air or void that separates the sky from the Earth.
Probably more important in this belief is the creation of sexually differentiated deities. Their creation is described in different ways—through masturbation or sneezing—but there is a text in which a more analytical approach is taken when relating the origin of Shu. It is recited in the first person singular by the deceased, who is identifying himself or herself with the personality or soul of Shu:
“I am the ba of Shu, the god mysterious [?] of form:
It is in the body of the self-evolving god that I have become tied together.
I am the utmost extent of the self-evolving god
it is in him that I have evolved. . . .
I am one who is millions, who hears the affairs of millions. . . .
It is in the body of the great self-evolving god that I have evolved,
for he created me in his heart,
made me in his effectiveness,
and exhaled me from his nose. . . .
I am one exhale-like of form.
He did not give me birth with his mouth,
He did not conceive me with his fist.
He exhaled me from his nose.”13
The creation of Shu and his twin sister Tefnut is not through procreation but through development and differentiation. Another text says, “I was not built in the womb, I was not tied together in the egg, I was not conceived by conception.”14 He was part of the process of self-evolution or development of Atum. From the mythological perspective, one could perhaps conceive of Atum as an androgynous monad that evolves into a plurality or at first into a duality of gender differentiation. The process of the transformation or the actualization of the potentiality of the original undifferentiated matter begins with Shu and Tefnut.
From this point on, the Heliopolitan theology of creation is mainly based on procreation among the gods, but even there the idea of the self-development of Atum is maintained. It is through procreation that the potential compressed in Atum—the millions in him—will actualize itself. In the Heliopolitan cosmogonic “model,” “the central concept is the ‘coming into being’ of the cosmos, as opposed to its creation.”15 It may not be too farfetched to suggest that Heliopolis, in a sense, deals “with the rules of the big bang.”16
Time and Creation. In the Sumero-Babylonian literature, time was one of the basic elements from which everything that now exists originated. The idea is found in a text dealing with the ancestry of Anu. There is a pair of gods called Duri (male) and Dari (female). The combination of the two names mean “Ever and Ever,”17 indicating that time was considered to be fundamental in the emergence of everything else.
This is intriguing because “conceiving something immaterial like time as a prime element represents sophisticated thinking.”18 It is clear that the idea of time as a personified creator is ancient, and is also found in Phoenician, Iranian, and Indian speculations and among some Greek thinkers. In the case of Phoenicia, the god Oulomos is mentioned in its cosmology. The name is etymologically related to the Hebrew term for “eternity, world.” Among the Greeks, the god Chronos played an important role in creation. In the semi-philosophical cosmology of Pherecydes of Syros, Chronos/Time is personified and described as the one without beginning who created without a consort—from his semen—fire, wind, and water. And from these three elements, the world came into existence.
The matter of the time, the moment when creation took place, is not addressed in the Egyptian literature. It is clear that the Egyptian understanding of time was primarily linear. It has been suggested that there was an Egyptian god of time and that his presence may be reflected in the Egyptian god Thoth, who “is the god of the moon and of the lunar calendar and, thus, of time.”19 He reckoned time and distinguished months and years. Thoth had a wide range of responsibilities (e.g., nature, cosmology, writing, science, etc.), including that of creator god in Hermopolis. If this suggestion is valid, there was an Egyptian god of time who participated in the creation of the cosmos.
In Egyptian belief, creation occurred at “the first time,” which “does not just mean the beginning. It only means the beginning of an event. . . . ‘Time’ does not exclude the period after the event; on the contrary, it implies that other ‘times’ followed, in principle times without number.”20 There is no expression “millions of years” to refer to the time from the origin of the creator god to the end of all things. The use of “millions of many millions [of years]”21 should not be understood only as a way of expressing the idea of eternity, but as a statement of a deep-time chronology that would lead to the end of the cosmos.
The well-ordered cosmos is not eternal, and neither are the gods and humans who inhabit it. An Egyptian text announces the return of everything to their state before creation. It is found in the Book of the Dead, in manuscripts dating back to about the 18th and 19th Dynasties (1450–1200 B.C.). The text narrates a conversation between Atum and Osiris:
“‘O, Atum, what does it mean that I go to the desert, the Land of Silence, which has no water, has no air, and which is greatly deep, dark, and lacking?’”
“‘Live in it in contentment.’”
“‘But there is no sexual pleasure in it.’”
“‘It is in exchange for water and air and sexual pleasure that I have given spiritual blessedness, contentment in exchange for bread and beer’”—so says Atum.
“‘It is too much for me, my lord, not to see your face.’”
“‘Indeed, I shall not suffer that you lack. . . .’”
“‘What is the span of my life’”—so says Osiris.
“‘You shall be for millions of millions [of years], a lifetime of millions. Then I shall destroy all that I have made. This land will return into the Abyss, into the flood as in its former state. It is I who shall remain together with Osiris, having made my transformations into other snakes which mankind will not know, nor gods see.’”22
This is indeed a very dark view of the future of the cosmos quite similar to what some contemporary cosmologists anticipate happening millions of years from now. The expanding universe, they say, may experience a big crunch that will bring everything, including life itself, to an end.
The Egyptians also believe that the whole cosmos will be pulled back into itself, thus returning to the darkness and inertia of the pre-creation watery condition. A Ptolemaic text states that at that moment “there is no god, there is no goddess, who will make himself/herself into another snake.”23 It would appear that at the end only Atum and Osiris remain in that they “change back into the enduring, original form of a snake, that is, into the same form—or rather formlessness—which the eternal enemy of the gods, Apopis, possesses as a power of chaos.”24 But the phrase “having made my transformations into other snakes which mankind will not know, nor gods see” could indicate that they do not exist. What cannot be known by humans and cannot be seen by the gods is what does not exist. But perhaps there was also the possibility of rebirth and therefore the chance for a new beginning.
Origin of Theogonic and Cosmogonic Speculations. The speculations of the Egyptians concerning the origin of life and matter are to some extent based on their observation of nature and the conclusions drawn from it. The idea of the primeval mound was probably based on their experience during the flooding of the Nile. During the summer, the river began to swell until it covered the flat lands beyond its banks. The waters brought with it an excellent deposit of fertilizing silt. As the waters began to subside, the first things that appeared were mounds of fertile mud ready to be seeded. When the mounds of slime were bathed by the rays of the Sun, there was an explosion of new life on them. This led the Egyptians to conclude “that there is special life-giving power in the slime.”25
The Egyptians had also observed the Dung Beetle—the scarab—specifically the so called “rollers,” which the Egyptians associated with the fertile mounds. The female makes a spherical ball of dung inside of which she deposited her eggs. At the proper moment, the young emerge from the dung-ball as through a spontaneous generation of life. The scarab became a symbol of life. The Egyptian word for “scarab” is related to the word for “to develop, evolve” and to the solar deity Khepri. It seems obvious that the observations of a natural phenomenon and the interpretation given to it were used by the Egyptians to develop the basic elements of their cosmogony. Their initial point of departure was from below.
A similar situation occurs in Mesopotamian myths. Ancient Mesopotamians began from what they observed in nature and through speculations projected it back to primeval times. Their speculations were apparently based “on observations of how new land came into being. Mesopotamia is alluvial, formed by silt brought down by the rivers. It is the situation at the mouth of the rivers where the sweet waters, Apsû, flow into the salt waters of the sea, Tiʾāmat, and deposit their load of silt . . . to form new land that has been projected backward to the beginnings.”26 They, like the Egyptians, moved from what took place in nature as they knew it to cosmogonic speculations.
Influence of Ancient Near Eastern Theogonies
Creation myths in Egypt and Mesopotamia begin with a theogony and are based on the spontaneous generation of life, (e.g., divine life), out of which a process of diversification was initiated that brought everything else into existence. These ideas were well known throughout the Ancient Near East and influenced Greek mythology. Scholars in Greek classic literature have realized that the Ancient Near East was not only the geographic context of Greece but also its cultural context and that Greek religion was influenced by the Ancient Near East. It is now well accepted that Hesiod’s Theogony, written around 700 b.c., was influenced by Ancient Near Eastern theogonic myths. Scholars are still debating how these ideas reached Greece. Current consensus considers the Phoenicians as the mediators of elements of Ancient Near Eastern theogonies and cosmologies throughout the Agean area.
Hesiod’s Theogony is a masterful piece of literature that influenced Greek cosmogony in significant ways. In it, Hesiod narrates the origin of the gods and the cosmos from the very beginnings to the final triumph of Zeus. In describing the origin of the gods, Hesiod wants the Muses to inform him about the origin of everything. Here is the beginning of the theogony:
“In truth, first of all Chasm came to be, and then broad-breasted Earth, the ever immovable seat of all the immortals who possess snowy Olympus’ peak and murky Tartarus in the depths of the broad-pathed earth, and Eros, who is the most beautiful among the immortal gods, the limb-melter—he who overpowers the mind and the thoughtful counsel of all the gods and of all human beings in their breasts. . . .
“From Chasm, Erebos and black Night came to be; and then Aether and Day came forth from Night, who conceived and bore them after mingling love with Erebos. . . .
“Earth first of all bore starry Sky, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, so that she would be the ever immovable seat for the blessed gods; and she bore the high mountains, the graceful haunts of the goddesses, Nymphs who dwell on the wooded mountains. And she also bore the barren sea seething with its swell, Pontus, without delightful love; and then having bedded with Sky, she bore deep-eddying Ocean and Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus and Theia and Rhea and Themis and Mnemosyne and golden-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After these, Cronus was born, the youngest of all, crooked-counseled, the most terrible of her children; and he hated his vigorous father.”27
The text suggests that at the beginning, when there was nothing, Chasm (Chaos), Earth, Tartarus, and Eros originated by themselves. The process of diversification was ready to begin. Out of Chasm, in what appears to have been an emanation or a self-development, came Erebos and Night. Earth self-generated Sky (Ouranos), and Pontus (Sea). The other gods came into existence through procreation. The text becomes a succession myth, describing the supremacy of Sky and how Cronus (corn harvest god) castrated him and assumed supremacy. Zeus rebelled against his father Cronos, became the supreme god, and fought against the Titans and the monster Typhon. The basic thrust of the narrative is similar to the Enuma Elish with its emphasis on succession and overcoming the enemy in order for Marduk to become the supreme god. Creation through self-generation and procreation, fundamental in Mesopotamia and Egypt, is also present in Hesiod.
Ancient Near Eastern Anthropogonies
Some of the Ancient Near Eastern myths dealing with anthropogony—the origin of humans—also include ideas that are today associated with evolutionary thinking. This does not seem to be the case in Egypt, where there is no myth dealing with the creation of humans. Instead, a simple statement became the common Egyptian view on the topic. The creator god says,
“I made the gods evolve from my sweat,
while people are from the tears of my Eye.”28
Somehow the sun god had temporary blindness and from the tears of his weeping eye, humans came into existence. Therefore, to be human “means that he is destined never to partake in the clear sight of god; affliction blights everything he sees, thinks and does.”29 In other words, the understanding of humans portrayed in this mythological fragment is negative.
In Sumerian literature, some texts address the original condition of humans that contain concepts associated today with evolution. In the Babylonian cosmogonic introduction to the “Disputation Between Ewe and Wheat,” the text describes the primitive condition of humans as follows:
“The people of those distant days
Knew not bread to eat,
They knew not cloth to wear;
They went about in the Land with naked limbs
Eating grass with their mouths like sheep,
And drinking water from the ditches.”30
Nothing is said in this text about how these humans were created. What the text describes happened in a very distant time, suggesting that since then, the condition of humans has changed. They behaved like animals and did not know anything about agriculture and animal husbandry. Notice that at this early stage of human development, humans ate only grass. The idea is not that they were vegetarians but that they were like animals, feeding themselves from the grass and drinking water like animals. They looked and behaved like animals. This comes very close to what are called today hominids. The text goes on to indicate that the gods “discover the advantages of agriculture and animal husbandry for themselves but their human servants, without those means, could not satisfy them. Enki, wishing to increase human efficiency for the ultimate benefit of the gods, persuades Enlil to communicate to the human race the secrets of farming and animal husbandry.”31 In this case, the “evolution” from a pre-fully human condition to humans as social beings occurred through divine intervention. What is important is that according to this text “the human race was originally created animallike.”32
This same two-stage development is applied to the experience of an individual in the Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh, probably written around 1900 B.C. The story line is about Gilgamesh, the ruler of the city of Uruk. He was a semi-divine being who, because of his powerful personality, “drove on his poor subjects; neither men nor women ever had respite from him. The people of Uruk complained to the gods, who realized that Gilgamesh needed somebody equal to himself to measure himself against. And so they created Enkidu, the savage, who grew up in the steppe, far away from human settlements.”33 Here is the portion of the text describing him:
“[On the step]pe she created valiant Enkidu, Offspring of, . . . essence of Ninurta.
[Sha]ggy with hair is his whole body, He is endowed with head hair like a woman.
The locks of his hair sprout like Nisaba
He knows neither people nor land; Garbed is he like Sumuqan.
With the gazelles he feeds on grass,
With the wild beasts he jostles at the watering-place,
With the teeming creatures his heart delights in water.”34
The full text refers to Enkidu several times using an Akkadian term meaning “primal/primeval man.” It is used in some texts in contrast to another term that designates the king as “thinking-deciding man.” The terminology as well as his behavior and physical appearance suggest that this text refers to a being who is neither an animal nor a fully developed human being. He seems to be very close to what is called today a hominid. Enkidu transitions from his wild life and behavior to the life of culture with the help of a harlot and becomes a close friend of Gilgamesh.
Texts like these are not common in the Sumerian and Akkadian literature, making it difficult to understand their full import. But in Sumerian and Babylonian thinking, “the beginning of human existence was neither a golden age nor a period of pristine simplicity. On the contrary, life was savage, and man differed little, if at all, from other animals. Primal man was a beast, and the Babylonian Enkidu was primal man [reborn].”35 These texts represent a view of humans that links them quite closely to the animal world. The connection is so close that humans are in fact depicted closer to the animal world than to that of humans, properly speaking.
Biblical Creation Narrative
It would be difficult to deny that the Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonic ideas discussed above were totally unknown in Israel. The Old Testament speaks about a significant amount of political and cultural contact between Israel, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. The biblical Creation account, in describing the divine actions through which God actually brought the cosmos into existence, was likely deconstructing the alternative theories or speculations of origins available in the Ancient Near East. Consequently, the biblical narrative can be used as well to deconstruct contemporary cosmogonies and evolution.
Creation and God. It would probably be correct to say that the most striking difference between Ancient Near Eastern creation narratives and the biblical one is the total absence of a theogony in the biblical Creation narrative. In fact, it does not appear anywhere in the Scripture. This is so unique that it places the biblical Creation account within a different conceptual paradigm as compared to any other creation narrative. In the context of Ancient Near Eastern theogonies and cosmogonies, the biblical Creation narrative is an exquisite anomaly. The biblical text assumes the pre-existence of and a radical distinction between Elohim/Yhwh and the cosmos. To the question, What was there before Creation? the biblical answer is: “In the beginning God created.” He is not the Self-Created One but the One Who Was and Is. This carries with it some important theological and cosmogonic implications.
First, the similarities between the biblical Creation account and those from the Ancient Near East are mainly superficial. The new biblical paradigm excludes any derivation of the biblical view of creation from Ancient Near Eastern sources and would consider such a derivation to be an attempt to force upon the biblical text what is foreign to it. Scholars are now more careful when seeking to identify Ancient Near Eastern influences on the biblical writer. The truth is that “given our present knowledge . . . it is difficult to prove that any single work is the source of Genesis 1.”36
Second, in contraposition to the idea that the cosmos is the result of the coming into being of God and everything else—surprisingly similar to process theology—the biblical text does not know anything about a cosmos that is the result of the self-evolving of God or that is emerging from within God. The phrase “in the beginning” is pronounced as a corrective and rejection of the common belief that creation began with a theogony. There is a beginning, but it is a beginning of creation—not of God. Creation is about a divine function and not about divine ontology. It is probably this biblical conviction that has contributed to the development of science in the Christian world. In biblical theology, Creation is desacralized and it is, therefore, open for human study and analysis.
Third, since creation is not the result of a God who is evolving, the cosmos does not come into existence through inner struggles. In Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies, evil is part of the creation process itself and is directly related to the development of a diversity of gods/goddesses from the creator god—be it through procreation or direct self-development. Creation out of chaos, according to which God had to struggle with primeval forces of disorder to establish order and harmony, is not present in the biblical Creation narrative. In contraposition to such ideas, creation is the result of God’s effortless work. The singularity of the Creator God does not allow for any other cosmogony.
Creation and the Emergence of Life
The biblical text makes another exclusive claim: The life we experience, enjoy, and see on Earth is not an extension of the divine life but a mode of life created by God and therefore essentially different from His. To communicate this idea, the biblical text describes Creation as taking place through the divine word. Creation as the self-development of God or as divine procreation is replaced by creation through the word of God and the breath of life. Even the inanimate world is created through God’s command. Through His speech, God brings into existence light (Gen. 1:3) and the firmament (vs. 6), and separates light from darkness (vs. 4), water from water (vs. 7), and land from water (vs. 9). All this happens through the divine command. The raw materials do not have the power to realize themselves. This power comes from outside the sphere of the raw materials and reaches them through the divine word. Life is created in the same way.
The flora comes into existence from within creation itself but not through the power of natural forces. The statement, “‘Let the land produce vegetation’” (Gen 1:11)37 may suggest the natural emergence of life from the inanimate, but that is not the case. The idea is that the barren land is unable to produce grass and trees by itself; it needs to hear the voice of the Lord commanding grass and trees to come into existence all over the ground. The word of God mediates the creation of such life and at the same time establishes the way things will continue to be. The perpetuation of grass and trees is possible because the Creator established it that way. He created a “natural law.”
God created fish to teem in the waters and birds to fly in the sky (Gen. 1:20). Fish do not sprout out of the water by themselves but, like the birds, are created to live within a particular habitat. It is through the divine command that this takes place and not as the result of the intrinsic power of nature. This is life created through the divine word. Concerning animals, “‘Let the land produce living creatures’” (vs. 24). This does not mean that the earth participated in the creation of animals or that it had the potential to produce animals. It is only the divine command that creates the animals out of the earth. The rest of the text indicates that the earth is their natural environment—“all the creatures that move along the ground” (vs. 25). In other words, the command is “addressed to the earth as the place where these creatures are to live.”38 Life is created exclusively through the divine word.
In the case of humans, their life is created in a unique way: God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). The text does not say that God gave them His breath of life but that He breathed into them the breath of life. To have the breath of life means to be alive, and the divine breathing of it into humans simply means the “giving of life to humans, nothing more.”39 This is not life emanating from the divine life to take a new form or to go through further self-development. This is God creating human life.
In the biblical narrative, life does not create itself at any stage in the process of coming into being. Its origin remains hidden in the mystery of the divine act of creation. Once created, life is empowered by the Creator to perpetuate itself through procreation. This is based on the creation of gender differentiation and, therefore, it is a potential that is part of life itself and that humans can explore and understand. The origin of life is inaccessible for “scientific” analysis, but its nature and perpetuation through procreation are not.
The biblical text implicitly rejects the idea that the diversification of life was the result of a self-created life evolving or developing into a multiplicity of forms. The biblical paradigm depicts a God who effortlessly creates life in its different forms, thus excluding the development of one form of life into a different one. Each creation of life is described in the text as an event in itself, and that particular life does not evolve or develop in any way into the creation of other forms of life. This is an amazing thought in the context of Ancient Near Eastern creation stories. The only thing that provides coherence and unity to the different expressions of life in the biblical Creation narrative is the fact that there is only one Creator.
Creation and Time
Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts do not date the moment of creation. They, like the Bible, speak about a beginning that includes the creation of time. There is no awareness of what is called today “deep time”—geologic time in billions of years. As noted earlier, Egyptian cosmogonies make reference to millions of years running from creation to de-creation, and perhaps in that sense it would be possible to introduce some notion of deep time. In natural evolution, deep time is the creator that brings into being the cosmos and all forms of life found on this planet.
Such ideas contrast in significant ways with the information provided by the biblical text in which a chronology of millions of years and the existence of a god of time are unknown. This does not mean that the biblical creation narrative is not interested in time. As a matter of fact, there is throughout the narrative a significant amount of emphasis on time and its direct connection to the origin of life on the planet, but time is not raised to the status of creator. Time is created by God to frame His creative acts; it is under His rule. When it comes to the creation of life on the planet, deep time is totally absent from the text. Everything takes place in a week (Ex. 20:11). This particular biblical emphasis on time excludes the Ancient Near Eastern idea of the self-development of undifferentiated divine essence into millions by means of time.
Origin of Humans
The biblical Creation narrative distances itself from Ancient Near Eastern representation of human origins by emphasizing the uniqueness of the creation of humans and the essential differences between humans and animals. Although some similarities can be detected, they are placed at the service of different ideologies. It is obvious that the primeval human, who in Ancient Near Eastern texts looked and behaved like an animal, is totally absent from the biblical text.
Creation and Role of Humans. The uniqueness of humans is emphasized in the biblical text by describing their true nature and role within the created world. The general tendency in Ancient Near Eastern texts is to undermine the value and uniqueness of human life and existence. The most common reason for the creation of humans in the Sumerian and Babylonian narratives lacks any interest in the self-value of humans. They were created as a result of the selfish concerns of a group of small deities who rebelled against working for the major deities. According to Enuma Elish, Ea, the father of Marduk, created humans from the blood of the rebellious god Kingu: “They bound him (Kingu), brought him to Ea, imposed punishment on him (and) severed his arteries. From his blood he formed mankind. He imposed on him service for the gods and (thus) freed them.”40 Humans were created from an inferior evil god to relieve the gods from their burdensome and exhausting responsibilities. Humans were the servants of the gods.
In the biblical text, humans are created in God’s image to enjoy fellowship with Him (Gen. 1:26, 27). The image was not something that through time they were able to develop, but something granted to them as a gift when they were created on the sixth day of the creation week. As God’s image, they were rational, free beings, able to communicate with God through language (2:17, 20; 1:28; 3:10). As made in His image, humans were to represent Him to the rest of the created world (1:26). In contrast to the biblical depiction of humans, Ancient Near Eastern incipient evolutionary ideas devalued humankind.
Animals and Humans. In contrast to the Ancient Near Eastern tendency to blur any distinction between humans and animals during primeval times, the biblical text emphasizes the differences between them. This is effected in different ways.
First, both animals and humans are created by God, but only humans were created in God’s image. This explains the fact that humans had dominion over the animals and that Adam did not find a “suitable helper” for him among them (Gen. 2:20). Second, in the biblical account animals and humans come into existence in different ways. At the command of God, animals and birds are created or formed from the earth (vs. 19), but in the case of humans, God formed them from the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life into them (vs. 7). The situation is different in Ancient Near Eastern texts. In the Sumerian text called the “Eridu Genesis,” dated to around 1600 B.C., the creation of animals is described as follows:
“When An, Enlil, Enki, and Ninḫursaga
fashioned the dark-headed [people],
they had made the small animals [that come up] from [out of] the earth
come from the earth in abundance
and had let there be, as befits [it], gazelles,
[wild] donkeys, and four–footed beasts in the desert.”41
This is a case in which the origin of animals is somewhat similar to the biblical narrative. In both cases, all types of animals are created by bringing them out of the earth. In the case of the Sumerian text, this happens through the cosmic marriage—an idea totally absent from biblical cosmogony. The creation of humans is alluded to in the text (the gods fashioned humans), but no details are given. This text should be compared with another Sumerian one known as “Hymn to E’engura.” In it, the creation of humans occurs when the gods are fixing the destinies, creating the year of abundance, and building the temple. In this text, the creation of humans is also related to the cosmic marriage and could be described as the emergence of humans:
“When the destinies had been fixed for all that had been engendered (by An),
when An had engendered the year of abundance,
when humans broke through earth’s surface like plants,
then built the Lord of Abzu, King Enki,
Enki, the Lord who decides the destinies,
his house of silver and lapis lazuli.”42
When the two texts are compared, it is clear that no distinction is made between the way humans and animals were created. They both broke through the Earth’s surface, emerging from it as a result of the cosmic marriage. The singularity of humankind at the moment of its origin is not emphasized at all.
A second important distinction between humans and animals is found in the diet assigned to them (Gen. 1:29, 30). This will become a major point of dispute between the woman and the serpent, one of the beasts of the field. According to Genesis 3:1, the serpent says to the woman, “‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”’” The Hebrew text could be translated as a statement of fact: “God indeed said to you that you should not eat of any tree in the garden.” It could also be a statement of surprise: “So, God has said to you that you should not eat from any tree in the garden!” Whether or not it is a question is not of decisive importance. It is the implication of the statement that is important.
It is clear that “the tempter begins with suggestion rather than argument.”43 He is suggesting that God said something about human diet different from what Eve knew. What the tempter is attempting to instill in Eve’s mind is that humans have been forbidden by God to eat from the trees of the garden. It has been suggested that the phrase “not from any tree” should be translated “not of every tree,”44 but the fact is that the proper translation of the Hebrew phrase is “not at all,” and in this particular passage it should be translated “from no tree at all.” Besides, the answer given by Eve to the serpent clearly indicates that she understood the phrase to mean “from no tree at all.” Though the serpent insinuated that humans had been forbidden by God to eat from the trees of the garden, Eve, using the language of Genesis 1:29, clarifies that they can eat from the “fruit-bearing trees” of the garden.
Therefore, the topic of discussion presented by the serpent is about food. It is about what God assigned humans to eat. It is a little strange that the enemy would use this line of argumentation to initiate the conversation. But the topic of food is an important one in the Creation narrative. In Genesis, God is the one who determines what His creatures should eat (Gen. 1:29, 30; 2:17; 3:18). Diet set humanity apart from the animal world and constituted part of the order of Creation. They, like the rest of the animal world, were vegetarians. The animals were to feed themselves with “‘green plant[s]’” (1:30), but humans were only to consume “‘seed-bearing plant[s]’” and “‘every tree that has fruit with seed in it’” (vs. 29).
This is an important marker of differentiation. In Genesis 2:16 and 17, the Lord indicated that Adam and Eve were “‘free to eat from any tree in the garden,’” with one exception. The emphasis in Genesis 2 was on the fruit of the trees as part of human diet. By suggesting that humans should not eat from the trees of the garden, the enemy may have been trying to alter or weaken the dietary boundary that contributed to the differentiation of humans from animals.
One wonders whether the insinuation was that humans and animals basically belong to the same category of creatures—they were both to eat green plants. If that were the case, the serpent was attempting to bring Eve to its own level of existence. What was at stake was the conception of humans as the image of God. Already quoted is an Ancient Near Eastern text according to which primeval humans behaved like animals, “eating grass with their mouths like sheep and drinking water from the ditches.”45 In that text, there is no dietary differentiation between humans and animals. This appears to be what the serpent is attempting to introduce in the biblical narrative. By devaluing humans, the serpent forces Eve to react, to defend herself, and consequently she becomes more vulnerable. Humans, she says, are to be differentiated from animals: “‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden”’” (Gen. 3:2, 3). The rejection of this apparent attempt to group humans and animals together, indispensable in evolutionary thinking, deconstructed some Ancient Near Eastern anthropogonies.
Self-evolving of Humans. The idea that it is possible for humans to evolve from one level of existence to a higher one is found in Genesis, but it is not endorsed by the biblical writer. It is placed in the lips of the serpent after Creation week. It is introduced in the narrative as an alternative to the divine plan for humans, and unfortunately, it captured their imagination. This represented a new worldview that was offered to humans by the serpent. According to it, humans had the potential within themselves to evolve into something unimaginable; they could be by themselves immortal and totally independent from God (Gen. 3:4, 5). They could leave behind their previous mode of existence and evolve or self-develop into a divine mode of existence. The biblical text rejects this worldview by describing the negative results of embracing it.
Instead of progress, humans were significantly dehumanized and unable to properly relate to one another and to God. One wonders whether hiding among the trees and putting on leaves as a kind of garment was not pointing to the fact that humans were identifying themselves with the trees (3:8, 10). If that is a valid reading of the text, then, in seeking to be like God, they had fallen almost to the level of the flora. The fact that an animal was instrumental in their fall suggests that they lost their dominion over the fauna, thus damaging the image of God. This permanent loss of dominion over the fauna appears also to be expressed through the new garments that the Lord provided for them made from the skin of animals (3:21).
Though in Genesis 1 and 2, the distinction between humans and animals is clearly maintained, in Genesis 3, the distinction begins to deteriorate. An animal entered into a dialogue with Eve and deceived her, God explicit stated that humans would exist in conflict with this animal (3:15), and finally God clothed them with the skin of animals. All of these imply the human loss of their dominion over the fauna that God had entrusted to them.
Dressing them with the skin of animals indicated that they were no longer in the condition in which they were before—they were now closer to the animals. But there is more. As a result of the fall of Adam and Eve, the human diet was altered, and humans would also eat green vegetables or legumes (Gen. 3:18, “‘the plants of the field’”), bringing them closer to elements of the animal diet.
The human quest for self-development/evolving into the divine and the acquisition of self-preservation—immortality—proved to be a failure. Yet both ideas found fertile ground in the religions of the Ancient Near East. Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Hittite religions developed well-established rituals to facilitate the transition of the individual from this life to the other life. The movement from the human level to the divine took place particularly in the sphere of the king, who in some cultures was considered to be divine or who after dying was transformed into a god. In this last case, the evolutionary goal was reached in the sphere of the spiritual world and connected evolutionary ideas with spiritualistic concerns. What is particularly important in the biblical narrative is that at the moment when evolutionary ideas are insinuated, the biblical text rejects them by emphasizing their negative impact on human existence.
In the study of the history of evolutionary ideas, the literature of the Ancient Near East should be taken into consideration. Behind the myths are some interesting reflections and speculations about the origin of life and its development from simple elements like water, matter, and time. These self-created elements are personified in the myths as divine beings that evolve or self-develop into the multiplicity of phenomena that can now be observed and experienced. None of this is, properly speaking, natural evolution as it is understood today, but it does contain elements of the evolutionary ideology promoted today in some scientific circles. In that sense the Ancient Near Eastern views should be considered part of the history of the idea of natural evolution.
Once it is recognized that such ideas were part of the cultural and religious environment of the people of God in the Old Testament, the reading of the biblical Creation account reveals the uniqueness of its cosmogony and anthropogony. In revealing how Yahweh created the cosmos, life in general, and human life in particular, the biblical text was indeed deconstructing the elemental evolutionary views present in the Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies and anthropogonies. It can then be suggested that the biblical text is to be used as a hermeneutical tool to evaluate and deconstruct contemporary scientific evolutionary theories and speculations related to cosmogony and anthropogony. It is surprising to realize that an ancient text, the biblical Creation account, could have had such a unique role in the ancient world and that it can continue to address the same concerns in a technological and scientific global culture. Qoheleth, who was very much interested in creation, said it well: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9).
Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, ThD, is the former Director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES