An inevitably (and at times unbelievable) discovery occurs in the life of most Bible students at one point or another: they realize that the Bible is an ancient text written to a specific ancient group of people within a specific cultural setting surrounded by other cultures with similar and influential world views. This discovery could shake the faith of some, but for others the realization of the opportunity that this discovery brings is too compelling to hide under a bushel. Could there be potential discovery in the fact that the divinely inspired word of God was written to an ancient culture in such a way that that culture could understand what was spoken? What if what God spoke to ancient Israel actually resembled things that other cultures held to be true within their own sacred texts?
A proper understanding of this seeming dilemma of faith actually opens unique opportunity for the follower of Christ. Could God have actually been subversively communicating unique details and critiques through the communicative form that he chose when giving revelation to ancient Israel? Was he revealing aspects of himself, humanity, and reality when he spoke to Israel in ways that would have been almost familiar to the nations they neighbor? Would these uniquely biblical details have reset certain details of the worldview of the ancient Israelites without necessarily charging their cosmological assumptions? Below is an affirmative defense to the above questions. A brief exploration will ensue into ancient Israelite texts— centered primarily on cosmogony— comparing them to other texts from their ancient contemporaries (e.g. Canaanite mythology or Enuma Elish) in search of both similarities and differences.
As the requirements of apologetics seem to be slowly switching from that of philosophical arguments to that of textual criticisms, questions about ancient sacred writings (particularly biblical one) come to the forefront often. These critiques are leveled at believers and too often succeed in shaking the faith of some. This success is unfortunate and unnecessary as the discoveries in ancient comparative studies should have the opposite effect. God places glorious truths on display in the minute details of the creation narrative given to ancient Israel. Below is an argument that the biblical text, in particular the creation narrative, spoke to ancient Israel in such a way, not to change the fundamental structure of their understanding of the universe, but instead to communicate key “theological” details. The argument herein is that it did so by changing commonly understood cosmogony and familiar cosmogonic narratives ever so slightly as to make glaring statements, particularly about ethical assumptions, humanity, and Israel’s God. These distinctions have implications that will be edifying for the believing community and evangelistic in the growing critical landscape.
Before beginning to address the argument given above, another foundation must be laid so that the reader and writer can be on similar ground. For discussions of this sort, it is important to retrain the method of approach used. There may be reasons for this type of discussion to interact with issues of science, age of the earth, human origins, and discussions of literalism. However, these types of considerations almost always come to the forefront of discussions regarding the biblical creation narrative, and other equally if not more important topics are push to the back burner or removed from the stove all together. Therefore a mental retraining must occur here before going forward if one is to get beyond the standard debates: as John Walton does in his work, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, decide to consider the text as literature. Another author, Karl Kutz, shares his experience with teaching this section of biblical text,
Decades of conversation with students in biblical literature courses have revealed a tendency to equate the description of an event (Text) with the event itself (Event) and a preoccupation with reconstmcting events rather than focusing on the text’s message… Modem readers are generally unaware that they are imposing pre suppositions upon the text or importing biblical concepts that the au thor did not choose to include in Genesis 1.
For the moment, ignore issues of science and other modern sentiments that would be foreign to an ancient audience. The work here is to consider the question: what does this text say compared to other texts, and what is it communicating through these differences. For now, leave science to others.
As a work of literature, the Bible, specifically the Hebrew Bible, and specifically again the Torah, is a literary work that is a part of a larger culture of the ancient Near East (ANE throughout). As all cultures do, the ANE shared a common worldview, and Israel, being within this culture, was not exempt from that reality. Because of there fragile survival on earth, the ancient world indeed asked existential questions about the cosmos and their own origins. Bernard Batto suggests two areas that were considered by this ancient audience.
(1) how the world in which we live came to be, including not only an accounting for its physical origins but also how and why it acquired its present configuration, and (2) the origins of humankind and its relation to its “creator” and to the rest of “creation.”
Despite regional differences, the ANE would have similar motifs and conceptions that revolved around answering these two questions.
With these considerations in mind, it must also be understood that there is a common trend within critical scholarship to attribute Israelite literature purely to its cultural setting. Said another way, Israel borrowed the creation accounts or other portions of mythology from the neighboring societies. This need not be the conclusion when seeing these texts side by side, especially for those who believe that scripture is not simply a human document. However, the similarities between biblical and other ANE texts must be noted and conclusions need to be worked towards. The person that holds the scriptures to be inspired by God must have room in their understanding of the Bible for a reality in which God said things to ancient Israel that were similar to what other pagan cultures believed— in other words that Yahweh spoke within Israel’s culturally informed worldview. Once this is acknowledged then, a discussion of differences can be taken up. As Gerhard Hasel notes, “The importance of difference is, therefore, just as crucial as the importance of similarity.” And Jeremiah Unterman explains that differences are indeed more illuminating than similarities when doing comparative studies: “For example, differing cultural principles are exemplified more in the dissimilarities in the two flood stories… than in the commonalities.” To glean the principle of God’s chosen society from that society’s texts, a comparison in necessary. First, a brief overview of similarities in the ANE cognitive landscape will be helpful in order for differences to stand out.
The similarities found in ANE mythologies can be seen in the following areas. First, in the ANE there was an assumed primeval substance that pre-dated the universe which spontaneously became the creation or that both the gods and creation came out from. Second, this forming of the created universe was not by “impersonal chance,” but was orchestrated by a divine will or wills. Third, there was an assumed “bipartite” or “tripartite” universe consisting in heaven and earth, or heaven, earth, and an underworld. Humanity became a central player in these schema as creation theology, “always accounts for the existence of humankind as organized society in service of the divine creator (and other deities)” Fourth, should the creator deity or deities remove their active engagement in creation, the universe would move into disorder or become unlivable due to an arch enemy of the creator deity or a de-creator. Within this point, an alternative situation could occur in which humanity itself through its own malevolence could corrupt the created order and design of the creator resulting in chaos within the creation. Finally, for the ancient, their respective mythologies were self evident within the created order itself and within the sociopolitical world that the particular society inhabited: “the sun and the moon are in the sky just as the narrative proclaimed, and human society in the ancients’ experience was indeed organized as the myth(s) prescribed.”
Another classifying list of categories is given by John Walton in His Article, “Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the Ancient Near East: Order out of Disorder after Chaoskampf.” In this work, Walton explores the area of divine conflict with ANE texts and ideas. He gives this list therein:
1. dissatisfied class revolt among the divine proletariat concerning roles
2. order vs. disorder in the macrocosmos ( Chaoskampf)
a. initial establishment of order (cosmogony) b. one-time threat from chaos monster
c. renewal on a seasonal or daily basis
3. struggle for rule among the gods between individual competing claimants 4. generational coup seizing rule among the gods.
This list is less important for the purposes of this work because, as Walton shows, these categories of divine conflict rarely relate to actual cosmogony. Nevertheless, it is an important point to note that in the above schema (specifically the first of class revolt among the gods), “the result is the creation of humans to take over the work of the gods, and the role of the gods relative to labor is what is at stake.” In other words, humans are created for the purpose of a labor force to relieve the burden of the gods.
To move further in this work, an examination of an actual cosmogonic account is necessary in order for the similarities and differences to stand out and thus for implications to be drawn. Due to its prominence and the older assumptions that Hebrew literature was borrowed from it, the Babylonian creation account, Enuma Elish, will be the starting place.
The account goes as such: the male Apsu and female Tiamat are two primeval bodies of water, the former sweet water and the latter salt. Their waters mix together and offspring come forth. These offspring become loud and rambunctious, disturbing Apsu who decides to kill off the younger generation. Before he could, however, the youngsters devise a plan to strike first, and their wisest, Ea causes Apsu to fall into a deep sleep through a magic incarnation. Ea then kills Apsu, takes his crown, and build a palace on top of him. Ea and the goddess Damkina, then give birth to a future savior, Marduk. Tiamat is very upset at what has occurred and is persuaded by the god Kingu to attack the younger gods for killing Apsu. Tiamat makes Kingu commander to attack the younger generation and Marduk is persuaded to lead the young gods against this coming attack on the agreement that he be made the highest divine authority. Marduk is tested by the young gods by placing a garment before him; upon his spoken commands it is destroyed and upon his spoken commands again it is recreated. Marduk then goes out to fight the invincible Tiamat.
He let loose the Evil Wind, the rear guard, in her face. Tia-mat opened her mouth to swallow it. She let the Evil Wind in so that she could not close her lips. . . . Her inwards were distended and she opened her mouth wide. He let fly an arrow and pierced her belly. He tore open her entrails and slit her inwards.
Once she was dead, Marduk then, “split her into two like a dried fish: One half of her he set up and stretched out as the heavens. He stretched the skin and appointed a watch with the instruction not to let her waters escape.” Marduk uses her other half to establish the earth. He then takes the “tablets of destiny,” sets up stars in their constellations to govern the 12 month calendar, fixes a path for the sun, creates the moon, divides up the days of the month and fixes abodes for the gods. Following this, “Marduk then kills Kingu and out of his blood creates mankind to serve the gods. Finally, he is lavishly praised by the gods. Humans are urged to remember Marduk’s fifty names and rejoice in them, so that humanity’s land shall be fruitful and it shall go well with them.”
The Enuma Elish has distinguishable similarities with the biblical creation narrative along with obvious differences. Uterman works through these similarities and differences in His work, Justice for All. How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized, which was already cited above:
At the beginning, nothing identifiable exists (no heavens and earth in Enuma Elish, only chaos in Genesis). • The first words mention both heaven and earth. • Water is present as part of the stuff of creation. Apsu and Tiamat are watery beings. Water is mentioned in Gen. 1:2. • Tiamat and the Hebrew word tehom (“deep water” in Gen. 1:2) are probably from the same linguistic root. • Creation occurs through divine speech (the garment in the Babylonian story; all of creation in the biblical one). • The creation of the heavens, the firmament to keep the upper waters in place, dry land, the luminaries, and humans all occurs in the same sequence. • Divine rest follows.
Uterman goes on to establish the obvious differences which are summarized below:
Through these examples, the differences between the Hebrew and Babylonian cultures on subjects of the God or gods that created, on the creation itself, and on humans and ethics is fairly clear. The gods of Enuma Elish are capricious and bloody, creating out of need. The creation itself is brought about through violence and infighting. Humans are placed at the lowest imaginable position as slaves of the gods, created through the slaughter of another evil deity. This last point is a more ubiquitous phenomenon in the ANE, one that the biblical emphasis stands in stark contrast with— humanity was created in God’s own image and given dominion within the Hebrew construct, a point discussed below. Uterman goes further in his treatment of these texts by making ethical conclusions and comparisons.
To begin with, Uterman points to the image of God that humanity is endowed with and suggests that it is a term of rulership, not necessarily one of physical appearance. Humans were given the position of ruler over the earth just as God is ruler over the heavens and the earth. Implications being that for humans to live this image properly, they must rule in the way that God does. God being the perfect ruler and king implies then that the ethical standards placed upon the humans is a high one, a standard visible even in the vegetarian diet of original creation— “the ethical purpose of God’s nonviolent creation is to lead to a world without bloodshed!”
Uterman’s next point again involves the image of God: he points out that this title is equally applied to both male and female participants in the human race. While the Bible did not create a sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and gender equality revolution among the culture it was given to, it certainly held both men and women to be equally in the high status of image of God. Many other places throughout the Scriptures could be cited to show the equality that the Bible assumes when considering men and women, but the creation narrative lays the bedrock. While the Scriptures did not cause a revolution within the cultures they were given to, they did lay the foundation for future revolutions in relation to appropriate equality between male and female.
Lastly, Uterman draws ethical implications from the sabbath rest cycle given in the Genesis acoustic, a phenomenon that, to date, is found nowhere else in the ANE. The Sabbath rest was an institution that level the playing field within a society. It was the original “human rights,” even restricting government control. “This concept of the Sabbath rest had a democratizing influence upon society. All were equal for one full day a week (and on certain holidays), and no one could require anybody else to work on that day. Even the king could not ask his lowliest servant to work on that day!”
The character of the biblical God, the perspective of humanity, and the ethical development that the Bible created is again clear throughout. These such differences do not overshadow the clear similarities that have also been seeing above. While some would suggest that the changes constitute simple interaction with and correction of other texts, others such as Hasel would suggest, “these differences are not so much due to suppressing or expurgating mythology. They rather indicate a radical break with the mythical cosmogony.” Either of these options bring a clear conclusion: the biblical account had some profound things to say to the ancient world, and to do so it used the lingo of the world it was speaking into.
Other examples of this type could be cited such as the uniqueness of the form of spoken word creation found in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, creating through spoken word is considered by many scholars to have a prominent ANE background. For instance, in Enuma Elish, the creation of the garment by Marduk is done by a spoken command. However, the creation of the world by command is not known within Mesopotamia. Within Egyptian mythology this is a present phenomenon, however, even in this case the difference is noticeable. For the Egyptians, the effective command by the deity that resulted in creation was similar to an incantation or the right magic utterance. As Hasel states
In Egyptian thought the pronouncement of the right magical word, like the performance of the right magical action, is able to actualize the potentialities inherent in matter. The Gn concept of creation by divine fiat is not obscured by polytheistic and mantic-magic distortions. Gn 1 passes in absolute silence over the nature of matter upon which the divine word acted creatively. The constant phrase “and God said”… with the concluding refrain “and it was so”… indicates that God’s creative word does not refer to the utterance of a magic word, but to the expression of an effortless, omnipotent, unchallengeable word of a God who transcends the world. The author of Gn 1 thus shows here again his distance from mythical thought.
The Genesis chapter one form of creation by word is foreign to the ancient world. By speaking in these ways, the author is “attacking” the ideas of magic and emanation and is separating the Hebrew God from that of other deity through the account of creation through an “effortless word.”
A final area will be explored before bringing this work to a close. For this section, a bit of imagination is necessary as a method employed by Berman in, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, is used herein. Imagine a ruler of a newly formed society has done all the necessary tasks to consolidate power. The list of these tasks could be numerous and done effectively indeed, but a final element would still be necessary in any such equation. A ruler that wanted to legitimate their power in the eyes of the masses of the ancient world would need to secure metaphysical legitimation for their rule. The system of governance, even in its fragile beginnings, would need to be seen as ordered and ordained by the divine. If the masses believe that a ruler’s control is rooted in ultimate reality, then this control is secured and even sacralized.
This could be accomplished by educating the masses that the given ruler was in fact an agent of the gods, chosen by them to lead. Many societies went far beyond this however, and expressed human institutions of control in terms of a microcosms of a heavenly macrocosm that the earthly institution paralleled. This hierarchical stratification of society is thus legitimated in a way that a “low cosmic value for the common man,” is present, “hence a low position of power for the vast majority of society’s members” is justified at a metaphysical level. In his work, Berman explains this phenomenon along with its presence and development in Mesopotamian and Ugaritic cultures, each in their own respective metaphors.
A brief note on an alternative method found in Egypt that resulted in similar metaphysical legitimacy for rule. The demigod king of Egypt was a similar tactic to secure social stratification.
When turning to the biblical text A different phenomenon is present. Indeed, one could point to the Davidic monarch and make parallels to the tactics mentioned above, but even in these, the relation between God and king is much different than in other situations of political legitimization. Berman shows how in several ways the texts describes the Davidic line in different ways than other known texts. An example could be the massive limitation placed on the future kings of Israel found in the Pentateuch.
Beyond David, however, the Pentateuch speaks in different ways about the individual person of Israel. This divine power dynamics tactic often found its moorings in suzerain/vessel treaties between a monarch and divine being— two individuals. In the Torah, this dynamic is not present. Moses is the mediator, but Moses is not the king and his descendants are not heirs— indeed he is not describing in these ways at all. Instead, God’s covenant is between God and all of Israel. As Berman notes again
Thus we may posit that to some degree, the subordinate king with whom God forms a political treaty is, in fact, the common man of Israel; that every man in Israel is to view himself as having the status of a king conferred on him— a subordinate king who serves under the protection of, and in gratitude to, a divine sovereign. The proof of this may be seen in striking parallels between the stipulations and language used in the Hittite treaties regarding the subordinate king and the biblical laws and commandments that bind each and every common man of Israel.
A return to the issue of creation narrative will also add to this understanding of biblical differences for social stratification within the ANE. The issue discussed above of the creation of humans in Enuma Elish as servants of the gods surely aids the oppression and subjugation of the lesser classes within society. Into this worldview, the creation of humans in God’s own image has an additional subversive thrust: the endowment of all of humanity with the image of God, implying dominion. Instead of just the ruling individual or class being in the image of the gods, Hebrew literature levels the playing field. A similar yet more egregious example as seen in Enuma Elish is found in the Atrahasis epic.
In this epic an upper and lower social class is present among the gods. The upper class Annunaki are served by the lower class Igigi. The Igigi engage in any number of menial tasks for their lords until a revolt occurs. The workers walk off the job and the eventual decision to rectify the situation is to creat humans to take on the labor of the gods, “let him bear the yoke! Let man assume the drudgery of god.” So that the humans can be closer to the gods than the animals were, a god is sacrificed and his flesh and blood are mixed with clay. After the prototype of the humans is approved, production of humanity begins, and thus the drudgery of the lower class Ingigi is relieved them by the new workers.
This epic essentially celebrates social hierarchy: even from the beginning, society among the gods was divided along social lines. The rebellion of the Ingigi is an occasion for the humans to take the role of servant of these gods. While this reality is expressed in terms of humans and gods, clearly,
The relationship depicted is merely a reﬂection of the earthly social hierarchy. The raison d’être of the common man is to serve the king, to offer him his constant labor, all to allow the king and his house to rule in comfort and splendor. The divide between the dominant tribute-imposing class, and the dominated tribute-bearing class is granted religious sanction.
Again, similarities are present between this story and the biblical account, and those could indeed be listed, but the differences show the distinct take on commonly held existential beliefs.
Through this brief survey of creation narratives, their differences and similarities have been highlighted. These have been shown so that the reader can consider God’s purpose for using similar language to the cultures around Israel; indeed some of the literary examples above pre-date the biblical literature. The examples above exemplified the general premise of this work: the Hebrew Bible used basic concepts present in the ANE to communicate theologically (rather than necessarily scientifically) to the ancient audience. By speaking into and through a common cultural cognitive framework for the universe, the Hebrew Bible has made profound statements through minor changes related to the topics of God, humans, and ethics.
Consider this premise by reflecting on a few of the examples above. In the Enuma Elish epic, upon the act of creation, a similar cosmological structure to the biblical one is in view, with waters above the heavens, land below, sun, moon, and stars set upon their course. In this epic, however, Marduk must fight the cosmic oceanic gods and their corpse becomes the stuff of creation. In the Bible, God speaks and creation comes into being with no discussion of fighting or slaughter. The act of speaking to create is present in Enuma Elish, but it is the creation of a simple garment. The Bible use this same imagery, and by familiarity far exceeds the hero of Babylon, Marduk: Yahweh speaks universes into existence, not just pieces of cloth. Those familiar with these common motifs would be awed by the implications of these statements and their differences.
Then perhaps the most subversive difference seen above was in relation to the creation of humans: the slave of the gods, created for the purpose of a relieving labor force, brought about through slaughter, blood, and deicide; or formed of dust and the breath of life breathed into their nostrils. Again, similar is the motif of earth or dirt being the stuff of human creation, but the differences mentioned above are perhaps the most striking. These differences are the distinct communicative method, portraying a much different perspective on the creation of humanity: humans in the Genesis account were created in the image of God. So Berman, “In Atrahasis, man is created in order to be a servant; in Genesis, all men are created to have dominion.”
Familiarity with this term, “image of God,” most likely came to the Israelites through their time in Egypt. The image of God would be a reference to the king as a representative of the deity. Using this term, the implication for the recently freed slaves of Egypt would be clear. “The use of the expression effectively made the point of man’s pre-eminence in the created realm to a people familiar with the figure of the pre-eminent pharaoh.” This is an especially acute example of God using the worldview of Israel’s surroundings to communicate significant details. In this case, the slaves freed from an oppressive nation are told that all of humanity was created with this significant title, a title that was significant because it was used by a neighboring nation, specifically the nation that had used the title as a means of their own subjugation!
The God of the Hebrew Bible communicated profound truth through slight adjustments in the worldview of his chosen people, the Israelites. He did not overturn these worldviews entirely, but through them made statements about himself, humans and ethics that were significant to the Hebrew culture because of their familiarity with the concepts that were ubiquitous in the ANE. The trajectory of God’s revelatory differentiations moved the Hebrew understanding of humanity, God, and ethics in positive directions that were the bedrock for future revolutionary social advancements.
Even in discussions of inerrancy, this question of appropriate cultural context is essential. As David Dockery states in his explanation of biblical inerrancy, “[the] Bible properly interpreted in light of [the] culture and communication developed by the time of its composition will be shown to be completely true (and therefore not false) in all that it affirms, to the degree of precision intended by the author, in all matters relating to God and his creation.” Using the overview of this work to expand upon the ideas in Dockery’s statement, one can see the importance of understanding the cultural world of ancient Israel. Even understand the Bible’s inerrant truth depends on a properly informed understanding of the ANE cognitive environment so that those who order there lives around the Scriptures can actually understand the Bible as it was meant to be understood in its cultural setting— indeed as God meant for it to be understood.
Recently while interacting with a nurse at a local university hospital, the topic of theology and how the Bible relates to modern science came up. I moved the conversation towards the general stigma that is found around this topic, discussing the fact that there has been debate and misunderstandings related to scripture and modern science. But I had a target direction that I decided to move in: I wanted to experiment with the evangelistic strength of the above discussion, seeing how effective it was to open someone to the beauty and validity of the biblical revelation of God. I began by explaining that the Bible first and foremost should be approached as ancient literature, and can be looked at and studied in terms of other ancient literary texts that it was a contemporary with. When examining these, incredible and unique statements are made by the Hebrew Bible that portray humanity in terms unmatched in the ancient world. I told this person some of the ANE creation narratives mentioned above, while also mentioning a few additional sources. The encounter became a discussion, and the nurse was fascinated, stating that he had never heard anything like what was being introduced to him. I could tell that this older gentleman had gained classic stigmas that come with Christian culture, and had never seen the beauty of the literary revelation that the Bible was; for him—as for most— the debate of science and human origins was always the first question to be asked thus clouding the additional wonders of God’s word.
Moving forward in ministry, it will be crucial to have familiarity with these such considerations. If we don’t have understanding into the ways that God chose to communicate in the ancient world, we certainly can pick up a good nugget here and there, but a depth of beauty will be missed, one that has power to draw and to sustain a person on the journey of faith. Personally, I wonder where else such ideas and concepts could have originated in the context of the ancient Near East except for the in-breaking, subversive, revelation of God through the culturally understandable medium of the above examples. I am in awe and wonder once again at the beauty of the creator, the God of the nation Israel.
One final reflection I would like to offer is this: it seems clear that the Hebrew text was creating a people, set apart. The worldview of this people, the ethics of this nation, the relation to God of this assembly, it was all to be distinct from that of the surrounding peoples. As Israel’s neighbors were influenced by and followed their own texts, the Hebrew nation was given a unique revelation that shaped and molded them in equally unique ways. As the Israelites were not to embrace mixture in other areas of national and personal existence, so too the existential revelations that undergirded the very metaphysical cognitive environment of this people bolstered their concepts of set apartness. As this was revealed to them, so too it is revealed to and relevant for the modern disciple of the Hebrew Messiah, Yeshua. To follow this God and to be influenced by these texts is fundamentally to be set apart and to live a life that emulates this new being. Israel is called to be a light to the world, revealing the God Yahweh they serve, so too the nations that have joined themselves to this house and their God have the Spirit to live out this same prophetic distinction.
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Bible. Winona Lake: Penn State University Press, 2013. Accessed March 26, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
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Kutz, Karl V. “Genesis 1:1-2:3: Letting the Text Speak for Itself.” Cultural Encounters 13, no. 1
Lambert, Wilfred G. Babylonian creation myths. Penn State Press, 2013.
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Disorder after Chaoskampf.” Calvin Theological Journal 43 (1): 48–63. https://search-ebscohost-com.seu.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLA0001657428&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Walton, John H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate.
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