Creation in Genesis

The account of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 was written to provide a symbolic account of the creation of the cosmos by God. This account can be seen to have been based on the model of Egyptian mythology, as taught in Heliopolis – the city of the sun (the Biblical city of On). It belongs to the written accounts included in the P source. This creation account was probably written in the years following Joseph’s ascendancy, when the Israelites remained open to Egyptian cosmological ideas.

The second creation account is found as an introduction to the account of the fall of mankind into sin, found in Genesis 2:4-4:26, which belongs to the J Source. This creation account can be interpreted as adopting a more negative attitude to Egyptian cosmology than that found in Genesis 1. This later version can be most easily placed after the Egyptians turned against the Hebrews, fearing their growing numbers and exploiting them as a labour resource for building projects in the Delta region.

Both accounts can be well placed against an Egyptian background. The current scholarly consensus that attempts to associate these stories with Babylonian myths will continue to fail. Whereas there are many points of contact with Egyptian ideas and myths in these two stories, there are few points of contact with Babylonian ideas and myths.

Egyptian cosmology

The Egyptian elite thought that the myths that they had inherited, and the new ideas that they developed, helped them to better understand the reality of the cosmos.

The most important of Egypt’s creation myths was that favoured in the city of Heliopolis (Biblical On). In this myth, creation was attributed to Atum, who was believed to have emerged from the primeval waters, and appeared on a mound. He gave rise to the air god, Shu, and his sister Tefnut, goddess of moisture. Shu and Tefnut gave birth to the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. Atum later came to be associated with the sun-god Ra.

UpliftingOfShu-BreastedP55-1In this image, the sky goddess Nut is shown as a women with bowed body, whose hands and feet rest on the earth. Geb, representing the earth, stretches out to touch the four pillars of the earth, represented by Nut’s arms and legs. Nut is kept from the embrace of her husband Geb by Shu, the god of the air, with this separation bringing into being the separate entities of earth, air and sky, and with the addition of Tefnut, water.

It is the symbols represented by these gods (not the gods themselves) that appear in the main creation account in Genesis, as will be seen below.

Other myths, such as that of Hermopolis, contributed to Egyptian cosmological ideas. Here we encounter the idea of the Ogdoad, eight primeval gods, being four pairs of male and female beings: primordial waters, air, darkness and eternity. This idea is found in the 4 pairs of ideas in the main creation account in Genesis.

In the city of Thebes, Amun was considered to be the pre-eminent deity. When the army of Ahmose, who was from that city, defeated with Hyksos rulers of Egypt, establishing the so-called New Kingdom, Amun rose in importance throughout Egypt. The early Pharaohs of the New Kingdom attributed their successful enterprises to Amun, and lavished their wealth in honouring this god. In addition, Amun merged with the sun-god, who in Egyptian mythology appears in three forms: Khepri, the god at sunrise; Ra (also Re and Re’a) the god ascendant, and Atum, the god at sunset. Certainly there are affinities between the concept of God as encapsulated in the god Amun and that which emerges in rules and judgments given in Exodus.

Amun comes at the voice of the poor in distress; he gives breath to him who is wretched. You are Amun, the Lord of the silent, who comes at the voice of the poor; when I call to you in my distress you come and rescue me. … Though the servant was disposed to do evil, the Lord is disposed to forgive. The Lord of Thebes spends not a whole day in anger; his wrath passes in a moment; none remains. His breath comes back to us in mercy.

While the cult of Amun was stronger towards the end of New Kingdom period than it had been at the beginning, it did suffer a major set back in the time of the Pharaoh Akhenaten (1353 BC – 1336 BC). Also, the Pharaoh who is thought to have elevated Joseph to high office, Thutmoses IV (1401 BC – 1391 BC), believed that Khepri, the aspect of the sun-god at sunrise, had personally revealed himself to him. If this Pharaoh, as is claimed here, was Joseph’s “Pharaoh”, that period was also a time of loss of influence for the Amun cult, with the priests being threatened with death if they could not reveal Thutmoses’ dream to him. It was a time for religious experimentation, which can be thought to have led directly to Akhenaten’s solar-deity experiment.

Food for thought: Was the exile of Jacob’s family in Egypt an exposure to Egyptian cosmology an accident or a part of God’s plan for the Israelites?

The contrast between the above systems and the creation story developed in Mesopotamia could hardly be greater. In Mesopotamia, it is said that the gods created man for their own benefit, to relieve them from work. The story of the ongoing relationship of the gods with mankind was predicated on the arbitrary actions of the gods, in which the fate of mankind was based on their whims and moods. No evidence of this can be found in Egyptian cosmology. Why do scholars keep looking in Mesopotamia for that which can so easily be found in Egypt?

The main account of Creation

The main creation account in Genesis is laid in a logical sequence of a repeated pattern. This resolves into two panels of four lines each. Here is how it works as symbolic system:

Primary set Secondary set
1 Let light be brought into being! 5 Let sun, moon and stars be created!
2 Let sky be placed between two waters! 6 Let birds and fish be created!
3 Let dry land appear! 7 Let animals and people be created!
4 Let vegetation appear! 8 I give you every seed and plant to eat.

The first four commands in the narrative reflect the order of creation in the Egyptian cosmology. This cosmology depicts the birth of various gods, each of who represent different parts of the cosmos. It begins with the creator god, Atum (let light be brought into being), who brings forth the god of air and light (Shu), and the goddess of moisture (Tefnut), out of the god of watery chaos. These two gods then bring forth the earth god and sky goddess, with the air god (Shu) separating earth and sky (let the sky be placed between the two waters, and let dry land appear) . The earth god and the sky goddess bring forth four other gods, including the vegetation god.

By carefully comparing Egyptian cosmology, as outlined here, with the main creation account in Genesis, one can see that a simplified version of the Egyptian cosmology was the basis for the Genesis version. It is possible that the religious symbolism underlying the text of the Genesis creation account was an outworking of the experimentation by Egyptians during the times of Thutmoses IV and his son Amenhotep III. However, in the version found in Genesis, the account of creation has been stripped of its more mythical elements in a clear effort to establish a “less-mythological” religion. The question remains whether this was an Egyptian development, or one that should be solely attributed to the Israelites.

The imagery used here has some affinities to Akhenaten’s form of solar-deity monotheism, in that it is related that the sun rules the earth during the day. However, the Genesis creation account should not be seen as simply a reproduction of Akhenaten’s theology. While the sun has a physical role in the universe, it is not given a central role in its formation: it does not cause the universe, or any part of it, to come into being. Furthermore, in Akhenaten’s system, the world is without a ruler during the night, but just waits for the return of the sun in the morning. This idea is countered in the cosmology of this system: there is no time of “lawlessness” during the night, for it is said that the sun rules the day and the moon and stars rule the night. Even here, this “ruling” is in the sense of regulating the natural cycles of the world. Rather than the Egyptians’ gods, or Akhenaten’s solar deity, ruling the world, God has placed man in charge of the world. It is not the gods of Egypt, with their mix of human-shaped, animal-shaped and bird-shaped gods that rule the earth. Rather it is mankind, who is charged with the responsibility of ruling over the birds, fish and animals. This appears to be a specifically Israelite development. It is also noteworthy that this account gives a central role to reproductive sexual relationships, with mankind being charged with being fruitful and increasing in numbers.

In Genesis, steps 3 and 4, and 7 and 8 were combined at the time the underlying text was incorporated into the Israelite’s system. In this way, everything could be done in six days of creation, with a rest day on the seventh. Such a “seven-day” system fits quite well into a cultural setting that was based on the cycles of the moon, such as was suited to pastoral nomads, like the Patriarchs. This is because the first quarter of the moon can be easily established by observation. On this basis, the seventh day of each month could be identified as a “Sabbath Day,” which is a day of rest. It is possible that this pattern was already established before the exodus, and may have come from practices followed among Abraham’s fellow Arameans. It was not necessarily something that was invented at the time of the exodus.

This account of creation can be found in the text that belongs to the P source. It is believed that this text was preserved in Akkadian, relatively intact, with its translation into Hebrew not being widely available until around the time of the exile to Babylon, or even later than that.

The second creation account in Genesis

The account of the fall of mankind into sin is found in the J source. While it ostensibly begins as an account of the creation of earth, it completely dispenses with the Egyptian model as depicted in the main creation account. In this version, if a parallel is to be found with the original Egyptian myth, it is in the picture of God forming a man from the ground. Whereas in the main Egyptian myth, Atum rose from the ocean and appeared on a mound, here the man (the Atum parallel) is made by God himself from the ground.

The garden of Eden is said to be the source of four rivers: the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates. The last two named are obviously identifiable; the Pishon is said to go around the land Havilah, where there is gold, bdellium and onyx stone. The Bible has two places named Havilah, one is in the Arabian peninsula; the other is in the region of modern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Since the Ethiopian region has a major river of the kind indicated and the Arabian peninsula does not, we can assume that the Ethiopian “Havilah” is intended, and the river is the Atbarah. This river flows through Ethiopia and then through Sudan (a total of 800 kilometres) until it joins the Nile. The Gihon is said to go around the land of Cush, which is to say, through Nubia (modern Sudan). The Gihon can be considered to be the Nile before the Atbarah joins it at the town of Atbarah. In this way, the story-teller reveals to us that he has a good understanding of Egyptian geography, such as would be easily obtained by an educated Egyptian, but difficult for an educated person from Mesopotamia.

The Egyptians believed that the sun-god arose in the morning in the east, travelled through the sky during the day, disappearing in the west at sunset, and then returned in a ship through the underworld to emerge again on the next day. Similarly, in this account, god planted a garden on an east side of Eden. The great rivers emerged in Eden, and flowed through the garden, perhaps with their streams going underground until they finally emerge again in their proper places. The imagery is incredible, and probably deliberately “mythical,” since the whole story, which includes the account of mankind falling into sin, seems opposed to the hopes of the Egyptians that “knowledge of good and evil”, the magic spells found in the Book of the Dead, would guarantee them a blessed eternal afterlife, apparently irrespective of any evil deeds that they might have done on this earth. In this set of J source stories, each person is responsible for his or her own wrong-doings.

It is again noteworthy that in this account a single God, Yahweh, is placed at the centre of the action, not a range of gods. Man is put into the garden in Eden, and given the responsibility of caring for the garden. Yahweh forms the animals and the birds from the ground. Significantly, there is no mention of God creating fish; this can be considered to reflect the transmission history of this story, and its likely final telling in Hebron, an inland city. Man is given the responsibility of naming the animals and bird, and in this minor way is shown as having authority over them. Then a woman is made from the ribs of the man. This works to resolve the incongruity of the Egyptian myth, in which Atum brings forth children without union with a woman (but by masturbating or spitting).

Finally, the primacy of the male-female relationship is stressed, with the man declaring that the woman is indeed of the same flesh as himself, and that the union of a man with his wife is of more importance than all other relationships:

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

When the work of creation was completed, the man and woman were totally innocent, and remained naked before one another.

This was not the end, for both the man and woman failed, as did their descendants, leading to the great flood, for which the J Source has its own version.


W.F. Albright, “Location of the Garden of Eden,” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature, (1922), 15-31.

James E. Atwell, “An Egyptian Source for Genesis,” Journal of Theological Studies, NS, Vol. 51 (Oct. 2000), 441-477.