By JR on Thursday, March 30, 2017
The puzzle of Genesis 1:6-9
In my recent comments on Genesis chapter 1, I suggested that chapter 1 was not an original part of the Torah and should be recognized as deuterocanonical (apocryphal). I did however add the rider that what Genesis 1 had to relate was probably based on something relatively ancient, such as a myth or oral tradition.
And I think Genesis 1:6-9 fairly reliably identifies part of what that source was. It goes right back to the theology of ancient Sumer -- the first known human civilization, situated in what is now Southern Iraq.
Here is what 1:6-9 says in the New International Version:
"And God said, "Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water. So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault "sky." And there was evening, and there was morning--the second day. And God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear." And it was so."
Wha? Was the Genesis writer saying that there was a body of water ABOVE the sky as well as on the surface of the earth? That is an extraordinary idea by modern scientific standards but it is precisely what the Sumerians believed. The rains came down from above, didn't they? So there must be another body of water way up above that the rains came from. It was a fairly reasonable deduction given their complete ignorance of modern science.
There is nothing else in Genesis 1 that is starkly contrary to what we know today -- though it's a bit odd that birds were created before land animals. It is more or less common sense and could have been made up by anyone. But 6-9 is very distinctive and clearly of Sumerian and later of Babylonian origin. The Babylonians borrowed a lot from Sumer, including the 7-day week.
The Sumerians and other early civilizations also had their own creation myths but there is absolutely no similarity to Genesis 1 in any of them. It would seem, therefore, that the 7 day account of creation is mainly of ancient Israelite origin with Sumerian "wisdom" added in to give it authority.
Genesis 1 does read in a very orderly way so I surmise that it was in fact the work of one man. When it was originally written is completely unknown. But its allusion to Sumerian/Babylonian thought could make it quite ancient. Textual criticism does however enable us to trace the version that appears in the Bible to about the third century BC.