The Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Mythology


Nun, god of the waters of chaos, lifts the barque of the sun god Ra

by Paul Miles

Mythological hermeneutics is a growing threat to evangelicalism today. The notion is that Genesis does not give a literal account of human origins, but is a monotheistic rearrangement of pagan texts from the Ancient Near East and therefore is subject to error. If this accusation were coming only from atheists or even progressive Christians, it would be unfortunate; but mythological hermeneutics is infiltrating evangelicalism, so we need to equip ourselves with responses.

A Test: Who Said It?

It may be difficult to believe that such a liberal idea could threaten evangelicals, since we are known for defending Biblical inerrancy, so here is a test.

The test

In the chart below are five statements about Genesis from various sources. Can you identify whether each statement comes from an atheist, a progressive Christian, or an evangelical?

The answers

Notice the similarities. Each statement treats Genesis as one of many errant ANE texts. The first quote comes from a blog post by Peter Enns, a progressive who was formerly an evangelical and even served as the editor of the Westminster Theological Journal for a few years. The second quote comes from a podcast discussion by two evangelicals: Tim Mackie and Jon Collins. Mackie and Collins have a global audience for The Bible Project, which has 3.5 million subscribers on YouTube. The third quote comes from Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide by Richard Dawkins, one of the biggest names in the new atheism. The fourth quote comes from The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael Heiser, an evangelical and a former resident scholar with Logos Bible Software. The fifth quote comes from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, which was the standard Marxist-Leninist socialist encyclopedia in the former USSR.

How did you do? Were you able to distinguish between evangelicalism and communist propaganda?

Three Issues

The modern evangelical needs to be equipped to cast doubt on the mythological approach to Genesis and build confidence instead in grammatical-historical hermeneutics. To this end, I offer three issues that readers can bring into the conversation on mythological hermeneutics: the primacy of Biblical historicity, the similarities in distant (i.e., non-ANE) myths, and the hypocrisy of mythological hermeneutics.

The primacy of Biblical historicity

The five statements in the test come from the position that Genesis is a myth. A defense of the mythological view is that other ANE religions had myths that were like Genesis; therefore, Genesis probably copied and revised an earlier myth. One response is quite simple: actually, Genesis is the true account, and the ANE myths are corruptions of that account.

Assuming that Genesis is right, we would anticipate similarities in ancient religions. If God really did create the universe as recorded in Genesis and He really did flood the world, leaving only eight survivors, then surely those survivors—Noah’s family—would have passed along the true worldview to their children. If Noah’s descendants really were dispersed after the tower of Babel, it makes sense that the scattered nations had memories of Noah’s worldview that they corrupted over time.

From The Book of the Dead of Anhai, the Egyptian god Nun lifts the solar boat in the beginning of time. In hieroglyphs, the name Nun contains the determinatives for sky, water, and a seated god, perhaps because the Egyptians understood him to be the god that lifted the sun and other gods from the water. This story seems to be a corruption of the Biblical account of the second day of creation, in which God placed an expanse in the midst of the waters (Gen. 1:6–8).

Consider an example from ancient Egypt. Egyptian mythology includes a god named Nun, who was a primordial watery abyss. Out of Nun came another god, Atum, who in turn created Shu and Tefnut, perhaps by spitting or sneezing. Shu and Tefnut mated and gave birth to the sky goddess, Nut, and the earth god, Geb, who went on to mate and create more gods. In short, the Egyptian creation began with primordial waters and continued through mating until we got the physical universe and its inhabitants.

Critics of the Bible tell us to start with false religions and read the Bible as an ancient myth. The universe was not created from a sneeze, so they would say that we really cannot trust ancient myths—and we would agree—but then they lower the Bible to mythological status and scoff. They would say that the writer of Genesis took an ANE myth and made it into a monotheistic text: the writer changed Nun to Elohim, kept the primordial water motif, changed the sneeze into creation through speech, changed Nut to an inanimate dome in the sky, and so on. They would even say that silly Biblical writers thought the earth was flat and the stars were angels. We expect such attacks from critics.

Evangelicals who use mythological hermeneutics will typically start by accepting the interpretation that these critics propose, but then they put an evangelical spin on it by emphasizing differences from the pagan myths, rather than the similarities. There are some edifying points that proper comparative studies may highlight, but these points are severely diminished when the true creation account is taken as a myth.

But what if Genesis did not modify the Egyptian myth? What if Genesis is true? What would that mean for the Egyptian myths?

Assuming the Bible is true, then after the tower of Babel incident, several false narratives would have spread around the world while the truth was being preserved in Jewish culture. Within a few generations, the nations had inhabited several continents and expounded upon their myths in ways that deified creation. These myths still had superficial similarities with the earlier pre-Babel account, but Israel did not copy from Egypt and Babylon; rather, the people worshiped the one true God. Sure, individual Israelites may have gotten confused or even apostatized along the way, but when Moses penned Genesis, God made any necessary corrections, as the Biblical text is the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God.

The similarities in distant myths

The Egyptian myths come from various sources, including pyramid texts that predate Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. Critics may point to Egypt’s geographical proximity to the location of events in Genesis for evidence that Genesis is the copycat, so let us now consider a creation myth from another time and place that carries similar motifs.

The K’iche’ are a Mayan people in Central America who transmitted an oral creation myth that was not recorded until the 16th century AD in a document known as the Popol Vuh. Nobody would say that Israel—or any other Middle Easterners for that matter—copied from the K’iche’.

In this Mayan myth, the primordial world began with a sky and water. Then a water-serpent-god gave birth to other gods, who then assisted with creation. The earth was created by dividing the primordial waters and bringing forth mountains. Then wild animals were created as guardians of the forest, but they could not worship the gods, so those animals were cursed. The gods attempted to make a being out of mud.

When that did not work out, they made people out of wood, but they were washed away in a flood. Then some drama ensued: a decapitated head spat in a goddess’s hand, an act that impregnated her, then she gave birth to twins, who killed a bird-demon and became the moon and sun. Eventually they succeeded in making man out of maize.

There are several differences between Egyptian and Mayan mythology. For example, in Maya, man comes from the local staple of maize, while some Egyptian myths say that we descended from Atum’s tears. Some similarities between Maya and Egypt are distinct from Israel, such as the moon and sun being gods. Other similarities between the Egyptian and Mayan myths are like Genesis: man is the last creation, animals before man, earth before animals, and the earth somehow comes from dividing water. The Popol Vuh carries other motifs that are vaguely similar to Genesis, such as an old serpent, fallen man made of mud, and a flood that kills early mankind; but it is impossible for ancient Israel to have copied from 16th century Maya. That a pagan document is like the Bible does not mean the Bible copied the pagan.

In both the Egyptian and the Mayan myths (as well as many others), the pre-Babel tradition is hazy yet apparent. An additional Biblical possibility for the similarities is that Maya and Egypt have the satanic world system as another common influence. If we consider the possibility that the angelic conflict could be directly involved in perverting the truth, then we could anticipate similarities in the theology between pagan myths.

Genesis presupposes that God is preexistent, that only God is preexistent, and that God alone created a universe that is entirely separate from Him. Not a single atom of the universe is deity. In other words, there is a clear distinction between the Creator and the creation. This is a theological concept that has been called the Creator/creation distinction.

Pagan theology always seems to boil down to an anti-Biblical concept that has been labeled “continuity of being.” Pagan myths typically begin with preexisting water that is deified. This water then becomes gods who beget more gods. (Interestingly, the Mayan serpent is called the “Framer and the Shaper, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, They Who Have Borne Children and They Who Have Begotten Sons,” a name that is similar to the Egyptian god Atum, who was called “the one who makes himself into millions.”) All matter is understood to share the same origin through the primordial waters; and since the primordial waters are deified, all matter can be considered divine. In K’iche’ theology, everything, whether it is animate or inanimate, has a spirit essence called nawal. This is logical because everything comes from the same deified primordial water. The reason that this satanic concept is called “continuity of being” is that it says all of existence is continuous from a common source, as opposed to the Biblical notion of a Creator/creation distinction whereby God created all matter ex nihilo and does not fuse or mingle Himself or His deity into creation.

It is unlikely that the continuity-of-being worldview became prominent among pagans around the globe by accident. This is one of the reasons that evolutionist versions of history are unlikely. However, the Bible recognizes Satan’s work in history, so the similarities between pagan myths and theology as anti-Biblical literature ironically fit perfectly within the Biblical framework.

The hypocrisy of mythological hermeneutics

If you think continuity of being is antiquated foolery that nobody believes anymore, think again. As we will soon see, the accusation that Genesis borrowed from pagan myths is itself a doctrine that begins by borrowing from a pagan myth. In other words, the sceptics, not Genesis, are the ones who copy paganism.

According to the pagan concept of continuity of being, mankind is interconnected with nature, being part of the same mystical source as the rest of the universe. Humans can feel big because they are made from god-stuff; but at the same time, they are not above or better than nature, because nature is made from the same primordial and divine material.

Keeping in mind the pagan concept of continuity of being, consider Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comments from the History Channel’s The Universe series:

We are all connected; to each other, biologically, to the earth, chemically, and to the rest of the universe, atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe; we’re part of the universe. We’re in the universe and the universe is in us.

Notice the continuity. All life shares a common origin in the primordial soup whence life evolved. Moreover, we share origins with all matter, since we were together in the Big Bang. This is a modern version of continuity of being; evolutionism is simply a revamped and atheistic paganism.

Not only is evolutionism paganism, but it also is the basis for mythological hermeneutics. John Walton, a leading mythological hermeneuticist, presupposes evolution. In his book The Lost World of Genesis One, Walton writes, “Biological evolution is capable of giving us insight into God’s creative work,” but this puts him at odds with the Biblical data on issues such as the age of the earth. To compensate, he changes the nature of Genesis, saying that Genesis 1 is not “an account of material origins” and therefore “the Bible offers no information on the age of the earth.” But if Genesis is not an account of material origins, what is it? Why, a myth of course! The term that Walton uses to describe his view is the cosmic temple inauguration view, whereby Genesis 1 is seen as an ANE myth that describes function in a mythical sense rather than material in a grammatical-historical sense. In other words, mythological hermeneutics begins with the assumption that evolutionism is true, and since the Bible is at odds with evolution, Genesis must be a myth that cannot reliably tell us about origins in a historically accurate sense.

I am a young earth creationist, but the mythological approach to Scripture should be deeply unsettling to Christians in other camps as well. In a counterpoints book, Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Zondervan, 2017), Deborah Haarsma, the president of BioLogos, defended mythological hermeneutics in her presentation of theistic evolution. The young earth creationist responded, “Sadly, there is not much in Dr. Haarsma’s chapter that I can agree with.” The progressive creationist rightfully called her out on inerrancy. The intelligent design advocate pointed out several scientific and mathematical difficulties and a logical problem: if theistic evolutionism affirms the standard neo-Darwinian view of evolution as an undirected process, then it cannot affirm that God directed it. It is readily apparent that the mythological approach to Genesis is not a view that gives proper respect to the Biblical text.

In short, when people justify mythological hermeneutics by accusing Genesis of redacting ancient myths, those people do the very thing of which they accuse the Bible, because they copy the contemporary pagan myth of evolutionism.

Not Just Another Myth

Mythological hermeneutics undermines the Bible by claiming that Genesis is just another ANE myth. This article has offered three responses: First, if the Bible is right, then it explains why Middle Eastern myths have similarities to Genesis. Second, similarities in recent pagan myths show that Genesis is not necessarily the copy. And third, it is the mythological hermeneuticist, not Genesis, who copies from paganism (via evolutionism).

As a final word, it is worth recalling that Satan thwarted Eve by getting her to question God’s word. The mythological approach to Genesis is just another attack in the same vein. Mythological hermeneutics answers the question “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?’” with a resounding “No, He did not say that.” Instead of rejecting God’s Word, we must be prepared to reject mythological hermeneutics lest we go the way of Eve.

Paul Miles (DMin, Tyndale Theological Seminary) is executive director of Grace Abroad Ministries.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 Baptist Bulletin. Copyright © 2021 Regular Baptist Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission.