By Israel Drazin
The Biblical vs. Egyptian Creation Stories – 1
The following are two comparisons of the Biblical creation story with the accounts of ancient pagan myths. They are slight variations of what I published in my book Rational Religion, which I wrote under the pseudonym Daniel Diamond.
The great thinker Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) was convinced that the Bible had to be written in a way that was acceptable to the people receiving it; otherwise the people would have rejected it as being nonsense and wrong. Thus many ideas that were placed in the Bible are not what the Torah would consider proper. When the Bible discusses slavery or sacrifices, for example, it was not condoning these practices. Scripture allows these ancient behaviors since if it did otherwise, the Israelites who were used to these practices and were insufficiently enlightened at that time and unable to change, would have discarded the Torah. However, the Bible created many rules and gave many hints to wean the people away from these and other wrong ancient behaviors.
Maimonides statement about behavior also applies to biblical stories with moral lessons. They too had to be composed in a manner that was understandable to the ancients. Thus, it should be no surprise that many stories in the Bible parallel those that were written in other ancient cultures such as the Egypt, Greece, and Babylonia.
Yet, despite many similarities, the Bible taught that the Israelite and pagan cultures were different and so were their world outlooks and their concept of God. A comparison of the similarities and differences therefore helps people better understand a more proper approach to various subjects.
The Bible’s and Egyptian views of creation
It is no surprise that every culture tried to understand the origin of the universe and the creation of humanity. Each culture’s explanation is based on their understanding of God and the value of human life.
The Hebrew Bible and Egyptian legends tell about the creation of the world. Although we may feel that there is no comparison between the sanctity of the Bible and the Egyptian myths, it is valuable to examine the similarities and differences between the two because such an assessment sharpens our understanding of each.
The Legend of the god Neb-er-tcher, and the History of Creation
The Egyptian legend of creation was a papyrus that was apparently found in a tomb in the nineteenth century. It exists in two very similar versions. The papyrus itself is dated 311 B.C.E., but is probably a copy of a much earlier document. It tells the story of the origin of the Egyptian god who created the world and of the creation of the heaven and earth and all therein. The story is narrated by the supreme god Neb-er-tcher himself. He was the first and in essence only god. His name means “Lord of the uttermost limit.” The term “limit” refers to both time and space, thus he is everywhere and has always existed. The name is the same as the Hebrew one used for the Jewish God, El Elyon.
When Neb-er-tcher decided to create the world, he first created a god Khepera by speaking words. This creation of the god transformed the already existing mass of water into heaven and earth. Khepera, the new god, found himself in a vast empty space. Like Neb-er-tcher who created him with words, he created the world out of the pre-existing mass of water by the use of words.
The words were from the “heart” of the god. The “heart” was considered the seat of wisdom by the ancients, including the Jews. Thus, the world was created with wisdom. This idea that creation was the result of wisdom is further emphasized by the Legend telling us that Khepera was helped in the creation process by the goddess Maat, who is generally understood to be the goddess of wisdom. She, we are told, laid the foundation of the world.
Khepera then created other gods, first by union with his shadow and then by other means, but always by human-like copulation. The new gods were the personification of natural items, such as the sun, moon, sky, and water.
Humans in large number were created, according to the Legend, from the body of Khepera, specifically from tears that fell from his eyes.
In short, the Egyptians were convinced that there was a single deity who created the world through a series of subordinate beings, which they called gods. The supreme deity was transcendent – that is, disconnected from this world; not functioning in it – and he left the superintendence of the world to the subordinate creations. The Egyptian believed that they were unable to communicate with the “absent” remote, exalted, and supreme god who would not interfere in the behavior of the world or human affairs and would not alter any decree that was uttered when the world was created. Yet the Egyptians were convinced that they could influence and somewhat control the subordinate gods through magical spells, flattery, supplications, wheedling, cajolery, prayers, and ceremonies, and most certainly by gifts.
The biblical creation account
The biblical account of the creation of the world is told in the opening two chapters of Genesis, is well known, and need not be repeated here. However, certain details will be mentioned when we discuss the similarities and differences with the Legend.
- The two accounts speak of a single all-powerful deity. While it is true that the Egyptian Legend tells of subordinate gods, it should be clear to the discerning reader that the author is speaking of forces of nature, and that he only used the term “gods” so that the superstitious and uneducated masses would grasp something about what he is teaching.
- Both tell that the deity created the world with words. The Jewish sages count ten instances in the opening Bible chapter where God speaks and an item came into being.
- The Legend informs us that the world was created with wisdom. While Genesis itself does not say this explicitly, other Bible texts, translators, and commentators recognized that the term “spoke” meant exactly what the Greek term logos meant, both “word” and “wisdom.” This is the understanding of the book Proverbs, which in the 7th and 8th chapters has Wisdom affirm that she was present at creation and assisted in it. Similarly, Psalm 104: 24 avows: “How great are Your works Lord; You made them all with wisdom. The Aramaic translation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible called Neophyti, of the early part of the Common Era, wrote: “In the beginning with wisdom the word of the Lord created and perfected the heaven and the earth.” Midrash Genesis Rabbah 1:4 identifies Torah with wisdom and testifies that God created the world by means of Torah. These are only a few of many examples that could be cited showing that God used wisdom in the creation of the world.
- Genesis does not reveal the specifics as to how God created the world and is a subject upon which Jewish philosophers disagree. Interestingly Maimonides felt, according to the way that some Maimonidean scholars interpret him, that God created the world and implanted in it the rules of nature. These rules were perfect since they were instituted by an all-knowing God. They were not subject to change. God, Maimonides insists, is transcendental and does not involve Himself in human affairs. Maimonides’ understanding is remarkably similar to the Egyptian Legend. The Egyptian deity created a subordinate “god,” which we can recognize as the laws of nature, and it was through these laws of nature that the world was created and is sustained.
- Both accounts speak of water and empty space existing at the beginning of creation. Genesis 1:1 recounts: “the earth was then emptiness (tohu wabohu), and darkness was over the deep, and the spirit of God (ruach elohim, which can also be translated as ‘a strong wind,’ since elohim is also used in the Hebrew Bible to mean ‘strong’ or ‘powerful’) hovered over the water.”
- In Genesis a single pair of humans was created from whom every individual and nation descended. Jewish sages emphasized that this teaches that all people are related. No one can say that he or she is a descendant of a superior ancestor. All humans share the spirit of God equally, no matter their religion or sex. This profound lesson is lost in the Egyptian Legend which maintains that the god created many humans simultaneously.
- At first glance, it appears that the Egyptian deity is portrayed anthropomorphically, as if he had a human body and acted in a human fashion. However, at closer observation, one realizes that Neb-er-tcher is the only true god in the Legend and that he created the world by words and wisdom. The subordinate “god” Khepera is not a deity at all; he is the personification of the laws of nature.
- The Egyptian Legend maintains that the world was created from existing matter. This is contrary to the commonly accepted Jewish interpretation of creation, that God created the world ex nihilo, from nothing. The Egyptian view arguably weakens the power of the divinity. However, Maimonides maintains in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:25 that it is possible to interpret Genesis to assert that there was preexisting matter that God used to fashion the world.
- The Legend asserts that the supreme deity cannot be affected by prayer. This is contrary to the view of most Jews who insist that God desires prayers and is affected by them. However this is not the view of all Jews. In his Guide 3:32, Maimonides states that God is not affected by prayers and sacrifices but “allowed them” only because people felt that they were necessary. Although he does not say so, people can use prayers for self development. The Hebrew word for prayer is hitpallel, which means “self examination.” When people pray, they can use the words to prompt thinking about how they can improve themselves and society.
The literary comparison of the similarities and differences between the biblical and Egyptian accounts of creation prompt us to see and understand the biblical account better. The comparison also raises questions that can confuse people, but they can also prompt them to think. Whether they agree or not, or have no opinion, the comparison causes them to begin to ask questions, such as:
- Is God transcendental or immanent – that is, is He involved in the affairs of this world or not?
- Does the world function according to the laws of nature, as the Legend and Maimonides contend, or is God involved in everything, as the saying goes, “no leaf falls unless God wills it”?
- Can we affect God with prayer?