“Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” Hebrews 11:3
“Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do.” 1 Timothy 1:4
Dr. Richard Belcher Jr. summarizes Dr. C. John Collins’ theory from his book “Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?” about how ancient Near East literature and cosmology should influence our interpretation of Genesis:
“[Collins argues that] Genesis 1-11 is historical in the sense that it is referring to actual events, but because the author uses literary and rhetorical techniques there is a high level of figurative and symbolic description. In fact, he talks about the benefit of a pictorial approach to the Bible as explaining ordinary experience.
“The view that Genesis 1-11 exhibits a high level of symbolic description is confirmed when Genesis 1-11 is read in the context of the Mesopotamian stories of origin. These stories are the proper literary background for reading Genesis. Thus the Mesopotamian stories give us clues as to how we are to read Genesis. These stories are historical in the sense that they are referring to actual events but they are not to be taken literally. They manifest historical preferentiality clothed in imaginative description. It is reasonable to expect Genesis to take the same approach. For example, Enuma Elish describes the formation of the earth and heavens as the result of a battle between the gods where Marduk defeats Tiamat and slays her. He cuts her body in two pieces and with one half of her body he forms the earth and with the other half he forms the skies. This story refers to actual events, such as the formation of the earth and skies, but it does so in a way that is full of symbolism that is not true to reality (imaginative description). On the basis of Collins’ argument concerning the relationship of Genesis to these ancient stories, one could draw the conclusion that we should understand Genesis 1-2 the same way. Genesis is talking about real historical events but doing so in a highly symbolic way which should not be taken too literally. Collins concludes that Genesis 1-11 has an historical core. This core includes the historicity of Adam, but there is uncertainty concerning how the body of Adam was formed. Thus we should not understand Genesis 2:7 in too literal a fashion.” 
This theory rests on two historiographic assumptions. 
Assumption 1: That ancient Near East religious-cosmological concepts were contextually formative to the writing of Genesis.
Assumption 2: That Mesopotamian myths were not taken in a “literalistic” fashion by ancient Mesopotamians.
These assumptions are problematic for the following reasons:
1. Ancient Near East Concepts Were Not Formative to the Composition of Genesis.
In the first place, it is not entirely clear that certain Babylonian myths existed prior to Moses. For instance, the earliest extant fragments of the Epic of Gilgamesh are believed to overlap the time period Moses wrote the Pentateuch; which was written first remains an open question.  Likewise, Dr. Noel Weeks states “all evidence indicates that Enuma Elish was not yet written when Moses wrote Genesis.”  While other scholars think these were indeed written before the Pentateuch, it is tenuous enough to weaken confidence in theories that are dependent on these myths being widely prevalent before Moses wrote.
Secondly, the ancient Near East was not necessarily as uniform as this theory assumes. When we speak of the ancient Near East, we are talking about several individual cultures over a wide geographic area, not one homogeneous culture. Dr. Weeks warns:
“We should be very wary of any interpretation built on the claim that something was ‘just what everybody did or thought in those days’. It assumes a uniformity which is not necessarily the reality. As I have mentioned, it is common to take Babylonian practice as though it is the standard for the whole of the Ancient Near East. Yet there are significant differences between Babylonia, Egypt, the Hittites and Ugarit.” 
Much of the ANE writings have not survived to this day—they were not providentially preserved like the Bible was. Some texts have survived due to the material they were written on and due to the climate, such as in Iraq and Egypt, and these are often fallaciously assumed to be representative of the entire ancient Near East. Dr. Weeks explains:
“If, from the immediate environment of the Old Testament in Palestine, very little survives, but from other countries, there is a lot of material, what will be the likely result? It will be to treat the material from other cultures as though it is relevant to the Old Testament. And sometimes that will be the case. The problem is that it is not always the case.” 
While some idioms, motifs, and conventions genuinely appear to be widespread, it is tenuous to assume that the beliefs of one pagan culture, or even a few, would be commonly accepted everywhere or among the Hebrews.
Most of the things we can learn from ANE texts are either known from Scripture already, or do not make a very big impact on our understanding of the text one way or another.  Occasionally outside sources can provide insight into certain puzzling passages or curiosities of language and literary allusion, but these are almost universally auxiliary insights that merely add context, they do not radically alter the meaning of the text and the momentum of the narrative. ANE studies are best used to support and confirm the teaching and history of Scripture, rather than to question or undermine it.
Ancient Near East similarities to Scripture are secondary and derivative.
Most importantly, the historical account of Genesis, passed down orally from Adam to his posterity, which Moses committed to writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is the original and infallible account. “And the Lord said unto Moses, Write thou these words: …” (Exodus 34:27). “Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say” (Exodus 4:12). “Must I not take heed to speak that which the Lord hath put in my mouth?” (Numbers 23:12). Ancient myths that seem to resemble the historical account of Genesis are derivative distortions of men “who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). They are vestiges in the cultural memory of the nations that departed from the truth of God, “of those that rebel against the light; they know not the ways thereof, nor abide in the paths thereof.” (Job 24:13).
“Where is the evidence that Israel based its foundational narrative on Near Eastern myths? It is surely equally plausible that the ANE texts are a polemic against the true account, being a corrupted version of an oral tradition dating from the scattering at Babel. Finally, even if, arguendo [for the sake of argument], Genesis 1-11 is a polemic, it would only gain in force were the events described truly historical, compared to Babylonian myths.” 
G. K. Beale posits two perspectives on the perceived similarities of ANE literature with Genesis:
“First, the similarity is intended [by Moses] at times to be a protest statement that, while the pagan nations think that they have cornered the market on divine revelation from their gods who dwell in temples, their gods are, in fact, false and their temples purely idolatrous institutions—the den of demons (Deut. 32:17; Ps. 106:37; 1 Cor. 10:19-20).
“From another angle, it is appropriate to ask whether anything in ancient pagan religion and its institutions resembled the truth about the true God and his designs for humanity. Certainly, pagan nations had not received any special revelation to draw them into saving relation with the true God. Nevertheless, just as the image of God is not erased but distorted in unbelieving humanity, it is plausible to suggest that some of the affinities in ancient pagan beliefs and religions to that of Israel’s may be due to the fact that they are garbled, shadowy representations about the being of the biblical God and of his design for his dwelling place.” 
William VanDoodewaard aptly notes that “the last sentence of Beale’s statement here could be stated more strongly, with scriptural warrant. It is not merely ‘plausible to suggest’ but reality that these ‘garbled, shadowy representations’ are actually driven by defiance against God, and intended to deceive (cf. Rom. 1:18-23; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:1-3).” 
Dr. E. J. Young (1907-1968) previously “engaged with ancient Near Eastern literature, arguing that the documents and references of ancient Babylonia were ‘the garbled version of the truth that finally trickled down to the Babylonians‘ through the line of Cain. This stood in contrast to what had been passed down ‘among the Sethites [where] truth… that God spoke to Adam… would have been handed down from generation to generation.'” 
“It may be that Moses had access to written documents which were at his disposal. It may also be that he was acquainted with oral tradition. If, however, we approach this question Scripturally we will be compelled to the conclusion that the author of Genesis one was a holy man who was borne by the Holy Spirit [2 Peter 1:21]. That is to say, God, in his providence, prepared by training and education the particular man whom he desired to write the first chapter of the Bible, and when that man set to the work of writing he was superintended by the Spirit of God with the result that what he wrote was what the Spirit of God desired him to write. If he did employ ancient documents he was protected and guided in his use of them so that he chose from them only what God desired him to employ. In this process of writing, he was no mere automaton, but a responsible writer. Although superintended by the Spirit, he used his own judgment and made a genuine choice and selection of material. The resultant writing, therefore, was Scripture, trustworthy Scripture, indeed, infallible Scripture. It is this answer to which we must come if we permit ourselves to be guided by what the Bible has to say concerning itself.” 
Some scholars point out the similarities between the biblical covenants and the suzerain-vassal treaties of the ancient Near East, rashly surmising that God mimicked these heathen kings when he established his covenants with his people. John Sailhamer argues that the Pentateuch is “clothed in the metaphor of the ancient Near Eastern monarch: God the Great King, grants to his obedient vassal prince the right to dwell in his land and promises protection from their enemies.”  Dr. VanDoodewaard sensibly retorts:
“The converse of Sailhamer’s hypothesis was that God in His creative and covenanting activity was the primary and normative universal reality, from the beginning of history onward and that in their cultures ancient Near Eastern kings were seeking to assert themselves as godlike in rebellion against Him, suppressing and distorting His truth in unrighteousness. This possible interpretation was not mentioned. Sailhamer did not appear to consider the possibility that Genesis was original and that ancient Near Eastern myth was a derivative distortion.” 
The Gentile nations came from religious ancestry and fell away gradually. We read of early Gentile believers and find fewer of them by the time of the Exodus: Melchizedek, Job and his friends, Abraham’s descendants other than Jacob’s family, e.g. Huz, Bildad, and Elihu (cf. Gen. 22:21; 25:1-2; Job 32:2), Jethro (Ex. 2:16), etc.  With this background it makes much more sense that the Gentile nations retained vestiges of the true religion even when they eventually perverted its theological meaning and history. Using that perversion to interpret the pure account is backwards. As Dr. Currid pointed out:
“If the biblical stories are true, one would be surprised not to find some references to these truths in extra-biblical literature. And indeed in ancient Near Eastern myth we do see some kernels of historical truth. However, pagan authors vulgarized or bastardized those truths—they distorted fact by dressing it up with polytheism, magic, violence, and paganism. Fact became myth. From this angle the common references would appear to support rather than deny the historicity of the biblical story.” 
“And they said, Come now! let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4).
“Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever, and their dwelling places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names.” (Psalm 49:11).
“Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:1-3).
2. ANE Myths Were Likely Understood Literally by the Original Audience.
Assumption 2: That Mesopotamian myths were not taken in a “literalistic” fashion by ancient Mesopotamians.
“It seems that a more compelling case can be made to the contrary—with the potential of significant contribution toward a more scripturally grounded understanding of ancient Near Eastern belief. As an initial observation, both ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek mythology appears to have been taken quite “literally” in its early context. Ancient Egyptians invested heavily in detailed preparations for the afterlife, with precise attention to a literalistic reading of their texts. In ancient Greek contexts, it was not until significantly later centuries that particular schools of Greek philosophy came to view the narratives of the Greek pantheon as embarrassingly barbaric and crude, opting for more figurative approaches. The latter transition influenced the development of early Christian nonliteral hermeneutics on Genesis, as exemplified by Clement and Origen in Alexandria. Beyond these issues, contemporary contextual approaches often fail to distinguish between the fallible and incomplete sources of the ancient Near East, with no promise of the aid of the Holy Spirit, versus the infallible and fully sufficient source of the Holy Scriptures, with God’s promise of the aid of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the believer.” 
Why are we to believe that ancient Mesopotamians did not truly believe that heaven and earth were, in fact, created from Tiamat’s corpse? It seems fantastical and bizarre to us today, but what evidence do we have that the author and original audience did not understand it literally? We are just supposed to take Collins’ word for it. 
Literary Structure Does Not Necessarily Indicate Symbolism.
Even if ancient pagans understood their texts figuratively, there is no reason to think that Moses intended Israel to interpret Genesis figuratively. Chapters 1-11 are no different than the rest of the chapters in Genesis, or any other historical narrative in Scripture.  These chapters exhibit literary structure and give accounts of very unique and miraculous events, but that does not take away from its narrative quality of historical events. Structure does not necessarily indicate symbolism. As Dr. E. J. Young argued:
“From the fact that some of the material in Genesis one is given in schematic form, it does not necessarily follow that what is stated is to be dismissed as figurative or as not describing what actually occurred. Sometimes a schematic arrangement may serve the purpose of emphasis. Whether the language is figurative or symbolical, however, must be determined upon exegetical grounds.
“Second, a schematic disposition of the material in Genesis one does not prove, nor does it even suggest, that the days are to be taken in a non-chronological sense. There appears to be a certain schematization, for example, in the genealogies of Matthew one, but it does not follow that the names of the genealogies are to be understood in a non-chronological sense, or that Matthew teaches that the generations from Abraham to David parallel, or were contemporary with, those from David to the Babylonian captivity and that these in turn are parallel to the generations from the Babylonian captivity to Christ. Matthew, in other words, even though he has adopted a certain schematic arrangement, namely, fourteen generations to each group, is not presenting three different aspects of the same thing. He is not saying the same thing in three different ways. He has a schematic arrangement, but that does not mean that he has thrown chronology to the winds. Why, then, must we conclude that, merely because of a schematic arrangement, Moses has disposed of chronology?” 
Natural and Historical Typology.
Additionally, we should not be surprised if the sovereign Creator and providential ruler of the world has chosen to embed factual, historical accounts with symbolic meaning. As Herman Witsius pointed out, “the types are not all of one kind, but may very properly be divided into three classes: so that some are natural, some historical, and others legal.”  There is typology in nature and history, not just in the legal ceremonies of the old covenant. The Sabbath is a creation ordinance, yet has tremendous eschatological and typological significance (Heb. 4). Likewise, marriage is a natural ordinance but is also typological of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5). Noah’s Flood is a type of baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21). Many historical accounts of the kings, patriarchs, and prophets literally happened, but they also represent things that occurred later, in time, with Christ.  Thus, there can be symbolism in natural and historical events without requiring non-literal interpretation.
While some in the patristic and medieval Church would fit this into their quadriga, fourfold pattern of exegesis, the Reformation realigned with the hermeneutical approach of the Antiochian school to view the literal, grammatical, historical sense as primary and other senses, secondary. 
New Testament Use of Genesis 1-11.
Lastly, the New Testament authors do not consider Genesis to be parables or allegories, they consistently and exclusively treat it as historical narrative.  “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” (WCF 1:9). We deny that Genesis is unclear, but sound exegesis of the New Testament citations of Genesis 1-11 will help us to see even more clearly that it should be interpreted literally and historically.
Hubert Thomas wrote a booklet examining fifty three New Testament citations of Genesis 1-11, in which he states:
“In effect three main points are demonstrated by reading the list we provide. These three points confirm that the New Testament can in no case whatsoever be appealed to in order to sustain any sort of evolutionary theory.
“First, without exception, references to creation and especially the citations of Genesis 1 to 11 point to historical events. It is no different than the historical death of the Lord Jesus Christ on Golgotha. As far as the New Testament is concerned, creation ex-nihilo and the creation of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, there is no legend and no parable; all deal with persons and events of historical and universal significance.
“Second, without exception creation is always mentioned as a unique event which took place at a particular moment in past time. Creation took place; it was accomplished. Events occurred which corrupted the world, and now it awaits a new creation which will take place in the future at a given moment.
“Third, the details and recitations of the creation given in Genesis 1 to 3 are considered to be literally true, historical and also of surpassing importance. The New Testament doctrine based upon these citations would be without validity and even erroneous if the primeval events were not historically true. For instance: consider the entry of sin into the world. If Adam were not the head of the whole human race, then Jesus Christ [the last Adam] is not head of the new creation.” 
Not only is there no conclusive evidence that ancient Near East societies read their narratives non-literally, there is also no evidence that the Holy Spirit intended Genesis to be interpreted that way. If the New Testament penmen consistently treat Genesis 1-11 as historical narrative, the analogy of Scripture requires that we do the same. Just as with pagan religion, anywhere ancient Near East literature resembles the true religion of Christ, it only does so as the derivative distortions of men “who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18), men “in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds” because they “believe not” (2 Cor. 4:4), men who walk “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). Scripture does not borrow from, nor share in, pagan symbolism. Rather, pagan religious and literary similarities to Scripture are best understood as imitative perversions of the factual history and theology of God’s revelation and the foggy historical memory of Noah’s unbelieving descendants.
“The Lord bringeth the counsel of the heathen to nought: he maketh the devices of the people of none effect.” (Psalm 33:10).
 Richard Belcher Jr., Supernatural Creation of Man, in Creation and Change (2017) by Douglas F. Kelly, p. 321.
 William VanDoodewaard, The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins, p. 242.
“It appears that the Mesopotamians aimed to accomplish their purpose by founding their stories on what they thought were actual events, albeit told with a great deal of imagery and symbolism. Thus it is reasonable to take Gen. 1-11 as having a similar purpose in Israel, expecting similar attention to history without undue literalism.” (C. John Collins, Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation, p. 77).
 VanDoodewaard, p. 154.
 Noel Weeks, Background in Biblical Interpretation: Part 2; citing W. G. Lambert, A New Look at Babylonian Background of Genesis, Journal of Theological Studies 16 (1965), 285-300.
 Noel Weeks, Background in Biblical Interpretation: Part 2. Dr. Weeks elaborates on this point here: The Bible and the “Universal” Ancient World: A Critique of John Walton, WTJ 78 (2016): 1-28. e.g. Peter Enns approach is based on his dubious assumption that we ought to “acknowledge that the Genesis story is firmly rooted in the worldview of its time.” (Inspiration and Incarnation, p. 27).
 Noel Weeks, Background in Biblical Interpretation: Part 1. cf. Noel Weeks, The Ambiguity of Biblical “Background”, WTJ 72 (2010): 219-36.
 Noel Weeks, The Isolation of the Biblical Text, (2016 Gaffin Lecture).
 Colin R. Reeves, in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, pp. 718-719.
 Gregory Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority, p. 175. cf. John Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament; John Currid, Crass Plagiarism? [Part 1], [Part 2], [Part 3].
 VanDoodewaard, p. 235, n. 151.
 VanDoodewaard, p. 215.
 E. J. Young, Studies in Genesis One.
 John Sailhamer, Exegetical Notes: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Trinity Journal 5 (1984), p. 75.
 VanDoodewaard, pp. 264-265.
 Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption, I.IV.ii. cf. John Calvin and Matthew Poole on Exodus 2:16.
“Evolutionists take for granted that man originally was a savage and has gradually developed into a gentleman; the truth is that man originally was a gentleman, and rapidly degenerated into a savage in many parts of the world.” (J. G. Vos, Genesis, p. 45).
“…at first, there was a general agreement about religion in the world; and if we look into the particulars of the heathen religion, even after they were much corrupted, we may evidently find several practices, as well as principles, sufficient to convince us, that the ancient religion in all parts of the world was originally the same.” (Samuel Shuckford, Sacred and Profane History of the World, vol. 1, pp. 187-188).
“Originally man believed in one God with many attributes, but with time people came to ascribe the different attributes of God to many different gods.” (John Eidsmoe, Historical and Theological Foundations of Law, vol. 1, p. 23).
 John D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament, p. 32. cf. Benardinus De Moor, Didactico-Elenctic Theology IV:8 on Gentile Misuse of the Divine Name (see comments for Matthew Poole’s Euhemerist understanding of the origin of mythology).
 VanDoodewaard, p. 242, n. 179. Dr. John Currid, in response to Walton’s view that ANE literature (and therefore Scripture) is about cosmological function rather than material origins, states:
“After an extensive investigation of these Egyptian texts, my conclusion is this: while it is true that Egyptian creation texts do, in fact, have a focus on how the universe operates and how mankind functions within it, this is not at the exclusion of concerns about the origins of the material creation. It is clear, at least to me, that material origins were of utmost importance to the ancient Egyptians in their literature. The beginning of physical objects in the universe is a distinct aspect of the various creation accounts.” (Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, p. 845).
 Dr. David Livingston argues that many ANE creation myths do not actually address creation of the physical world per se, rather they are purposely fictitious and intended as an opiate of the masses to persuade their people that a certain god has validated the rise of certain political leaders, he writes:
“Clever men used myth as religio-politico propaganda in order to deceive the populace into thinking a ruler was divine or ‘son‘ of the divine, and that he had his ‘right to rule‘ from a god — but, a god created by ingenious men through ‘cunningly devised fables,’ making the fiction sound plausible. On the other hand, precisely the opposite is true with the factual history recorded beginning with Genesis 1.” (Comparison of Genesis with Creation Stories of the Ancient Near East).
 cf. John D. Currid, Theistic Evolution is Incompatible with the Teachings of the Old Testament, ch. 28 in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique.
 Young, Studies in Genesis One, pp. 55-56. John Currid gives an example of a schematic form used in Joshua 14:6-14 and 15:13-17 that is similar to that of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-24 that critics of the latter do not consistently interpret in the former place (Theistic Evolution…, p. 867).
 Herman Witsius, Economy of the Covenants vol. 2, p. 192.
 cf. Witsius, pp. 188-231.
 cf. Chapter 2, The Patristic and Medieval Quest for Adam, in The Quest for the Historical Adam by William VanDoodewaard, especially pp. 30, 34, 52, 118, 270.
“The Protestant orthodox early on addressed the problem of the various senses of Scripture with a view to showing the rootage of sound doctrine in a broadly defined literal sense and to manifesting the source of Roman Catholic abuses and errors in an allegorizing approach to Scripture. Whitaker’s Disputation thus reflects both the Protestant view of the quadriga as a source and justification of error and the continuing debate over the nature of the literal sense. ‘We concede,’ he writes,
‘such things as allegory, anagoge, and tropology in scripture; but meanwhile we deny that there are many and various senses. We affirm that there is but one true, proper, and genuine sense of scripture, arising from the words rightly understood, which we call the literal: and we contend that allegories, tropologies, and anagoges are not various senses, but various collections from one sense, or various applications and accommodations of that one meaning.’
“‘Various collections‘ and ‘divers senses‘ can be identified in a text, but only when they arise directly from the literal grammatical meaning of the text: there is one genuine sense but there are various theological directions in which that sense points, particularly those directions indicated by the fulfillment of prophecy or by figures and types in the text. Words, the orthodox insist, can have only a single sense in any particular place—otherwise there is an ambiguity of meaning and ambiguity breeds errors in interpretation.”
Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, (1993 edition), p. 491.
 cf. Guy Prentiss Waters, Theistic Evolution is Incompatible with the Teachings of the New Testament, ch. 29 in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique.
 Hubert Thomas, Mentions de la Creation (Gen. 1-11) dans le nouveau Testament, Lausanne: (Association Creation, Bible et Science, 1933) as translated by Douglas F. Kelly, and cited in Creation and Change, pp. 175-176.
5 thoughts on “False Assumptions of Ancient Near East Literary Approaches to Genesis”
Great job Paul! This will be very beneficial for Christ’s Church.
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Yes, good job! Thank you! I have linked it in a couple of Facebook apologetics groups to counter what I call ANE-onlyists who maintain that there really is not a sequence in Genesis 1. Go figure.
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