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Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis, Page 2

Robert Graves

  The main difference between Greek and Hebrew myths—apart from this glaring contrast in the rewards of virtue—is that the Greek were royal and aristocratic: accounting for certain religious institutions in particular city-states, presided over by priests who claimed descent from the gods or heroes concerned. Only the hero, or his descendants, could hope for a pleasant after-existence in the Fortunate Isles or the Elysian Fields. The souls of slaves and foreigners, despite exemplary lives, were sentenced to a dismal Tartarus where they flew blindly about, twittering like bats. Among the synagogue Jews, on the contrary, all who obeyed the Mosaic Law, whatever their birth or station, were made free of a Heavenly Kingdom which would arise from the ashes of our present world. The Greeks never took so democratic a step: though excluding from the Mysteries (which gave initiates an assurance of Paradise) all persons with criminal records, they still confined admission to the free-born.

  Greek myths are charters for certain clans—descendants of Perseus, Pelops, Cadmus or whoever it may have been—to rule certain territories so long as they placated the local gods with sacrifices, dances and processions. Annual performance of such rites enhanced their authority. Hebrew myths are mainly national charters: the myth of Abraham for the possession of Canaan, and for patrilocal marriage; the myth of Jacob for Israel’s status as a chosen people; the myth of Ham for the owning of Canaanite slaves. Other myths uphold the supreme sanctity of Mount Zion against the rival shrines of Hebron and Shechem (see 27. 6 and 43. 2). A few later ones are written to solve serious theological problems: such as the origin of evil in man, whose ancestor Adam was made by God in His own image and animated by His own spirit. Adam erred through ignorance, Cain sinned deliberately, and a late myth therefore makes him a bastard begotten by Satan on Eve (see 14. a).

  In Greek myths the time element is occasionally disregarded. Thus Queen Helen who retained her beauty throughout the ten years’ siege of Troy, and for ten years afterwards, was said by some to have borne King Theseus a daughter one generation before this siege began. Yet the two stories are not reported by the same author, and Greek scholars could assume either that there were two Queen Helens or that one of the mythographers had erred. In Biblical myths, however, Sarah remains irresistibly beautiful after she has passed her ninetieth birthday, conceives, bears Isaac, and suckles all her neighbours’ children as well as him. Patriarchs, heroes and early kings live to nearly a thousand years. The giant Og survives Noah’s deluge, outlives Abraham, and is finally destroyed by Moses. Time is telescoped. Adam sees all the future generations of mankind hanging from his gigantic body; Isaac studies the Mosaic Law (revealed ten generations later) in the Academy of Shem, who lived ten generations before him. Indeed, the hero of Hebrew myth is not only profoundly influenced by the deeds, words and thoughts of his forebears, and aware of his own profound influence on the fate of his descendants; he is equally influenced by the behaviour of his descendants and influences that of his ancestors. Thus King Jeroboam set up a golden calf in Dan, and this sinful act sapped the strength of Abraham when he pursued his enemies into the same district a thousand years previously.

  Fanciful rabbinic expansions of the Genesis stories were still being made in the Middle Ages: answers to such questions by intelligent students as—‘How was the Ark lighted? How were the animals fed? Was there a Phoenix on board?’ (see 20. i–j)

  Greek myths show no sense of national destiny, nor do Roman myths until it was supplied by gifted Augustan propagandists—Virgil, Livy and the rest. Professor Hadas of Columbia University has pointed out close correspondences between the Aeneid and Exodus—the divinely led exodus of refugees to a Promised Land—and concludes that Virgil borrowed from the Jews. It is possible, too, that Livy’s moral anecdotes of Ancient Rome, which are quite unmythical in tone, were influenced by the synagogue. Of course, Roman morals differed altogether from the Jewish: Livy rated courageous self-sacrifice above truth and mercy, and the dishonourable Olympians remained Rome’s official gods. Not until the Hebrew myths, borrowed by the Christians, gave subject people an equal right to salvation, were the Olympians finally banished. It is true that some of these came back to power disguised as saints, and perpetuated their rites in the form of Church festivals; yet the aristocratic principle had been overthrown. It is also true that Greek myths were still studied, because the Church took over schools and universities which made the Classics required reading; and the names of Constellations illustrating these myths were too well established to be altered. Nevertheless, patriarchal and monotheistic Hebrew myth had firmly established the ethical principles of Western life.

  Our collaboration has been a happy one. Though the elder of us two had been brought up as a strict Protestant, and the younger as a strict Jew, we never disagreed on any question of fact or historical assessment; and each deferred to the other’s knowledge in different fields. A main problem was how much scholarly reference could be included without boring the intelligent general reader. This book could easily have run to twice its present length by the inclusion of late pseudo-mythic material rivalling in dullness even the Wars of the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, which was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls; and by the citation of learned commentaries on small disputed points. Our gratitude is due to Abraham Berger and Francis Paar of the New York Public Library for bibliographic advice, and to Kenneth Gay for help in preparing the book for the press. Although of dual authorship, Hebrew Myths serves as a companion volume to The Greek Myths (Graves), its material being similarly organized.





  (a) When God set out to create Heaven and Earth, He found nothing around Him but Tohu and Bohu, namely Chaos and Emptiness. The face of the Deep, over which His Spirit hovered, was clothed in darkness.

  On the first day of Creation, therefore, He said: ‘Let there be light!’, and light appeared.

  On the second day, He made a firmament to divide the Upper Waters from the Lower Waters, and named it ‘Heaven’.

  On the third day, He assembled the Lower Waters in one place and let dry land emerge. After naming the dry land ‘Earth’, and the assembled waters ‘Sea’, He told Earth to bring forth grass and herbs and trees.

  On the fourth day, He created the sun, moon and stars.

  On the fifth day, the sea-beasts, fish and birds.

  On the sixth day, the land-beasts, creeping things and mankind.

  On the seventh day, satisfied with His work, He rested.1

  (b) But some say that after creating Earth and Heaven, God caused a mist to moisten the dry land so that grasses and herbs could spring up. Next, He made a garden in Eden, also a man named Adam to be its overseer, and planted it with trees. He then created all beasts, birds, creeping things; and lastly woman.2


  1. For many centuries, Jewish and Christian theologians agreed that the accounts of the world’s origin given in Genesis were not only inspired by God, but owed nothing to any other scriptures. This extreme view has now been abandoned by all but fundamentalists. Since 1876, several versions of Akkadian (that is, Babylonian and Assyrian) Creation Epics have been excavated and published. The longest of these, known as Enuma Elish from its initial two words—which mean ‘when on high’—is assumed to have been written in the early part of the second millennium B.C. It has survived almost complete on seven cuneiform tablets containing an average of 156 lines apiece. The discovery did not altogether astonish scholars familiar with Berossus’s summary of Creation myths, quoted by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea; for Berossus, born in the fourth century B.C., had been a priest of Bel at Babylon.

  2. Another version of the same Epic, written both in Babylonian and Sumerian as a prologue to an incantation for purifying a temple, was discovered at Sippar on a tablet dated from the sixth century B.C. It runs in part as follows:

  The holy house, the house of the gods, in a holy place had not yet been made;

reed had sprung up, no tree had been created;

  No brick had been laid, no building had been erected;

  No house had been constructed, no city had been built;

  No city had been made, no creature had been brought into being;

  Nippur had not been made, Ekur had not been built;

  Erech had not been made, Eana had not been built;

  The Deep had not been made, Eridu had not been built;

  Of the holy house, the house of the gods, the habitation had not been made;

  All lands were sea.

  Then there was a movement in the midst of the sea;

  At that time Eridu was made, and Essagil was built,

  Essagil, where in the midst of the deep the god Lugal-du-kuda dwells;

  The city of Babylon was built, and Essagil was finished.

  The gods, the spirits of the earth, Marduk made at the same time,

  The holy city, the dwelling of their hearts’ desire, they proclaimed supreme.

  Marduk laid a reed on the face of the waters,

  He formed dust and poured it out beside the reed;

  That he might cause the gods to dwell in the dwelling of their hearts’ desire,

  He formed mankind.

  With him the goddess Aruru created the seed of mankind.

  The beasts of the field and living things in the field he formed.

  The Tigris and Euphrates he created and established them in their place;

  Their name he proclaimed in goodly manner.

  The grass, the rush of the marsh, the reed and the forest he created,

  The green herb of the field he created,

  The lands, the marshes and the swamps;

  The wild cow and her young, the wild calf, the ewe and her young, the lamb of the fold.

  Orchards and forests;

  The he-goat and the mountain goat…

  The Lord Marduk built a dam beside the sea.

  Reeds he formed, trees he created;

  Bricks he laid, buildings he erected;

  Houses he made, cities he built;

  Cities he made, creatures he brought into being.

  Nippur he made, Ekur he built;

  Erech he made, Eana he built.

  3. The longer Creation Epic begins by telling how ‘when on high the heavens had not been named’, Apsu the Begetter and Mother Tiamat mingled chaotically and produced a brood of dragon-like monsters. Several ages passed before a younger generation of gods arose. One of these, Ea god of Wisdom, challenged and killed Apsu. Tiamat thereupon married her own son Kingu, bred monsters from him, and prepared to take vengeance on Ea.

  The only god who now dared oppose Tiamat was Ea’s son Marduk. Tiamat’s allies were her eleven monsters. Marduk relied upon the seven winds, his bow and arrow and storm-chariot, and a terrible coat of mail. He had smeared his lips with prophylactic red paste, and tied on his wrist a herb that made him proof against poison; flames crowned his head. Before their combat, Tiamat and Marduk exchanged taunts, curses and incantations. When they came to grips, Marduk soon caught Tiamat in his net, sent one of his winds into her belly to tear out the guts, then brained and shot her full of arrows. He bound the corpse with chains and stood victoriously upon it. Having chained the eleven monsters and cast them into prison—where they became gods of the underworld—he snatched the ‘Tablets of Fate’ from Kingu’s breast and, fastening them upon his own, split Tiamat into halves like a shell-fish. One of these he used as firmament, to impede the upper waters from flooding the earth; and the other as a rocky foundation for earth and sea. He also created the sun, the moon, the five lesser planets and the constellations, giving his kinsmen charge over them; and finally created man from the blood of Kingu, whom he had condemned to death as the instigator of Tiamat’s rebellion.

  4. Much the same account appears in the Berossian summary though Bel, not Marduk, is its divine hero. In the corresponding Greek myth, perhaps of Hittite provenience, Mother Earth created the giant Typhon, at whose advent the gods all fled to Egypt, until Zeus boldly killed him and his monstrous sister Delphyne with a thunderbolt.

  5. The first account of Creation (Genesis 1. 1–II. 3) was composed at Jerusalem soon after the return from Babylonian Exile. God is here named ‘Elohim’. The second account (Genesis II. 4–22) is also Judaean, possibly of Edomite origin, and pre-Exilic. Here God was originally named ‘Yahweh’, but the priestly editor has changed this to ‘Yahweh Elohim’ (usually translated as ‘the Lord God’), thus identifying the God of Genesis I with that of Genesis II, and giving the versions an appearance of uniformity. He did not, however, eliminate certain contradictory details in the order of creation, as will be seen from the following tables:

  Genesis I

  Genesis II









  Dry Land


  Grasses and Trees



  Beasts and Cattle





  Cattle, Creeping things, Beasts

  Man and Woman

  Jews and Christians have always been puzzled by these contradictions, and tried to explain them away. The seven-day scheme in the first account provides the mythical charter for man’s observance of the Sabbath; since God, who rested on the seventh day, blessed and hallowed it. This point is expressly made in one version of the Ten Commandments (Exodus xx. 8–11). Some early rabbinic commentators observe that the main elements were created in the first three days; and embellished in the second three; and that a close symmetry can be discerned between the first and fourth days, the second and fifth, the third and sixth.

  First Day

  Fourth Day

  Creation of Light

  its separation from darkness.

  Creation of the luminaries—sun, moon and stars—to separate day from night and season from season.

  Second Day

  Fifth Day

  Creation of the heavens and separation of the upper waters from the lower.

  Creation of birds that fly through the heavens, and of fish that swim through the lower waters.

  Third Day

  Sixth Day

  Creation of dry land and establishment of its immobile woods and herbs.

  Creation of beasts, men and creeping things that walk on dry land.

  6. This scheme, and others like it, prove the rabbis’ desire to credit God with systematic thought. Their labours would not have been needed, however, had it occurred to them that the order of Creation was tied to the order of the planetary gods in the Babylonian week, and therefore to the seven branches of the Menorah, or Sacred Candelabrum—both Zechariah in his vision (IV. 10), and Josephus (Wars V. 5. 5), make this identification of the Menorah with the Seven Planets—and that God claimed all these planetary powers for Himself. Since Nergal, a pastoral god, came third in the week, whereas Nabu, god of astronomy, came fourth, pasture was given precedence to the stars in the order of Creation. The Enuma Elish has the following order: separation of heaven from earth and sea; creation of planets and stars; creation of trees and herbs; creation of animals and fish (but the fifth and sixth tablets are fragmentary); Marduk’s forming of man from Kingu’s blood.

  7. The second Creation account is vaguer than the first, divulges less about the pre-Creation Universe, and has no structure comparable to that of Genesis I. In fact, it implies that the work of Creation occupied a single day. The opening statement recalls several Near Eastern cosmogonies, by describing the pre-Creation Universe in terms of the various things which had not hitherto existed. Trees and shrubs were not yet in the earth, grasses and herbs had not yet sprung up because God had not yet sent rain, and there was still no man to till the soil (Genesis II. 5). Then came the great day in which God created the generations of h
eaven and earth (Genesis II. 4a): a mist rose from the soil (presumably at His command), and watered it. The soil (adama) was now in condition for man (adam) to be formed from it. God duly breathed life into man’s nostrils and gave him a living soul. Then He planted a garden, eastward of Eden, and ordered man to dress and keep it (Genesis II. 6–9, 15).

  8. Genesis I resembles Babylonian cosmogonies, which begin with the emergence of earth from a primeval watery chaos, and are all metaphorical of how dry land emerges annually from the winter floods of Tigris and Euphrates. Creation is thus represented as the world’s first flowering after the primeval watery chaos: a Spring season, when birds and beasts mate. Genesis II, however, mirrors Canaanite geographic and climatic conditions. The pre-Creation Universe is sun-scorched, parched and barren, as if after a long summer. When finally autumn approaches, the first sign of rain is morning mist risen dense and white from the valleys. Creation as pictured in Genesis II. 4 ff took place on just such an autumn day. The Babylonian version, which made Spring the creative season, was borrowed during the Captivity, and the first of Nissan became a Jewish New Year’s day. The earlier autumnal version, however, required the first of Tishri to be observed as the true New Year’s day.