Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis, Page 3

Robert Graves

  9. Irreconcilable views as to the season of Creation were held by rival Jewish schools from the first century A.D. onward. Philo of Alexandria maintained, with the Greek Stoics, that the Universe had been created in the Spring, and was followed by Rabbi Jehoshua and others. But Rabbi Eliezer preferred the autumnal Creation, and his view gained the upper hand among the Orthodox; it was decided that the first of Tishri had been God’s New Year’s day. Others, while agreeing on an autumnal Creation, held that God’s New Year fell on the twenty-fifth of Elul, and that the first of Tishri, five days later, celebrated Adam’s birth.

  10. Creation being originally understood in terms of procreation, not fabrication, its central figure was a matriarch. Thus in the Greek myth, Eurynome, Goddess of All Things, rose naked from Chaos, divided sea from sky, danced upon the waves, stirred up the wind, was impregnated by it in the shape of a great serpent named Ophion or Ophioneus, and laid the World Egg. A similar story is told in Orphic Fragments 60, 61, 70 and 89: Night, the Creatrix, lays a silver egg from which Love is hatched to set the Universe in motion. Night lives in a cave, displaying herself in triad as Night, Order and Justice.

  11. Most Near Eastern myths, however, derive from a time when part, at least, of the matriarch’s divine prerogatives had been delegated to her male warrior-escort. This stage is reflected in the Enuma Elish’s account of how the Universe proceeds from a union between Apsu the Begetter and Mother Tiamat; and in Berossus’s account of the Creation—summarized by Alexander Polyhistor—where after El’s victory over Tiamat, the Goddess Aruru formed man from El’s own blood kneaded with clay.

  12. The Syrian philosopher Damascius (early sixth century A.D.) summarizes a primitive version of the Enuma Elish myth, paralleled by the Egyptian Sky-goddess Nut’s union with the Earth-god Geb; and by the Greek Sky-god Uranus’s union with the Earth-goddess Gaia. Damascius names Tiamat before Apsu, and accords similar precedence to the female of each divine couple he mentions.

  13. Were it not for the Tehom-Tiamat parallel, we should never guess that Tehom represents the formidable Babylonian Mother-goddess who bore the gods, was rebelled against by them, and finally surrendered her own body to serve as building material for the Universe. Not even the female gender of the Hebrew name ‘Tehom’ can be read as significant in this connection, since in Hebrew every noun must either be male or female, and many cosmic terms are female even when lacking the female suffix ah, or of ambivalent gender.

  14. Yet goddesses were well known to the Hebrews of Biblical times who worshipped in the groves of the Goddess Asherah (Judges III. 7; VI. 25–26, 30; 1 Kings XVI. 33; XVIII. 19), and bowed down to her images (2 Kings XXI. 7; 2 Chronicles XVIII. 6, etc.). They also honoured Astarte, the goddess of the Phoenicians and Philistines (Judges II. 13; X. 6; 1 Samuel XXXI. 10; 1 Kings XI. 5, 33; 2 Kings XXIII. 13, etc.). Not long before Nebuchadrezzar’s destruction of the Judaean Kingdom (586 B.C.), Jewish women were offering cakes to her as the ‘Queen of Heaven’ (Jeremiah VII. 18): alias Anath, whose name survives in the Bible as that of Shamgar’s mother (Judges III. 31; V. 6) and of the priestly village Anathot, Jeremiah’s home, now Anatha, north of Jerusalem. She had become so dear to Jews of both sexes, that those who escaped to Egypt vowed to serve her with libations and cakes made in her image (Jeremiah XLIV. 15–19).

  15. Though Astarte and Asherah were worshipped by all classes to the very end of the Judaean monarchy, nowhere in the Bible is any hint found of their connexion with El or Elohim—unless God’s repudiation in Ezekiel XXIII of the lecherous Aholah and Aholibah is directed against these goddesses rather than against Jerusalem and Samaria, the main seats of their worship. Nor does any Hebrew tradition assign to either goddess the rôle of Creatrix. Yet Astarte’s dove suggests that she had once been so regarded.

  16. The monotheistic editor of the cosmogony in Genesis I and II could assign no part in Creation to anyone but God, and therefore omitted all pre-existing elements or beings which might be held divine. Such abstractions as Chaos (tohu wa-bohu), Darkness (hoshekh), and the Deep (tehom) would, however, tempt no worshippers: so these took the place of the ancient matriarchal deities.

  17. Though the revolutionary concept of an eternal, absolute, omnipotent and only God was first proposed by Pharaoh Akhenaten (see 56. 1. 4.), and either adopted by the Hebrews, whom he seems to have protected, or re-invented by them, yet the name ‘Elohim’ (usually translated as ‘God’), found in Genesis I, is the Hebrew variant of an ancient Semitic name for one god of many—Ilu among the Assyrians and Babylonians; El among the Hittites and in the Ugaritic texts; II, or Hum, among the South Arabians. El headed the Phoenician pantheon and is often mentioned in Ugaritic poems (dating from the fourteenth century B.C.) as ‘Bull El’, which recalls the golden bull-calves made by Aaron (Exodus XXXII. 1–6, 24, 35) and Jeroboam (1 Kings XII. 28–29) as emblems of God; and Zedekiah’s impersonation of God as an iron-horned bull (1 Kings XXII. 11).

  18. In Genesis I, the name ‘Elohim’ is combined with a second divine name pronounced Yahweh (usually transcribed as Jehovah, and translated as ‘Lord’) and regarded as an abbreviation of the full name Yahweh asher yihweh, ‘He causes to be what is’ (Exodus III. 14). In personal names, this was further shortened into Yeho (e.g., Yehonathan, or ‘Jonathan’), or Yo (e.g., Yonathan or ‘Jonathan’); or Yahu (e.g., Yirm’yahu or ‘Jeremiah’); or Yah (e.g., Ahiyah). That Yahweh in Genesis is given the divine surname Elohim, shows him to have become a transcendental God, credited with all the great feats of Creation.

  The titles and attributes of many other Near Eastern deities were successively awarded to Yahweh Elohim. For instance, in the Ugaritic poems, a standing epithet of the God Baal, son of Dagon, is ‘Rider of Clouds’; Psalm LXV. 5 awards it to this Hebrew God, who also, like Baal ‘The God of Saphon’, has a palace in the ‘farthest north’ (yark’the saphon), imagined as a lofty mountain (Isaiah XIV. 13; Psalm XLVIII. 3).

  19. Moreover, many of the acts attributed in Ugaritic mythology to the bloodthirsty Goddess Anath are attributed in the Bible to Yahweh Elohim. The Ugaritic description of how Anath massacres her enemies:

  She plunged knee-deep in the blood of soldiers,

  Neck-high in the gore of their companies.

  Until she is sated

  She fights in the house…

  recalls the second Isaiah’s vision of God’s vengeance upon Israel’s enemies (Isaiah LXIII. 3):

  Yes, I trod them in Mine anger,

  And trampled them in My fury;

  And their lifeblood sprinkled upon My garments,

  And I have stained all My raiment…

  Prophets and psalmists were as careless about the pagan origins of the religious imagery they borrowed, as priests were about the adaptation of heathen sacrificial rites to God’s service. The crucial question was: in whose honour these prophecies and hymns should now be sung, or these rites enacted. If in honour of Yahweh Elohim, not Anath, Baal or Tammuz, all was proper and pious.



  (a) According to others, God created Heavens, complete with Sun, Moon and stars, by a single word of command. Then, clad in a glorious garment of light, He stretched out the Heavens like a round tent-cloth, exactly cut to cover the Deep. Having confined the Upper Waters in a fold of His garment, He established His secret Pavilion above the Heavens, walling it with a thick darkness like sackcloth, carpeting it with the same, and resting its beams upon the Upper Waters. There He set up His divine Throne.3

  (b) While performing the work of Creation, God would ride across the Deep upon clouds, or cherubs, or the wings of the storm; or catch at passing winds and make them His messengers. He set Earth on immovable foundations: by carefully weighing the mountains, sinking some as pillars in the waters of the Deep, arching the Earth over them and locking the arch with a keystone of other mountains.4

  (c) The roaring waters of the Deep arose and Tehom, their Queen, threatened to flood God’s handiwork. But, in His
fiery chariot, He rode the waves and flung at her great volleys of hail, lightning and thunderbolts. He despatched her monstrous ally Leviathan with a blow on its skull; and the monster Rahab with a sword thrust through its heart. Awed by His voice, Tehom’s waters subsided. The rivers fled backwards up the hills and down into the valleys beyond. Tehom, trembling, acknowledged defeat. God uttered a shout of victory, and dried the floods until Earth’s foundations could be seen. Then He measured in the hollow of His hand what water was left, poured it into the Sea Bed, and set sand dunes as its perpetual boundary; at the same time making a decree which Tehom could never break, however violently her salt waves might rage—she being, as it were, locked behind gates across which a bolt has been shot.5

  (d) God then measured out dry earth, fixing its limits. He allowed Tehom’s fresh waters to rise as valley springs, and rain to fall gently on the mountain tops from His upper chambers. Thus He made grass grow as fodder for cattle; also corn and grapes for the nourishment of man; and the great cedars of Lebanon for shade. He ordered the Moon to mark the seasons; and the Sun to divide day from night and summer from winter; and the stars to limit the blackness of night. He filled the earth with beasts, birds and creeping things; and the sea with fishes, sea-beasts and monsters. He let wild beasts roam about after dark; but once the Sun arose they must return to their lairs.6

  The Morning Stars, as they watched, burst into a song of praise; and all the sons of God shouted for joy.7

  (e) Having thus completed the work of Creation, God withdrew to a sanctuary on Mount Paran in the Land of Teman. Whenever He leaves this dwelling place, Earth trembles and mountains smoke.8


  1. This third account of the Creation, built up from Biblical references elsewhere than in Genesis, recalls not only Babylonian, but Ugaritic and Canaanite, cosmogonies; and notably expands the brief reference to Tohu, Bohu and the Deep. Such a Creator as El, Marduk, Baal, or Jehovah, must first struggle against water—personified by the Prophets as Leviathan, Rahab, or the Great Dragon, not only because the Creatrix whom he displaces is a goddess of Fertility, and therefore of water, but because the matriarchate can be portrayed in myth as a chaotic commingling of the two sexes which delays the establishment of patriarchal social order—like rain pouring down into the sea, which delays the appearance of dry land. Thus male and female principles must first be decently separated, as when the Egyptian cosmocrator Shu lifted the Sky-goddess Nut from her embrace of the Earth-god Geb; or when Yahweh Elohim tore the Upper Male Waters from their embrace of the Lower Female Waters (see 4. e). The Babylonian Marduk, when slicing Tiamat in two, was really parting her from Apsu, God of the Upper Waters.

  2. In Ugaritic mythology, Baal fixes the sea bed as the abode of the defeated water, which is treated as both a deity and an element:

  O fisherman…

  Take a large seine in thy two hands,

  Cast it into El’s beloved Yamm,

  Into the Sea of El, the Benign,

  Into the Deep of El…

  3. What ‘Tohu’ and ‘Bohu’ originally meant is disputed. But add the suffix m to Tohu (thw) and it becomes Tehom (thwm), the Biblical name for a primitive sea-monster. Tehom, in the plural, becomes Tehomot (thwmwt). With the same suffixes, Bohu becomes Behom and Behomot (bhwmwt), a variant form of Job’s Behemoth, the dry-land counterpart of the sea-monster Leviathan. Leviathan cannot be easily distinguished from Rahab, Tannin, Nahash or any other mythical creatures that personify water. The story underlying Genesis I. 2 may therefore be that the world in its primeval state consisted of a sea-monster Tohu and a land-monster Bohu. If so, Tohu’s identity with Tehomot, and Bohu’s with Behemoth (see 6. n–q), has been suppressed for doctrinal reasons (see 1. 13, 16)—Tohu and Bohu being now read as unpersonified states of emptiness or chaos; and God being made responsible for the subsequent creation of Tehomot (or Leviathan) and Behemoth.

  4. The Babylonian sea-monster corresponding with the Hebrew Tehomot appears as Tiamat, Tamtu, Tamdu and Taawatu; and in Damascius’s First Principles as Tauthe. Thus the root is taw, which stands in the same relation to Tiamat as Tohu does to Tehom and Tehomot. Moreover, that tehom never takes the definite article in Hebrew proves it to have once been a proper name, like Tiamat. Tehomot, then, is the Hebrew equivalent of Mother Tiamat, beloved by the God Apsu, whose name developed from the older Sumerian Abzu; and Abzu was the imaginary sweet-water abyss from which Enki, God of Wisdom, emerged. Rahab (‘haughtiness’) is a synonym of Tehomot; in Job xxvI. 12 occur the parallel lines:

  By His power He threatened the Sea,

  And by His skill He shattered Rahab.

  5. The hovering of the Spirit of God over the waste of waters in Genesis I. 2 suggests a bird, and in an early Biblical poem God is compared to an ‘eagle hovering over her young’ (Deuteronomy XXXII. 11). But the word ruah, usually translated as ‘spirit’, originally means ‘wind’, which recalls the Phoenician creation myth quoted by Philo of Byblus: the prime chaos was acted upon by Wind which became enamoured of its own elements. Another Byblian cosmogonist makes Baou, the female principle, impregnated by this wind. The Goddess Baou, wife to the Wind-god Colpia, was also identified with the Greek Goddess Nyx (‘Night’), whom Hesiod makes the Mother of All Things. In Greece she was Eurynome, who took the Serpent Ophioneus for a lover (see 1. 10).

  6. The heretical Ophites of the first century A.D. believed that the world had been generated by a serpent. The Brazen Serpent made, according to Hebrew tradition, by Moses at God’s command (Numbers XXI. 8–9) and revered in the Temple Sanctuary until the reforming King Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kings XVIII. 4), suggests that Yahweh had at one time been identified with a Serpent-god—as Zeus was in Orphic art. Memory of Yahweh as a serpent survived in a late midrash according to which, when God attacked Moses (Exodus IV. 24 ff) in a desert lodging place in the dead of night, He assumed the shape of a huge serpent and swallowed Moses as far as his loins. The custom at Jerusalem of killing the sacrificial victims on the north side of the altar (Leviticus I. 11; M. Zebahim V. 1–5) points to an early North-Wind cult, like that at Athens. In the original myth, presumably, the Great Mother rose from Chaos; the wind of her advent became a serpent and impregnated her; she thereupon became a bird (dove or eagle) and laid the world-egg—which the serpent coiled about and hatched.

  7. According to a Galilean psalm (LXXXIX), God created Heaven and Earth, north and south, Tabor and Hermon, only after subduing Rahab and scattering His other enemies. And according to Job IX. 8–13, when He stretched out the Heavens and trod upon the sea-waves, the ‘helpers of Rahab’ stooped beneath Him. These helpers suggest Tiamat’s allies in her struggle against Marduk, when he ‘subdued’ her with a sacred imprecation.

  8. Biblical allusions to Leviathan as a many-headed sea-monster, or as a ‘fleeing’ serpent (nahash bariah), or ‘crooked’ serpent (nahash aqalaton), recall the Ugaritic texts: ‘If you smite Lotan… the crooked serpent, the mighty one with seven heads…’ and: ‘Baal will run through with his spear, even as he struck Lotan, the crooked serpent with seven heads.’ The language approximates Biblical Hebrew: Leviathan (lwytn) appears as lot an; nhsh brh as bthn (= Hebrew pthn, ‘serpent’) brh; and nhsh ‘qltwn, as bthn ‘qltn in Ugaritic (ANET 138b).

  9. Tiamat’s mate Apsu, a personification of the Upper Waters, has been correlated (by Gunkel and others) with the Hebrew term ephes, meaning ‘extremity, nothingness’. The word usually appears in dual form: aphsayim or aphse eres, ‘the ends of the earth’ (Deuteronomy XXXIII. 17; Micah V. 3; Psalm II. 8; etc.). Its watery connotation survives in a Biblical prophecy (Zechariah IX. 10): ‘His dominion shall be from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth,’ where poetic convention requires that ‘the ends of the earth’ should also mean ‘river’, presumably the Ocean Stream. Similarly, in Proverbs XXX. 4, aphsayim corresponds with ‘waters’:

  Who hath bound the waters in His garment?

  Who hath established all the aphsayim of the earth?

That the Creator holds the cosmic elements in his fist, or hands, is a favourite theme of Near Eastern myth. God’s victory over ephes or aphsayim has been recorded in Psalm LXVII. 8 and 1 Samuel II. 10. Isaiah (XLV. 22), after declaring that God alone created the earth, addresses the aphsayim in His name: ‘Look unto me and be saved, all ye aphsayim of the earth!’

  10. Though the Hebrew prophets disguised the names of Apsu, Tiamat and Baou as empty abstractions, yet Isaiah XL. 17:

  All the nations are as nothing before Him,

  They are accounted by Him as Ephes and Tohu…

  immediately follows a passage recalling God’s feats in the days of Creation. And in Isaiah XXXIV. 11–12, Tohu, Bohu and Ephes are used with plain reference to their mythological meaning, when the prophet predicts Edom’s destruction:

  He [God] shall stretch over it

  The line of Tohu

  And the stones of Bohu…

  And all her princes

  Shall be Ephes…

  11. ‘He confined Tehom with a bolt and two doors,’ refers to a double door and the bolt shot across its wings. The same image occurs in the Enuma Elish: after Marduk had killed Tiamat and formed the Heavens from one half of her body, he ‘shot a bolt across, and placed watchers over it to prevent Tiamat from letting out her waters.’ The text of the Enuma Elish suggests that nahash bariah, the phrase in Isaiah XXVII. 1 and fob XXVI. 13 describing Leviathan, could also mean ‘the bolted-in serpent’. Bariah, without any change in vocalization, means ‘bolted, shut in’, as well as ‘fleeing’.