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The Connection Between Sumerian and Bible Creation Stories

Sumerian tablet
Sumerian cuneiform writing. Credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The most famous account of creation is undoubtedly the one contained in the first two chapters of Genesis. However, many other creation stories exist from all around the world. A few of them were even written in the Late Bronze Age before the time of the Bible. Scholars have noted that there are many similarities between the account of creation found in the Bible and the account found in Ancient Sumerian documents.

The Bible’s Account of Creation

Unlike the Sumerian account, the Bible’s account of creation is fairly simple. It opens with the famous words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It then goes on to explain that God progressively prepared the earth for human habitation. He made dry land, the atmosphere, vegetation, animals, and then finally humans.

Regarding how God made humans, the Bible explains that God took some dust from the earth, or soil, formed it into a man, and then breathed life into this new creation. He settled this first man, named Adam (derived from the noun adamah [אדמה], meaning “soil” or “earth”), in the beautiful Garden of Eden. God gave Adam the task of caring for this garden, as well as for the animals there. Later, God put Adam into a deep sleep and formed a woman from one of Adam’s ribs.

The next chapter of Genesis, although not directly dealing with creation as such, explains why the world now is the way it is. It explains that Adam and Eve were incited to rebel against God by a serpent that spoke to them. They ate from a special tree that God had told them not to eat from. If they did, they would die. Because they then did eat from the tree, God expelled them from the Garden of Eden. They immediately became subject to aging and death.

The Sumerian Account of Creation

The Sumerian account of creation is generally very different from the story found in the Bible. The earliest known version is from a record called the Eridu Genesis. This record first describes the emergence of the universe out of a primeval sea and the birth of the gods.

Then, the gods create the first man out of clay from the ground. He is given the responsibility of cultivating the ground and care of the animals. He is also supposed to ensure that the gods receive the worship they deserve. After this, the Eridu Genesis describes the founding of the first cities and the emergence of kingship.

A later story, from Babylonian records, may also preserve the beliefs of the Sumerians. This story explains that the god Marduk fought against the goddess Tiamat. He tore her body in two, using one half to create the earth and the other half to create the sky.

The Sumerian Fall of Man

Another Sumerian record tells the story of a man named Adapa. He was not the first man, but he lived early in human history and his actions had consequences for the rest of humanity. Adapa was a wise man who guided humans when the first cities were founded. The god Ea, or Enki, gave him divine wisdom.

One day, a storm made Adapa angry, causing him to “break the wings of the south wind.” The god Anu calls him to account for this, but before he appears before the gods, Ea tells Adapa not to drink the food and water of life that will be offered him. When this food is offered, Adapa does indeed refuse them, but this turns out to be a mistake, leading to the rest of humanity becoming subject to disease and losing out on immortality.

Ancient artwork from Nineveh, possibly depicting Marduk fighting Tiamat.
Ancient artwork from Nineveh, possibly depicting Marduk fighting Tiamat. Credit: Public domain

Similarities Between the Biblical and Sumerian Creation Accounts

The accounts of creation from the Bible and from Sumerian records are fundamentally very different. However, they do have a few discernable similarities. For example, they both present land as emerging from a body of water.

Furthermore, they both describe the first man as being made from the clay, or soil, of the ground. This man, in both cases, is given the task of caring for the animals and their home among nature.

There are also some similarities between the story of Adam and Adapa. Although Adapa was not actually the first man in the Sumerian creation account, he lived very early in mankind’s history. Just like Adam’s actions, his actions result in mankind losing the opportunity to live forever. This then cause humans to become subject to disease. Furthermore, Adam’s error and Adapa’s error both involve food.

Even their names, ‘Adam’ and ‘Adapa,’ are similar. However, there does not appear to be any basis to the claim sometimes seen online that Adapa’s name was sometimes spelt ‘Adamu.’

Differences between the two accounts

There are, however, also many differences. One fundamental difference is that the Bible’s creation account is monotheistic, meaning that it involves only a single God. On the other hand, the Sumerian creation story is polytheistic, meaning that it involves multiple gods.

Furthermore, the gods involved in creation do not predate the primeval sea from which dry land emerges. In contrast, the Bible’s God definitely predates this primeval sea, along with ‘the heavens and the earth’ in their entirety.

Additionally, the Babylonian story of Marduk creating the earth and sky from the two halves of Tiamat’s body bears no relation whatsoever to the Bible. The wording in Genesis simply states that God made the dry land appear, and he made the ‘expanse’ (often mistranslated as ‘firmament’) between the waters below and the waters above. It does not explain how this was done, but since the account is completely monotheistic, it evidently did not involve the body of another deity.

In addition, the Sumerian creation account places the fall of man (through Adapa’s actions) after the first cities. In contrast, the Bible presents the reserve order.

Another interesting difference is that Adapa’s mistake was that he did not eat the special food that was presented to him. Conversely, when Eve presented Adam with the food from the special tree in the Garden of Eden, Adam’s mistake was that he did accept it.

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