The Biblical story of the creation of humans compares and contrasts with others from the Near East.
The Biblical story of the creation of men and women was influenced by other older myths from Babylonia and Egypt.
Two Stories of Creation
In Genesis there are two separate creation stories. The first account is to be found in Gen 1:1-2:3. This story focuses on the hierarchical organization of the universe. In the Hebrew text God is termed Elohim; because of this the Documentary Hypothesis identifies the writer as the “priestly source.” The second creation account is in Gen 2:4-3:24. This story focuses on folklore with a personified deity. Here God is called Yahweh and the Documentary Hypothesis identifies the writer as the “Jahwist source.”
Both of the Genesis creation stories are thought to have been written down around the period of the Babylonian Exile which was 586-537 BCE. During the exile period Hebrew scholars would have become acquainted with Babylonian Myth. Even if they chose not to be involved in the religion of the Babylonians myths like the Enuma Elish, which was read at the New Year Festival in Babylon, were parts of daily life.
Egyptian influence on the Genesis account is not as readily apparent as Babylonian influence but for over a thousand years Egypt was the dominant foreign power in Canaan. One of Egypt’s oldest cosmological myths comes from the city of Heliopolis. In this story the creator god Atum begins the universe by sneezing which brings about the birth of more gods. This sneeze is identified as the breath of life.
This giving of life through a “breath” compares with the creation of man as described in Genesis chapter 2.
but there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Gen: 2, 6-7)
Another aspect of creation in Chapter 2 is the inclusion of physical ingredients. In this case the mist that watered the earth allowing God to form man out of the “dust” is similar to Egyptian myths of the god Khnum who formed the bodies of men out of clay. This is also part of the method of creation described in the Atrahasis.
The Atrahasis and Enuma Elish
The Babylonian creation myths the Atrahasis and the Enuma Elish tell of the conflict among the gods which led to the creation of humans as servants.
The creation of man in Genesis Chapter 1 makes a point of mentioning that God created man and women together. This compares with the more detailed story in the Atrahasis that also specifically mentions man and women being created in pairs, seven of them to be exact, in the Babylonian version. The creation story of Genesis Chapter 2 is unique in the portrayal of the separate creation of men and women but the theme behind mankind’s creation is the same as in the Babylonian accounts.
As mentioned above the Atrahasis also mentions clay as a primordial building block in the making of humans. In the Enuma Elish and Atrahasis the blood of a slain god is mentioned as a key ingredient. The Atrahasis describes how clay was mixed with the “flesh and blood” of a dead god by the womb-goddess. Although blood is not mentioned in the Genesis account the name Adam stems from a Hebrew root which means to show blood (in the face) as in flush of the cheeks or; to be dyed, made red (ruddy).
The Garden of Eden
Although the Genesis story plays down mankind’s original purpose the notion that the Garden of Eden was a paradise is misplaced. The origin of the Hebrew word for garden is gan. This implies a fenced in area, in particular one that was fenced for security reasons. The purpose of humans in the garden is explained in Genesis 2, 15
And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
The use of the term to “dress and keep” comes from the Hebrew words `abad and shamar which would indicate someone placed in servitude or even slavery to attend their master, who in this case is God, the gardens owner. This is exactly the same lot described for humans in the Atrahasis and the Enuma Elish which tell in detail how the gods created mankind to be their servants.
The Rib as a Social Allegory
Another clue to the real-world nature the Garden of Eden comes in Chapter 2 verses 21-22
And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the place with flesh instead thereof. 22 And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from the man, made He a woman, and brought her unto the man.
In this case the Hebrew word for rib provides a possible allegory. The word tsela` can indeed indicate an actual rib-bone but it can also mean; “door, or side chamber.” Given the use of both “birth-chambers” and “women’s quarters” throughout the ancient Near East a plausible meaning for the story of Eve’s creation is revealed.
The allegory of the rib as both a chamber and a bone is clearly visible in the language of the Enuma Elish. When Marduk uses the parts of the slain Tiamat to build the universe he is said to have;
Opened up gates in both ribs [and] made strong bolts left to right. (Enuma Elish tablet V)
Eve being created from a rib could simply refer to the social custom dictating that when men got married they were supposed to provide a rib/chamber for their new wife. This custom can be seen throughout Near Eastern history in the female only quarters of some households called harems.