The Hebrew Bible begins, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1-2). Genesis presents a placid picture of God surveying the soon-to-be organized creation. Yet, as the biblical authors detailed God’s calm creative process, they had another (alternative) story in mind called the Enuma Elish: the creation according to Babylonian cosmology. Addressing people who were familiar with that story, the Biblical account of creation challenged the Babylonian account at its core.
The Babylonian creation story begins with a goddess of the watery depths named Tiamat. Eventually, the god Marduk kills Tiamat by splitting her in half and using one of her halves to create the expanse of the heavens. With the Babylonian creation story in mind, let’s revisit the biblical account which states, “darkness was over the face of the deep” and God hovered over the deep waters….
The word for “deep” in Hebrew is תהום (tehom), which is linguistically related to the Babylonian word for “Tiamat.” When the Israelites asserted that their God had control over the tehom (the deep), they declared that Israel’s God was stronger than Babylon’s goddess. While the Babylonians envisioned Tiamat as a ferocious water deity, the Israelites presented a creation story in which the fearsome Tiamat was simply the tehom — the deep waters which are nothing more than a part of a God-ordained created order. In other words, Babylon’s goddess is nothing more than a mundane force of nature in the hands of Israel’s God. Unlike Marduk, the God of Israel does not need half of the water-god Tiamat to create the expanse of the heavens. Rather, the God of the Bible creates by the power of his word: “Let there be an expanse (רקיע; raqia) in the midst of the waters (מים; mayim)… and God called the expanse the heavens” (Gen 1:6a, 1:8a).