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The Generations of the Heavens and of the Earth: Egyptian Deities in the
Garden of Eden
Presented at the annual meeting of the American Research Center in
Egypt, St. Louis 1996
“These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they
were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens
. . .” Gen. 2:4
The above quote from Gen. 2:4 introduces us to the story of Adam and
Eve in the Garden of Eden. Many biblical scholars believe that the next
few verses contain a slightly different version of Creation than that
contained earlier in Gen. 1. What is especially unusual is the reference
to the “generations of the heavens and the earth.” In the several other
instances when Genesis says “These are the generations of . . .”, it
refers to information about a parent and their children. This would imply
that Genesis 2 is about the Children of the Heavens and Earth, a
polytheistic throwback to an earlier cosmogony. But whose cosmogony?
This paper examines some of the verses and images associated with the
story of Adam and Eve and compares them with elements in the Heliopolitan
Creation myths. It will be suggested that Adam and Eve correspond in part
to Geb and Nut and in part to Osiris and Isis. Additionally, it will be
suggested that the three male sons of Adam and Eve—Cain, Abel and
Seth—correspond to the three male sons of Geb and Nut—Osiris, Seth, and
Although the main thrust of the paper will be on the Adam and Eve
story, the paper will also look at the first Genesis Creation account as
well as the story of Noah’s Flood, originally, perhaps, a third Creation
story, and suggest that the series of Creation stories in Genesis draws
upon the Theban doctrine of Creation in which Amen appears in a series of
forms representing the Memphite, Heliopolitan and Hermpopolitan
The paper will examine such common themes as the stirring of the
primeval waters, creation by word, the separation of heaven and earth,
the rising of a firmament between the heaven and earth, problems of
childbirth as a punishment for disobeying God, the bruising of the
serpent from the tree, the enmity between the child and the serpent, the
killing of a brother as an agricultural myth, the introduction of
civilization, the building of the first city, and the relationship
between the husband/brother and wife/sister with the serpent.
This paper attempts to introduce the idea that the biblical Creation
stories, from the dawn of Creation through Noah’s Flood, derive from
Egyptian cosmogony, more specifically, the Theban doctrine of Creation.
Thebes came late to the political scene in Egypt and its view of Creation
attempted to incorporate the ideas of Memphis, Heliopolis and Hermopolis
into a new cosmology that subordinated the chief deities of those cults
to Amen, chief deity of Thebes.
The Theban doctrine holds that in the beginning there was the great
primeval flood known as Nu or the Nun. The god Amen then appeared in a
series of forms, first as an Ogdoad, then as Tatenen (a Memphite name for
Ptah identified with the primeval hill), then as Atum, who created the
first gods, then as Re. After this he created humanity, organized the
Ennead, appointed the four male members of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad as his
divine fathers and priests, and appointed Shu as their leader. Another
Theban tradition holds that Osiris built the first city at Thebes.
To equate all these ideas with the biblical Creation stories would be a
massive undertaking, far beyond the scope of this short paper. Therefore
I will deal only with a small piece of this very large subject. In this
paper I will just compare some elements of the Heliopolitan cycle with
the biblical account of Adam and Eve and the second day of Creation.
My point of departure is Genesis 2:4-5, which serves as a preamble to the
story of Adam and Eve. Coming immediately after the account of the seven
days of Creation, the text reads as follows.
These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they
were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the
heavens, And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and
every herb of the field before it grew: for the LORD God had not caused
it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.
The phrase “generations of” appears eleven times in the Book of Genesis,
but in the other ten instances it refers to stories about members of a
family, such as in “the generations of Noah” or “the generations of
Jacob.” This indicates that the noun or nouns following after the words
“generations of” refer to a parent or parents. Genesis 2:4, therefore,
implies that “the heavens and the earth” are anthropomorphic beings with
children, and that what follows is about the family of these two
This formulation clearly implies a pagan throwback to the idea of Heaven
and Earth as deities, but biblical scholars, determined to preserve the
monotheistic view of biblical history, are reluctant to accept such an
interpretation. Instead, they wrench the phrase out of context and assert
that it simply means “things that are to follow” or “the history of.”
A second major difficulty with Gen. 2:4-5 is the time frame in question.
The passage indicates that the stories we are about to read take place
“in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,” and before
the appearance of plant life. When is that day?
Biblical scholars tell us that the preamble refers to stories that take
place after the seven days of Creation. But reading the passage literally
and in context, it quite explicitly states that the stories we are about
to read occurred on the day that God made the earth and the heavens and
before the appearance of plant life. That time frame is clearly defined
in the account of the seven days of Creation.
On the second day of Creation, a firmament arises out of the primeval
waters and separates the waters above from the waters below. The biblical
text says that the firmament came to be called “heaven.” On the third day
of Creation, the waters below gathered in one place to create the dry
land, which was then called “earth,” after which, plant life appeared. So
the preamble to the story of Adam and Eve places the upcoming stories in
the period between the division of the waters and the appearance of plant
life, in the middle of the third day of creation.
Biblical scholars, however, note an interesting problem with this
division between the second and third day. The second day is the only day
in the sequence that isn’t blessed by God. Instead, the third day
receives two blessings, one after dry land or Earth appears, and one
after the arrival of plant life. As many of these scholars have
recognized, the gathering of the waters to create dry land continues the
second day’s process of rearranging and dividing the primeval waters. For
this reason, they argue that the second day’s blessing is held off to the
middle of the third day because that is when the task of rearranging the
primeval waters is finished. I would propose instead that the biblical
redactor simply made an editing error, and the first half of Day Three
actually belongs with Day Two and the associated blessing belongs at the
end of Day Two. This would be consistent with the text of Genesis 2:4,
which says that heaven and earth were created on the same day.
To summarize briefly, so far: On the second day of Creation, god placed a
firmament in the primeval waters, separating the waters above from the
waters below. The firmament was called Heaven. Then he gathered the
waters below into a single place and created dry land. The dry land was
called Earth. The preamble to the story of Adam and Eve places the
starting point for the biblical stories on the second day of Creation,
before the appearance of plant life on Day Three.
The arrangement of events on Day Two seems to closely parallel the
Heliopolitan Creation myth. A great hill arose out of the primeval flood.
This hill would obviously constitute a form of firmament. In some
traditions that hill was Atum, the Heliopolitan Creator deity. In other
traditions, Atum appeared at the top of the hill.
Atum, through act of masturbatory sex, brought forth two deities, Shu and
Tefnut, representing “air” and “moisture”. These two deities gave birth
to the male deity Geb, who represented the earth, and the female deity
Nut, who represented the heavens.
Several Egyptian pictures portray Shu as lifting Nut into the air and
separating her from Geb. Sequentially, then, Atum appears as a firmament
in the middle of the Nun and creates Shu who ultimately separates heaven
and earth and symbolizes the space in between. Shu, therefore, becomes
the firmament between Heaven and Earth.
Consider now how Genesis says the waters were divided. First, the waters
above were divided from the waters below. Next, the waters below were
gathered into a single place. “The waters above” is an Egyptian concept
signifying the sky. We see it most clearly in images of the solar bark
sailing through the heavens. Although Genesis says the firmament was
called Heaven, I believe this was a late gloss by the biblical redactors.
The firmament stands below the waters above. It is the waters above that
would correspond to heaven. The firmament would be the space in between
heaven and earth, corresponding first to the primeval mountain and then
This brings us to the question of where in all the middle east would any
people have such a concept as all the waters gathering in a single place,
leaving fertile land behind in its retreat. The most logical location is
the Nile River in Egypt. The gathering of the waters in one place is the
primary Egyptian agricultural phenomenon. It derives from the annual
overflowing of the Nile, which fertilizes the land and then withdraws,
leaving the dry land in its place. For Egyptians, the Nile was the one
and only great water way. Even the Mediterranean Sea attaches to the
Elsewhere, throughout Canaan and Mesopotamia, there were numerous large
unconnected bodies of waters that were well known to the inhabitants of
those lands. They include the Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf, Reed Sea,
Dead Sea, The Jordan River, the Tigris and The Euphrates. It is unlikely
that the people of those lands would think of all these waters as
gathering in a single place.
Returning to Genesis 2:4-5, we are told that when dry land was formed, no
plant life existed because no man existed to till the ground. The next
Genesis verses in sequence tell us: a mist rose up to water the dry land,
God created “the Adam” out of the dust, (note that the bible says “the
Adam”, not “Adam”), then he planted a Garden and put “the Adam” in it.
Observe here 1) Adam appears before the plant life on Day Three and 2)
that woman has not yet appeared. This is contrary to the sequence in the
seven days of Creation, which places man and woman on the sixth day. Eve,
or “the woman”, which is how she is described until after the expulsion
from the Garden of Eden, appears later in the sequence, after plants and
after other animal life.
This arrangement strongly suggests that the man and woman created on Day
Six were other than Adam and Eve, who appear earlier. The confusion
arises from the fact that Adam and Eve originally represented
Heliopolitan deities, the most important of whom was named Atum, a name
virtually identical in pronunciation to the Semitic word “Adam”, which
was used to describe the human male. The later biblical redactors, unable
to conceive of Adam and Eve as deities, thought of them instead as the
first humans, and equated them with the man and woman created on Day Six,
who actually are the first humans in the Genesis Creation story.
Chronologically and contextually, we see that Genesis introduces Adam and
Eve as the anthropomorphic beings referred to in Genesis 2:4 as heaven
and earth, and since Adam is created out of the dust of the earth, we can
equate him with the Egyptian deity Geb or Earth and we can equate Eve
with the Egyptian deity Nut or heaven.
Eve enters the story, however, only after she is physically ripped from
the body of Adam. This separation of Adam (the earth) from Eve (the
Heaven) closely parallels the Egyptian account in which Shu physically
pulls Heaven from the Earth. It also incorporates the Heliopolitan idea
that a male and female deity were created from a single male deity.
There are some other interesting parallels between Geb and Nut and Adam
and Eve. According to Plutarch’s account of the Osiris myth, Re, the
chief deity, ordered Geb and Nut not to couple. They disobeyed his
injunction and were punished. Re ordered Shu to separate the two bodies
and declared that Nut would not be able to give birth on any day of the
year. Thoth, sympathetic to Nut’s plight, won some light from the Moon
and created five new days. Since these days were not yet part of the
year, Nut could give birth on these five days. She had five children, one
on each day, born in the following order: Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis and
Nephthys, the three males first and then two females. The Egyptians
memorialized this sequence in their calendar, which names the last five
days of the year after these five deities in the order of their births.
Because of the role of Geb and Nut in birthing these deities, they were
often known as the father and mother of the gods.
Observe the sequence of events: The chief deity gives a direct command to
Heaven and Earth. They violate the order and as a penalty the chief deity
makes child birth a difficult act for the female. Subsequently she gives
birth to three sons. As we know from other Egyptian myths, one of those
three sons, Set, kills one of the other sons, Osiris.
Genesis has a similar plot. God gives Adam and Eve (or Earth and Heaven)
a direct order. They disobey that order and one of the punishments
inflicted includes difficulties with child birth. Subsequently, Eve gives
birth to three named sons, Cain, Abel, and Seth, one of whom kills one of
the other brothers. Also, Eve is identified in the bible as the “mother
of all living”, an identification similar to Nut’s designation as mother
of the gods. So, as with Nut, Eve disobeys God, is punished with
difficulty in childbirth, has three male sons, one of whom kills one of
the others, and she is thought of as the first mother.
Interestingly, the Hebrew name Seth and the Egyptian name Set are
philologically identical and both children are born third in sequence.
However, as some will note, in the biblical sequence it is not Seth who
kills his brother. Instead, Cain does the killing. Cain, as the oldest
brother, should correspond to Osiris and his killing of another brother
is inconsistent with the Egyptian story. Why that occurs is too complex
an issue to be resolved in this paper and we will let it pass. However, a
little further below, we will see that Cain and Osiris share some other
Although Adam and Eve start out as Geb and Nut they also share some
aspects of Osiris and Isis. In this regard, we should observe that the
Egyptians recognized a deity known as Geb-Osiris who was thought to have
created the cosmic egg in Hermopolitan creation myths. Therefore, a
merging of Geb and Osiris into a single character involved with Creation
does not undermine the theme of this paper. However, I should observe
that I believe the biblical character of Adam initially corresponds to
the Egyptian god Atum and that Genesis incorporates within Adam all the
members of the Ennead. This is consistent with the Egyptian view of Atum,
who was also thought of as including within himself all the members of
The connection between Adam and Eve and Osiris and Isis is most apparent
in the story of the serpent and the forbidden fruit. Osiris, as ruler of
the afterlife, had to make two decisions with regards to the people who
appeared before him. First he had to decide if the person lived a moral
life; then he had to determine whether to grant that individual eternal
In Genesis, we learn that the Garden of Eden had two special trees. The
fruit of one gave knowledge of good and evil; the fruit of the other gave
eternal life. Thus, the ability of Adam to have control over the fruit of
these tree would give him the same status as Osiris, but the biblical
theology can not allow an Osiris to exist, so access to those fruits was
forbidden by the one true deity. The nature of this conflict is even
noted in the bible when God says to one of his angels, “Behold, the man
is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth
his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:”
I suppose almost everyone who reads the story of Adam and Eve has at one
time or another questioned why it was such a terrible thing for these two
people to learn about the difference between good and evil. I suggest
that to ask this question is to misunderstand what the story was really
about. The story was not about good and evil. It was about the need to
diminish the role of Osiris as a cult figure.
As a consequence of Adam and Eve eating the fruit, God administered some
punishments. We have already mentioned the problem of childbirth. In
addition, Adam lost his kingdom and was banished from the Garden. He
journeyed to a new land where he became a farmer who had to suffer hard
labor in order to produce food. As to the serpent who tricked Adam into
losing his kingdom, God declared that there should be enmity between the
woman and the serpent and between her seed and his seed. Furthermore, the
seed of the woman shall bruise the head of the serpent and the serpent
shall bruise the heel of the woman’s seed.
Again, these themes seem to be drawn from the Osiris cycle. In the Osiris
myth, especially as related by Plutarch, Osiris and Isis ruled in a
golden age. Osiris traveled far and wide teaching the people what he knew
and Isis ruled in his absence. But the god Set, whom the Egyptians
frequently identified with the serpent Apep, enemy of Re, conspired to
take the throne for himself. Through trickery, he trapped Osiris in a
chest, killed him, and hid the box away. Subsequently, Set hacked the
body into pieces and buried them around the land of Egypt. Isis, fearing
for the safety of Horus, her child, hid him away from Set. Still, Set
managed to sneak up on Horus, and in the form of a serpent bit at his
heel. But for the intervention of the gods, Horus would have died. When
Horus grew up he avenged his father’s murder and defeated Set in battle.
In Genesis, the Osiris role is shared between Adam and Cain. For
comparisons, we begin with the observation that the key scene in the
Garden of Eden involves a serpent in a tree trying to kill Adam by
tricking him into eating the forbidden fruit. The trick worked. Where
Adam was essentially a fertile agricultural deity in the Garden of Eden,
he has now been figuratively killed in that he now lives as a mortal and
he must sweat out agricultural growth. He no longer rules as king in a
Indeed, the bible implicitly recognizes that the serpent killed Adam. The
text explicitly says that if Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good
and Evil he would surely die. Since the serpent tricked Adam into
committing this life extinguishing act, he has, like Set, killed the
king. That Adam didn’t actually die in accord with the warning is no
doubt due to the confusion of identities in later times between Adam and
Eve and the first man and woman created on Day Six.
As to the serpent who tricked Adam, just as Set tricked Osiris, he and
Eve became enemies, just as Set and Isis became enemies. Also, just as
Set bit the heel of Horus, Genesis said that the serpent would bruise the
heel of Eve’s children. And just as Horus avenged Set by beating him in
battle, Genesis says that the seed of Eve will bruise the head of the
With regard to this last matter, let me call your attention to a
well-known Egyptian scene generally identified as “The Great Cat of
Heliopolis”. It shows a cat with a stick bruising the head of a serpent
who is sitting in a tree. Egyptologists usually identify the Cat as Re
and the serpent as Apep his enemy. Iconographically, while the Great Cat
scene no doubt derives from the conflict between Re and Apep, the image
portrayed seems remarkably consistent with the biblical story of Adam and
Eve. I suspect that if we replaced the Cat with a more human image of one
of the sun Gods, Re, Atum, or Horus, and left out the identifying words,
many persons unfamiliar with the origin of the picture might consider it
an illustration for the story of Adam and Eve.
As noted above Cain as the oldest of Eve’s three children should
correspond to Osiris, and many such correspondences exist. To begin with,
like Osiris, Cain is an agricultural figure associated with fruit
farming. Osiris wandered far and wide spreading his knowledge and
teachings. Cain also wandered far and wide spreading his knowledge and
teachings. In fact, Cain’s name is Semitic for “smith”, a craft figure,
and Cain’s descendants, according to Genesis, are the founders of all the
creative arts and sciences.
In Theban tradition, Osiris built Thebes, which was the first city.
According to Genesis, Cain also built the first city. He built it in a
land called Nod. Curiously, the bible refers to the city of Thebes by the
name “No”, a rather close philological fit with “Nod”.
Finally, although we noted the anomaly of having Cain, the Osiris
character, kill his brother instead of having the brother corresponding
to Set do the killing, we do note that in both the Egyptian and biblical
stories, we appear to have the story of the first murder and in each
instance the killer buries the body and hides it from view, in the hope
that no one will discover it.
In conclusion, I note that the bible places Israel’s formative years as a
cultural entity in Egypt, and its leading figures, Joseph and Moses, were
educated in Egypt’s traditions. What they new about the origins of the
world they learned in Egypt, and what they wrote about those origins
should surely have had an Egyptian influence.
Yet, while scholars are willing to admit all sorts of Semitic pagan
influences on early Hebrew historical beliefs, they treat the idea of
Egyptian influence as far too profane for intense examination. I hope in
this paper I have been able to at least raise some interest in more
closely examining the idea that Egyptian ideas greatly influenced the
writing of early biblical history.