Genesis and the Ancient Near East

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

This paper intends to achieve several outcomes. It firstly examines Gregory Mobley’s informative analysis of the creation narratives within the Ancient Near Eastern literature, with special reference to the Enuma Elish and its parallels to the biblical creation accounts. Ideas relating to Pentateuchal authorship, modern skepticism, and literary forms presented by George Coates, Claus Westermann, and John Van Seter will likewise be examined and contrasted. The paper will then conclude by considering the genre of myth with reference to the Incarnation Theology Model as presented by Peter Enns.

Summary of Mobley on the Enuma Elish and Divine Conflict in the Ancient World

Mobley examines the creation narratives within the Ancient Near Eastern literature. Here he not only includes the biblical story found in the book of Genesis but weighs heavily on the Babylonian story of the Enuma Elish. What these ancient stories have in common, explains Mobley, is that they both involve a divine battle (Mobey, 2012: 17). We shall examine the Enuma Elis in some more detail, in which the chief god Marduk slays the monster Tiamat.

Mobley discovered the commonality of divine battles within the ancient world. One such story, the Enuma Elish, inscribed in cuneiform script and Akkadian comes down to us on numerous clay tablets. From these one discovers the storm god, Marduk, and his conflict with Mother Ocean, of whom he subdues and defeats in battle. It was from Mother Ocean’s body parts that the world was created.

One learns that Mother Ocean is referred to as Tiamat, a monster personified with feminine characteristics (Mobley, 2012: 18). Tiamat is a symbol of primordial creation and the chaos that accompanied it. But Tiamat isn’t alone in her monstrous efforts as she has her own little gang of 11 monsters (1.134-46). These monsters are hideous creatures, usually consisting of a hybrid of feared beasts such as fish men, bull men, serpents, dragons, and monster snakes. Ultimately, Tiamat and here gang aren’t powerful enough to slay Marduk. Rather, it is Tiamat who meets a gruesome end as Marduk hurls a zephyr through her grisly mouth. Mercilessly, while Tiamat is vulnerable, Marduk shoots an arrow through her belly to finish her off (Mobley, 2012: 19). Subsequent to her defeat Tiamat’s gang flee, however, their efforts are thwarted as Marduk manages to capture and imprison them by binding them to his feet (5.72-73).

For the Babylonians, this narrative explains the origins of the physical universe (Mark, 2011). It not only explains why the world exists but why the world works, after all, the world does appear to obey some kind of order (Mobley, 2012: 18). Thanks to Tiamat’s iconic defeat, reality and the world has been stabilized, though an uneasiness persists (Mobley, 2012: 19). This uneasiness is because the world has been created from Tiamat’s body parts, a deliberate act on the author’s part. Mobley writes that “her body parts are used it suggests that something unstable lies beneath physical reality” (Mobley, 2012: 19). This uneasiness underlying reality is the perpetual danger of chaos that threatens to envelop the world. On this creation myth, such worries are warranted since the world is itself created from chaos. Chaos is the “raw material,” so to speak (Mobley, 2012: 19). Nonetheless, these fears strongly felt, watchmen were assigned to keep an eye on Tiamat (4.139-40) to see that she would never return as an attempt to keep chaos at bay (Beal, 2001: 17-18).

Mobley observes that much like with the Enuma Elish the biblical story has its own divine combat that took place at the beginning of time (Mobey, 2012: 17). This combat is between God and the dragon of chaos (referred to as Rahab or Leviathan), a conflict found in numerous texts of the Old Testament, notably within the Psalms (74:14, 16-17; 89:10-12), Isaiah 51:9, and Job 3. For the Israelites, it was common knowledge that God had already defeated this monster (Isa. 51:9). Mobley notes that there is no single narrative outlining this conflict, hence why it exists in bits and pieces. According to Professor Michael Fishbane there are no “full-scale narratives” of the divine combat myth in the Bible. Instead, what we find are “highly condensed epitomes and evocations of these events” (Fishbane, 2003: 64).

Moreover, Mobley, and others (Orlinsky, 1969; Enns, 2010), identifies similarities between the Bible’s divine combat myth with the Enuma Elish (Mobley, 2012: 20). For example, the “shadow” of Tiamat appears in Genesis. The difference, however, is that it doesn’t appear as a personified serpent, instead, the biblical story refers to it as “the abyss” (Hebrew “tehom”). In Genesis 1, dragons also make their appearances as they feature on day five of creation except, unlike with the Enuma Elish, “they are just another phylum within creation,” and are therefore not represented as enemies and foes of order (Mobley, 2012: 20). Claus Westermann concurs with Mobley, saying that the Enuma Elish and several Ancient Near Eastern texts bear “a striking resemblance to the biblical Creation and Flood stories” (Westermann, 1974: 8). Westermann, however, goes further than Mobley in terms of theological significance saying that such parallels, for Christianity specifically, have raised concerns for the inspiration of Scripture as they might seem to “renounce the unique importance of the biblical texts” (Westermann, 1974: 9). Westermann’s observation is a good one and it is also a question Christian scholars have grappled with (See Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation (2005); Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God (2011)).

Summarizing and Contrasting the Views of Coates, Van Seters, and Westermann.

George Coates urges readers to appreciate the Old Testament narratives as a literary art (Coates, 1983: 3). He emphasizes this because of the contemporary western tendency to favour historicity, “the real history” (Coates, 1983: 3), of the biblical texts instead of appreciating the texts themselves. Coates does not say that the historical reconstruction is unimportant, but rather that it needn’t always be one’s primary focus. For Coates, the real value of the biblical texts lies within the literary forms rather than attempts at historical reconstruction (Coates, 1983: 3). If this is the basis from which the reader works then objective history becomes largely irrelevant since one finds value in literary forms independent of whether or not they are historically accurate. By referring to a biblical text is a literary art, Coates means its artistic narrative depicting environments in symbolic and verbal form (Coates, 1983: 4). Many would find Coates’ idea refreshing in a contemporary setting that seems to emphasize objective history as the ultimate determinant of the value of historical texts. But value can lie elsewhere too, as Coates argues.

Like Mobley, Claus Westermann shows much interest in the Bible’s creation narrative. However, although Mobley hones in on the Enuma Elish and the parallels it shares with the biblical account, Westermann tends to focus more on the diversity of creation accounts within the Bible. He mentions the two accounts in Genesis that come down in two separate sources with the earliest of the two being P, the Priestly code from the 6th-5th centuries BC, and the older J source, the Yahwist source from the 10th-9th centuries BC (Westermann, 1974: 5-6). The earlier account found in Genesis 1:1-2:4a relates God’s creation of the world and then of man, whereas the later account of Genesis 2.4b-24 provides a fuller and more detailed account of the creation of man.

Similarly, he agrees with Coates that there is a western tendency to look to construct objective history around the biblical creation account, and that many have come to doubt the creation account and, in many cases, ridiculed it as primitive (Westermann, 1974: 2). Such skepticism stems from the influences of the Enlightenment and the development of the natural sciences which today is regarded as the “lord of the domain” (Westermann, 1974: 4). Nonetheless, many Christian thinkers, also presented with these challenges, have found this concern largely misplaced, although not unimportant.

Many have emphasized the need to view the biblical creation account in its ancient setting. Old Testament professor Peter Enns, a Christian scholar who has written on the relationship between science and religion, the Bible, and Christianity, explains that “the opening chapters of Genesis participate in a worldview that the earliest Israelites shared with their Mesopotamian neighbors” (Enns, 2015: 87). However, if the Bible’s ancient authors shared such a worldview then it might border on an intellectual arrogance to expect them to be consistent with modern ways of thinking. The creation narrative certainly precedes the advent of modern science by thousands of years. Enns says that the Genesis narratives, specifically the creation and flood accounts, were related and understood in a context that “was not a modern scientific one but an ancient mythic one,” and that that is the setting in which we need to understand it (Enns, 2015: 87). Westermann agrees on the misguided project of expecting the Genesis creation account to be scientifically accurate (Westermann, 1974: 12) though such a view remains in certain conservative Christian circles.

John Van Seters takes a different approach. He asks the question of how we are to make sense of the literary features found within the Pentateuch. Like Westermann, he believes that the Pentateuch comes to us in multiple sources as opposed to tradition that holds to single authorship (Van Seters, 1998: 7). Many scholars, upon close examination of the Pentateuch, have discovered instances in which additions are made to older narratives which sometimes appear to give them a new context or theme. Other times there are inconsistencies between narratives within close proximity, as Van Seters observes, such features “have led to the conclusion that more than one author is at work in the Pentateuch” (Van Seters, 1998: 7).

There are numerous hypotheses that historians hold concerning the authorship of the Pentateuch such as the Supplementary Hypothesis, Traditional-Historical Hypothesis, Fragmentary Hypothesis, and Documentary Hypothesis (Van Seters, 1998: 8). Although there is debate (Van Seters, 1998: 13), the Documentary Hypothesis remains the most popular and “most persistent explanation” for the literary features within the Pentateuch (Van Seters, 1998: 8), and identifies four sources: D, P, J, and E (McDermott, 2002: 21). There has been some revival around a few of the other hypotheses, with some scholars, like Van Seters himself, holding to a hybrid of them. Van Seters’ hypothesis agrees that there are multiple sources though he only holds to three of them (he removes E, the Elohist source) which means that there are only “three principal authors of the Pentateuch” (Van Seters, 1998: 14). What nearly every scholar agrees on, however, is that the Pentateuch was not authored by a single author.

On Myth and the Incarnational Theology Model

Myth, as a genre, seems somewhat illusive. But it is a genre, among many, that those wishing to take the Pentateuch seriously need to entertain. Coates, for example, identifies numerous literary genres within the Pentateuch including the saga, fable, tale, novella, history, report, myth, and the etiology (Coates, 1983: 5-10).

Myth, as Westermann notes, is often seen negatively due to the efforts of the influential 20th century New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann as well as the legacy of the Enlightenment. Thus, myth is widely seen to be something unhistorical and untrue, hence valueless (Westermann, 1974: 12). This is unfortunate for much value can be found within myth itself, its meaning, and its function (Westermann, 1974: 12). For the historian, myth is valuable because it provides insight into an ancient people’s self-understanding, their understanding of existence, and their self-expression (Westermann, 1974: 12-13).

On Coates’s view, however, myth is a narrative that takes place within a fantasy world and that is designed to account for reality within the real world by reference to the gods and their activities within the divine world (Coates, 1983: 10). Mobley’s examination of the Enuma Elish is a good example of this definition. The Enuma Elish is a narrative, a fantastical one nonetheless, with its battle between gods, that seeks to explain why the world exists and why it appears orderly.

Enns comes in at a different angle. He differs, although doesn’t necessarily disagree, with the explanation provided by Westerman and Coates, and argues that myth is “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” (Enns, 2015: 87). God, in his revelation, thus adopted the mythic categories through which the ancient Israelites thought. Enns defines this as the Incarnational Theology Model (Enns, 2010). Although it is not without its critics it is one that many have found appealing. The model holds that God, in his power, opted to descend to the ancient Israelites, and use what was in front of him such the mythic categories of the ancients. Enns parallels this to God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ, and urges us to be “thankful that God came to them just as he did more fully in Bethlehem many, many centuries later” (Enns, 2015: 56). It is precisely because God chooses to descend to our level, whether that is during the times of Moses or within first century Palestine, that demonstrates his love for his creatures and the world that he made.

Conclusion

This paper has examined several prominent voices while attempting to contrast them where possible. From Mobley we discovered the richness in Ancient Near Eastern texts, their creation myths, and the parallels they share with the biblical creation accounts. Coates, one discovers, values the biblical texts as literary art while, in agreement with Westermann, is also critical of the notion that the biblical texts only have value if they are historically accurate. John Van Seters presented his interesting hybrid theory that looks to take into account the literary features of the Pentateuch. Finally, Enns and Westermann provide some helpful insight on myth. Enns’ Incarnational Theology Model provides as a helpful means to understand myth, and how myth itself was a category through which God  provided his revelation.

References

Beal, T. 2001. Religions and Monsters. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bishop, J. 2015. Atheism’s Dilemma: Scientism (a refutation). Available:
https://jamesbishopblog.com/2015/11/24/atheisms-dilemma-scientism-a-refutation/ [29 July 2017]

Bishop, 2016. Scientism & the Epistemic Limitations of Science. Available:
https://jamesbishopblog.com/2016/04/22/scientism-the-epistemic-limitations-of-science/ [29 July 2017]

Coates, G. 1983. Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature.

Fishbane, M. 2003. Biblical myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mark, J. 2011. Enuma Elish – The Babylonian Epic of Creation. Available:
http://www.ancient.eu/article/225/ [29 July 2017]

McDermott, J. 2002. Reading the Pentateuch: a historical introduction. USA: Pauline Press.

Mobey, G. 2012. The Return of the Chaos Monsters: And Other Backstories of the Bible.

Orlinsky, H. 1969. Notes on the New JPS Translation of the Torah: Genesis 1:1-3

Enns, P. 2010. Genesis 1 and a Babylonian Creation Story. Available:
http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/genesis-1-and-a-babylonian-creation-story [29 July 2017]

Enns, P. 2010. Pete Enns on the Incarnational Model of Scripture. Available:
http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/pete-enns-on-the-incarnational-model-of-scripture [29 July 2017]

Enns, P. 2005. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Van Seters, J. 1998. The Pentateuch. In McKenzie, S & Graham, P. The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Westermann, C. 1974. Creation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

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2 responses to “Genesis and the Ancient Near East

  1. Pingback: Gedachte voor 2 januari 2018 – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven·

  2. Pingback: Why I No Longer Hold to Inerrancy & The Need For A New Model of Inspiration. | James Bishop's Theological Rationalism·

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