Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Comparative Study and Ancient Near Eastern Theology

The following is a research paper I wrote for my latest course, "The Bible in its World".

Introduction to Comparative Study

The advent of archaeological and cultural study of the ancient Near East (ANE) since the mid-nineteenth century has been a double-edged sword for Christian thought. The discovery through comparative study of extensive parallels between the Hebrew Old Testament and contemporary ANE cultures has led some to point to the similarities as evidence of the Bible's "merely human" status, while others emphasize the differences to defend its inspiration. In truth, these discoveries reveal many fascinating similarities and differences; in their differences they show how the Old Testament, though thoroughly situated in its cultural backdrop, steps beyond it to reveal a God who is simultaneously grander and more intimate than the gods of Israel's neighbors. But especially in their similarities they also carry implications for our hermeneutics which are worth considering.

The comparative study of ANE cultures began with the excavation of the library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal in ancient Ninevah, when thousands of clay tablets with writing were discovered. (Enns 23) Written in Akkadian (the language of ancient Assyria and Babylon), the tablets contained texts on law, economics, and history, as well as private letters (Enns 25), but of present interest were the religious writings. These writings were similar to parts of the Old Testament; they included a creation story and a flood story with some parallels with the corresponding accounts in Genesis. Since then, we have collected many more ancient Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian writings, which reveal a portrait of ANE religion that is at once quite different from and intriguingly similar to the religion presented in the Bible. Theology is almost everywhere in ANE literature because, unlike us, ancient people had no concept of a natural/supernatural divide. Rather, "every aspect of what we call the natural world was associated with some deity in the ancient Near East. The result is that the term 'natural world' would be meaningless or nonsensical to them. There was nothing about the world that was natural...everything was imbued with the supernatural (another artificial category)." (Walton1 97)

A Summary of Ancient Near Eastern Theological Writings

The deepest parallels with the Old Testament are found in Sumerian and, later, Akkadian literature, which is not too surprising since, as Enns rightly points out, the family of Abraham, the first Hebrew patriarch, was originally from Babylon and shared in the Babylonian religion (see Gen 11:26-32, Josh 24:2). (Enns 52-53) One of the most well-known and frequently-cited Akkadian writings is a creation story, Enuma Elish (the first line of the myth, which translates to "When on high..."), which is dated to the Old Babylonian period, the early second millennium B.C. (Pritchard 60) It opens with a scene of primordial chaos: "When on high the heaven had not been named/Firm ground below had not been called by name.../When no gods whatever had been brought into being/Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined..." Only Apsu, Mummu, and Tiamat, representing the intermingled primordial waters of chaos, exist, and they proceed to give birth to gods, who in turn give birth to more gods.

It is worth mentioning at this point that the gods were coterminous with entities or functions in the visible world, so besides a pantheon, the world was also being created and set in order. "The cosmic deities were manifest in that element of the cosmos with which they were associated, and had some jurisdiction there. ... Hence cosmogony (cosmic origin), cosmology, theogony, and theology are all inextricably intertwined." (Walton1 97)

At any rate, the primordial gods are annoyed by the noise and restlessness of their divine offspring and plot to destroy them. "With the birth of the gods from chaos, a new principle—movement, activity—has come into the world. The new beings contrast sharply with the forces of chaos that stand for rest and inactivity." (Frankfort 173) The new gods are alarmed when they hear of this, until the wise god Ea/Enki comes forward with a plan. Using a magic spell, he kills Apsu and traps Mummu with a string through his nose. Tiamat plans to retaliate against the gods with the forces of chaos and her second husband, Kingu. After Ea fails to defeat her, the gods convene and appoint Ea's son Marduk as their leader and champion; he defeats the forces of chaos, slays Tiamat, and splits the halves of her body into the sky and the earth. Following this, Marduk organizes the stars and calendar and, to ease the toilsome labor of the gods, creates mankind to serve them. The other gods honor Marduk and give him fifty names representing different aspects of his being.

Atrahasis, though much more fragmentary than Enuma Elish in its preservation, also shows numerous parallels with Genesis, or more specifically the flood narrative in Genesis 6-9. The myth begins "when the gods were humans", or when gods and men had not been separated. After separating humanity out in order to assist in their toilsome labor, the gods decide to wipe them out—not for their sins, but because they are becoming too numerous and noisy, preventing the gods from sleeping. They attempt to destroy mankind with a variety of means, and eventually a flood, but one man, titled Atrahasis ("Exceeding Wise") (Pritchard 104), hears of their plans and prays to Ea/Enki for deliverance. Ea instructs him to build an ark on which to bring his family and the animals, and so mankind is delivered.

There are quite a few older Sumerian myths, which involve many of the same gods as the Akkadian ones (and serve as their precursors). In Enki and Ninhursag, we are introduced to the paradise of Dilmun, which is introduced as being "pure" and "clean", along with further descriptions that seem to evoke Biblical parallels of the redeemed creation: "The lion kills not/The wolf snatches not the lamb..." (Pritchard 38) But here they actually express a problem: "animals and people were incognizant of how they were to function." (Walton1 45) So we also hear that "the raven utters no cries", "The dove droops not its head", "Its old man says 'I am not an old man'", and other incongruities that seem less positive. So Enki brings fresh water to the island to establish a city there. Enki proceeds to plant seeds and father more gods which are all given functions, including one who is to be the lord of Dilmun. Sumerian mythology also has The Deluge, another tale of a family being delivered through a flood on a boat, and several myths about the hero Gilgamesh, which are continued into Akkadian literature.

Egyptian mythology, though less similar to the Old Testament than that of Akkadia, could certainly have made a mark on it given the time the Israelites spent in Egypt. In contrast to Mesopotamian thought, which (its people dependent on the instability of the weather and two great rivers for survival) was more resigned in its attitudes toward the gods (Frankfort 127), Egypt was protected on all sides by sea and desert and lived off the reliable rhythms of the Nile and the sun.

This reliability gave rise to a civilization more impressed by human success, which was thought to carry over into the next life. "There was a youthful and self-reliant arrogance, because there had been no setbacks. Man was enough in himself. The gods? Yes, they were off there somewhere, and they had made this good world, to be sure; but the world was good because man was himself master, without need for the gods." (Frankfort 96) This was especially true in the Old Kingdom, the first age of Egyptian dominance, when the Pyramids were constructed. After its collapse swept away these values, two great changes came to Egyptian values: "a decline in the emphasis on position and material property as being the good of this life, with a corresponding shift of emphasis to proper social action as being the good." (Frankfort 106-106) People sought immortality through the mark they made in the world and on others, rather than an impressive monument. After the fall of the Middle Kingdom and the transition to the New Kingdom/Egyptian empire, the "good life" in Egypt became more communal, conforming to societal norms, fatalistic, and focused on the afterlife rather than this world.

The Egyptians, like the Mesopotamians, saw their civilization as a cosmic state, governed and ruled by the gods—especially the Pharaoh, "the land's representative among the gods". (Frankfort 64) They were the center of the universe, the norm against which all other peoples were judged. (Frankfort 37-38) Like the Mesopotamians, they saw their gods as humanlike and of the same basic substance as humans, just grander and more powerful. The most basic Egyptian creation myth had the self-created creator god Atum rising from the waters of chaos on a primeval hillock (which was evoked in the shape of the pyramids), from which he created the other gods representing the cosmos. Atum is also named as Re (the sun god) and Nun, the waters themselves, demonstrating how the divisions between gods were frequently fuzzy in Egyptian mythology.

One of the most interesting ANE creation accounts is found in the Memphite Theology. It dates to the beginning of Egyptian history, when they had made the capital of the upper and lower kingdoms at Memphis. This meant that Ptah, the god of Memphis, had become the ruling god, his city the center of the universe. Evoking the early creation story, Ptah is associated with Nun, the primordial waters from which Atum emerged; therefore, Ptah is the true progenitor of the other gods. What happens next is interesting: the heart and the tongue are presented as the instruments by which Ptah gave life to the other gods, and by controlling every other member of the body, they demonstrate that Ptah (as the creative agents heart and tongue) is still active "in everything that lives". (Pritchard 5) It's a surprisingly philosophical take on creation reminiscent of God speaking creation into being in Genesis, and also interesting in how it includes the earlier creation story.

Drawing Comparisons

It goes without saying that in many ways related to its religious thought Israel was quite different from, even unique among, its neighbors. One of the most obvious differences, which is frequently mentioned in comparative study on all levels, is Hebrew monotheism vs. the general rule of polytheism in the surrounding pagan nations. This difference ran deeper than simply believing in one or multiple deities; in ANE paganism, the whole phenomenal world was a multiply-personified "Thou"  rather than an "It", saturated with the divine. This was true for both the Egyptians (Frankfort 41) and the Mesopotamians (Frankfort 130). In contrast the Hebrews believed in a single God who created and ruled the whole world (Psa 24:1), but was not personified or contained in any part of it, and in fact the second commandment prohibited any physical representations of the Lord. The first two chapters of Amos show how, unlike pagan deities who ruled over individual cities in piecemeal fashion, the Lord exercised His will and passed judgment over all peoples (even those who were thought to be under other gods). "The 'national god' concept is for Israel broken and discarded." (Frankfort 226)

But at the same time, this difference shouldn't be overstated. A few times in the Old Testament a "divine council" is mentioned (see Psalms 29, 82, 89). In 1 Kings 22 we see the council in deliberation, and it may also be the "we" of Isaiah 6:8 or Genesis 1:26; 3:22; 11:7. This council is likely related to the divine assembly by which, the Mesopotamians believed, the gods governed the universe similarly to how they governed their city-states. "The general assembly in the cosmic state was therefore an assembly of gods. ...the highest authority in the universe. (Frankfort 136)

Of course the parallel is not exact—God is clearly supreme in His council, and in Genesis He enacts its decisions personally—but in light of the implication in Isaiah 40:14 that God consulted no one in the creation, this concept of the divine council, or "monotheism lite", seems like an idea that was not revealed to Israel but brought into their religion as background knowledge and slowly abandoned, or at least modified. "The thinking about it is adjusted in the Bible so that it is in line with the revelation about the nature of God." (Walton1 95) In other words, for God's purposes of revelation it doesn't seem as important for God to make clear whether or not He keeps a divine council as it is for Him to teach about Himself by taking the Israelites' preexisting idea of a divine assembly and teaching about Himself by modifying it. This is a pattern that we will see in other parallels.

Perhaps even more significant than the difference in the number of deities between Israel and its peers was the difference in the nature of deity. This was perhaps its biggest break from its ANE background, which saw the gods as humanlike. "The Egyptian gods were very human, with human weaknesses and varying moods." (Frankfort 67) They displayed inconsistencies in personality and function; they had limitations; they could suffer injury and die. The Mesopotamians took this even further; "the gods not infrequently run up against their own established ordinances" (von Soden 185), so that one god would face the judgment of the divine assembly (which coincided with the god's city being destroyed). The gods had a second home in the temples, where their effigies ate like normal humans (fed by the priests). (von Soden 188) People could take on the identities of the gods to reenact cosmic drama. (Frankfort 199-200) And the gods were essentially consubstantial with their functions in the phenomenal world, where they labored to carry out their assigned functions (me) in the sustenance of the universe. In Atrahasis, the gods created humans to relieve them of the toilsome work involved with keeping the cosmos running.

The contrasts with the God of the Old Testament here are obvious. The Lord is transcendent, ruling the created world but not truly residing in it (though His presence was believed to dwell especially in the Most Holy Place). In Genesis 1, no mention is made of God's origin, and He creates with a word rather than procreation or any other physical means, a process which is only echoed in the Memphite theology. Whereas Egyptian thought saw humans and deities as being consubstantial, different only by degree, the Lord made clear that He was utterly unlike His people: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isa 55:8-9 ESV) Again, "All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?" (Isa 40:17-18) The pagan gods of the ANE were viewed as preeminent within the world, but the Lord was viewed as preeminent above the world.

Besides being singular and transcendent, one other group of differences I see regarding the beliefs of Israel and its ancient neighbors regarded how God (or the gods) was thought to interact with His people. Throughout the Old Testament God is shown taking initiative and speaking to people, either directly or later through prophets. Here was a God who clearly had a will and a plan for people, and who was quite upfront in communicating to them when He wanted. "For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?" (Deu 4:7) Other ANE gods were thought to be capricious, their wills mysterious and largely unknowable, except in part, through various means of divination (which is expressly proscribed in the Mosaic law—see Lev 19:26,31; Deu 18:10-12). Jacobsen records an interesting case about a Mesopotamian king who painstakingly figured out whether and how to build a temple to his god via dream interpretation and the consultation of multiple gods. (Frankfort 189-190)

Besides the contrasts in the nature of divine revelation, the content also tended to be different. Prophecy in the ANE served to legitimize the reign of the king or advise him; "in contrast to Israel ethical demands were scarcely uttered in the form of threatening speeches." (von Soden 196) For example, Enuma Elish, in the form we have it today, appears to have had the character of Enlil changed to Marduk, the god of Babylon, to explain Babylon's rise as the capital of the empire. Similarly in Egypt, myths served to explain or legitimize the way things were. Hebrew prophecy was often more anti-establishment because the establishment (the monarchy or temple worship) was part of the problem. You simply don't see anything like the prophetic polemics—God warning and accusing His people—of the OT in other ANE literature. More generally, there is little sense of an ongoing cosmic story or of the gods having a larger "plan" for their people; people simply sought the favor of the gods to uphold the cosmic order and avoid or mollify their immediate displeasure.

But to dwell on these similarities too long would be to give an impression that I want to avoid, that the Old Testament is quite different than contemporary literature, and this because of its divine inspiration. Many surface-level differences between Israel and its neighbors are based on deeper similarities, ways that they "breathe the same air" (Enns 27). I will describe a few of them more shortly:
  • Cosmology. Israel and its peers all held roughly the same view of the layout of the cosmos, which was as standard then as the Big Bang Theory is today. As Walton explains, this view was based on simple observation and reasoning, from which ancient peoples got the idea of the earth being a flat disc, the sky being a solid dome to hold up rain water, mountains at the edge of the world holding up the dome, water under the earth with pillars supporting the solid land, and so on. (Walton2 27-28) This same cosmos is depicted in Biblical language that we usually consider "poetic" or "phenomenological" but is in fact more literal, like Gen 7:11, Job 38:4-38, or Amos 9:6.
  • Functional ontology. This is one of the biggest ways in which the thinking of ANE peoples differed from ours. As modern people, we think with a material ontology—"the belief that something exists by virtue of its physical properties and its ability to be experienced by the senses." (Walton2 22) So when we read that "God created the heavens and the earth", for instance, we think about this creation in material terms, which makes it hard for us to understand how ancient people thought about existence in a different, functional way. "In the ancient world something came into existence when is was separated out in a distinct entity, given a function, and given a name." (Walton1 88) We see this quite clearly, among many places, in the beginnings of Enuma Elish or Enki and Ninhursag, which describe the pre-creation state as unnamed and nonfunctional. Likewise, in Genesis we don't see God creating things ex nihilo (as is commonly supposed) so much as separating light from dark, water from water, water from earth, and then giving these things names and functions.
  • Afterlife. The Ancient Hebrews had much less of a developed view of what lay after death than the later second temple Jews, and the view they did have was most similar to that of their eastern neighbors. Mesopotamians saw the underworld as a "shadow existence" (von Soden 201); one could only live on through his or her children, or perhaps through deeds performed in life. Likewise the Hebrew concept of Sheol, somewhat equivalent with "death" or "the grave", was thought to be under the earth (Amos 9:2), a place of decay (Isa 14:9-11) and forgetfulness (Psa 6:5) where people are separated from God after death. Particularly, it is at least heavily implied to be the destination of everyone (Ecc 3:20), not just the wicked, as in Mesopotamia; there is no concept of a final judgment or a separate destination for the righteous.
  • "The good life" as a reward for obedience. "In [Mesopotamia,] a civilization that sees the whole universe as a state, obedience must necessarily stand out as a prime virtue." (Frankfort 202) Man was created to be the servant of the gods, and if he is a good servant, he will be rewarded like any other, with "earthly success...the highest values in Mesopotamian life: health and long life, honored standing in the community, many sons, wealth." (Frankfort 205) Similarly, at the end of the reiteration of the Mosaic covenant in Deuteronomy 27-28 and 30, the Lord's blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience are (extensively) spelled out in largely material terms (see especially 28:3-6,16-19). If there is no otherworldly reward to look forward to, then it stands to reason that any rewards for obedience will have to be given in this lifetime.
  • The righteous sufferer. But, of course, this formula does not always hold. The author of Ecclesiastes describes the all-too-common situation: "There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing." (7:15) Or, as it is more recently asked, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Of course the Old Testament has the book of Job which addresses this question in detail through extensive dialogues, ending with Job humbly submitting to God's will after being shown the lord's majesty and his own smallness. The Mesopotamian work whose title is translated "I will praise the lord of wisdom" (that is, Marduk) portrays essentially the same situation, and comes to a similar conclusion: "The ways of the gods may seem inexplicable to man, but that is because man lacks the deeper understanding which actuates the gods. And though man may be plunged into the deepest despair, the gods do not abandon him; he shall and must trust to [sic] their mercy and goodness." (Frankfort 216)
One other similarity which I have found especially thought-provoking is the often-cited problem of "divine violence". The warfare against the native Canaanites, which often seems to border on genocide (see Josh 10-11) is clearly stated to be by divine order (see Josh 9:24). There are plenty of examples of this elsewhere in the Bible, such as the tenth plague in Egypt (Exo 11:1-12:30), the celebrated destruction of Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea (Exo 14-15), Jael's slaying of Sisera in Judges 4, which earned her the title "most blessed of women" (5:24), or the imprecation against the Babylonians in Psalm 137:9: "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!"

This portrayal clashes not just with our modern sensibilities, but also with the depiction of God we see through Jesus, who explicitly tells us to be peacemakers (Matt 5:9), to love our enemies and not to resist the evildoer (Matt 5:38-48), and that "all who take the sword will perish by the sword." (Matt 26:52) And yet "whoever has seen me has seen the Father"! (Jhn 14:9) In the New Testament, God seems much less tribalistic and more interested in other nations, beyond simply using Israel to punish them, so that John sees "a great multitude...from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (Rev 7:9) in his vision of the coming kingdom. This revelation of God as interested in every nation doesn't seem to have really gotten into peoples' heads in the Old Testament, or indeed until after Christ (see the amazement in Acts 11:18).

This tension is only increased as we realize how Israel was resembling its Mesopotamian neighbors (though told not to follow their abominable practices, Deu 18:9-14), who had a "tendency to view what was, in purely human terms, a naked conflict of force as a legal procedure in the state of the gods, as an execution of a divine verdict". (Frankfort 195) For example, in the Moabite inscription, the Moabite king Mesha (see 2 Kgs 3:4) describes how his god Chemosh told him to take Nebo from Israel, mentioning how Chemosh "drove [the king of Israel] out before me" (Pritchard 320). (See Deu 11:23)

Applications of Comparative Study

What kind of implications can we draw from this comparative study? I can count at least three, two helpful and one more difficult (or, at least, thought-provoking). Says Enns, "a contemporary evangelical doctrine of Scripture must account for the Old Testament as an ancient Near Eastern phenomenon by going beyond the mere observation of that fact to allowing that fact to affect how we think about Scripture." (Enns 67) I hope to begin to do this in the remainder of this paper.

First, to state the obvious, comparative study can be a great aid to exegesis for those who believe the true meaning of Scripture is found in the "literal" sense: the meaning the author intended to convey to his original audience. Our different modern context can lead us to read Biblical texts in ways that may seem straightforward or "commonsense" to us, yet bear little resemblance to the authorial intent. Simply translating the text from one language to another is not enough; the challenge of hermeneutics is to translate the context from one culture to another. Comparative study has the potential to reshape how we read the creation and flood stories in Genesis, the Mosaic law, books of history, and more. (Chapter 2 of Inspiration and Incarnation addresses this opportunity in detail)

Second, on a more holistic level, comparative study helps us to glimpse the human side of Scripture, which is easily forgotten in a strictly modern context, swept away in claims about "divine inspiration". This is the most helpful point I've read from Peter Enns: the Bible is both divinely inspired and thoroughly human, like Jesus; "Christ's incarnation is analogous to Scripture's 'incarnation'." (Enns 18) The Bible's human nature doesn't threaten or lessen its inspiration any more than Jesus' divinity was diminished by His putting on flesh. Enns calls this the "incarnational analogy". Reading the Bible incarnationally means seeing it as inspired truth situated in a particular time, place, and culture, all of which shape the way this truth is expressed or simply meant.

Third, the apparent contradictions or intrabiblical diversity in some of the areas compared (especially regarding the "divine council", afterlife, definition of "the good life" and divine violence) should raise questions about how we read Scripture. Does God really consult a council of divine beings? Do people go to Sheol, heaven, or somewhere else when they die? The Bible doesn't seem to give a single answer on these and other questions as we might expect. But by looking below the surface of diverse biblical texts to find what was meant to their original audiences rather than what was simply said, we gain clues to fitting them into the great story that God has told in the world, and continues to tell.

The comparative study of the Old Testament and contemporary ANE nations has spurred considerable change in how even more conservative Christians read their Bibles, and it will probably continue to do so well into the future. It has been something of a Pandora's box, at once enlightening and challenging us by showing us how Israel's understanding of its God was (and was not) different from its neighbors. This comparison, while not threatening the inspiration of Scripture, forces us to think about how it is inspired. And it is a mirror, showing us our own modern preunderstandings by contrast with those of the Biblical authors. This is a paradox of the Christian life I have been realizing: we have been blessed to know the Truth, yet in this life we are constantly questioning the nature of the truth we think we know. Our knowledge of biblical truth is truly knowledge only if it leads us to greater knowledge and love of our God. The apostle couldn't have said it better: "If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God." (1 Cor 8:2-3)

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