The Lost World of Genesis One-Session 13

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I want to take a little Sidebar today and talk about how we should think about Israel and it’s neighbors. We have talked a lot about how the culture of the ANE played role for Israel an the development of Judaism and Christianity. And from the discussions we have had thus far the logical question that gets raised is, “aren’t you saying that Israel in effect is borrowing it’s religion from it’s neighbors. The answer as with most things in life is more nuanced. In issues like this it not ONLY about what we read in the Bible. But how we read it.

Cultural Dimension of Language and Literature

When I first began teaching in the early 1980s, I could refer in passing to “the incident at Kent State” and feel assured that students would know what I was talking about. By the 1990s that was no longer the case. As another example, I can still refer to the “Berlin Wall” or to the “Iron Curtain” and assume that students need no further explanation. Within a decade, that may no longer be true. Effective communication requires a body of agreed-upon words, terms, and ideas.
Since communication requires a common ground of understanding, both speaker and audience must do what they can to enter that common ground. For the speaker this often requires accommodation to the audience. One uses words (representing ideas) that the audience will understand, thus, by definition, accommodating to the target audience.
When that common core of understanding exists, the author will not bother to explain him- or herself to the understanding audience against the chance that an uninformed person might be listening. This is where the work of the audience comes in if they are not native to the language/culture matrix, because reaching this common ground may require seeking out additional information or explanation. If someone outside the language/culture matrix wants to take advantage of information that is communicated within the language/culture matrix, cultural education is required—the individual has to adapt to the unfamiliar language/culture matrix.
For example, twice every year in most of the United States and in many other places around the world we encounter the phenomenon known as “daylight savings time.” If someone from another culture came to the United States and heard the phrase “daylight savings time,” no study of the individual words would alert them to its meaning. They would need information that would enable them to adapt to the culture. These are issues that go beyond language to culture. In the same way, if we are going to comprehend communication that took place between members of an ancient culture, we are going to have to adjust our thinking to be able to sit in the circle of communication with the ancient audience. The Bible has plenty of examples like “Iron Curtain” and “daylight savings time” that are not explained, and we do not intrinsically understand. But in many cases the key to understanding can be found in other ancient Near Eastern literature.
When we study an ancient text, we cannot make words mean whatever we want them to, or assume that they meant the same to the ancient audience that they do to a modern audience. Language itself is a cultural convention, and since the Bible and other ancient documents use language to communicate, they are bound to a culture. As interpreters, then, we must adapt to the language/culture matrix of the ancient world as we study the Old Testament. But as P. Michalowski has pointed out, “It is one thing to state banalities about ‘the Other,’ or about the inapplicability of western concepts to non-western modes of thought; it is something quite different actually to step outside one’s frame of reference and attempt a proper analysis.”
This awareness of the integration of language and culture (and ultimately, worldview) moves us well beyond the sorts of research that were alluded to at the beginning of this chapter. Here we are no longer talking about trying to figure out whose religion is better, who was more ethical, who copied what literature from whom, or what should be considered Scripture and what should not. Methodology need not be tailored to detect literary borrowing or govern polemical agendas. When comparative studies are done at the cognitive environment level, trying to understand how people thought about themselves and their world, a broader methodology can be used. For instance, when literary pieces are compared to consider the question of dependency, the burden of proof is appropriately on the researcher to consider the issues of propinquity and transmission—that is, would the peoples involved have come into contact with one another’s literature, and is there a mechanism to transmit said literature from one culture to the other? Literary questions of genre, structure, and context would all be investigated as well as geographical, chronological, and ethnic dimensions. When considering larger cultural concepts or worldviews, however, such demands would not be as stringent, though they could not be ignored altogether. When we see evidence in the biblical text of a three-tiered cosmos, we have only to ask, Does the concept of a three-tiered cosmos exist in the ancient Near East? Once it is ascertained that it does, our task becomes to try to identify how Israel’s perception of the cosmos might have been the same or different from what we find elsewhere. We need not figure out how Israel would have gotten such a concept or from whom they would have “borrowed” it. Borrowing is not the issue, so methodology does not have to address that. Likewise this need not concern whose ideas are derivative. There is simply common ground across the cognitive environment of the cultures of the ancient world.
There is a great distance between borrowing from a particular piece of literature and resonating with the larger culture that has itself been influenced by its literatures. As a modern example, when Americans speak of the philosophy of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” they are resonating with an idea that has penetrated society rather than borrowing from the writings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who is traditionally identified with promoting that approach to life. Historically the philosophy of Epicurus has seeped into the culture and can therefore be reflected in statements today. The demands of propinquity would be considerably relaxed. A cultural trail will not be as definable as a literary trail, nor will the tracking require the same criteria.[1]

Scope of Comparative Study

As we continue to think on the level of the common cognitive environment, we will have reason to expand the focus of our comparative studies. The scholarly interest in comparative studies had formerly focused on either individual features (e.g., flood accounts from both the Bible and the ancient Near East feature birds sent out from an ark) or the literary preservation of traditions (e.g., creation accounts, vassal treaties), and many studies have been conducted with either apologetics (from confessional circles) or polemics (against confessional traditions) in mind. Those interested in the interpretation of the text have only more recently begun to recognize in addition the importance of comparative studies that focus on conceptual issues conducted with illumination of the cultural dynamics and worldview behind the text in mind.
Comparative research in the Biblical field has often become a kind of “parallel hunting.” Once it has been established that a certain biblical expression or custom has a parallel outside the Bible, the whole problem is regarded as solved. It is not asked, whether or not the extra-Biblical element has the same place in life, the same function in the context of its own culture. The first question that should be asked in comparative research is that of the Sitz im Leben (In Biblical criticism, Sitz im Leben is a German phrase roughly translating to "setting in life". It stands for the alleged context in which a text, or object, has been created, and its function and purpose at that time.)and the meaning of the extra-Biblical parallel adduced. It is not until this has been established that the parallel can be utilized to elucidate a Biblical fact.
Items for comparative research can be divided into three categories: individual elements, worldview concepts, and literary preservation. In addition, rather than simply talking about similarities and differences, we may now create a spectrum to define the varieties of differences and similarities to classify nuances of relationship more precisely. This is represented on figure 1. Each bullet point identifies a level of relationship between the Old Testament and the ancient Near East. Examples in any of the three categories listed above may be found in each of these seven levels of relationship.[2]

Principles of Comparative Study

Ten important principles must be kept in mind when doing comparative studies:
1. Both similarities and differences must be considered.
2. Similarities may suggest a common cultural heritage or cognitive environment rather than borrowing.
3. It is not uncommon to find similarities at the surface but differences at the conceptual level and vice versa.
4. All elements must be understood in their own context as accurately as possible before cross-cultural comparisons are made (i.e., careful background study must precede comparative study).
5. Proximity in time, geography, and spheres of cultural contact all increase the possibility of interaction leading to influence.
6. A case for literary borrowing requires identification of likely channels of transmission.
7. The significance of differences between two pieces of literature is minimized if the works are not the same genre.
8. Similar functions may be performed by different genres in different cultures.
9. When literary or cultural elements are borrowed they may in turn be transformed into something quite different by those who borrowed them.
10. A single culture will rarely be monolithic, either in a contemporary cross-section or in consideration of a passage of time.[1]

Divine Assembly

All of the cultures around Israel were polytheistic. This fact has many ramifications, some of which have already been addressed and others are still to be unveiled. Beyond the blunt fact, however, is the need to nuance that polytheism carefully. Rather than doing this by reference to the brief “monotheistic moments” (e.g., 14th-century Egypt under Akhenaten) or the inclination to aggregate divine identities to one deity in the rhetoric of praise literature, we can do so by recognizing the vestiges of a monotheistic core in the sense that the gods are traced back to one in the cosmogonies. This primordial, singular, divine entity is not represented in the head of the pantheon, and indeed is largely inactive. Jan Assmann suggests that it is the very inactivity and distance of this deity that eventuates in the need to recognize active gods that in turn become the gods who control the destinies of the human world. To the extent that this is true, polytheism would be a secondary construct, though it dominates the religious environment of the ancient Near East. Since their ontology was function oriented, a god who does not function or act fades into virtual nonexistence.

Comparative Exploration: Yahweh’s Council

In the Old Testament, as we would expect, Yahweh is the sole authority responsible for carrying out those functions. Isaiah 40:14 insists that Yahweh has no need of consultation, yet the council has not totally disappeared. It is no longer made up of gods, and its members are delegated the tasks of carrying out the decisions of the council rather than being delegated any actual authority or jurisdiction (see discussion of Decalogue on p. 156). Nevertheless, the council, under Yahweh’s command, addresses the same kinds of issues as listed above.
The concerns of the assembly are like that of the divine assembly in Mesopotamian religion: upholding the moral and legal order of society, deciding about victory and defeat in war and politics, electing and deposing kings, controlling and shaping history.
Unlike the Mesopotamian council made up of the great gods, the Israelite council, similar to that of Ugarit, is made up of lesser beings. Besides the Psalms that allude to the divine council (e.g., Pss. 29, 82, 89), it appears in several other genres. In 1 Kings 22 the council appears in the vision of the prophet Micaiah. The council is deliberating about a strategy for dealing with Ahab, and the result is that a spirit is sent to deceive his prophets. In Isaiah 6 the presence of the council is indicated by the use of the first person plural (“Whom shall we send and who will go for us?”), and it is possible that the seraphim are connected in some way to the council, either as attendants or as members. As in 1 Kings 22, the council is seeking a messenger to send. The book of Job opens with a council scene as the “sons of God” (an occasional label for the council members) have gathered and are being debriefed. The adversary (Heb. satan) comes, apparently as one of their number, and the plot begins to unfold. Finally, it is common to see the council as providing a contextual understanding of the plurals in the early chapters of Genesis (Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7). It should be noted, however, that though these Genesis passages suggest deliberation, there is no distribution of power to the council members—Yahweh is the one who carries out the tasks. In contrast, the spirit in 1 Kings 22, the adversary in Job 1–2, and the prophet in Isaiah 6 are all sent from the council with a mission to accomplish.
From the Old Testament itself, it would be clear that the Israelites thought in terms of a divine council (at least 1 Kings 22 is clear). The information from the ancient Near East has provided much more information concerning how the council was believed to operate in the ancient world, and based on that information we can understand the Israelite worldview more clearly. In addition it is now possible to make sense of some passages that had previously been opaque. Without an informed understanding of the divine council it had become commonplace for interpreters to read the Trinity, or at least plurality in the godhead, into the plurals in Genesis, though most did not hesitate to admit the unlikelihood that the Israelites would have understood the text in those terms.
Even as we have come to understand the Old Testament better in light of the ancient worldview, we are able to see sharp contrast in the way that the concept of the council has evolved to suit the theology of Israel. This is an example of what is found many times throughout the Old Testament. Confessional scholars would not think in terms of God revealing the concept of a divine council to Israel. It is just there in the background, not necessarily borrowed from the broader culture, but simply a part of how people thought in the ancient world. Nevertheless, the thinking about it is adjusted in the Bible so that it is in line with revelation about the nature of God.[1]

The Role of Prayer and Piety

In biblical texts piety is more related to the nephesh (“soul, self”) than to the leb (“heart”). The Hebrew usage of nephesh is paralleled by the semantic range of the cognates found in Akkadian (napištu) and Ugaritic (npš). In neither of those literatures, however, is it well established as an anthropological term such as can be found in Hebrew. The LXX often translates nephesh with psychē, but studies have indicated that it is likely following pre-Platonic use of the noun, which is remarkably close to the Hebrew usage of nephesh.
Perhaps among the most familiar expressions of piety in the Old Testament are the Psalms that speak of the nephesh thirsting or longing for God (Pss. 42:2; 63:2; 119:20, 81; 143:6; cf. Isa. 26:8). H. Seebass concludes that these are expressions of “life” longing for Yahweh, who is the source of life. Just as we spoke previously of the need of connectiveness to society, in Israel there is a need of vibrant connectiveness to God.48 “A person does not have a vital self but is a vital self.” Human vitality finds its source in God.50 This vitality remains something that is exterior rather than interior, but at the same time offers a dimension not observable in the ancient Near East.[2]
In the ancient world, Israel included, piety was expressed by outward acts more than by inner feelings of devotion, awe, or adoration. It was not so much an inner attitude of spirituality, but an exterior expression of oneself in acts that reflected the religious values of the culture. For the ancient Near East these were typically social, public acts. Additionally in Israel we find evidence of their need to be connected to the vitality of life from God. This understanding of religious duty may offer alternative interpretations of some biblical passages. Just as we should avoid imposing our ontology and cosmology on Israel, we should also avoid imposing our anthropology on them and their texts. This is not a matter of Israel “borrowing” from their neighbors, but a reflection of concepts that Israel held in common with the world around them.[3]

Compilations of Proverbs (Mesopotamia)

Compilations of proverbial sayings are known already among the Sumerians at the close of the third millennium BC and continue into the first millennium. Most of these are formulated as aphorisms rather than the second person direct address of the Egyptian instructions (“Marrying is human. Getting children is divine”33). In this way the proverbs convey principles more explicitly than the treatises do.
One of the principles that shows up often in the ancient Near East as well as in Israel, explicitly as well as implicitly, regarding both how God acts and how society works, is the idea of just retribution. Speaking of the conceptual universe of ancient Egypt, Assmann says: “Justice is what holds the world together, and it does so by connecting consequences with deeds. This is what makes it ‘connective.’ Justice links human action to human destiny and welds individuals into a community.… When connective justice stops functioning, when evil goes unpunished and good no longer prospers, then the world is ‘out of joint.’ ” In this way we move from wisdom sayings that guide society toward order to literature dealing with the concept of retribution that confronts the all too common experience of disorder.

Comparative Exploration: Israelite Proverbs: What Is Their Debt to the Ancient Near East?

As always, the issue does not concern literary borrowing but the commonalities and distinctions in the cognitive environment. Literature, in theory, can be borrowed or adapted at a variety of levels; cognitive environment is shared and can result in similarities in literature that are simply the outgrowth of that common cognitive environment, perhaps stimulated by occasional, vague, or indirect exposure to foreign literature. Our ability to measure literary debt is so limited as to make such speculation hazardous if not presumptuous. Nevertheless, we need not be in denial that some literature may have been more directly influenced by other literature and therefore retain a greater resemblance.
The Israelite sages of old, from Solomon through the postexilic period, had certainly imbibed of the wisdom tradition in the ancient world and were therefore heirs to some of its literary traditions. They had clearly embraced wholeheartedly the literary traditions of the ancient world and had readily accepted the responsibility to inculcate and propagate wisdom and its corollary, wise living. Much of what they believed to be wise living was also believed throughout the rest of the ancient world, making the literature of the ancient world adaptable should the Israelite sages choose to go about their task in that way.
Yet at the same time, based on their ontology they saw wisdom as deriving from God and wise living as intrinsically necessitating a relationship with God, specifically defined by the covenant. Consequently, even if they had borrowed literature directly from an Egyptian or Mesopotamian document, they would have considered it as representative of the wisdom from Yahweh, else it would not have been acceptable to them. One cannot therefore easily speak of debt, but must be content to speak of commonalities that reveal that Israel shared a stake in the cognitive environment of the ancient world.[1]
The point to be taken here is that if we desire to truly know God. It takes more than just a superficial reading of the text to obtain the meaning. Now as I have said before the basic message of the need and remedy for salvation are present no matter what language we read our Bible in. English is not a divinely inspired form of communication. We have to accept the fact that sometimes we need a little help understanding the text from those who have salved, worked and thought long and hard in their field of study. And we should not diminish that by saying , “ All I need is the bible” and not the thoughts of man. The Bible is a God inspired work. But it also a human book. And God saw fit to use human means to communicate his Love to us. And just like any relationship. Sometimes it just requires work. Because the relationship matters.
[1] Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (pp. 303–304). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
[1] Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (p. 146). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
[2] Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (pp. 148–149). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
[3] Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (p. 149). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
[1] Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (pp. 92–95). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
[1] Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (pp. 26–27). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
[1] Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (pp. 19–22). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
[2] Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (pp. 25–26). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
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