False Assumptions of Ancient Near East Literary Approaches to Genesis

Ancient Near East similarities to Scripture are secondary and derivative.

Not only is there no conclusive evidence that ancient Near East societies read their narratives non-literally, there is also no evidence that the Holy Spirit intended Genesis to be interpreted that way. If the New Testament penmen consistently treat Genesis 1-11 as historical narrative, the analogy of Scripture requires that we do the same. Just as with pagan religion, anywhere ancient Near East literature resembles the true religion of Christ, it only does so as the derivative distortions of men … Scripture does not borrow from, nor share in, pagan symbolism. Rather, pagan religious and literary similarities to Scripture are best understood as imitative perversions of the factual history and theology of God’s revelation and the foggy historical memory of Noah’s unbelieving descendants.

 

 

Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” Hebrews 11:3

Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do.” 1 Timothy 1:4

Dr. Richard Belcher Jr. summarizes Dr. C. John Collins’ theory from his book “Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?” about how ancient Near East literature and cosmology should influence our interpretation of Genesis:

“[Collins argues that] Genesis 1-11 is historical in the sense that it is referring to actual events, but because the author uses literary and rhetorical techniques there is a high level of figurative and symbolic description. In fact, he talks about the benefit of a pictorial approach to the Bible as explaining ordinary experience.

“The view that Genesis 1-11 exhibits a high level of symbolic description is confirmed when Genesis 1-11 is read in the context of the Mesopotamian stories of origin. These stories are the proper literary background for reading Genesis. Thus the Mesopotamian stories give us clues as to how we are to read Genesis. These stories are historical in the sense that they are referring to actual events but they are not to be taken literally. They manifest historical preferentiality clothed in imaginative description. It is reasonable to expect Genesis to take the same approach. For example, Enuma Elishdescribes the formation of the earth and heavens as the result of a battle between the gods where Marduk defeats Tiamat and slays her. He cuts her body in two pieces and with one half of her body he forms the earth and with the other half he forms the skies. This story refers to actual events, such as the formation of the earth and skies, but it does so in a way that is full of symbolism that is not true to reality (imaginative description). On the basis of Collins’ argument concerning the relationship of Genesis to these ancient stories, one could draw the conclusion that we should understand Genesis 1-2 the same way. Genesis is talking about real historical events but doing so in a highly symbolic way which should not be taken too literally. Collins concludes that Genesis 1-11 has an historical core. This core includes the historicity of Adam, but there is uncertainty concerning how the body of Adam was formed. Thus we should not understand Genesis 2:7 in too literal a fashion.” [1]

This theory rests on two historiographic assumptions. [2]

Assumption 1: That ancient Near East religious-cosmological concepts were contextually formative to the writing of Genesis.

Assumption 2: That Mesopotamian myths were not taken in a “literalistic” fashion by ancient Mesopotamians.

These assumptions are problematic for the following reasons:

  1. Ancient Near East Concepts Were Not Formative to the Composition of Genesis.

In the first place, it is not entirely clear that certain Babylonian myths existed prior to Moses. For instance, the earliest extant fragments of the Epic of Gilgamesh are believed to overlap the time period Moses wrote the Pentateuch; which was written first remains an open question. [3] Likewise, Dr. Noel Weeks states “all evidence indicates that Enuma Elish was not yet written when Moses wrote Genesis.” [4] While other scholars think these were indeed written before the Pentateuch, it is tenuous enough to weaken confidence in theories that are dependent on these myths being widely prevalent before Moses wrote.

Secondly, the ancient Near East was not necessarily as uniform as this theory assumes. When we speak of the ancient Near East, we are talking about several individual cultures over a wide geographic area, not one homogeneous culture. Dr. Weeks warns:

“We should be very wary of any interpretation built on the claim that something was ‘just what everybody did or thought in those days’. It assumes a uniformity which is not necessarily the reality. As I have mentioned, it is common to take Babylonian practice as though it is the standard for the whole of the Ancient Near East. Yet there are significant differences between Babylonia, Egypt, the Hittites and Ugarit.” [5]

Much of the ANE writings have not survived to this day—they were not providentially preserved like the Bible was. Some texts have survived due to the material they were written on and due to the climate, such as in Iraq and Egypt, and these are often fallaciously assumed to be representative of the entire ancient Near East. Dr. Weeks explains:

“If, from the immediate environment of the Old Testament in Palestine, very little survives, but from other countries, there is a lot of material, what will be the likely result? It will be to treat the material from other cultures as though it is relevant to the Old Testament. And sometimes that will be the case. The problem is that it is not always the case.” [6]

While some idioms, motifs, and conventions genuinely appear to be widespread, it is tenuous to assume that the beliefs of one pagan culture, or even a few, would be commonly accepted everywhere or among the Hebrews.

Most of the things we can learn from ANE texts are either known from Scripture already, or do not make a very big impact on our understanding of the text one way or another. [7] Occasionally outside sources can provide insight into certain puzzling passages or curiosities of language and literary allusion, but these are almost universally auxiliary insights that merely add context, they do not radically alter the meaning of the text and the momentum of the narrative. ANE studies are best used to support and confirm the teaching and history of Scripture, rather than to question or undermine it.

Ancient Near East similarities to Scripture are secondary and derivative.

Most importantly, the historical account of Genesis, passed down orally from Adam to his posterity, which Moses committed to writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is the original and infallible account. “And the Lord said unto Moses, Write thou these words: …” (Exodus 34:27). “Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say” (Exodus 4:12). “Must I not take heed to speak that which the Lord hath put in my mouth?” (Numbers 23:12). Ancient myths that seem to resemble the historical account of Genesis are derivative distortions of men “who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). They are vestiges in the cultural memory of the nations that departed from the truth of God, “of those that rebel against the light; they know not the ways thereof, nor abide in the paths thereof.” (Job 24:13).

“Where is the evidence that Israel based its foundational narrative on Near Eastern myths? It is surely equally plausible that the ANE texts are a polemic against the true account, being a corrupted version of an oral tradition dating from the scattering at Babel. Finally, even if, arguendo [for the sake of argument], Genesis 1-11 is a polemic, it would only gain in force were the events described truly historical, compared to Babylonian myths.” [8]

  1. K. Beale posits two perspectives on the perceived similarities of ANE literature with Genesis:

“First, the similarity is intended [by Moses] at times to be a protest statement that, while the pagan nations think that they have cornered the market on divine revelation from their gods who dwell in temples, their gods are, in fact, false and their temples purely idolatrous institutions—the den of demons (Deut. 32:17; Ps. 106:37; 1 Cor. 10:19-20).

“From another angle, it is appropriate to ask whether anything in ancient pagan religion and its institutions resembled the truth about the true God and his designs for humanity. Certainly, pagan nations had not received any special revelation to draw them into saving relation with the true God. Nevertheless, just as the image of God is not erased but distorted in unbelieving humanity, it is plausible to suggest that some of the affinities in ancient pagan beliefs and religions to that of Israel’s may be due to the fact that they are garbled, shadowy representations about the being of the biblical God and of his design for his dwelling place.” [9]

William VanDoodewaard aptly notes that “the last sentence of Beale’s statement here could be stated more strongly, with scriptural warrant. It is not merely ‘plausible to suggest’ but reality that these ‘garbled, shadowy representations’ are actually driven by defiance against God, and intended to deceive (cf. Rom. 1:18-23; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:1-3).” [10]

Dr. E. J. Young (1907-1968) previously “engaged with ancient Near Eastern literature, arguing that the documents and references of ancient Babylonia were ‘the garbled version of the truth that finally trickled down to the Babylonians‘ through the line of Cain. This stood in contrast to what had been passed down ‘among the Sethites [where] truth… that God spoke to Adam… would have been handed down from generation to generation.’” [11]

“It may be that Moses had access to written documents which were at his disposal. It may also be that he was acquainted with oral tradition. If, however, we approach this question Scripturally we will be compelled to the conclusion that the author of Genesis one was a holy man who was borne by the Holy Spirit [2 Peter 1:21]. That is to say, God, in his providence, prepared by training and education the particular man whom he desired to write the first chapter of the Bible, and when that man set to the work of writing he was superintended by the Spirit of God with the result that what he wrote was what the Spirit of God desired him to write. If he did employ ancient documents he was protected and guided in his use of them so that he chose from them only what God desired him to employ. In this process of writing, he was no mere automaton, but a responsible writer. Although superintended by the Spirit, he used his own judgment and made a genuine choice and selection of material. The resultant writing, therefore, was Scripture, trustworthy Scripture, indeed, infallible Scripture. It is this answer to which we must come if we permit ourselves to be guided by what the Bible has to say concerning itself.” [12]

Some scholars point out the similarities between the biblical covenants and the suzerain-vassal treaties of the ancient Near East, rashly surmising that God mimicked these heathen kings when he established his covenants with his people. John Sailhamer argues that the Pentateuch is “clothed in the metaphor of the ancient Near Eastern monarch: God the Great King, grants to his obedient vassal prince the right to dwell in his land and promises protection from their enemies.” [13] Dr. VanDoodewaard sensibly retorts:

“The converse of Sailhamer’s hypothesis was that God in His creative and covenanting activity was the primary and normative universal reality, from the beginning of history onward and that in their cultures ancient Near Eastern kings were seeking to assert themselves as godlike in rebellion against Him, suppressing and distorting His truth in unrighteousness. This possible interpretation was not mentioned. Sailhamer did not appear to consider the possibility that Genesis was original and that ancient Near Eastern myth was a derivative distortion.” [14]

Notes:

[1] Richard Belcher Jr., Supernatural Creation of Man, in Creation and Change (2017) by Douglas F. Kelly, p. 321.

[2] William VanDoodewaard, The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins, p. 242.

“It appears that the Mesopotamians aimed to accomplish their purpose by founding their stories on what they thought were actual events, albeit told with a great deal of imagery and symbolism. Thus it is reasonable to take Gen. 1-11 as having a similar purpose in Israel, expecting similar attention to history without undue literalism.” (C. John Collins, Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation, p. 77).

[3] VanDoodewaard, p. 154.

[4] Noel Weeks, Background in Biblical Interpretation: Part 2; citing W. G. Lambert, A New Look at Babylonian Background of GenesisJournal of Theological Studies 16 (1965), 285-300.

[5]  Noel Weeks, Background in Biblical Interpretation: Part 2. Dr. Weeks elaborates on this point here: The Bible and the “Universal” Ancient World: A Critique of John Walton, WTJ 78 (2016): 1-28. e.g.Peter Enns approach is based on his dubious assumption that we ought to “acknowledge that the Genesis story is firmly rooted in the worldview of its time.” (Inspiration and Incarnation, p. 27).

[6] Noel Weeks, Background in Biblical Interpretation: Part 1cf. Noel Weeks, The Ambiguity of Biblical “Background”, WTJ 72 (2010): 219-36.

[7]  Noel Weeks, The Isolation of the Biblical Text, (2016 Gaffin Lecture).

[8] Colin R. Reeves, in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, pp. 718-719.

[9] Gregory Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority, p. 175. cf. John Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament; John Currid, Crass Plagiarism? [Part 1], [Part 2], [Part 3].

[10] VanDoodewaard, p. 235, n. 151.

[11] VanDoodewaard, p. 215.

[12] E. J. Young, Studies in Genesis One.

[13] John Sailhamer, Exegetical Notes: Genesis 1:1-2:4aTrinity Journal 5 (1984), p. 75.

[14] VanDoodewaard, pp. 264-265.

Read More