The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature

Chaos Monster and Sun God

Last post I reviewed Peter Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation“. Now I want to look at the first of three main topics in the book.

How does seeing parts of the Old Testament in their ancient middle eastern context affect how we think of the Old Testament?

Ancient parallels

There are many parallels between Old Testament stories, laws and sayings and similar material in other Akkadian, Sumerian and Babylonian writings.

Ancient myths

The Genesis creation story in the Bible has similarities with the earlier Babylonian Enuma Elish – the sequence of the days is similar; darkness precedes creation; light exists before the creation of the sun, moon and stars; and the waters above the earth are divided from the waters under the earth.

Other details are very different, however – e.g. in Genesis, creation is by a powerful and monotheistic God whereas in Enuma Elish, the creation is a result of fighting among many gods. But they seem to betray the same cosmology or view of the earth’s place.

The Noah’s Ark story has many similarities with the much earlier Akkadian and Sumerian stories of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh – the dimensions of the large boat are given; family and animals are loaded into the boat; the boat came to rest on a mountain; birds are released to test whether the land is sufficiently dry.

God’s laws?

Some of the Old Testament laws, given to Moses by God, discuss similar legal and social situations, sometimes even with similar wording, as the law code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king who lived several centuries before Moses – for example, both codes detail “eye for an eye” laws that include penalties for accidentally causing a woman to miscarry. There are several other similar ancient law codes.

Writings and culture

Discoveries at the ancient city of Nuzi reveal similar customs to many recorded in Genesis:

  • a man may adopt an heir, or father an heir through another woman, but if a son is born to the man’s wife, he becomes the heir even though he is younger (Genesis 15 & 16);
  • when a man negotiates the marriage of a daughter, she is not consulted, but if a brother handles the negotiations, his sister is consulted (Genesis 24 & 29);
  • a widow cannot marry outside her deceased husband’s family (Genesis 38);
  • a father can choose his heir, which may not necessarily be the oldest son (Genesis 37);
  • a father may require that a man marrying one of his daughters only have future wives from among his other daughters.

Other similarities in culture and literature include:

  • Hittite kings entered into “suzerainty” treaties with their subjects which are very similar in structure and content to the laws given in Deuteronomy, with preamble (1:1-5), historical prologue (1:6-4:49), stipulations or laws (5:1-26:19), blessings and curses (27:1-30:20) and the future (31:1-34:12).
  • The section of Proverbs from 22:17 to 24:22 contains commands rather than the advice that comes before, and is similar in several ways the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope.

History from different viewpoints

Several Old Testament historical accounts – e.g. the Tel Dan inscription which refers to King David, an inscription in a tunnel built by Hezekiah to bring water into Jerusalem to withstand an expected siege by Sennacherib, and a monument erected by Mesha, king of Moab – give general support to the accounts in the Bible though they contain different viewpoints.

Is there any problem?

Some things confirm the Bible

There are various views on the historicity of Old Testament events. Some of these parallels confirm the Biblical accounts and are encouraging to those who believe in the Bible or the Tanakh. However they also show that historical accounts can have different viewpoints and so tell the stories in different ways.

Some things illustrate common culture

The culture of the Old Testament is very removed from our own, and can be difficult to understand. Some of these parallels illustrate that much of this culture was similar to that in surrounding countries, and give us insights into why Biblical characters behaved the way they did.

If some of Proverbs comes from earlier, possibly Egyptian, sources, that doesn’t concern me, for I think they are ‘folk wisdom’. But if they express divine truths, they suggest that these aspects of the Old testament are not ‘unique revelation’. I don’t see why those truths couldn’t have also been given to others, but this may disturb some believers.

Some things question divine authorship?

The parallels with creation and flood myths can be interpreted in different ways. Perhaps they are similar because the events really happened, and memories of them have been passed down in different traditions? But if we regard Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh as myths, what does this say about Genesis 1?

The parallels between Hammurabi’s law and God’s/Moses’ law are an even greater challenge. How can the Ten Commandments and the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy be God’s law given through unique revelation to Israel, if they have parallels with earlier pagan laws? I can believe that God could have revealed truth to many ancient peoples, although many christians may have problems with this, and it certainly suggests again that God’s revelation wasn’t as unique as we might think.

Changing our view of the Old Testament?

These parallels surely require us think again about the Old Testament, if evolution hasn’t led us to do that already. I suggest there are four possible responses we can make to these facts:

1. Reject scholarship, hold to the Bible

We can continue to believe the Bible is a unique and historically accurate revelation, and reject much of science, history and archaeology. But since there are other options available (see below), this approach means we are willing to give a modern evangelical understanding of the Bible greater weight than the best scholarship. I am not willing to do that. Besides, some archaeology supports the truth of some of the the Old Testament.

2. Accept scholarship, reject the Old Testament

Again, this seems too extreme an option. If we believe in Jesus on the basis of the New Testament, and recognise that the Old Testament writings were the scriptures to Jesus, we will be unwilling to just consider them to be worthless. Again, that would mean allowing our expectations of what the Old Testament ought to be determine our response.

Better seems to be to respect the Old Testament as Jesus’ scriptures, but allow modern scholarship to help us understand the nature of these scriptures rather than assume we can know in advance.

Of course, if we don’t believe in Jesus, then there may be little reason to accept the Old Testament as anything other than ancient literature.

3. Accept both without allowing scholarship to affect our doctrine

We can believe both the traditional view of the Old Testament as the unique and historically accurate Word of God and scholarship, without allowing the scholarship to change our doctrine. But it seems to me Peter Enns has shown that this can’t be done with integrity. There is too much that doesn’t easily fit this model.

4. Accept scholarship and adjust how we understand the Old Testament

Peter Enns argues for a more incarnational understanding of scripture, in which God enters the ancient world, adopts an ancient way of thinking and speaks within the culture and worldviews of the day, so that he would be understood. As we understand more of the ancient world, we understand better the culture and language that God used in revealing himself in the Old Testament.

Under this incarnational model, God revealed truth via stories, myths and thought forms that were most meaningful to the ancient Hebrews. His revelation refined their understanding over time, and prepared them for the coming of Jesus.

This requires us to reconsider what it means to say that the Old Testament is divinely inspired, and may threaten some of our fondly-held doctrines. But it is the way forward to a new and more solidly-based understanding, if only we are willing to think again.

What do you think?

Photo: Chaos Monster and Sun God Wikipedia

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3 thoughts on “The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature

  1. Nate says:

    Great post, unkleE. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the thing I admire most about you is your honesty. It gets tiring talking to fundamentalists who pretend the Bible is free of difficulties and talking to atheists who pretend the Bible has nothing good in it. The truth is found in between those two extremes, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your dedication to dealing with all of this honestly.

    cheers 🙂

    Like

  2. unkleE says:

    Thanks Nate, and as Tolkien says (through Faramir) in the Lord of the Rings: “The praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.”

    I too feel that people (both believers and unbelievers) are too inclined to black and white approaches, not just to the Bible, but to all sorts of things. I think we need to remain open to new ideas, accept the verdict of the experts where it is clear, retain a healthy but not too severe scepticism, and live wholeheartedly according to the light we have seen. It makes life interesting, but things don’t stay constant.

    Best wishes.

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  3. ignorantianescia says:

    The occurrence of genres related to genres in the cultural environment isn’t problematic to me, rather I find it interesting and astonishing how so many were incorporated in what is a huge vassalage contract between God and Israel. That may not be a particularly religious sentiment, but I think it is also important for believers to appreciate the Old Testament on a more basic level. It adds depth.

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