Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Bible and Myth (and Dr. Enns)

For the preceding post in this series, click here.

Well, I had a very gracious email from Pete Enns down at Westminster Seminary. I should admit we are less far apart than my previous post may have made out. Pete rightly clarifies that in Inspiration and Incarnation he does argue that Bible takes on the mythologies of neighboring cultures. I did not mean to suggest that we differed on this point. We agree that there is a struggle, and that Bible is able to use Near Eastern mythic language as a tool in this struggle.

Still, Pete does insist that Bible retains mythic ways of speaking and, indeed, mythic categories too! So Pete and I both agree that Bible co-opts mythic images and terms for its own purpose. (I would hold that that purpose centers on expressing covenantal themes and rather profound hopes about where the covenant is taking both Israel and the world around Israel.) However, I continue to part ways with Pete. I want to insist that Bible is not constrained by mythic categories.

In short, I strongly resist the idea that the Bible's witness really became incarnate through the mythic categories of its contemporary cultural milieu. Rather, against the constraints of mythic categories, Bible understands the saving acts of God to have a non-repeating, once-for-all character. For biblical Israel, the structure of reality was first and foremost linear and historical in character and not mythical and timeless. In biblical theology, real history--fixed historical events and a singular covenantal enactment with God--made Israel what it was.

The mythic categories of the ancient Near East were hardly adequate to convey the true nature of the biblical God. This God is above the fray of the booming "multiverse" of mythic imagination, where immanent supernatural forces controlled fertility, death, storms, and most everything else. The biblical God is not immanent in the forces of the world and nature, and Bible combats such belief as idolatrous. (Better: There is an early and ongoing struggle with such belief, that becomes clearer over time. Childs uses the term "struggle," and I think that captures what went on.)

And Bible does not make this point from within the genre of myth, but uses what Gunkel called "saga" and what Frank Cross called "epic" to convey the story of God with humanity. To tell its story, Genesis uses the same sort of brief concise narrative that families use to tell old stories about great grandma. (Saga is not history in our sense of the word, but neither is it myth. It is a genre that takes story and time seriously.)

This literary move emphasizes the centrality of historical thinking in biblical Israel. Alan F. Segal recently wrote something rather profound along these lines: "The events happening in the marketplaces and courts of Israel were meant to be just as important... as the [so-called events of] mythic time." (I've altered this quote a little, because Segal, like Enns, still makes a little too much room for myth in the earliest parts of Genesis.)

When confronted with claims that the world really is a multiverse of immanent supernatural forces, Bible gets combative and mounts a struggle. The chaos serpent is reduced to a talking snake in Eden, who played no role in the drama of creation (Genesis 3:1). Alternatively, Leviathan is a mere sea creature (Genesis 1:21). In either case, he has lost his power to overwhelm the human psyche. When the King of Tyre claims to be one of the heavenly cherubim, he is soundly put in his place (Ezekiel 28:2, 19). When Assyria claims to be the mighty cosmic-tree of world myth, it is pictured chopped down like any tree of Lebanon (Ezekiel 31:12).

More on this soon. To be continued...


Blogger Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


Simply outstanding. Likewise we might add that Yahweh actually makes these mighty supernatural beings his footstool. In the Yahwistic mindset I find it interesting that the battles with the chaos monsters Yahweh is really not taxed at all as he does battle with Rahab, Tanyim, Levithian or any other monster. In fact, in Hab. 3 reseph the god of plague goes as Yahweh's body guard. How interesting that myth is defanged in the body of the HB.

Tue Oct 17, 08:27:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Tim Bulkeley said...

In your mention of genres above you do not make explicit that Israelite talk of the formative past is expressed in prose, while the mythic descriptions of the formative past are poetry...

Tue Oct 17, 12:36:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Tim, thank you. I think you are right that it is significant that Genesis 1-11 is prose narrative, as you say. ---S.

Tue Oct 17, 12:55:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

I agree with your view that the various gods of the ancient Near East were involved in power struggles. But the evidence points toward the rise of monotheism out of henotheism. As such, the differences you cited that the Hebrew authors made to empower their god above the rest lie along a spectrum. It's not like ancient people weren't trying to invent new verbal ways to state how great their god was above all the rest of the gods. And one should keep in mind that the Hebew tongue itself was a dialect of Canaanite, and Canaanite was derived (so linguists say) from the earlier Babylonian language and culture.


May I [Marduk], through the utterance of my mouth determine the destinies...
--Enuma Elish Tablet II:127-29

Whatever I create shall remain unaltered, The command of my lips shall not return (void), it shall not be changed.
--Enuma Elish Tablet III:120-22

So shall my word be which goeth up from my mouth; it shall not return unto me void, For it shall have done that which I desired.
--Isaiah 55:11


Reliable is his word, unalterable his command; The utterance of his mouth no god whatever can change.
--Enuma Elish Tablet VII:151-52

Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?
--Numbers 23:19


May (Marduk’s) words endure and not be forgotten in the mouths of mankind, whom his hands have created.
-- Enuma Elish Tablet VII:31-2

He read all the words of the law... not a word of which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel.
--Joshua 8:34,35


Let (Marduk) exercise shepherdship over mankind.
--Enuma Elish Tablet. VI:107

The Lord is my shepherd
--Ps. 23:1


At his command let there be creation, destruction, alleviation, mercy.
--Enuma Elish Tablet VI:131

The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity.
--Isa. 45:7


He (Marduk) is the lord of all the gods of heaven and earth.
--Enuma Elish Tablet VI:141

Our God is above all gods.
--Ps. 135:5


Shazu (another of Marduk’s titles), who knows the hearts of the gods, who sees through the innermost parts.
--Enuma Elish Tablet VII:35

Thou alone dost know the hearts of all the sons of men
--I Kings 8:39


The sinner and the transgressor are an abomination before him.
--Enuma Elish Tablet VII:156

The way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord.
--Proverbs 15:9


Who annihilates all the wicked ones (i.e., the gods)
--Enuma Elish Tablet VII:45

The transgressors will be altogether destroyed.
--Psalm 37:38


Who crosses the wide sea in its anger.
--Enuma Elish Tablet VII:74

And tramples down the waves of the sea
--Job 9:8

Thy way was in the sea, and Thy paths in the mighty waters.


The creator of the clouds above the waters (the sea).
--Enuma Elish Tablet VII:83

When He made firm the clouds above, When the springs of the deep became fixed.
--Proverbs 8:28

Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds?
--Job 36:29


Who directs the clouds.
--Enuma Elish Tablet VII:86

(The cloud) changes direction, turning around by His guidance.
--Job 37:12


The one with a wide understanding, an intelligent mind, and an unsearchable heart, which the gods in their totality cannot fathom.
--Enuma Elish Tablet 111+18

Who does great things, unfathomable, and wondrous works without number.
--Job 9:10


May his beautiful thunder be mighty upon the earth.
--Enuma Elish Tablet VII:120

But His mighty thunder, who can understand?
--Job 26:14


The ruler of heaven and earth.
--Enuma Elish Tablet VII:62

He who sits (enthroned) above the circle of the earth.
--Isa. 40:22


Since he created the heavenly) places and fashioned the firm earth.
--Enuma Elish Tablet VII:135

The world is firmly established, it will not be moved.


Since ancient Hebrew thought paralleled Babylonian thought in so many ways, it is not surprising to discover that they also both believed that a solid ‘firmament’ lay stretched above the flat ‘circle’ of the earth.



The recently unearthed clay tablets of the ancient Near Eastern city of Ebla contain an account of Creation that resembles both Enuma Elish and Genesis. For instance, all three accounts agree that the heavens, earth, sun & moon were created in that order.

Another Eblaite tablet segment reads:

"Lord of heaven and earth: the earth was not, you created it, the light of day was not, you created it, the morning light you had not (yet) made exist."

Thus, the Eblaite Creator, Yahweh and Marduk were all praised by their respective followers as "Lord of heaven and earth." Furthermore, all three accounts mention “the earth when it was not” (“When firm ground had not been called by name;” (Enuma Elish); “The earth was formless and void” (Genesis). Therefore, the Eblaite account reflects various facets of Near Eastern concepts of creation, one of which was shared by Hebrew and Eblaite alike. For the Eblaite’s Lord was not “born a Sun-King” like Marduk, but instead, “created light” like Yahweh. There are unlike facets also. For the Eblaite account does not mention the existence of any primeval waters preceding the creation of heaven and earth. It appears that only Enuma Elish and Genesis are in agreement there.

It is also important to note that many of the myths that surround the gods of the Eblaites (who were polytheists, like the Babylonians) have been identified as free translations of Sumerian myths. Still, the question remains as to why a creation hymn to the “Lord of heaven and earth” should appear among Eblaite polytheists. This may mean, as Ebla scholar Pettinato pointed out, that “this culture, to be sure polythiestic, was on the way to a henotheism virtually declared.” Henotheism is the tendency of one popular god to acquire the chief and highest attributes of competing gods, and thus "Lord it over" the rest of the gods. This was not an uncommon occurrence in the history of the ancient Near East.

In the case of the Babylonians, “Marduk seems to have been a god of magic and of incantation from an early date. But in the course of time he acquired other, more important functions. There was a monotheistic, or perhaps more accurately henotheistic, tendency here, so that a large number of deities are treated as manifestations of Marduk. He is given the epithet Bel ("lord")... Numerous epithets assert his omnipotence, wisdom, and inscrutability, his superiority in war, and his power to heal the sick and
"to make the dead live." In the ritual for the New Year Festival in Babylon Marduk is identified with a series of astral deities, and the prayer ends with the words: "My lord is my god, my lord is my ruler, is there any lord apart from him?"

“Nebuchadnezzar II prayed at his accession- to Marduk: Everlasting lord, master of all that exists, grant to the king, whom you love, and whose name you name, all that is pleasant to you. Keep him on the right way... you have created me and entrusted to me the dominion over all peoples. Lord, let me according to your grace, which you pour over them all, love your exalted might, and create in my heart fear of your divinity.”

In other ancient Near Eastern circles there was a tendency to exalt the moon-god (Sin) to the position of highest god:

“Lord, prince of the gods, who only are high in heaven and on earth... Merciful, gracious father, who holds all the life of the land in your hand! Lord, your divinLty is like the distant heaven, like the broad sea, full of fearfulness... whose deep mind no god penetrates... who moves in splendor from the base of heaven to the height of heaven, opens the gates of heaven, brings all mankind light!... the source of all things! who sees and protects all creatures! Lord, who determines the destiny of heaven and earth, whose command no one can alter... In the heavens who is high? You alone are high. On earth who is high? You alone are high."

But the most intriguing saga in the history of Near Eastern henotheism is the tale of the Egyptians. Since earliest times, the Egyptians entertained conceptions of a most high Divinity right beside crude polytheistic notion (like the situation at Ebla). The relevant Egyptian texts that declare the attributes of this high, Divine power also provide us with striking analogies to the ancient Hebrew conception of God:


“God is one and alone, and none other existeth with Him--He existed when nothing else existed--God is a spirit--No man knoweth His form. No man hath been able to seek out His likeness--God hath stretched out the heavens and founded the earth--What His heart conceived straightway came to pass, and when He hath spoken, it cometh to pass and endureth forever--He fashioned men and formed the gods --He giveth,life to man, He breatheth the breath of life into his nostrils --God is truth --God is merciful unto those who reverence Him, and He heareth him that calleth upon Him. God knoweth him that acknowledgeth Him, He rewardeth him that servetb Him, and He protecteth him that followeth Him.

“The Ancient of Heaven... Chief of all the gods... Supporter of the heavens, Founder of the earth Lord of days, Maker of light... Whose eye subdues the wicked, sending forth its darts to the roof of the firmament.”

“Hail to Thee... to the height of the heavens, to the breadth of the earth, to the depths of the sea (cf. Job 11:8, 9)... Who raises the heavens and fixes the earth (cf. Job 26:7) ...causing all things which are to exist."

Thus, the Hebrews were neither the first, nor only, ancient Near Eastern nation to entertain high conceptions of Divinity.


Chaim Bermant and Michael Weitzmann, Ebla (New York: Times Books, 1979), p. 164.

Giovanni Pettinato, The Archives of Ebla (New York: Doubleday & Comp., Inc., 1981), p. 244.

Bermant and Weitzmann, p. 164.

Pettinato, p. 260.

Helmer Ringgren, Religions of the Ancient Near East, trans. John Sturdy (Philadelphia, PN: The Westminster Press, 1973), p. 57, 67, 110.

E.A.Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1967 --a reprint of the 1895 edition), p. xciii, XC11-XC111, IC

Raymond Van Over ed., Sun Songs: Creation Myths from Around the World (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1980), p.286-288, 289-291.

Tue Dec 19, 09:19:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Edward, in the interest of fairness and openness I am going to allow your post, but it is really too long to fit within the genre of "comment." If you take the time to read my books and my posts on this blog, you will quickly see that you cannot assert such things as your statement that Hebrew monotheism evolved out of henotheism and such things as your statement that Hebrew is a dialect of Canaanite. These statements are simply not accurate. ---SLC

Tue Dec 19, 09:52:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Wed Feb 28, 05:34:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

Thank you for allowing my lengthy "comment," but also in the interest of fairness, the rise of Hebraic monotheism was not "out of nothing," and neither did the Hebrew language arise "out of nothing." The Hebrews were influenced by all the terms and concepts of "high gods" that came before them. The concept of a high god having a people who despised them, and that god reacting by killing many of his own people, leaving behind a remnant was part of ancient Near Eastern mythology as were many other phrases and ideas about high moral gods who were "above the rest." The Hebrews were also influenced by the Babylonian law codes of Hammurabi that preceded their own Ten Commandments, and they were influenced by "covenant" types of thinking and documents such as we know about from the Hittites in the 14th century that preceded the Hebrew use of such things in terms of their "covenant" with God. Also, the Hebraic Bible we now possess is simply the last edition of the Hebrew Scriptures, a near final redaction and not the earliest. The Hebrew Bible itself mentions the names of about 20 books that we no longer possess including "The Book of the Wars of Yahweh," and hence our present Bible is the result of the Hebrews appropriating many previous concepts and high god phrases, and attempting to make their god higher than all the rest, perhaps out of jealousy and fear of other nations, or out of jealousy and fear at having been situated in the boweling ball region of the fertile crescent, where armies of the gargantuan ancient civilizations on both sides of them, passed through regularly, and from which they also came into contact with all of the above concepts, and fine tuned them to their own nation, and their own religio-ethno-centered dreams of being "the apple of gods eye."

Wed Feb 28, 05:43:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Edward, I am out of the country at the moment, and cannot make a lengthy response. I must object that any such notion as yours that the Scriptures resulted from the Hebrews trying "to make their god higher than all the rest" is both reductionistic and rediculous. When you study the canonical process that produced the Scriptures, you soon see that etho-centric and nationalistic forces are among the _least_ significant forces at work in the Bible building process. In any event, I strongly recommend my recent book, _The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism_, as it will give readers a fairly clear idea of a solid, critical way to understand some of the questions that you raise in your comment. ---SLC

Thu Mar 01, 02:23:00 AM GMT-5  

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