The Babylonian Creation Myth, Genesis, and Reading the Bible

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

In my Intro to Hebrew Bible and Jewish Thought course, we were asked to consider the importance of a Babylonian creation myth (available here) in rechaos_monster_and_sun_godgard to the Hebrew Bible. In particular, the creation accounts in Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4a-24. Extensive scholarship exists on the relationship, or lack of relationship, between the Genesis creation accounts and the Babylonian creation myth. As I read these texts a few nights ago, I noticed words of praise in the Babylonian creation myth. The apparent genre of this portion of text read more like a Psalm than a creation account. The words praise Marduk and celebrate his success after defeating Tiamat, who seemingly instigated a civil war amongst the gods and goddesses (translation from Benjamin Foster, Before the Muses, p. 468):

Over all things that your hands have created,
Who has [authority, save for you]?
Over the earth that you created,
Who has [authority, save for] you?
Babylon, to which you have given name,
Make our [stopping place] there forever.

I find this portion of the Babylonian creation myth intriguing because it occurs within the epic narrative that constitutes the myth. The text switches from a mode of narration to a mode of praise. Perhaps, at some point in time and space, this poetic worship (liturgical, perhaps?) made its way into the Babylonian creation myth.

When we consider the greater landscape of the ancient Near East, in particular ancient Israel, it seems to be even more of a possibility. A poem in Exodus 15, for example, is one which many scholars suggest stood outside of the Hebrew Bible originally as a poem. According the the margin commentary in the Jewish Study Bible, “the language style of the poem are archaic and share many features with Ugaritic poetry of the Late Bronze Age, suggesting that it is one of the oldest poems in the Bible” (136).

Like the Babylonian creation myth, the poem embedded in Exodus occurs in the process of narration. Although I am not suggesting any sort of special relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian creation myth based on these observations, I do suggest that the way in which poetry in embedded into the narrations demonstrates that they are within the same general framework of the ancient Near East. Thus, whenever we read the Hebrew Bible, we must consider how contemporaneous literature (i.e. the Babylonain creation myth, Egyptian texts, Akkadian texts, etc.) was was constructed into coherent texts.

Rules for Reading the Bible

bible*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

In my introductory course to the Hebrew Bible, the homework instructions for the day suggest that we think about the bible on a theoretical level. In particular, the professor asks two questions:

“Are there different conventions for reading texts? Should we have different “rules” for reading the Bible?”

Because the Bible is so deeply embedded into the cultural fabric of the modern era and, in some places, everyday life, this question is difficult to answer. When we read the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, we are not tied to certain spiritual issues and traditions that determine how we read the text. Or are we?

Perhaps a fundamentalist Christian will interpret the character of Sauron or Aragorn substantially different than a fundamentalist Atheist. More likely than not, their interpretive differences will arise due to there fundamental differences. There fundamental difference are how they view the world. Similarly, a conservative Jew and secular Jew may understand Sauron and Aragorn in substantially different ways. Again, difference in interpretation arises from difference in fundamental worldviews.

So, when we choose to read the Bible, there is no “right” way of reading it if we read for our own pleasure. However, if one seeks to engage in critical study of the Bible, she or he must learn how to read it in such a way to puts aside fundamental views. No matter how much they attempt to do this, though, they will still have a bias approach to how they read the bible. Perhaps, then, “rules” is too strong a term to use in creating sufficient and effective methods for critically reading the bible. Maybe it is better to use the term “guides” for reading the bible. Rules are too strict and rigid, at least by connotation. A guide, however, demonstrates ways to engage with the text on different level.

By similar means, John Barton reaches similar conclusions when he writes concerning biblical criticism. “… The exegete’s task is not to extract the meaning from the text, but to conduct the reader on a guided tour of it, considering the many strands of meaning such a text may contain” (2007: 114). Although I disagree with Barton’s understanding of biblical criticism, at least thus far in my reading, I do agree with him that exegetical work should be understood as offering the reader a guided tour. And because the Bible can be approached from so many perspectives, perhaps the best “rule” for reading the bible, in its most simplified form, is to recognize that the role of any interpreter is to guide the reader into the text through the lens of whatever particular tradition is in which they choose to engage it.

Rounding the discussion back to engaging in critical study of the bible, then, what is necessary is not “rules”. Rather, what is necessary are guides to doing so.


Moses Mendelssohn, Good, and the Felicity of Humanity

moses_mendelson_p7160073This quarter I am taking a course called Introduction to the Study of Religion. One of the main texts for the course is an anthology of letters by Moses Mendelssohn. For those who do not know, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was a Jewish philosopher. He is considered the found of modern Jewish philosophy. Particularly unique about Mendelssohn was his role in the German enlightenment. He was both an accomplished Jewish scholar through Jewish texts and a leading figure in the German enlightenment. In other words, he wrote for the small group of people who subscribed his religious tradition and the broader discussions relating to the enlightenment outside of Jewish traditions.

For scholars, the question has been in a similar vein: “was Mendelssohn able to achieve a coherent synthesis between his Jewishness and his Germanness, between his commitment to Judaism and to the Enlightenment? (XVII)”. The question is relevant for today. For, it questions the relationship between religion and state on a personal level.

In one of his letters, he discusses the relationship between good and institution. In summary, Mendelssohn argues that if an institution produces good, he should support it. Even if it produces good and is based on a tradition which he wholeheartedly opposes, he is obliged remain silent about it so that it continuous producing good. On the other hand, if an institution ruins the felicity of humans, it should be directly attacked. That is his obligation.

His principle is well reasoned and should be considered before any action against any institution is taken. For myself, it is enlightening and something which I will consider in all of my decisions. Yet, it is too abstract. As an ideal, it can move society in a good direction. As a concrete reality, though, it does not exists. Sometimes, what accidentally produces good, or even intentionally produces good, is also producing evil, actions detrimental to the felicity of other humans.

I offer this critique in hopes that either (1) Mendelssohn already addressed this nuanced complexity or (2) someone, perhaps myself, can develop a more concrete principle under the influence of his more abstract principle. In other words, I wonder how this principle can be used, and to what extent, in the reality of life.

Approaching the Book of Ruth as Human to Human

Many commentators suggest the text of Ruth implies some sort of divine providence. Most recently Daniel Block suggests this idea: “Having heard the story to the end, we know the hand of God is providentially guiding the events” (2015, 37; click here for my review of his work). Daniel Hawk, similarly, considers Ruth to be filled with the Spirit of the Law as opposed to the letter of the Law (2015; click here for my review of his work). Both readings, unfortunately focus to greatly on the issue of God’s presence within the narrative. Jeremy Schipper offers an important alternative:

 “the narrator never notes the possibility of God guiding with a divine hand. In fact, “the narrator explicitly attributes to God only things that are beyond human control” (31)” – My review of Daniel Block’s Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament: Ruth

Schipper importantly emphasizes that God’s guiding hand is not a possibility within the text, as the author no where indicates it. How, then, are we to approach the book of Ruth in terms of historical theology?

lessingAlthough separated by more than a millennium, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) offers a potential approach to reading Ruth. In his play Nathan the Wise, Nathan, a Jew, responds to Daja’s claim that the Recha, daughter of Nathan who was saved by a Templar, should be permitted to maintain the sweet illusion that it was, in fact, an angel who saved her life. Nathan responds:

“To a human being another human being is always dearer than an angel” (Act I, Scene 1).

In other words, Nathan argues people must not always hope for some sort of supernatural salvation or miracle. For, there is more beauty in the interaction and miracle between two human beings than between a human being and an angel. Taking this into consideration, I wonder if Nathan’s model could be applied to the book of Ruth. The characters in the book of Ruth represent the role of humanity with each other, not the divine providence of God. Interactions between Ruth, Boaz, Naomi, fieldworkers, and other minor character, and the events which arise out of those interaction, result primarily due to the agency and independent actions of humans, humans whose involvement with each other is dearer than that with angels or divine providence.

UPDATE (9/19/2016):

For those who are not familiar with Nathan the Wise, I’ve attached a splendid, entertaining summary of the play.

“From Mesopotamia to the Mishnah” by Jonathan S. Milgram

Jonathan S. Milgram. From Mesopotamia to the Mishnah: Tannaitic Inheritance Law in its Legal and Social Contexts. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 164. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2016, 201 pp..

Jonathan Milgram’s erudite study on tannaitic inheritance law contextualizes rulings on inheritance within the framework of the ancient Near East, Greek, and, most importantly, Roman law, which is contemporaneous with tannaitic law. Through a comparative legal approach, he explores how the legal collections “overlap conceptually, procedurally, and on occasion, even terminologically” (7). Naturally we are inclined to point towards biblical antecedents for the development of certain aspects within tannaitic law. Fundamental to Milgram’s thesis, though, is the lack of scriptural exegesis in tannaitic law discussing issues of inheritance. In other words, “new laws not only drop archaic biblical institutions but also embrace new methods that the rabbis observe” (27). Below I provide a summary of his arguments accompanied by my commentary.

Milgram first introduces standard methodological concerns: brief discussion of theories of legal development, ultimately focusing on the comparative legal approach; a framework for the relation between ancient law and the socio-economic environment of the tannaim; and a summary of his sources and proceeding arguments. In short, he sets out “to demonstrate the degree to which tannaitic inheritance laws are likely the product of their ancient legal, social, and economic contexts” (38)(Introduction). While it is good that Milgram utilizes such a broad set of ancient legal codes and demonstrates exceptional understanding of them through a comparative legal approach, his overall conclusions may have been sturdier with inclusion of the social and economic histories of the various ancient laws. For, inclusion of social and economic histories of ancient laws would have uncovered the relationship between law (ancient laws) and reality (social and economic histories). Such patterns within history would perhaps offer more cemented conclusions and legitimization for Milgram’s argument.

Establishing the origins of partibility, methods for disposing of assets, and capacity for transferring property in tannaitic law, Milgram claims the components do not originate in biblical law; rather, they emerge from the adaptation of Roman legal vocabulary and conceptualization within a nuclear family in an urbanized setting with private landholding patterns (Chapter One). For, biblical law fails to distinguish between inheritance and gift and no rabbinic scriptural exegesis exists for the inheritance laws, both primary aspects driving his arguments. Ancient Near Eastern and Roman laws of inheritance function, though, in a similar way as tannaitic Law. Roman law, though, is most similar because of the legal conceptualizations of mattanah (Latin: donatio) and yerushah (Latin: hereditas). While already established as parallel terms, Milgram’s analysis furthers the importance of their relationship by using them to highlight the tannaitic social and economic context. Additionally, through philological-historical analysis meant to highlight the distinction between gifting and inheriting in tannaitic law, he suggests mBB 8:5 contains evidence for a tannaitic approach which permits testate succession, as opposed the more commonly accepted intestate succession. Through highlighting these various similarities to Roman law and uncovering a suppressed tannaitic approach, Milgram demonstrates well the possibility that his observations affirm the impact of the social and economic reality of the rabbis upon tannaitic law.

Moving on to the question of possible origins for tannaitic flexibility in firstborn inheritance law, Milgram demonstrates how the legal flexibility developed due to the cultural heritage and contemporary horizons, even to the point of declaring no firstborn. In terms of cultural heritage, the flexibility of firstborn inheritance seems to develop from ancient Near Eastern and Biblical sources, sources which evidence flexibility in the status and inheritance of the firstborn. Only with more contemporary horizons of Greek and Roman legal writings, though, does tannaitic law fully develop due to an (1)urbanized tannaitic Palestine and (2) absence of firstborn allotment among Greeks and Romans. Within this chapter, clarification as to what constitutes biblical law in Milgram’s approach would have helped to clarify some of his arguments. For, in some interpretations, law is just as much the patriarchal narratives as it is the book of Deuteronomy.

In an exploration of testate succession in Tannnaitic law, Milgram thoroughly explores for the nearest legal parallel of testate succession in tannaitic law (Chapter Three). Accordingly, he argues that R. Yohanan ben Beroka introduces testate succession for agnates. After examining ancient Near Eastern and Greek parallels, these traditions are excluded as possibly connected because they tend to include adoption, something absent in tannaitic inheritance law. Only in Roman legal discourse, sui heredes, do we see a reasonable parallel. While Milgram emphasizes the context of contemporary Roman law, thereby further establishing the influence of Roman law upon tannaitic law, highlighting appropriation of the biblical model, as a partial antecedent to tannaitic law, into the tannna’s own Roman-Palestine, socio-political context is necessary. Consider his comment about R. Yohanan ben Beroka: “In that sense, the tanna remains fiathful to a fundamental tenet of the biblical model: the land remains in family hands” (95). Based on this, perhaps tannaitic testate succession may be, in part, an appropriation of biblical tradition, albeit a conjectural suggestion.

Shifting to inheritance by daughters, Milgram argues three major principles of tannaitic inheritance law (collection of an inheritance share, receipt of a dowry, and maintenance) possibly developed in a context of Roman law (Chapter Four). While the “cultural valuation of daughters” is evident in both Roman and tannaitic culture, actions of Romans, as opposed to law, demonstrate the valuation and tannaim legislation demonstrates valuation. Additionally, his analysis of mBB 8:4, one tannaitic tradition approaches sons and daughters as equal in inheritance.

Following this discussion, Milgram considers inheritance by wives. With the lack of biblical precedent and scriptural interpretations for tannaitic innovations of collection of maintenance and residence or payment of the ketubbah debt as two approaches to widow’s benefits, he argues the tannaitic law developed via local practices which rabbis may have observed and via ancient legal traditions from throughout the region (Chapter Five). A statement within the chapter raises, though, a question of his framework and, consequently, methodology. In short, he claims the Bible was authored in an ancient Near Eastern context (139). Although this is absolutely true, it fails to consider the whole picture. Scholars recognize the influence of Greek ideas and culture upon the development of biblical traditions. Thus, more serious consideration of the (possible) relationship between Greek and biblical traditions might enable a better understanding and timeline of the development of legal tradition in the Mediterranean.

Additionally, Milgram’s treatment of Ruth is poor. While it would be reasonable to conclude upon the fact that Naomi is a sort of trustee for future sons, he notes “the possibility of polemics in Ruth… impairs our ability to penetrate in what way… the book is representative of historical law or local custom” (140). This view, unfortunately, is very limited. In his recent commentary about the book of Ruth, Jeremy Schipper illustrates why Ruth should not necessarily be read as a polemic text. Milgram should have further engaged with Ruth. For such a rich repository of questions and issues of inheritance as found in the book of Ruth, the lack of discussion of Ruth is disappointing.

Having illustrated how tannaitic inheritance law was possibly influenced by contact with Roman law and cultural heritage of ancient Near Eastern and Greek law, he entertains the issue of how Jewish is Jewish inheritance law. As he puts it, “we are witness to competing and conflicting traditions that are, at times, interwoven with one another, waiting to be discovered and mined for the richness they add to the complex web of tannaitic inheritance traditions” (146).

As a result of Milgram’s study, we more clearly observe the relationship between Roman, Greek, and ancient Near Eastern laws and tannnaitic traditions. He does this by revealing various tannaitic traditions throughout his work, traditions previously unobserved. In short, he allows us to better understand tannaitic law within its ancient, legal context. Hopefully future scholars will further elucidate the complex web of laws from Jewish traditions and other ancient legal tradition and how they possibly influence each other. For the scholar who does this, Milgram’s monograph is an important reference.

“The Age of Agade” by Benjamin Foster

Benjamin R. Foster. The Age of Agade: Inventing Empire in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York NY: Routledge, 2016, 438 pp..

Renowned Assyriologist Benjamin R. Foster provides a comprehensive overview of the Akkadian Period in Mesopotamian history. As opposed to arguing for a particular point, the “work is intended to be documentary and descriptive, rather than analytic or constructivist” (xvi). Naturally some scholars are skeptic of the Akkadian era; yet, as Foster is not skeptic of the Akkadian era, he recognizes the role of skepticism: it “is always useful in keeping the fervent imagination in check” (xvi). On the other hand, notes Foster, venture is necessary for gain of historical knowledge. He approaches the Akkadian era with four guiding questions, each of which “marshal a coherent choice of facts or interpretations” (xvi), not generalized explanations of cause and effect.

ageofagadeChapter One exquisitely overviews the rise and fall of Akkad, from Sargon up to Sharkalisharri. Because Foster presents the history with such clarity, resulting is a solid framework by which the reader may more successfully grasp the rest of the work, as it offers a solid, well-grounded historical framework. He then offers an overview of the people and land of Akkad, incorporating socio-religious structure and how various polities, subjected to Agade, resisted imperial, Akkadian power (Chapter Two). Incorporating archaeology into his comprehensive overview, Chapter Three succinctly summarizes a variety of centers and settlements relevant to the Akkadian Empire. With this, Foster presents his understanding of ‘”Empire”:

“”Empire” is used here in its conventional sense of supreme and extensive political dominion, presided over by dynastic rulers, who claimed extraordinary, even superhuman or divine powers. It was an entity put together and maintained by force, with provinces administered by officials sent out from the capital in the heartland” (83).

Within his discussion of Akkadian centers and settlements, two maps (51, 81) provide excellent visuals for conceptualizing the geography of the Akkadian Empire and where various important centers stood in relation to each other. The focus on geography, thus, is very valuable for readers attempting to fully understand the Akkadian era. Like Chapter One about the overview of the rise and fall of Akkad, Chapter Three, about the Akkadian centers, provides a physical framework, namely geographical, for the remainder of the book.

Zooming into everyday life in the Akkadian era, Chapter Four overviews agricultural work and diet during the period. In particular, Foster illustrates how the production of agriculture was the “gears” of the Empire. Detailing specialized practices, outside of agriculture, he presents how a variety of raw materials were utilized to propel industries and crafts. Going into nuanced details of the types of ceramics, the cost of materials, metal ratios in materials, etc., the wealth of data is fantastic for beginning any research from a perspective of materiality (Chapter Five).

Chapter Six overviews religion in the Akkadian era, seemingly covering all major issues, such as deities, temples and their workings, holy objects, oaths, festivals, and magic. As much as Fosters presentation of religion in the Akkadian era is helpful, there are two problems. First, Foster never defines “religion” or explains how the overlap of religion, government, social, economic, etc., impact how we understand religious practices in the Akkadian era. This is a consistent struggle throughout the work. While it is a comprehensive overview, readers would benefit by understanding how Foster defined terminology, especially terms which tend to have so many nuances. Additionally, Foster propels a classic argument that “Ishtar’s cultic staff included performers of rites… who in some cases cut themselves or other performers as part of the rite” (151). His argument is rooted in statements like “I have given the cult-players their daggers and goads” (346). Nothing in this statement, though, even implies some sort of self-mutilation. This is important to Ilan Peled (Ugarit-Verlag, 2016: 187-188) who argues throughout his book, Masculinities and Third Gender, that claims for self-mutilation are often too far-reaching.

In Chapter Seven, Foster describes the structure of Akkadian politics and military, consistently highlighting the Akkadian king as the head of state and military matters. Through politics and military advances, the Akkadian Empire enabled trade, business, and economic growth (Chapter Eight). Transitioning more to abstract Akkadian ideas, Foster overviews art in the ancient world, art subsuming the categories of letters and numeracy (Chapter Nine). In a similar vein, Foster examines (Chapter Ten) Akkadian human values and expression of identity.

Finally, Foster focuses on the reception of the Akkadian era (Chapter Eleven), examining how literature and legend influenced later Mesopotamian ideals and cultures. He concludes with part II of reception history: Akkadian period in modern historiography (Chapter Twelve). While the wealth of knowledge and succinct summary by Foster are absolutely notable, the most intriguing details revolve around Tyumenev, Diaknoff, Nikolski, and Van der Meer. Being written in Dutch and Russian, ideas proposed by these four scholars are relatively inaccessible. Fosters inclusion of these scholars, consequently revealing them to other scholars, will hopefully propel their inclusion in future studies of the Akkadian era. After Chapter Twelve, Foster includes three Appendixes: Akkadian royal inscriptions, works attributed to Enheduanna, and two Sumerian poems about the Akkadian period. These texts are some of the main sources for Foster. Thus, their availability is helpful to the reader.

Needless to say, Benjamin R. Foster’s comprehensive overview of the Akkadian Empire, The Age of Agade, is indispensable. Beyond important summaries of Soviet historians in the book, Foster’s wealth of knowledge as a leading scholar in Assyriology marks The Age of Agade as a must-read, especially for beginning scholars or those beginning to research the period. While the book claims to be “accessibly written”, it should be noted that, at least for the general public or non-specialists, Foster writes at a very high-level. Even so, I highly recommend this work to scholars working in the field of Assyriology or Mesopotamian history and to non-specialists looking for an comprehensive understanding of the Akkadian era.


(Typographical error on page 301: “Tymenev” instead of Tyumenev.)

Some More Thoughts on Joseph Campbell

This is a wonderful blog post by Andre Solo that articulates some reasons why I am not a huge fan of Joseph Campbell. In particular, I like his words about what Campbell did:

“In the 1940s a white American man wrote about the sacred myths of other cultures. He decided he knew what they meant better than those cultures themselves did.”

  Rogue Priest

I believe in heroism. I try to live by a heroic philosophy.

Often, that means people want to talk to me about Joseph Campbell. And every time, I cringe.

Who is Joseph Campbell

Some of you might not know this name (I won’t judge), so I’ll do my best to fill you in. Joseph Campbell was an author who wrote about world myth. He was an avid reader, traveled quite a bit, and knew his topic well. There’s no denying that Campbell digested a lot of myth in his day. Oh yeah, and Hollywood likes him.

Campbell’s writing focuses on finding universal patterns in myths from around the world. If you know much about the study of myth, this should already be setting off alarms for you. He was heavily influenced by Carl Jung, and decided that myths reflect universal archetypes in the human mind. He believed that all…

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