“The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition” by Debra Scoggins Ballentine

The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition by Debra Scoggins Ballentine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, 292 pp., $74, hardcover.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy of The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition.

The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition traces conflict myth as an ideological tool for legitimization, or de-legitimization, of political entities throughout ancient West Asia. An assistant professor at Rutgers University in the Department of Religion, Debra Scoggins Ballentine specializes in Hebrew bible and ancient Near Eastern religions.

Chapter One of The Conflict Myth introduces Ballentine’s approach to myth theory and her purpose, namely “to identify how mythological themes are used in various sorts of contexts, regardless of how scholars classify those contexts” (12). Specifically she focuses on the mythological conflict topos and “its place with respect to ideology” (13). Chapter Two introduces and analyzes the conflict topos within four extant narratives, Anzu, Enuma Elilsh, Aššur Version of Enuma Elish, and the Balu Cycle. Each summary and analysis of extant narrative draws out and focuses upon the ideological implications, especially royal ideology. Ballentine demonstrates that each narrative, though with differing divine taxonomies, utilizes the conflict topos to legitimate kings and royalty, while also de-legitimizing other deities. In effect the myth narratives “promote particular cosmic and earthy locations and royal individuals” (71). Having established the ideological nature of the conflict topos, chapter three analyzes “shorter forms of the motif in epitomes, allusions, and imagery” (72) from sources between the 18th and 6th centuries BCE. Ballentine is careful to display the unique status of various utilizations of the conflict myth through every example. Chapter four continues by noting the various adaptations of the conflict myth through innovative legitimization within eschatological frameworks, drawing on literature of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, 1st and 2nd century Pseudepigrapha, and Rabbinic literature. Chapter five explores the secondary application of conflict myth to Gamaliel, Jesus, and Antiochus IV in regard to the notion of control over the sea. The final chapter (Chapter 5) importantly argues that “Chaos” “is not an accurate characterization of the various enemies featured across the articulations of the ancient West Asian conflict topos” (186) and re-states her primary points, especially drawing out the uniqueness of each application of the conflict myth for each particular ideological intention and political environment.

Overall, Ballentine’s goal is clearly accomplished. Without a doubt she demonstrates how the conflict myth is a common theme throughout ancient West Asian culture and how cultures have, throughout centuries, utilized the myth conflict to legitimize certain ideologies. Furthermore, she elucidates how the biblical tradition is not merely a “copy” of ancient West Asian conflict myth; rather, it is utilization of a common theme by which political power could be legitimatized, either by conflict myth of the past or eschatological innovations of conflict myth in the future. Such an accomplishment is one of the strongest elements of her work, especially because it offers a different understanding to the appropriation of characters like “Tiamat, Yammu, Môtu, and Lōtanu/Leviathan as “agents of chaos” or “chaos embodied”” (196). Additionally, her approach offers answers to questions about texts, such as her suggestion that “Rabbinic combat traditions may be responding to the types of claims made about secondary divine figures… propagated in late antique Christos-centered ideologies” (170), ideologies cleaved to by early Christianity for their theological benefit to Christian theologies. Such explanation for certain factors within biblical literature is present throughout her work. Finally, she is able to demonstrate the unique status of the biblical application of the conflict motif without wrongly pushing for its total autonomy from ancient West Asian themes or its total dependence upon ancient West Asian themes.

One major weakness of her work, although it does not take away from the validity of her conclusions, is her use of the Balu Cycle. As she presents the Balu Cycle and compared it to Anzu and Enuma Elish, the Balu Cycle is far more complex in regard to how it represents conflict and therein the characters involved. Although a conflict myth is present, the complexities suggest that the conflict myth within the Balu Cycle is similar to Anzu and Enuma Elish but not the same approach to conflict myth. Such complexities are present in the Hebrew Bible and the conflict myth in the Hebrew Bible operates within a time period in which Judeans are under the control of another nation, or “deity”, indicating that some nuances of the conflict myth remain unexplored. The necessity for one deity to approve another, as in the Balu Cycle, suggests a very unique political environment, one in which ancient Judeans consistently lived. Hence, further divisions of the types of conflict myth, beyond primary and secondary application, would have bolstered her overall arguments. Specifically, developing more textually based relationships between the various sources would support her argument even more, answering the reason conflict myth in the Balu Cycle and Anzu/Enuma Elish can be considered the same ideological tool of conflict myth.

Aside from how she used the Balu Cycle and her lack of nuances about types of conflict myth, especially as they relate to ideological legitimization, her work is excellent in its presentation of the conflict myth and biblical innovations of it. Wide coverage of literature, from Ugaritic works to Rabbinic works, and thorough analysis of each occur of the conflict motif mark her work as on to be remembered for future discussion. The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition provides a unique approach to conflict myth, and especially the Hebrew Bible, that may be utilized by scholars to develop a deeper and fuller understanding of biblical myth and the conflict myth.

“Hidden Riches” by Christopher B. Hays

Hays, Christopher B. Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.

 

Christopher Hays (Fuller Theological Seminary) provides a succinct and clear introduction and sourcebook for comparative studies of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern literature. Having found its origins in his work as a master’s student at Princeton Theological Seminary in a class about direct engagement with primary texts, he works to elucidate and make alive the world of the Hebrew Bible.

Part one provides a helpful introduction to both his work and the history of comparative studies. Chapter one explores how, poetically put, he hopes that people learn to breathe oxygen of the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, resulting in a clearer and sharper image of the Hebrew Scriptures (4). Of course, his analysis is not intended to be “liberal”, “secular”, “evangelical”, or “conservative”; rather, it is intended to discuss the academic issues in a manner honest to scholarship and also provide discussion questions which may further one’s own studies. Furthermore, Hays provides, and does not assume, critical issues surrounding the composition of the Hebrew Scriptures, a point that permits one to fully grasp his analysis from any level. At last, he provides primary texts with authoritative translations, and an up-to-date bibliography by which one may study certain topics further.

Chapter two explores the history of comparative studies and surrounding issues. Namely it covers the earliest discoveries of “Orientalists” in from the European colonialism of the 17th century to the decipherments of Ugaritic and Akkadian in the 19th and 20th centuries. Following, Hays summarizes the methodological approaches of various scholars as they regarded the uniqueness of the Bible. Based off the work of William W. Hallo, he argues for comparative studies as from a contrastive approach that decenters “the Bible in order to grasp the way it takes part in a much larger cultural matrix” (36). In effect, Hays notes that one may know the biblical text for the first time (37).

The next four sections of the book, the remaining chapters, cover the Pentateuch, former prophets, latter prophets, and writings. Within each section are certain pieces of literature for comparison. For example, in chapter seven, Hays compares the Laws of Hammurabi and the Covenant Code. While more texts are available through the world, he only selects one or two texts and provides a bibliography for further study and more primary texts. Each selection is complete with a Bible reading and at least one primary source reading. Following each primary source, Hays discusses the critical issues surrounding the texts and illustrates how certain ancient Near Eastern literature elucidates elements within the Bible. In his comparative analysis’ he presents the full views of subjects without adhering to any point of certainty. In essence he does well to compare the texts without asserting biblical superiority, an easy possibility for confessional scholars.

While each chapter was effective in their presentation of the text and historical critical issues, there were a few points where potentially valuable information was lost. First, in Enuma Elish, Table VII, Hays excludes many of the fifty names for Marduk. For an undergraduate or masters student seeking to understand such a portion of text, it creates an inconvenience by which one must seek another translation. While his exclusion of Anshar’s sending Ea and Anu to defeat Tiamat or the repetition of Tiamat’s preparation is reasonable, exclusion of Marduk’s fifty names leave out a treasure trove of data regarding how people viewed their highest deity.

Also, aside from the chapter divisions by genre type, there is no further systematization to help one retain concepts found throughout the literature and analysis presented. In essence, Hays operates differently from John Walton (2006) who provides his own analysis of the ancient Near East, the cognitive environment, and categories for understanding. For the undergraduate reader, Hays work alone is inadequate in that while his comparative analysis is fantastic, there is not enough detail to help the reader organize information to retain. With this work, one should be accompanied by something like Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.

Beyond these two critiques, Hidden Riches was a joy to read for the neutrality. Again in contrast to Walton, Hays writes for a less conservative audience and provides one with the primary resources and guidance, the discussion questions, to consider the information independently. Though dense at some moments, Hays makes clear the various text critical issues, not assuming one already knows the issues. Additionally, he, as determined by his methodology, maintains respect of both the Hebrew Scriptures and ancient texts. Theological assertions about the Hebrew Scriptures are rare and, if present, only utilized as a comparison of Hebrew religions and ancient Near Eastern religions.

 

In sum, Christopher Hays’ exquisite work opens the literature of the ancient Near East to graduate and undergraduates alike. Although he doesn’t directly provide categories to help illustrate the cognitive environment, the nature of his methodology for comparative studies allows one to finish reading his work with a sense of the ancient genres within which the Hebrew Scriptures are located. As a result of reading Hays work one begins to be able to grasp the cultural matrix and complex dynamics between ancient Israel and its neighboring groups.

“A Study Companion to Introduction to the Hebrew Bible” by Ryan P. Bonfiglio

Bonfiglio, Ryan P. A Study Companion to Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Second ed. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2014.

Written as a supplementary text to John Collin’s Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (2010), Ryan Bonfiglio’s study companion offers brief, yet also thorough, coverage of issues surrounding the Hebrew Bible. And as an important  note, I did not read it primarily as a study companion to Collin’s introduction to the Hebrew Bible; rather, I read the study companion as an independent book. Thus, that is how I will review it.

Each chapter is divided into four major parts: summary, key terms, key personalities, primary readings, and questions. The summary of each chapter is concise and simple. Thus rather than needing to read through a lengthier introduction as found in Collin’s work, the reader, who may have a short attention span or little time to study, is given an ever so brief explanation of the content and scholarship surrounding certain parts of the Hebrew Bible. While the brief nature of the summaries may be inadequate for those seeking to excel in scholarship, they do provide a basic awareness of biblical scholarship.

Following the summaries, Bonfiglio presents the key terms and key personalities. Presentation of the two elements in his succinct manner allow the language of biblical scholarship, ranging from “Hermann Gunkel” to “House of David”, to take shape within the laypersons mind. In effect, the terms often foreign to people become terms with life and permit them to dialogue better in theological and scholarly discussions.

To fully allow the reader to immerse themselves in the study, Bonfiglio includes selections of primary texts from the Bible, pseudepigrapha, and Ancient Near East with notes about each reading. His method is valuable because it never attempts to force the reader to simply accept the information he offers. In fact, previous to each reading, he gives the reader certain ideas and concepts to look for within the readings.

At last, following the primary readings, he poses discussion questions. The discussion question are invaluable because they force the group or person studying, whether Christian or atheist, to take the primary texts seriously. For Bonfiglio, one cannot merely dismiss the text. They must respect the autonomy of the text, which is then encouraged through a medium of discussion questions.

In conclusion, Bonfiglio’s introductory work, though intended to be read with Collin’s more detailed textbook, is useful as a companion to the Hebrew Bible, even without the textbook itself. Although there are certain places where his work may need certain explanations to concepts and terms, the companion is for the most part easy to digest and helpful to the reader, especially in a group setting. It is informative, though not exhaustive, and simple, though not simplistic. Overall, I highly suggest this book to a general audience seeking to learn about scholarship surrounding the Hebrew Bible and the history/context of the Hebrew Bible itself.

If you are interested in purchasing A Study Companion to Introduction to the Hebrew Bible please do so through my Amazon Associates store. It permits me to earn a small percentage of the total cost of the book.

I’d like to express my gratitude to Fortress Press for lending me a review copy of A Study Companion to Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.

 

The Strange Fire of Leviticus 10

Following the appearance of the presence of God to assembly of Israel (Lev. 9), God appears more intimately to Nadab and Abihu. Unfortunately, this appearance of the presence of Yahweh resulted in their deaths. Their deaths were a result of offering incense and strange fire which Yahweh had not commanded. But what was the nature of the incense and strange fire? Mark Rooker offers four common possibilities:

(1) penetrating too far into the sanctuary
(2) offering unauthorized coals from outside the temple area
(3) offering incense that did not contain the proper ingredients
(4) offering incense at the wrong time of the day” (Rooker 2000, 157).

While each of option can be supported, I propose a more contextualized interpretation of what “strange fire” represents. Although there are clearly connections to Leviticus 16:1-2, option 1, and disobedience to the cult regulations, option 3, Leviticus 10 suggests another possibility. I suggest that strange fire, rather than being disobedience to cult regulations, is an issue of foreign worship.

1. Altars in the Ancient World

The first piece of evidence is the nature of altars in the ancient world. Unlike Yahweh’s altars, ancient Near Eastern texts hold evidence that single altars could be used for multiple gods. In The Zurku Festival, repeated ritual upon one altar is used for many gods such as Ea, the Moon and Sun, and Nergal. Within it, one altar and sacrifice are utilized as “sacrificial homage for all the gods with a ewe” (William W. Hallo 1997, 433).

Especially in consideration that the Priesthood took part in the worship of the golden calf, it is not unlikely that within the Priesthood were still people dedicated to worship for “strange” gods. The term “strange” is significant and will be explored more thoroughly in section four.

2. “Breaking the Regulations” in Leviticus 10

Leviticus 10 is written so that Nadab and Abihu’s sin regarding ritual is reflected by their father Aaron in Leviticus 10:19-20. In Leviticus 10:17, Moses critiques Aaron for not eating the sin offering in the holy place. Yet, Aaron’s reason for doing so is good to Moses. Regardless of Aaron’s reason, Aaron broke the cultic regulations. To do so did not result in his death. Why would it result in the death of his sons? If his sons were merely offering incense to Yahweh out of regulation, would not have Yahweh accepted the offering graciously?

3. Command in Leviticus 10

Leviticus 10:1 uniquely uses God’s command. As far as I am aware, it is the only place where a term of negation (לֹא) is directly paired with God’s command (צוה). The nearness of these terms indicates more than going against a command of ritual. Put plain and simple, God in no manner ordered the incense and strange fire because it was completely foreign and apart from God. Unlike Aaron, who erred in the ritual process, Nadab and Abihu opposed the ritual process by doing what God did not command. It was not of God. Thus, incorrect ritual is an unreasonable conclusion for their death and interpretation of what is strange fire.

4. Semantic Range of “Strange” (זָר)

In the Torah, זָר is used in contexts to describe laypersons (Exod 29:33, Lev 22:10, etc.), strange fire as related to Aaron’s sons (Num 3:4, Lev 10:1), and command not to offer strange incense (Exod 30:9). Deuteronomy 32:16 once uses “strange” to describe other gods. Throughout the remainder of the Hebrew Bible, “stranger” references an adulteress (Prov 22:14) and foreigners (consistent throughout prophetic literature).

If “strange” is understood directly in the context of the Torah, it should be understood as a “layperson” fire. Within a cultic context, the laypersons fire would have perhaps been unsuitable and unholy for offering. While the assembly centered around holiness, the flowing out of holiness implies that laypersons were less holy than the priests. With this interpretation, the “strange fire” was an unholy offering. This is supportable outside of the Torah because the remainder of the Hebrew Bible uses “strange” is some sense of lack of holiness, whether it be an adulteress or foreigner.

Conclusion

As noted in section one, altars could be utilized for various purposes and gods. A holy place did not necessarily house only one deity or act as a gateway to a single deity. Thus, it is likely that some within the Priesthood had no issue with offering to another deity within Yahweh’s cult center. Consequently the strange fire would be an issue of worshiping a foreign deity. If the issue were primarily of ritual regulations, Nadab and Abihu would have been fine, just as their father was fine after breaking ritual regulation. Yet they were not.

The nearness of the term of negation and command in Leviticus 10:1 solves this issue. Nadab and Abihu were doing something not just outside of regulation, erring in their operation, but completely outside the holiness of God. This is why the negation is so strongly tied to God’s command. The best explanation is that the strange fire was an unholy offering in the sense that it totally outside of the will of God: God did not command it. Semantic range of זָר (strange) lends greater support to this conclusion. Every use of “strange” carries an implied sense of distance from the holiness of God. Thus, the sin of Nadab and Abihu rests not in crossing cultic regulations but in offering an altogether foreign substance to God that was not likely even directed towards him. Hence, it was unholy.

Importantly the text is ambiguous about details of the foreign substance. The emphasis, overall, is on maintaining the holiness of God. So the editor of Leviticus saw no reason to describe in details the nature of their sin. In short, through the nature of altars in the ancient Near East, it is possible that one altars could serve for many gods. Contextually, Aaron’s err regarding God’s ritual indicates that Nadab and Abihu did more than incorrect ritual. Rather, they performed a sacrifice that was unholy because it was foreign, not even within the scope of God’s will. At the end of the day, Nadab and Abihu crossed boundaries of holiness as they offered unholy offerings possibly to other gods, not boundaries of how the ritual should be done.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Hallo, William W., and K. Lawson Younger. The Context of Scripture. Leiden;  New York: Brill, 1997–.

Rooker, Mark F. Leviticus. Vol. 3A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

 

Why Priests?

Within ancient Israel, Priests held extremely important roles. Priestly significance is demonstrated even more so by the entire ancient Near East. Unlike the 21st century western world, ancient civilizations in the Near East placed high value on the “sacred space”, often designating them as temples. The sacred space was essential to the survival of an ancient civilization because “it was considered the center of power, control, and order from which deity [brought] order to the human world” (Walton, 127). In effect, the temple, sacred space, was a sort of “government” for the ancient world in that provided life, prosperity, and justice. The sacred temple was also considered a microcosm of the cosmos, the center of the cosmos. With this context, it is evident why priests in Leviticus are so dignified and viewed with prestige.

The value of priesthood depended not upon the tribe or lineage. In its purest sense, priesthoods attained value because they acted as the ones who ensured the sanctity of the sancta (the sacred space). Consequently the priesthoods allowed (1) the gods to continues maintaining order and (2) permitted human involvement in retaining cosmic order (Walton, 130). Unfortunately, because the temple was simeltaneously a political entity and religious expression, priesthoods could easily evolve into political powerhouses rather than sanctifying/sancitified powerhouses. And due to our own context which dichotomizes religious practice and politics, we easily pick up on the political struggles but miss the high cultural value of priests within a cultic context. In this context, then, it is evident why the priests were so important to ancient Israel. Without priests, order could not be maintained and life could fall into non-order/disorder as the world was left without Yahweh’s presence.

References

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

By William Brown

“Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” by Yitzhaq Feder

Yitzhaq Feder’s monograph seeks to clarify and more firmly establish the socio-historical context of the origins of blood expiation within the Pentateuch. In part one, he clearly demonstrates that the zurki and uzi Hittite blood rituals are from the same tradition as the Levitical sin offerings. Part two continues by exploring the finer facets of the Israelite and Hittite blood ritual in order to explain the symbolism and meaning encompassing blood ritual’s expiatory nature. In doing so, Feder establishes a solid framework by which future scholars may approach critical theories of the Priestly biblical source, explore ancient Israel’s context, or better understand the role of sin offering in Jewish and Christian theological developments.

First, Feder’s established framework is one of the most commendable aspects of the monograph. He operates on the basis that rituals are not arbitrary gestures akin to magic, but rather they are actions within a socio-historical context where the ritual affects the world from the inside. His approach, unlike some anthropologists who consider ritual action to be arbitrary, honorably respects the depth and life within the Israelite and Hittite rituals. Such respect is not merely a product of his context within Israel. Genuine respect is also a product of his well-explained and well-reasoned methodological approach to the subject of ritual.

Additionally, relating to methodology, Feder provides an important key to prove the historical connection between Hittite and Israelite blood ritual. Feder utilizes Meir Malul’s Comparative Method to provide evidence for the historical connection, testing for “coincidence versus uniqueness, and corroboration to prove the flow of ideas between the two cultures” (115). Presentation and explanation through this framework provides and supports the remaining portions of his argument quite significantly by his clear justification of why his cross-cultural study is valid. In response to his proof of the historical connection, especially in light of the unique nature of blood ritual for Hittites and ancient Israel, I wonder what other connections may be drawn between the two cultures regarding other aspects of ritual.

In conclusion, Feder contributes a new, relevant, and important analysis of biblical and Hittite ritual to propel discussion surrounding biblical history, traditions, and interpretation. Though focused on proving his argument through concrete evidence, he never loses sight of the significance his work holds for 21st century Jews and Christians. In truth, “Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” is more than a socio-historical study of raw facts and data. It is an explanation for human behavior, especially as it relates to theology.

Click here to purchase “Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” by Yitzhaq Feder.

“Creation and the Persistence of Evil” by Jon Levenson

Though published 1988, Jon Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence Evil: The Jewish Drama of Omnipotence” still breaths invigorating and lively words into the hearts and minds of modern readers who seek to understand Yahweh in the ancient context of creation. From the outset, he approaches the issue of God’s mastery over the universe from a Rabbinical Jewish perspective. That’s not to say that he only uses Rabbinic sources; rather, after observing the ancient Near East context of creation, he seeks to see how those ideas are reflected within Rabbinic literature. The first section of the book is structured around understanding how God is master in regard to creation, pointing out that it ultimately comes down to creation as “the emergence of a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order” (12). Following, Levenson explores the “character”, if you will, of Chaos through the lens of the Hebrew Bible, drawing out the role of Chaos in sustaining Order and the power and reality of unchecked evil. Of course, the religion of ancient Israel expects that, eventually, God will win in that final future battle. In other words, while God’s enemies last, “YHWH is not altogether YHWH, and his regal power is not yet fully actualized. Rather he is the omnipotent cosmocrater only in potential” (38).

After briefly summarizing the previous chapters, he explores the later development of Israelite thought in regard to evil, which, based on Psalm 104, seems to be the development of God’s absolute power. However, in the midst of that absolute mastery over creation, evil is still persistent. Tracing strands important to his tradition, Levenson spends the next three chapters exploring the interrelations between seven days of creation, the temple as a microcosm of creation, and the driving purpose behind Sabbath. In synthesizing these observations, it’s observed that the cultic life of Israel was structured in such a way as to be Order within a world of Chaos. “It is through obedience to the directives of the divine master that his good world comes into existence” (127).

Transitioning into more practical issues of this exploration of the persistence of evil and God’s mastery over the universe, Levenson briefly explores the dynamics of lordship and submission in regard to how God is omnipotent. Levenson suggests, based on his developed argument, that mankind is both autonomous and heteronomous to God. Importantly, he notes that there should be no distinction between the two as it was in the ancient world, no dichotomy. With that strand, he proceeds to explore and explain these two aspects of covenant, provided by God, in terms of obedience and argument. As he puts it, “an innocent sufferer makes just claims against God and, upon submitting and recanting, comes to know anew the justice and generosity of his lord” (155). Levenson concludes that too often people attempt to make life, creation itself, a anthropocentric issue; rather, it is a theocentric issue in which evil persists, but God maintains the Order.

Levenson’s unique approach to understanding creation and the persistence of evil in biblical thought is unique because it expands beyond the realm of theological traditions. It approaches Genesis on its own terms and follows the close ties between various aspects of biblical thought. Most importantly, though, he is clear about explaining why it matters for the average Joe. His study is not an ethereal work of scholarship that goes over the head of the reader. Rather, it is a down to earth and easy to grasp study of why Genesis matters and how any person should read it. For Jews and Christians, it explores the idea of how God is master, how God is omnipotent. For me, his study and conclusion were satisfactory because it answered questions that have rolled around in my mind for years, questions no person has fully answered.

In conclusion, Levenson’s exploration of the persistence of evil is an excellent read for any serious student of biblical studies, whether scholar, student, or lay person. Although it may be a challenge for the lay person, it is definitely worth the read, as it will further a solid understanding of Scripture and also provide spiritual nourishment for relating to God’s mastery over the universe. Of the plethora of biblical literature I’ve read, Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence of Evil” by far stands as the number one book to this day. It’ll be hard to find a book that has had such an impact on my very being.

“In the Wake of the Goddesses” by Tikva Frymer-Kensky

In In the Wake of the Goddesses, Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) explores the role of the goddess and its development through the ancient near east. She holistically approaches the whole of the ancient near east with a focus on the societal views of women based on the mythological expressions relating to women and the role they play in the mythologies. Following this discussion, she approaches the Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of the divine when the goddess is absent, covering the issues of female portrayal in regard to humans and God. Finally, she concludes with discussion of how sexuality and gender is portrayed within the Bible.

Frymer-Kensky, in approaching the subject, is holistic in the sense that she doesn’t purely focus on the mythological accounts. She recognizes that the polytheistic tendencies of ancient Israel’s predecessors paint a backdrop of ancient Israel’s monotheism which, in many aspects, draw out its unique character among the nations. Her critical approach, while challenging many popular stances on the Hebrew Bible, are effective in allowing her to write a book which speaks to any audience, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. While there is a theological skew towards Judaism, her approach does not demand those results. In a sense, she takes a secular approach to biblical studies with a theological aim, not a theological approach with a theological aims (See Ron Simkins’ Biblical Studies as a Secular Discipline: The Role of Faith and Theology).

In conclusion, Frymer-Kensky’s exploration of goddesses in regard to ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Israel is an excellent choice for any person seeking to understand the influence of Mesopotamian culture and literature on the development of ancient Israel. Except, rather than merely presenting dry information, it is a living text that tells a story, thus making it easy to read. While easy to read, that does not take away from the critical approach and factual arguments of Tivka Frymer-Kensky. Her scholarship sheds light on why the University of Chicago dedicated a volume of Gorgias Precis Portfolios to Tikva Frymer-Kensky, titled “In the Wake of Tikva Frymer-Kensky”.

Click here to purchase In the Wake of Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth

Creation and Return

Lately, the majority of my research has been in Mesopotamian (Sumerian, Babylonian, and Akkadian), Egyptian, and Hebrew creation mythologies. In the research, I have learned an essential key to understanding the goal of the creation myths from these ancient civilizations. That is, the goal is a return to creation from the moment that it was brought from Chaos into Order.

In Genesis 1:2, the primeval condition of the world has often been connected to Tiamat, the Babylonian primeval Chaos. Thus, there is a striking similarity between the Hebrew creation and Babylonian creation. One common standard of ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian creation mythologies is that, after the god(s) take the heavens and earth from Chaos to Order, it is that Order which becomes the standard for the rest of mankind. How can this idea, found in the majority of the Hebrew bible’s contemporaries, help us understand the theological outlook of the bible?

In the bible, there is large focus on the idea of t’shuvah, a term used to denote return or repentance. An important aspect of t’shuvah is that a proper return goes back to creation, to how life was ordered by God. So, in light of the ancient near east, within Judaism, the idea of t’shuvah extends beyond repentance. In a manner like the New Testament suggests, t’shuvah is a return to the creator so that God may be king. More importantly, it is a sort of “new creation”. Perhaps this is why Paul writes that “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone and the new is here”.

This is more than a linear accomplishment of re-creation under the rule of God. It is a return of creation to the way that it was intended to be. It is a return to the rule of God in an unblemished world. For Paul, it is more than a new world. It can be understood as a return from Chaos to Order.

The Context of Ancient Egyptian Kings

When Moses is leading the people out of Egypt, what is the Pharaoh like? One of the most obvious facts was that the heart of Pharaoh was hardened. But what was the background of this? Though dating between 2400 and 2000 BC, the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts shed some light on this question. The text soon to follow displays the traditional pride (a term meant to be neutral) and power of an Egyptian pharaoh. From utterances 273-274, Faulkner titles them The king hunts and eats the gods. The following is an excerpt from the text:

“The King’s neck is on his trunk. / The King is the Bull of the sky, / Who conquers(?) at will, / Who lives on the being of every god, / Who eats their entrails(?), / Even of those who come with their bodies full of magic” (Faulkner, 80).

When the Exodus occurs in Egypt, after Yahweh has demonstrated his power against Pharaoh, and more importantly the Egyptian gods, Pharaoh has fallen further than he has ever fallen. Thus, his attempt to redeem pride and honor by chasing the fleeing Israelite population is essential to the validity of his rule. Furthermore, this text also demonstrates why there does not seem to be any record of an Israelite population enslaved by Egypt. To do so would require the Pharaoh to admit his defeat and the defeat of Egyptian gods. The loss of Israelite slaves is no little thing.

So, if a person ever states that Israelite enslavement is historically incorrect, remember that no empire establishing or attempting to establish a empire would record such a loss within their historical court records. And, when reading the Bible, know that Pharaoh’s decision to free the Israelite population is no small deal: Pharaoh placed his honor and power on the line.

Faulkner, R. O. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts,. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.