“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

The Significance of a Biblical Genre

Genre in General

In reading anything, whether a grocery list, love letter, or satirical article, it is of the utmost importance to understand the genre of the text. After all, if one reads a satirical article as if it were a publication from The Seattle Times newspaper, there would be a significant misunderstanding of what it was trying to express. Take, for example, the following Onion post:

“WASHINGTON—Confirming that the probe successfully entered orbit around Mars late Sunday night, NASA officials reported today that the Maven spacecraft was now set to begin its mission of taking thousands of high-resolution computer backgrounds. “In its first year alone, the Maven probe will capture several hundred crisp desktop wallpapers of the Martian landscape in previously unattainable detail,” said NASA scientist Bruce Jakosky, noting that the space probe’s sophisticated instruments would ensure the backgrounds were in resolutions up to 1920×1200 and large enough to span two side-by-side monitors.”



Obviously, the author is not attempting to present this as a “fact”. With the knowledge that this is a satirical genre, it is clear that he is making light of the fact that people tend to simply use pictures of space for their background pictures, failing to recognize the scientific significance of the images. Rather than informing, the article is reflecting on something observed in culture.

Although it seems as if everybody should know this naturally, they do not. Everybody, even great scholars, defines the genre of a book before reading it because it informs them of how to understand the book. Like the Onion, one must understand the genre of a book in the Bible in order to truly grasp what is being expressed.

Genre in the Bible

In the Bible, there are multiple genres. The Old Testament has prophecy, law, history, narrative, etc. Among these genres, within the academic world, many will find sub-genres of a genre. However, that is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, this post will examine Genesis 1-3 and observe why genre is important in reading it.

Genesis 1-3 is not a historical record or scientific journal. If one reads Genesis 1-3 justly, it is essential to understand that it is a mythological account of the creation of the world and establishment of Order. As an important note, mythology does not mean false; it is simply an explanation of some phenomenon. In the case of Genesis 1-3, Genesis 1 focuses on the Order of creation and role of mankind within it. Genesis 2-3 is more focused on the creation of man and women and, in essence, why evil exists. Why does understanding the goal of the text in light of this genre matter?

People will often read something like Genesis 1:26 and make a statement like, “Because God created man, and then male and female, women should be subordinated to men”. Or, they will look at God’s creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and claim that “women should be subordinate to men because they were created from his rib”. This interpretation, however, misses the point of the text. Genesis 1-3 is not written as a historical account of the origins of humanity. Rather, it is a mythological account of the creation of the world and the fall of man in order to explain certain elements of humanity that seem to be wrong.

Unfortunately, this gross misunderstanding of the genre of Genesis 1-3 has caused many theologians, modern and ancient, to claim that man was designed as the superior being to women. With such a profound affect on Christianity and western culture as a whole, it is clear why a correct interpretation with acknowledgement of the biblical genre is absolutely essential. So, next time you read a book, especially a book of the Bible, understand what the goal of the text is. Ask what the genre is. To misunderstand the genre may result in and interpretation never intended by the author, and perhaps completely opposed to the goal of the author.

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.