“Chaos” in Study of Hebrew Bible

Debra Ballentine argues that “enemies defeated by the victorious warrior deities across ancient West Asian conflict traditions are not agents of “chaos” but rather agents of an alternative divine power structure” (2015, 186). In other words, “chaos” and Chaoskampf are inaccurate representations of traditions in the Hebrew Bible, as she demonstrates by analyzing the develop of the traditions for different ideological purposes. This is important because it marks an important shift in how agents of “alternative divine power structure” should be discussed.

Interestingly, Konrad Schmid, in his entry on Creation in “The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology” (2015 volume I, 174), describes the tehom of Genesis 1, lion in Job 38:39-40, Leviathan, crocodile, and Behemoth as “representatives of chaos”. Unfortunately such appropriation of these previous characters ignores the conflict myth consistently present through the ancient Near East that is utilized to legitimize certain ideologies through the conflict myth, a motif well explored by Ballentine.

In my view any current, and future, discussion about Chaoskampf must address the arguments of Ballentine. To do otherwise would be to do disservice to her wonderful work and dismiss it. Though perhaps it will be a challenge to leave the traditional German Chaoskampf in which so much scholarship is rooted.

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The Conflict Myth of Joshua 6-7 (Part I)

Warfare and, as some attempt to term it, “genocide” occur within the book of Joshua and have been subject to intense criticism. Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan explore this issue in Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014). Although I’ve not had the opportunity to read it yet, Jacob J. Prahlow notes that the “book primarily addresses the claims of the New Atheist movement concerning the violence of Christianity and the Bible” (Click here for original blog post at Pursuing Veritas). He is now exploring the question “Did God Command Genocide?” through a series of posts discussing the nature of Israel’s conquest of Canaan. Part III of his series notes that ” in the Ancient Near East context, especially when discussing war and military conquest, language of total domination was the norm”. But it is also important to explore motifs present throughout ancient Near Eastern literature that help explain issues like Israel’s conquering of the land of Canaan. For this I will approach the issue within the text from a perspective of the conflict myth topos.

By utilizing Debra Ballentine’s discussion of the conflict myth through biblical tradition, I will show how the rhetoric of Joshua utilizes the conflict topos, common throughout ancient West Asian literature and culture, to legitimize Joshua’s destruction of Jericho and defeat at Ai.

Approach to the Conflict Myth

There are four keys to approaching Joshua 6-7 that I will utilize, based on Ballentine’s The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015): presence of the motif through many genres, ideological nature of conflict myth, secondary application, and socio-political/literary context.

First, conflict myth is present through many genres, including, though not limited to, historiography, poetry, proverb, ritual prescription, and prophecy (Ballentine 2015, 12). With such an understanding, presence of the conflict myth motif is not limited to mythologies, but is present, or at least potentially present, in works such as the book of Joshua.

Second, conflict myth is ideological with regard to the socio-political/literary context. In Balletine’s words, “the conflict topos was meaningful for particular authors. That is, authors utilized the conflict topos for ideological purposes” (2015, 21). With this understanding of the conflict myth, I will draw out its ideological intentions within Joshua 6-7.

Third, secondary application of the conflict myth, utilized to legitimize human ideology, “depends upon the ideological basis of primary application (making statements about deities)” (2015, 91). Thus the book of Joshua, as I will explore in later posts, legitimizes, or de-legitimizes, Israel’s actions based upon the conflict myth in which Yahweh was understood to have acted.

Finally, the ideology is active within the socio-political context of the literature and also literary context, and both should be taken into consideration. Ballentine explains that “storytellers and authors… may adapt traditional or familiar narratives or motifs to suit their specific historical, social, political, and/or cultic contexts” (3). Thus a reading of Joshua 6-7, a book placed in a specific time period within the narrative, must take into account the ideological intentions of the author’s own socio-political and literary context, with full awareness that the two will very likely overlap at certain points.

As I proceed in future posts, these four ideas will guide my work.

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The Privileged Tradition: An Approach to Comparative Studies

Emerging from an academic environment in which the Hebrew Bible was extremely privileged and West Semitic culture “Canaanized” (Ballentine 2015, 17), much 20th and 21st century biblical scholarship has sought an equilibrium to allow for comparative studies without presupposed significance of one text over the other. By “Canaanized”, I mean the gross misrepresentation of West Semitic cultures primarily via the polemical lens of the Hebrew Bible and cherry picked texts. More recently, from an evangelical perspective, John Walton has championed the importance of comparative studies for the Hebrew Bible, drawing emphasis to the challenges of comparative studies for confessional scholars in Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Walton 2006, 29-40). Debra Ballentine succinctly notes in her discussion of “the comparative enterprise” that “Israelite and Judean traditions should be included among Canaanite traditions, not portrayed as being opposed to, completely other than, or superior to Canaanite traditions” (2015, 16).

But how does one avoid privileging the Israelite Judean traditions without abandoning recognition of the role of the Hebrew Bible in the daily lives of the religious? I believe the answer to this question does not rest upon increasing ones faith in the Bible, for doing so would move back towards the “Canaanization” of West Semitic culture and myth. Nor does it require movement towards complete agreement on the authoritative nature of ancient literature. Positive development of supporting the authoritative status for the religious, and avoidance of diminishment of it to one insignificant piece of literature among many, may be found by moving toward questions of the universality of story, myth, and ritual. As Catherine Bell (1952-2008) notes at the end of her introduction to ritual, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, “the form and scope of interpretation differ, and that should not be lightly dismissed, but it cannot be amiss to see in all of these instances practices that illuminate our shared humanity” (1997, 267). In other words, regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof, the ritual nature of life itself should be drawn out to find common humanity.

By elevating the status of other ancient literature to demonstrate the commonalities of humanity, comparative study may more successfully flourish amongst those who do privilege the Hebrew Bible. The notion of privilege then becomes an issue of praxis rather than glorified literature. So even if one firmly believes in the importance of the Hebrew Bible over other ancient literature, the common ritual, and hence uniting humanity, permits a more balanced equilibrium. Furthermore, this approach would allow confessional and non-confessional scholars alike to be heard better by those outside of the academy. Instead of hearing a person say that the Hebrew Bible is not significant, drawing out the common human elements of other literature allows people to hold to their beliefs while still recognizing the intrinsic value of other ancient literature.

Such an approach accomplishes two important missions for all people. First, this approach unites people in finding common humanity. No evidence need be shown to reveal the disconnected and opposing behavior of many people due to the sense of one’s traditions over another. But by elevating the intrinsic value of ancient literature for human commonalities, an environment is cultured in which conducive discussion may occur and unite, rather than splinter people. Secondly, people are permitted to believe freely in what they understand to be Truth, or truth. Culture of scholarship would permit confessional and non-confessional alike to unite and hold to their own tenants. Hence the validity of scholars are upheld and the community becomes more inclusive, accepting the full spectrum of traditions and scholastic approaches.

Finding the intrinsic value of ancient literature has the potential to improve the quality of biblical scholarship. How do certain texts discuss the nature of humanity? Does the text do so in a ritual manner that compares equally to the Hebrew Bible? Too what extent does ritual illustrate the common humanity between ancient Israel and Canaan? These are the sort of questions that may be explored more thoroughly only when one is willing to note the intrinsic value of all ancient literature for demonstrating common humanity.

Cited Works

Ballentine, Debra Scoggins. The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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