Review: “The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World: An Interpretation of Western History” by Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart. 2020. The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World: An Interpretation of Western History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

In The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World: An Interpretation of Western Civilization, Jon Stewart draws from philosophical anthropology (“the study of what it is to be human” [10]) and the philosophy of history (“a field that attempts to find patterns or regularities in history” [10]) “to trace the various self-conceptions of different cultures as they developed historically” (11). In particular, following Charles Taylor, he focuses on inwardness, subjectivity, and individual freedom. But whereas Taylor discusses the modern world, Stewart explores inwardness and subjectivity in the ancient world, or rather its development. He defines inwardness and subjectivity broadly, involving moral sensibilities, feeling about right and wrong, one’s role in the universe, relationships to nature and gods, conceptions of the soul and afterlife, and human freedom and culpability. Exploring such ideas, Stewart suggests, help us “better understand our own modern views about what it is to be human” (18).

Indeed, the introduction offers an important and admirable goal. Within various fields, notions of interiority are a hot topic. Likewise, the problem of what being human means is central and particularly relevant in the twenty-first century, a period fraught with competing ideas about how to understand our role in the world as humans. But Stewart’s introduction does not adequately discuss his method and various assumptions. Methodologically, for instance, he suggests that folks in the humanities “study different cultural products in their original context” (7). Stewart is correct to a degree. But reality and practice are different. Though we try to understand texts in their original context, whether the period somebody wrote them or in their reception history, we still read such texts in our own contexts. As such, we interpret cultural products in light of how we perceive the world to function, our assumptions about logic, materiality, and language inputted into the text. As such, that Stewart does not mention or discuss the problem of the reader’s situatedness strikes me as a missed opportunity.

Equally equivocal is his designation of what constitutes a canonical Western text. He refers to “the canonical texts of the Western tradition” (9). At no point does he explain what texts constitute this supposed tradition, why they matter, or how one decides what texts to include. Moreover, as a brief overview of twentieth-century critical theorists illuminates, canon is not self-evident. Thus, Stewart perpetuates the false idea that we can objectively identify a Western canon.

What’s more, the assumption of canon is the symptom of a broader problem: Stewart’s work orientalizes non-Western texts. As Edward Said suggests, orientalizing is not so much about understand the Other than it is about constructing a Western identity at the expense of the Other. (In Said’s words, “Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism is—and does not simply represent—a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world” [Edward Said, “From Orientalism,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1793]). Stewart does this, in a way, by subsuming all the texts that he examines, including the Hebrew Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek works, the Gospel of Matthew, and Latin works, as texts that allow an “overview of Western civilization” (10). That is, Stewart’s use and organization of these texts effectively categorizes them as Western, using them to construct a history of the West.

In chapter 1, Stewart explores the Epic of Gilgamesh. To discuss the broad notion of inwardness and subjectivity, he introduces the text, identifies multiple key passages to discuss various themes, and provides some other, general discussion. Although my role as a reviewer is to include a summary reflective of the book’s central claims, such a task is remarkably difficult because the chapter is haphazardly composed, without any clear central claim and reading more like a series of short, unrelated essays. This problem is consistent throughout the book. As I noted, Stewart’s definition of inwardness and subjectivity is too broad. So, in trying to cover all the matters in his definition, the chapters become convoluted and difficult to follow, with no clear line of continuity.

Additionally, the chapter is unnecessarily long. Although summaries and the history of scholarship are interesting, they take the bulk of space. As a result, the chapter, and most chapters, are mostly summaries rather than nuanced analysis. And while he offers interesting thoughts, he does not usually substantiate them with secondary literature or the primary text. By reducing the summaries and including more detailed analysis throughout, the book could be better and shorter.

In chapter 2, he explores Genesis 1–11 and Job. Like chapter 1, he briefly discusses the history of scholarship, followed by snippets and themes in Genesis 1–11 and Job. As with his discussion about Gilgamesh, his interaction with primary or secondary literature is minimal. And as a person in the field of biblical studies, I see how problematic the absence is. It results in many false, dubious, and unsubstantiated statements [1].

In chapters 3–10, he discusses a wide range of Greek and Latin texts. Since I am not an expert of Greek or Latin literature, I group these chapters together. They follow the same structure as chapters 1–2: an introduction followed by a range of texts and themes. Similarly, he rarely engages with secondary or primary materials. On account of this, I am skeptical about many of his interpretations. One chapter stood out in particular—Sophocles’s Oedipus the King.

In this chapter, Stewart argues that Oedipus’s self-knowledge is a sort of hubris that leads to his downfall, and he makes comparisons with Genesis 2–3 and 11. This reading struck me as odd. Indeed, Oedipus seeks knowledge, but he seeks it so as to lift the curse, not trying “to be like the god Apollo” (148), as Stewart suggests. Such a claim, as far as I can tell, misrepresents the play. Investigating further, I realized another issue: that Oedipus’s problem is the hubris of knowledge is not an original idea. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche comments on knowledge and hubris in Oedipus Rex: “It is as though the myth whispered to us that wisdom, and especially Dionysiac wisdom, is an unnatural crime, and that whoever, in pride of knowledge, hurls nature into the abyss of destruction, must himself experience nature’s disintegration” (1956 translation by Francis Golffing). That knowledge leads to destruction is precisely how Nietzsche and Stewart read Oedipus Rex, but for all Stewart writes about knowledge as hubris he never references Nietzsche. While I cannot explain why Stewart does not refer to Nietzsche, his claims about Oedipus as reflecting Nietzsche’s reading bring two things to my mind. First, Nietzsche was not a classicist or historian. As far as I can tell from a cursory overview, classicists took issue with his readings. As such, Stewart’s discussion is problematic, issues of citations and ethical standards aside. Second, this section raises a deeper issue: How often does Stewart elide citations and pass them off as his own? Just as the chapters on the Hebrew Bible and Gilgamesh include dubious claims that I could identify because I know those texts and the scholarship, I wonder how many claims in his discussion of Greek and Latin texts likewise are based on weak grounds, or even other people’s arguments without a citation or reference.

Beyond matters of citation, how Stewart puts different traditions into conversation is questionable. While cross-cultural comparisons are valuable, how he compares Jewish, Christian, and Greek concepts is overly simplistic. While discussing natural law versus relativism, he puts forth problematic claims. First, he invokes the concept of “the Judeo-Christian tradition” (149). (For the history and discussion of why this category is unhelpful, see James Loeffler’s “The Problem With the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ ” in The Atlantic.) He then makes the dubious claim that Judeo-Christian tradition believes that “laws of ethics are absolutes that are non-negotiable” (149). As such, “it would be absurd for individual human beings to rebel against these laws” (149–50). Here Stewart is simply wrong. Regarding negotiability, we see a wide range of ethical norms in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish tradition, and Christian traditions. Sometimes these ethics are rooted in divine authority, other times more akin to natural law. And in some texts, we see ethical tensions with no clear ethical norm. And, third-century BCE through first-century CE Jewish and Christian texts pick up on the idea of natural law! In short, then, Stewart constructs a misrepresentation of Jewish and Christian traditions so they can neatly and easily contrast with Greek traditions. (See, for example, “The Sibylline Oracles,” Josephus’s histories, and John Barton’s Ethics in Ancient Israel.)

In chapter 11, he explores subjectivity in Matthew. In addition to the previous criticisms, this chapter is surprising because he draws from Kierkegaard rather than biblical scholars to explain the notion of offense. Why draw from a nineteenth-century philosopher rather than biblical scholars when discussing the Gospel of Matthew? Even if his goal is a philosophical history, he misses a wealth of scholarship that would speak to his research interest.

In the final chapter, Stewart offers a range of concluding thoughts of his history of so-called Western civilization and subjectivity. The heightened version of subjectivity in the modern world—something that would have been progressive in the ancient world—creates a problem. Whereas in the ancient world one “enjoyed a sense of immediate belonging in their world with traditional values and customs, we moderns, wallowing in alienation, can never hope to re-establish this” (358). So, while the modern world was able to develop legal institutions and individual freedom, it developed simultaneously increasing alienation and isolation. Such alienation and “breakdown of traditional values and institutions” (359), he suggests, engenders a societal challenge to self-identity formation. To deal with this problem, social media emerged as a tool for identity formation, albeit one “constantly on him- or herself and not on the external world” (364). This self-obsession on social media he calls narcissism. And since social media is not the “real world,” he doubts social media can solve the problem of alienation. He links this issue to the rise of relativism and the disappearance of truth, a world in which a fictional self-image answers the problem of alienation. So, Stewart claims, it appears we live in a post-truth world. The rise of relativism, alienation, and extreme subjectivity thus yields more people seeking group identity, such as nationalism. Therefore, Stewart suggests a balance between extreme subjectivity and communal identity. We should seek this balance via reflection on the history of Western civilization.

Now, the acute reader will see that I spent more time summarizing this chapter, the conclusion, than any other chapter. The reasons are threefold. First, unlike the other chapters, the conclusion provides a clear through line and coherent, cogent claims. As such, I can effectively engage with his arguments, observations, conclusions, and logic. Additionally, his take on subjectivity is thoughtful and interesting and could stand apart from the book, as it does not rely heavily on the discussion in chapters 2–13. Therefore, I do not suspect it is rooted in nonfactual information, as much of the other chapters either are or may be. Lastly, the final chapter is worth engaging with because the ideas are interesting. So, in the next few paragraphs I analyze Stewart’s logic and conclusions. Admittedly, I disagree with most of his logic and conclusions, but they are not entirely wrong. Instead, I interact with his arguments to refine and nuance his ideas.

Stewart first highlights how shifts toward extreme individualism engender individual alienation. Indeed, extreme individualism can engender and increase isolation. Where I take issue is the strong distinction he makes between communalism and individualism. While individuals may no longer turn toward the government or authority figures since they do not always represent the individual, the implication is not that people necessarily turn inward, diminishing “the traditional sense of solidarity, community, and civic obligation” (358). Rather, people seek different communities and solidarity groups. Such groups, though, are not as apparent, perhaps because they are smaller, more localized, disconnected from powerful institutions, and less public. So, while folks may turn inward, Stewart’s grim picture of communal externalism versus individual inwardness seems to focus on the spectrum’s extremes, not tapping into the grey zone. Taking the extremes as a clear dichotomy appears yet again in his contrasting the ancient with the modern. While ancients may have been more communal and relied on tradition in a way that we might call uncritical, it is not as if ancient people never felt alienation, as is evident in various Mesopotamian literary texts, Job, Psalms, and, I suspect, other ancient literature from around the world.

Furthermore, if we accept that modern people struggle more with self-identity than ancient people—itself a dubious claim—social media, Stewart argues, enables self-identity construction but also gives rise to highly internalized, individualistic, and narcissistic people, since he perceives social media as mainly for constructing a self. On a few fronts, Stewart is undoubtedly correct. Social media can increase isolation and alienation; it is a tool for self-identity construction. But his representation of social media and self-identity formation is far too simplistic. For instance, his suggestion that the rapid development of social media is a “testimony to the important need that it fills” (364), namely, to be part of something and not alienated, fails to interrogate the why. That is, did social media emerge because it purportedly solved the modern alienation and self-identity problem? Or did social media create the problem of alienation and self-identity formation so that it could then offer a solution? Or is another explanation possible?

Equally in need of nuance is his representation of social media as primarily a narcissistic, self-identity platform. While he is correct that social media is about identity formation and can (but not always!) lead to narcissism, this representation is not always true. In my experiences with Twitter, for example, my constructing a self-identity via the platform is also a means to network—or rather socialize—with others in my field of study. Likewise, my wife has found many social groups on Facebook that make her part of a community, of something larger. Therefore, social media is not all about the individual; social media also involves socializing, networking, and engaging with others, albeit digitally.

With this nuanced understanding of social media, I can thus interrogate what Stewart calls the external, real world and the inward, online world. If we understand social media as a real social interaction, then the boundaries between the online and real world become less clear. For even if people stare at their phones, they also discuss content. And as my wife noted, people used to interact with file cabinets, multiple notepads, newspapers, magazines, books, media, and crossword puzzles; however, those tools and activities are now available via a single material object. As such, how we engage with the single material object frequently is just as “inward” as how people used tools and materials 30 years ago. So, if anything, social media is a place where people create content, discuss real life, and engage with the same things they did 30 years ago, albeit via a single material object, such as a phone or computer. Thus, Stewart should further nuance the connection between the virtual world and the nonvirtual world instead of viewing them as a dichotomy.

He continues by suggesting social media leads to a fictional version of one’s self online. As such, whereas in what he calls real life one is special by “verifiable skills, talents, personal qualities, experiences” (368), and more, the online world is about persuading others that you are special. Fictional selves then give rise to relativism and the idea that factual bases do not exist. Of all Stewart’s arguments in this chapter, this section is the most problematic. For from his sharp distinction between the real world and the online world arises the distinction between an online fictional self and a real-world self. These categories are highly problematic, especially the idea that the online and real worlds function differently. Consider, for instance, the role of speech. Even if an individual has no experience or knowledge in a field, people often perceive loud and intense speakers as bearing more authority than a soft-spoken expert. Consider the COVID-19 world, for instance: people frequently turn to congress people as authorities on infectious diseases because said congress people speak from a position of authority and power. Yet, those people often have no training, skills, experiences, or expertise with infectious diseases! Instead, people perceive them as authoritative because of their self-representation as (fictional) experts. And social media is the same! Via careful rhetoric individuals can represent themselves as critical and knowledgeable without a lick of criticism or knowledge. In both cases, an individual self-represents via persuasion, not skills or knowledge. Thus, to distinguish strongly between real life and social media in terms of real skills versus fictional skills strikes me as short sighted. And though I will not discuss this point ad nauseam, many parallels between real life and social media are evident: representing one’s self as an artist via Instagram versus an art gallery or as a rhetorically witty person via Twitter versus in debates; emphasizing different aspects of once identity based on their location is social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook group, private chat, etc.) versus the real world (public meeting; home with family; out with a friend; etc.). In both the real world and online world, people select and front aspects of their selves to construct an identity. Thus, the claim that the real world is about being and the online world is about persuading does not hold up to scrutiny. Instead, we always persuade others about our identities.

As such, his argument that fictional selves or social media give rise to absolute relativism is on weak grounds. Even if we accept his claim about relativism—which seems overly simplified to me—that the construction of fictional selves necessarily engenders this relativism does not logically follow, especially since his understanding of social media and self-representation is fraught with misunderstandings about how it functions. Moreover, his description of relativism yet again falls into a framework he uses regularly. Rather than identify the nuance and describe a spectrum, he focuses on the extremes of the spectrum: modern versus ancient, internal versus external, fact versus nonfact, relativism versus objectivity.

He concludes by suggesting that we must strike a balance between objectivity and subjectivity. While I do not disagree, I cannot help but wonder, “Is this idea not what many others have already said in different words, what humanities scholars do on a daily basis?” In other words, he develops what may be a recycled conclusion through a series of extremes. Rather than claiming a broad unity between objectivity and subjectivity, his argument would be more effective pedagogically had he demonstrated how to function within that framework. (Recall that he envisions undergraduates using this book in a classroom.)

As the reader may have guessed, I was not a fan of this book. The idea is interesting and important, but Stewart does not execute it well. And the book is not coherent or cogent, save for the last chapter. And even this chapter was chock-full of overly simplified paradigms and misunderstandings of how social media works. So, folks researching issues of subjectivity should engage with this book if they seek specific content. But on account of the lack of coherent and cogency, use of outdated scholarship, wrong facts, and overly simplified discussions, I do not recommend this book for courses or casual reading. And while Stewart is clearly an accomplished scholar, it seems best that he continue to focus and work on Hegel, Kierkegaard, and other philosophers, not ancient literature. Unless another book comes along or Stewart writes a more critical and academically rigorous volume on subjectivity in the ancient world, folks are better off reading older works on subjectivity.

[1] The following are examples of the incorrect information that Stewart offers: he claims that Abraham would have know the flood narrative because he was from Ur (38), but biblical scholars view Genesis as a myth and etiology, not history; he describes prayer as a form of sorcery (45); he frames Genesis 1–3 as describing the Fall, which is more of a Christian tradition than a close reading of the text; he describes Noah as the first patriarch (61), which is problematic; he mentions sin in Gen 1–3 even though sin does not appear until Genesis 4; his references for Job are outdated; he appears to read the Hebrew Bible as representing a monolithic religious tradition, though he does not explore much outside of Genesis 1–11 and Job. While I saw more examples in other chapters, I do not care to list all problematic claims here and instead focus on the broad, systemic issues that I identify I the review.

Created Order, the Deity, and Humanity

At the latest, the Hebrew Bible was compiled between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE. In other words, over 2200 years separate us from the cultures in which the Hebrew Bible was compiled. Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible reflects traditions as far back as the 11th centurie BCE. So, nearly 3000 years separate us from some aspects of the cultures and traditions reflected in the Hebrew Bible. This vast distance of times can make it difficult to understand what is happening in a text of the Hebrew Bible. After all, people living in ancient Syria-Palestine, or the ancient Near East more generally, did not see the world the same way as us. 

I hope to demonstrate this by offering a Psalm as a case study. In it, I want to show how many people in the ancient world understood created order, the divine realm, humanity, and politics to be intrinsically intertwined, if not the same things. This may be strange in a culture where people constantly refer to the separation between state and religion. In the ancient world, political was religious and religious was political.

Following is my own translation of verses (vss.) 2-5 of Psalm 89:

(2) The devotion of Yahweh is eternal; I sing to it from generation to generation. I make known your fidelity with my mouth (3) For I have declared: eternal devotion will be built; (in) the heavens you will establish your fidelity in them.

(4) I have cut a covenant with my chosen one; I have been sworn to my servant David. (5) Until eternity, I will establish your offspring; and I will build your throne from generation to generation – Selah.  

In vss. 2-3, a person is speaking the 1st person. The individual speaks towards Yahweh. In vss. 4-5 the speaker is Yahweh. Yahweh first speaks about his covenant with David. Following, he speaks towards the Davidic dynasty.

In order to illustrate how the various spheres overlap (divinity, created order, and humanity), I will first show where they appear within this small selection of verses. Regarding Yahweh, the deity, it is clear that he plays a role in this Psalm. He acts in such a way that demonstrates his fidelity and devotion. The human speaker even declares Yahweh’s fidelity and devotion. What exactly, though, does Yahweh do in order to demonstrate his fidelity and devotion as a deity?

Verse 3 is a helpful avenue to explore, as it assists in working out how the ancient author may have understood his world. In vs. 3 devotion is built and fidelity is established in the heavens. Both of these concepts, though, are abstract. In other words, they have no material reality. If vs. 3 is meant to recognize Yahweh’s devotion and fidelity, his actions must have some material benefit to humanity, not just a feeling of devotion and fidelity. When we consider how ancient Judeans may have seen the world, though, it becomes clear why vs. 3 exemplifies Yahweh’s devotion and fidelity.

As early as 1910, biblical scholars realized that ancient Judeans may have seen the sky as a real structure. Genesis 1:6 references the firmament, namely the sky. The word used to describe the firmament has to do with flattening a material like metal. Consequently, Genesis 1:6 may demonstrate that some ancient Judeans thought the sky was a large, metal structure above them (Driver 1910, 21; Speiser 1964, 7).

If this imagery is at play in Ps. 89:3, it offers insight into the logic of the writer. Devotion is “built” and fidelity is “established” in the heavens because Yahweh has built the sky and established the heavenly structure. Consequently, the heavenly structure holds back the pre-creation, primeval waters (Genesis 1:1-2).  In other words, a deity literally built a structure which (1) prevents a return to the primeval waters and (2) protects all humanity.

If this is the world view of the Psalmist, then it is quite reasonable for Yahweh’s devotion to be demonstrated through devotion being built and his establishing the heavens, namely the sky. Created order is sustained by the deity, which in turn allows humanity to live. What better way to show devotion and fidelity than to prevent a massive flood through building the sky?

While it clear that the divine realm, humanity, and created order are connected in some regard, how does it relate to politics?

Vss. 4-5 detail Yahweh’s covenant with David. Vs. 4 specifies that he made a covenant. Vs. 5 details how Yahweh will establish and build David’s line. Notably, vs. 5 uses the same words as in vs. 3. In vs. 3, “establish” and “build” are used in context of Yahweh’s building a giant structure, namely the sky. In vs. 5, those same verbs are used to describe Yahweh’s commitment to enable the line of David to maintain its places on the throne. In other words, Yahweh commits to supports the line of David in its political endeavors. He makes this commitment in the same way that he upholds the dome structure above humanity, namely the sky.

Use of the same words to describe (1) Yahweh’s upholding the sky and (2) covenant to the line of David suggests they are correlated. Although it is difficult to tell to extent to which they are correlated in these particular verses, one thing is clear: Yahweh’s role in created order is used to legitimize and justify the political authority of the Davidic line. In turn, David is to act as a special servant to the deity.

This sort of relationship between a king-figure and deity is consistent with other regions, groups, and Empires throughout the ancient Near East. Notably, though, it was not an issue to people in the ancient world. To them, it was completely normal for a king to be supported by the a deity, a deity who supported created order itself. In turn, it was completely normal for a king to serve the deity as a particularly special servant.

These roles, though, were one and the same. To be legitimized by the deity in political terms was also to be legitimized by the deity in religious terms. This legitimization of kingship was often times supported by recognition that the sponsoring deity also kept creation in order.

Many texts in the Hebrew Bible reflect the aforementioned notions. With this awareness, we should be careful to immediately assume that something is either religious or political. In many cases, it is both. They are one and the same. If we don’t work with this notion, we do a disservice to ancient Judeans. They were a people group who, like any culture, should have their own autonomous and independent voice. It is up to us to decide whether or not we want to hear and understand what their world was like and what they have to say.

 

On the Roots of the Hebrew Bible: Mesopotamian or Greek?

*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 the Hebrew Bible, no copyright page exists. In other words, there is no concrete way of knowing exactly when or where it was written or compiled. From evidence within the Hebrew Bible itself, we know that it was rooted within a Mesopotamian context; however, this is not the full story. Certain elements are not present in Mesopotamian literature. Take, for example, the Primeval Story of Genesis 1-11.

Niels Peter Lemche (2016) discusses this particular issue. Scholarship established, for example, that Genesis is rooted in and influenced substantially by the Gilgamesh. Niels Peter Lemche briefly explicate:

The version in Genesis is more or less a rewritten Gilgamesh (cf. Lemche 2012a). The introduction of the raven as the first bird sent out by Noah, but not returning, is an intertextual reference to Gilgamesh (Genesis 8:7). In the version in Gilgamesh, the raven is the third bird sent out from the ark, the bird that does not return because it finds the world dry again (Gilgamesh XI:153-154) (Lemche 2016: 69).

With this in mind, we should be aware that certain elements of Genesis 1-11 are absent from Mesopotamian traditions. The conflict between Cain and Abel is such an instance. As far as I am aware, there is not extant (existing) Mesopotamian tradition of one brother killing the other out of some sort of jealousy. While the myth of Cain and Abel may be rooted in the authors personal ideas, it is, nonetheless, in line with the motif of brotherly conflict in Livy’s history (Livy was a Roman historian at the turn of the millennium.

I point this out in order to highlight an important part of reading the Hebrew Bible: although it utilizes many ancient Near Eastern and Mesopotamian myths, it did not necessarily only exist and be influenced during that period. Some scholars, in fact, suggest the Hebrew Bible was written in Alexandria. Consequently, its traditions are firmly within the Mesopotamian cultural milieu and a Greek cultural milieu. In other words, reading the Hebrew Bible from a historical perspective is difficulty because it stands at the crossroads, not in terms of the Levant, but it terms of culture.

Re-Discovering the Darkness of the Biblical Flood Account: Brief Comparison of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis 8

*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.

As I suggested in my previous blog post and as is well-established in scholarship, the Hebrew Bible is within the cultural milieu of the ancient Near East and Eastern Mediterranean region. It is culturally related to societies in ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Assyria, and others. Because it is embedded within that environment, there are certain words and narratives for which we are unable to fully grasp the significance. Before I explore my example within the Hebrew Bible, allow me to provide a modern example.

Imagine that 2,000 years in the future a person discovers a newspaper. This newspaper contains an descriptive article about Donald Trump’s political stance. It is dated to June, 2016. While the person who discovers the article may understand how Trump is understand from one perspective, without other sources, such as other articles, books, blog posts, etc., the person will never fully appreciate the depth of the article. In order to do this, the person must explore literature which is culturally related to the topic of Trump. Only then can they begin to fully grasp the article about him.

epic

 

Likewise, the Hebrew Bible can sometime only be fully understood in light of other, culturally related texts. One account in particular is the flood account, which finds an amazingly similar parallel in the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, written c. 2100 BCE (Tablet XI; read it for free here). But first, Genesis 7. As the flood begins in Genesis 7, we see several phrases for which modern readers may easily miss the significance:

All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, And the floodgates of the sky broke open… The Flood continued forty days on the earth… When the waters had swelled such more upon the earth, all the highest mountains everywhere under the sky were covered… all the flesh that stirred on the earth perished… All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. All existence on earth was blotted out… they were blotted out from the earth

– Genesis 7:11-23, Jewish Study Bible

Any keen reader recognizes the darkness in this passage in terms of the destruction of the entire earth. Perhaps some readers may even recall that death, originally introduced in Genesis 3, has been moved to an entirely new level: the destruction of humanity. What the

modern reader misses, though, is one major cultural element only apparent to those situated within the ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu: the divine realm[1].

 

In the Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI), we read about how the gods caused, and reacted to the Flood:

Just as dawn began to glow
there arose from the horizon a black cloud.
Adad rumbled inside of it,
before him went Shullat and Hanish,
heralds going over mountain and land.
Erragal pulled out the mooring poles,
forth went Ninurta and made the dikes overflow.
The Anunnaki lifted up the torches,
setting the land ablaze with their flare.
Stunned shock over Adad’s deeds overtook the heavens,
and turned to blackness all that had been light.
The… land shattered like a… pot.
All day long the South Wind blew …,
blowing fast, submerging the mountain in water,
overwhelming the people like an attack.
No one could see his fellow,
they could not recognize each other in the torrent.
The gods were frightened by the Flood,
and retreated, ascending to the heaven of Anu.
The gods were cowering like dogs, crouching by the outer wall.
Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth,
the sweet-voiced Mistress of the Gods wailed:
‘The olden days have alas turned to clay,
because I said evil things in the Assembly of the Gods!
How could I say evil things in the Assembly of the Gods,
ordering a catastrophe to destroy my people!!
No sooner have I given birth to my dear people
than they fill the sea like so many fish!’
The gods–those of the Anunnaki–were weeping with her,
the gods humbly sat weeping, sobbing with grief(?),
their lips burning, parched with thirst.

Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI), at Academy for Ancient Texts

Note a few things within this passage of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Several gods are depicted as violently beginning the flood, allowing the dikes to overflow, releasing a torrent of rain, submerging the mountains in a way akin to an attack. Eventually, the gods are unable to recognize each other in the chaos: “No one could see his fellow, they could not recognize each other in the torrent.” Following this phrase, the Flood account indicates that all of the gods cowered in fear, retreated to heaven, wept, and sobbed.

Although it is too much to claim that the ancient Judahite who compiled/wrote Genesis 7 was fully aware of the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is reasonable to claim that, to a certain extent, the divine conflict which occurs during the epic is present in the conceptual, cultural, and historical weight of the language of Genesis 7. Consequently, when reading Genesis 7, we should remember the weight of what the text means by Flood. It is not merely about the death and destruction of all humanity, a conflict between humanity and divinity. When we peel back the layers of Eastern Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern culture, it becomes apparent that the Flood incites fear within the divine beings, causing them to retreat into the heavenly realm due to terror.

Remembering this when we read Genesis 7 allows to be more understanding of reality of the Flood. The Flood, in the mind of the author, is a horrific, terrifying occurrence. Beyond the realm of earth and destruction of all life, the Flood casts a dark shadow within the divine realm and divine beings therein.

[1] There is absolutely more than one element; however, for the sake of time and interest, I am focusing on one element.

 

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.

Evidence for the Intertextuality of Genesis 15 and Leviticus

A few months ago I argued for the intertextual nature of Genesis 15 and Leviticus based off of the sacrifices God orders Abraham to sacrifice. In search for further evidence of their connections, I came across Jubilees, which elucidates the intertextuality of the cultic practices of Leviticus and sacrifices of Abraham. Being a retelling of several biblical episodes from Genesis, the book of Jubilees (2nd Century B.C.) inserts unique elements to the account originally found in Genesis 15, namely a focus on obedience to God through cult. These elements provide insight as to how a 2nd Century B.C. Jew may have understood Leviticus and Genesis.

The following demonstrates the  textual differences.

  • Genesis 15:10 – He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.
  • Jubilees 14:10-11 – And he took all of these [animals] in the middle of the month. And he was dwelling by the oak of Mamre, which is near Hebron. And he built an altar there. And he slaughtered all of these, and he poured out their blood upon the altar. And he divided them in the middle. And he placed them facing on another, but the birds he did not cut up.

Genesis focuses more on the belief of Abraham in God’s promises. In contrast to Genesis, the centrality of Jubilees is on sacrifice and blood offering as the core for covenant and promise. Additionally, Jubilees notes the time of sacrifice, an indication of cultic ritual. Even though all of Jubilees reflects similar shifts to greater focus on obedience to the Torah, its redaction of Genesis 15 supports the idea that Genesis 15 and Leviticus have strands of intertextual connections.

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.”

Source:

http://www.theonion.com/articles/mars-maven-begins-mission-to-take-thousands-of-hig,36987/

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.