THE ROLE OF NEAR EASTERN STUDIES IN THE INTERPRETATION OF THE BOOK OF GENESIS
Where the Crawdads Sing by Dalia Owens has dominated the best seller list for the last two years. The beautiful written book traces the life of Kya. Kya is raised in the swamp just outside of a town. Kya’s family and upbringing are also very different from anything the townspeople could understand. It is a story of life, love, uniqueness, and determination. Kya’s love life is complicated and although the book is not a crime-mystery novel, Owens weaves the mystery of murder into the narrative. The book can be summed up in one statement. The people from the town cannot understand Kya because they either can’t or don’t want to see her in her context. She is from the swamp. She has grown up in a twisted situation. She loves nature more than architecture. The book’s climax shows the difference between the two men that Kya loved. Although she held onto the memory of one, the one who steps into her world is the one the gets to share her life and really get to know her.
Kya’s life illustrates a truth must be understood by anyone desiring to understand a historical event or history in general. It is impossible to truly understand and engage with an event of the past without being willing to step into that event’s world. If you stay in the town you will never understand what and why things happen in the swamp. Much like Kya, Owens described her heart and life and then secondarily explained that life by detailing the smells, sights, and sounds of the swamp.
The book of Genesis is like Kya. Beautiful, intriguing, extremely important, and situated in a very real historical time and place. Genesis is part of the special revelation of God. The truth of Genesis stands on its own concerning truth and meaning. God in His grace has given, if we desire, many sources outside of the Biblical text to bring context and clarity of meaning. The purpose of this paper is to argue that while ancient near east studies shed light on the Biblical narrative, they are secondary sources in understanding the complete storyline of scripture.
Before discussing ancient studies as they connect with the Book of Genesis, it is appropriate to consider a brief overview of the book. The word Genesis comes from the Greek word geneseos which can literally be translated as the “history of origin.” The author of Genesis had no qualms about making the bold statement that the book of Genesis is the true history of the beginning of all things. This is not to say that other documents in the ancient world claimed the same authority. Much of Genesis mirrors the customs and culture of its Mesopotamian origin. Like other documents of its time, the Genesis narrative highly values genealogies, and the placement of people groups. With the geographical descriptions of activity in the chapters of Genesis, the author clearly placed the activities such as the tower of Babel, the lives of the patriarchs, and the pre-Egyptian/Canaanite dwelling in Mesopotamia.
It is widely accepted that Moses wrote Genesis and the entirety of the first five books of the Bible or the Pentateuch. 1 Kings 6:1 claims that the fourth year of Solomon’s kingship over Israel marked the four hundred and eightieth anniversary of the Hebrew’s wandering in the desert after exiting Egypt. Moses writing that the Israelites spent forty years in the desert, it can be assumed that Moses wrote Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch between 1446 and 1406 c. Objections to Moses as author of Genesis include his writing of early creation events that clearly took place long before he or anyone else could give a first hand account. Another objection is that the Genesis narrative includes the death of Moses. Most scholars are satisfied with the conclusion that origin texts where orally passed down through the people of God and another author completed the books by adding his account of the end of Moses’ life.
The book of Genesis is the bedrock of the entire Bible. It is always a mistake to divorce the old from the new testaments. Genesis gives an account of the beginning of all things, including His promises. It is clear that although God’s glory is shown in his creation, the book of Genesis sets the stage that the Bible will be about Him and about His redemptive story and glory. One of the only times the Trinity is mentioned in the Old Testament is in the first chapters of Genesis where the God or in the Hebrew Yahweh says, “let US make man in OUR image”. This is not to be misunderstood as a form a polytheism. God’s declaration to Moses that, “I am” is His name underscores the theme set forth in Genesis that God is one God. The Hebrews would learn the importance of this as they repeated the Schema. Moses wrote about the monotheistic nature of His God when he and his ancestors were surrounded only of polytheism. As polytheistic creation myths without fail, were believed to have created out of anger, love, and competition with their fellow gods, Yahweh creates by Himself for Himself. Polytheism remained the primary belief system from the ancient near east all the way to antiquity. Interestingly, some religions today hold to some type of polytheistic foundation.
The creation story Genesis 1:1-2:3 ends with the beauty of a creation in which God is good. In 2:4-11:26, Adam and Eve rest and exist in the garden of Eden, the inner place of all creation. In chapter 3, sin enters world through the sins of pride and dishonesty. The human couple had been seduced by a snake to turn away from the commands of God. The consequences of sin would be death, God predicts His already developed plan that Jesus would come and conquer sin and death, crushing the head of the serpent. 4:1-16 tracks the progression of sin through the murder of Abel by his brother Cain and onward. Eventually God has had enough (6:1-8). Seeing the wickedness of mankind He decides to send a flood to cover all the earth and kill every human being. In 6:9-20:22 God shows his grace on a man named Noah and his family by saving them from the flood waters. This picture of a gracious God will remain a theme throughout the Bible, even to the end of Revelation. In 11:27-25:11, As mankind continues to build new cultures and traditions, God calls a man named Abram to go out and be the father of a new nation in which God will set apart for Himself. God gives him a new name, Abraham. Again, this theme of God setting a people a part for Himself will mirror the early Church and those saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus many years later. The following chapters of Genesis show how God’s promise works out in the faithful and sometimes unfaithful family of Abraham. God is always keeping his promise. Genesis ends with the death of Joseph, Jacob’s son whose brothers sold into slavery and then became the second most powerful man in Egypt. Before his death, Joseph witnessed the reuniting of his family as they moved into the land of Goshen, a province of Egypt. Genesis stands unique to its counterparts in that instead of laying down the foundation of a God who wants man to serve him so He becomes powerful, Genesis depicts a God who is already all-powerful, but choses to commune and covenant with mankind out of grace. Genesis’ defense of a monotheistic God who eschatologically held the future in his hands would be the foundation of the Biblical God Christians and Jews acknowledge today.
A Stern Warning
In Jarod Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and steel, he makes an argument that the origins and advantage of people groups around the world are affected by factors outside of their control and outside of their genetic composition. Even in writing the book, he feared that his work would be misunderstood to be a study in why some people groups such as near east and Europeans, advanced quicker that other people groups around the world. He was well aware that if not read carefully, his book could be used to fuel racist mindsets in a belief that some people groups were more genetically evolved than others. His concern and explanation appears multiple times in the book. He is not wrong to be concerned.
Many examples in history can be cited where history is used to divide mankind. William Shire’s lengthy chronicles on the The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich serve as a reminder how evil individuals can be when they misread history. Hilter combined northern European myths with pseudo history to support his view of Aryan superiority. The book of Genesis, along with the rest of the Bible, is not the history of one people group for one people group.
Much of the Bible, especially the old testament beginning with Abraham seems to deal primarily with the Jewish or Israelite people. Genesis must be read in a larger context than simply a Jewish document. Much later in history, in the book of Acts, Jews make the mistake of seeing the old testament, its teaching, and its promises as strictly Jewish. Paul, Peter, and other apostles had to teach the Jews that the meta-narrative of scripture was for everyone. It is prudent to study the secondary sources of history outside of the Biblical text as God’s sovereign movement in all the earth and in all people for His purpose.
Modern Obsession With History
There are now three History Channels on basic cable. You can watch History, History Military, and even History Vault. Given many programing hours are given alien shows, reality tv, and pseudo history, the desire for the public to be entertained by history is growing. Netflix has beefed up their historical documentary choices as well. YouTube boasts tens of millions of hits on historical documentary uploads. Most of the non-fictional books on the shelves are historical compared other types of literature such as self-help books and others. David McCullough, writer of many historical books including his wildly famous biography John Adams, said in an interview that American are craving history like never before. There are generally, two types of history that people enjoy. They enjoy modern history, the American revolution onward to World War II, or ancient history, specifically the empires and key figures of Greece and Rome. This trend could be why so many evangelicals are ignorant to the details of the reformation, since it took place in a less popular timeframe.
Americans don’t mind blurring the lines between history and myth. This is nothing new. Homer’s Odyssey was widely understood as fictional, yet his contemporaries believed that the story also included truth. In 2019 Neil Gaiman wrote Norse Mythology which gave a more accurate view of characters like Oden, Thor, and Loki than were saving the world as avengers. Most people in the 21st century would consider the myths noted by Gaiman as fun to read, but false. A thousand years ago and more, the Norse would have considered some of the facts of these myths hard to believe. Nevertheless they believed their origin story and the origin stories of their Gods found in those accounts enough to trigger the worship of their gods. The Romans had their own origin myths as well. The Roman origin myth says that twin brothers Romulus and Remus were raised by a she wolf. Through antiquity, there were statues of the brothers feeding from Wolf. The Legend goes on to say that Romulus killed Remus and then went on to establish what would be the city of Rome. This tension between family members that play an important role in creating civilizations and creation stories in general was not unusual. Much like the Norse, the Romans were generally skeptical of their origin myth while at the same time believing that some or much of the story must be true.
The interest in history, particularly ancient history brings about different reactions in regards to spiritual ideas. This is especially true when studying origin stories and very ancient history. One would think that an interest in ancient history would cause reflection in every aspect, but it doesn’t. Many times, the study of ancient history cause one of two reactions. The first would be an individual that studies it almost like fantasy, such as Lord of The Rings or the Harry Potter series. The second response would be an introspective look at one’s own beliefs and what they can glean from the spirituality and humanity of the ancients. Both responses, although the first being most concerning, must be addressed. A strictly fantastical view of ancient History will cause the one who studies to have a hard heart seeking to only know the facts. An example of this would be an obsession with the early conquest of Rome and particularly that of Julius Caesar and his conquering of Gaul without stopping to consider the religious, economic, humanitarian disaster that was caused. The second individual must be careful to view ancient history in its entirety.
Webster defines context as the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed. Understanding context is key to most situations we are assessing in life. History must be viewed in this context. The further back the history being studied, the more intentional the search for context must be. Human beings detect context all the time. When facts are thrown at the public through 24-hour news and social media outlets, context should be determined. Many times, this does not happen. The western world in 2020, tends to look at every historical event through its own cultural realities.
There is a fear of context. Sometimes cultural context makes people feel very uncomfortable. No doubt, any modern progressive thinker studying the ancients will be nauseous at the prevalence of human sacrifice, slavery, conquest, treatment of woman, children, and a dizzying amount of what would be considered horrendous human rights violations today. This makes it hard to objectively study any ancient people group. When it comes to the Bible, readers may fear that digging too deep into the context, especially of the Old Testament, would make it impossible to study God and the other characters when they lived in such a vulgar context. The old question of God’s goodness becomes even more troubling in a world of the ancients. Thinking about the ancients as violent and backward, must be tempered with the reminder that every generation has been equally depraved. This depravity shows itself in different ways from age to age. The book of Genesis should be read without fear.
There is an ignorance of context. Many times, when a person reads or studies ancient history rather than ignoring context, they are unaware of it. This seems to not make sense, but is a reality. As mentioned before, non-academics in the western world see themselves at the center of all things. Looking for context requires someone to take themselves out of their own reality and step into the reality of those who lived in ancient times. An ignorance of context will leave the reader blinded to the richness of the history he or she is studying. Anyone serious about learning what they can about ancient peoples, must be aware of the importance of context. The book of Genesis must be read with a keen eye on cultural context.
Literary and cultural context must be considered when studying ancient texts. It cannot be overstated that ancient texts need to be read and studied knowing what genre they are. Genre determines whether a piece of writing is a poem, a collection of wisdom, a biographical narrative, or historical. In his book Interpreting Eden, Vern S. Poythress devotes an entire chapter to the explanation Genre as it has to do with the book of Genesis. He acknowledges that genre can fuzzy at times, especially in stories that have been passed down through oral traditions. Much of the confusion in reading origin stories is an inability to distinguish between genres. The Bible is made up of a multitude of genres. It must be understood that some genres overlap, such a historical poetry. Genesis chapter one would be an example of such a text. Literary context serves as a road map to understanding ancient text, including the book of Genesis.
Understanding the cultural context of a text is also a crucial skill when studying Genesis or any other ancient texts. Texts from different cultures are like music. Listening to some types of music take your mind to the part of the world in which it was written. The Norse wrote different from the Celts and the Aztecs wrote differently than the Assyrians or Babylonians. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek culture, including language, influenced every people group from Europe and Northern Africa to the steps of India. The Greek influence remained strong into the rise and absolute power of the Roman empire. The original languages in which the Bible is written show evidence of the Greek influence among both the Jews and the early church. The Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew while the New Testament was written largely in common Greek. While the early Jewish influence is clearly evident in the Old Testament and into the Gospels, the Greek influence shows up in both the writing and the cultural norms of the early church as it expanded and grew. Understanding all the possible context of what is being studied is crucial in ones pursuit of understanding what is being written and why it is important. The book of Genesis read in context allows for an understanding of theology and anthropology. Though most scholars would not place history alone as the genre of the book of Genesis, there is still much history to be learned.
What is Near East Studies and Why do they matter when Studying the book of Genesis?
In the first chapter of his book Against the Gods, John D. Currid explains both a basic history of ancient near eastern studies and its relationship with scripture. His thoughts are incredibly valuable. He divides the history of near eastern studies in four concise time periods. He calls the first period, the beginnings of research in the Ancient Near East (1798-1872). This period of near eastern studies largely came from both interest and accidental discoveries. From the conquests of Napoleon in Egypt to the rise of modern empires such as the Ottomans, nation states were becoming both interested in their territories finding history as they went. Specialist began to form companies or groups to excavate. The larger ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Babylon gave up their treasure more so than ancient Canaan and other smaller or older people groups. Before this time, history of the near east came from the Bible and from ancient b.c. historians such as Herodotus.
The second time period (1873-1905), Currid calls the period of suspicion. The western world was becoming suspicious of everything. The search for archeological items became a search for evidence that would bring the Biblical amount into question. Groups that found new evidence that could run contrary to the Bible were lauded as heroes. During this time, documents containing flood theories and pre-Genesis writings were seen as something that could change a way to think. This type of study mirrored the feelings left over from the enlightenment.
The study of ancient near history saw new horizons in 1906-1940. This time period was marked by discoveries in ancient near eastern area thought before to be lost. Much of the Hittite and Assyrian relics were found. This was also the golden age of linguistic discovery. Thousands of clay tablets from all over the region were discovered and allowed translators to put a voice to the near eastern people. Language served as a road map to greater understanding.
1945-present has been an age of synthesis. Currid claims that the discovery of new artifacts, architecture, and linguistic tablets has slowed down. With the exception of the discovery of artifacts at Elba (Tell Marddikh). This discovery from Northern Syria was met with great expectation. There were hopes that the tablets found would clarify or mention the activity found in Genesis, especially the lives of the Patriarchs. Much was learned and gathered from this relic that had existed during the glory days of a civilization destroyed, probably by a neighboring empire, in c. 3000 b.c. Virtually nothing was learned that could collaborate with the Bible. This makes sense given the tablet was dated 450 years before the life of Abraham and the other Patriarchs. Much was still learned from the discovery. Beyond shining moments like Elba, study has been less about digging and more about observing. Throughout the history of studying the near east, the Bible and its detail have stood the test of time. One might argue that discoveries that seemingly contradict scripture and then were found not to contradict scripture only strengthen the resolve of those who believe in the historicity of Genesis and the rest of the Biblical text.
The Biblical text is different from its surrounding cultures and similar as well. Similar in the sense that Genesis was written in a real time among real people. As was discussed, many cultures allow for adherents to blur the lines between fact and myth. Even with debate over the interpretations of several passages, no serious reader of Genesis could conclude it was written with any other intention except a factual account of what really happened. For example the ancient text Enuma Elish shares many attributes of Genesis 1-38. It tells the tale of Marduk’s rise to be the ultimate god in the Babylonian pantheon. A close reading of this Summarian text differs from Genesis in that details concerning the god are clearly purposefully mythical or at least written with little or no detail. A precursor to gods like Zeus, Marduk ascends to be the most powerful of all the gods. The reader is left to question the humanity and divine nature of Marduk. Marduk is to be worshiped, but it is unclear how one is to divide their worship between rest of the pantheon. Contrast this with God in Genesis. He is and always was. He does not ascend, He is already there. There is no pantheon of gods, He is not created and everything else is. The God in Genesis is clearly the one to worship. There are no other gods. Where the story of Marduk leaves ambiguity for the reader, Moses clearly defines God. Any conversation with a skeptic of Christianity will bring up the Gilgamesh epic as proof that the flood account in Genesis is fabricated and stolen. Although there are similarities such as the god’s creation, the anger they had for humanity, and then the flood. In reality the epic is not the only text that has been discovered with parallels to the early events of Genesis. Most notably the flood. In 1974 clay tablets containing writings that were similar to both Genesis and the epic of Gilgamesh were discovered. They were found in what is modern Northern Syria. The tablets were dated around c. 2500 B.Sc. Immediately, these were hailed as a find that would challenge the Genesis account. In reality they held very little information and became useful to language specialists and archeologist than theologians. There was not enough information to cause a stir. As with most of the ancient research and findings. They don’t prove events wrong, but build convincing arguments for the Genesis account. The Story of Marduk fits perfectly in a narrative that monotheism was different from the rest of the region. The epic Gilgamesh confirmed that the idea of a flood was not phenomenon that Moses made up. The more that is found, the more the Biblical account is supported or even clarified. Letters by the name Mari were found and dated to the time of the patriarchs. The letters astonishingly showed that names such as those of the patriarchs were common. This discovery obliterated the argument that Genesis was a faulty document with the Genesis author placing Jewish names, such as Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph into the text when those names were not in use.
The Flood: A short case study
Skeptics attack some portions of Genesis over others. Obviously, they attack the more miraculous or outlandish claims. Within the narrative, these would include but not be limited to the creation story, a historical Adam and Eve, the call of Abram, and the ascent of Joseph to the second most powerful man in Egypt. Exodus and the following books continue the narration of these seemingly fantastical stories. Jews and then Christians must accept that there may be portions of their holy book that must be taken in faith. This does not mean the text is not true. The truthfulness of the flood story has probably been attacked more than anything in scripture short of the resurrection of Jesus. It simply does not sit with people that God would; a. become so angered by humanity that He would drown them b. truly cover the entire earth with water and c. pick just one man and his family to be saved. Usually when something like the Biblical flood is attacked, the argument goes as follows: There is no evidence or eye witnesses to testify that such an event has ever happened, therefore chances are, it didn’t happen. The biblical account of the flood is attacked this way and also a more perplexing way. It is attacked with an argument that goes like this: There is a multitude of ancient near east texts that describe a flood, therefore, since the Biblical account is not the only account, it is not true. The second argument is hard to read because it makes no sense. Rather than use the other flood stories to attack the historicity of the Genesis flood, let us look at two prominent flood narratives from the ancient near east and compare them to the Biblical text. Any two of the many flood narratives would be interesting to compare to Genesis, but these two stories are more prominent than most. We will look at the Sumerian flood story and the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Sumerian flood story was found inscribed on a tablet that dated back to the Old Babylon period or the second millennium B.Sc. It was found in 1890 as a part of a 35,000 piece set. The tablet gives an early “historical” event of the Sumerian people. The inscription on the tablet could be addressed to either the Sumerian people or all of humanity. In the story, the gods create all of creation. The gods also created cities in which they chose specific humans to rule. One of the kings was named Ziusudra. Ziusudra is told by one of the gods that all of the gods have decided that there will be a great flood that will kill everything on earth. After a break in the text, it picks back up with the flood lasting for seven days and seven nights. After the flood, Ziusudra sacrifices to the gods. He is then granted god like eternal life in the place of the rising sun.
Though the Epic of Gilgamesh has similarities to both the Biblical and Sumerian texts, it is unique as well. It is widely thought that many flood text from the ancient near east borrow from this text. The story was found as a part of 12 tablets discovered in the ancient ruins of Nineveh. The story is a conversation in which a man named Utnapishtim talks to Gilgamesh. Utnapishtim gives an account of a god giving incredibly detailed instructions that a flood is coming, how he is to be saved, and even the dimensions of the boat he is to build. After he builds the boat, he closes the door. He gathers his family and they ride out the world wide flood which lasts six days and six nights. When the seventh day comes the boat lands on the mountain of Nisir. Utnapishtim, much like Noah, eventually sends a dove, swallow, and raven. The raven does not return showing that he and his family may exit the boat. Upon stepping on dry land, he makes a sacrifice to the gods. One of the gods gives Utnapishtim and his wife eternal life to be like gods.
It is no wonder that these types of accounts can shake ones faith in the Biblical text. There is nothing to fear. If a flood truly covered the entire earth, stories, legends, and heroes would be understandable. It could be that through word of mouth these stories were true in that there was a flood and then added mythical elements. John Currid correctly asserts that we should look at the difference between the Biblical flood story and the other ancient near east flood stories. It is important to note that the Genesis flood story stands on its own compared to other stories that have similarities.
The difference between the Genesis account and the other flood stories is that Genesis is the only story in which a monotheist God is totally sovereign. The characters in other stories are partners with the gods and eventually become like gods, or gods. The God of Genesis decides to destroy mankind based on their unholiness and His absolute holiness, He chooses Noah, He shuts the door to the ark (something both characters in both myth stories do own their own), He makes the waters come and make them go. Currid quotes the Epic of Gilgamesh showing the difference between these weak mythological gods and the God of the Bible. “The gods were frightened by the deluge, and, shrinking back, they ascended to the heaven of Anu. The gods cowered like dogs and crouched against the wall. The gods all humbled, sit and weep.”Who exactly is being punished in these accounts. What does it mean to be a god and how powerful are they? It seems to be as easy to become a god as to follow instructions from one. In Genesis there are no gods, there is a God, the only God. He controls all and is never afraid. How can the God of Genesis be so different from the gods of these other flood stories. There are two main differences. In the non-Biblical ancient near east flood stories, men are like gods, and gods are like men. For every god described there are both divine and human characteristics. The gods always answered to someone. They need the sacrifices of men. They must consult with a pantheon of gods. They are never truly all powerful. They are never truly free. The God of the Bible exists within Himself, needing nothing, possessing what theologians call the non-communicable attributes in which He alone maintains.
The purpose of this paper was to argue that while ancient near east studies shed light on the Biblical narrative, they are secondary sources in understanding the complete storyline of scripture. Studies in the ancient near east are rich and profitable. To fervently study the accounts and histories of civilizations and people groups is good as long as it does not become an obsession. A student must be patient and well versed. He or she must not approach the study of history as simply a tool to entertain. It is also important not to confuse the study of civilizations with the study of the Bible which spans through many civilizations and thousands of years. The Bible, and Genesis for that matter, stand alone. The message of the Bible is ultimately the message of the Gospel. There may be some similarities between Genesis and ancient near east history and that is helpful. In the past, as now, the Biblical narrative sets itself apart from any other form of history by describing a God who saves, when human beings can do nothing to save themselves.
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 The epic goes on to make the gods out to be weak in their need of a sacrifice saying, the gods smelled the savor…the gods gathered like flies around the sacrifice. Contrast with Yahweh who accepts Noah’s sacrifice because Yahweh deserves it, not because He needs it.