This article is part of a series dedicated to Dr. David Livingston, in recognition of his accomplishments in defending the reliability and inerrancy of the Bible, and in celebration of the 40th anniversary of his founding of the ABR ministry. This article was first published in the Winter 2002 issue of Bible and Spade.
What is the proper relationship of the literature (texts) of the Ancient Near East (ANE) with the Old Testament? The literatures I speak of are the Gilgamesh Epic, the Sumerian and Babylonian King Lists, Hammurabi's Code, and many others.
Much scholarship has been invested in Old Testament studies, as well as in other ANE documents. However, in recent decades, three premises have controlled the thinking of most scholars, preventing them from making proper correlations.
The Usual Way
These three premises are:
1. That the Bible contains much 'myth' and legend, especially the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.
2. That the Israelites developed their religion using the religions of their neighbors.
3. That the Old Testament and, especially the Pentateuch, was written during the time of the kingdom, or later, and had spurious authors.
There is a presupposition which has hindered Old Testament research for over 150 years. It is that Israel's religion, and thus the Bible, evolved, or is a revision (or improvement) of earlier religious systems to suit the purposes of the biblical writers. We are referring to the Wellhausen documentary hypothesis.
Recent ANE research is still burdened with this presupposition. The modern approach deprecates this historicity of the Old Testament, submerging both it and the ancient epics and myths in a fog of unrealism, thus precluding any proper historical understanding. When attempts at correlations are made, some scholars still try to compare what to them are the 'myths' of Scripture with the myths of the extra-biblical texts.
Therefore, we will not examine the Wellhausen documentary hypothesis which has dominated so much of Biblical studies. The theory has been shown to be deficient and unsupported by even the slightest evidence, so that it is not worth using for research.
Proper correlation will only be found when scholars stop treating the Bible as 'myth.' Secondly, scholars need to recognize extra-Biblical ancient texts for what they are. Generally speaking, they are written authority for divine kingship. ANE texts should not be considered as 'beautiful literature.' Many of the ancient texts, especially the epics and religious texts, are full of sex, gore, competition for power, deification of man, and many other activities inherent in voluptuous divine king absolutism. Their true intent must be discerned before attempting to relate them to the Old Testament.
A Better Way
The premise of many Biblical scholars is that the Bible is a human book; that it was not Spirit-given. Therefore, we should not consider it as a book of truth. However, we suggest that a new set of premises be used to solve some major problems of correlations.
Why not begin with the premise that the Bible is divine, and therefore completely true, and see what the evidence shows?
To do so, we must have some basic presuppositions, or hypotheses, in presenting any new development of thought. George Mendenhall says what any sound researcher knows,
Hypotheses are basic to sound research and are eminently practical; they are constructed, not as a substitute for facts, but to suggest possibilities and to guide further investigation. They should not dictate conclusions (Mendenhall 1965:35).
One has to support his presuppositions with facts, of course. Thus, they should be held somewhat lightly. If the facts disprove the hypothesis, it should be altered to accommodate the new facts which disagree with it. Occasionally it will have to be discarded as being completely out of line. The real problem comes when a person distorts the facts to fit his hypothesis. On the other hand, if the hypothesis is true, then the more one investigates, the more detailed becomes the support for that hypothesis until almost nothing can refute it.
Here are some hypotheses which we feel the facts will support:
1. The source material for the Bible is NOT the ANE texts we know today.
2. The Bible is historical fact, not a collection of myths and epics.
3. The myths and epics of the ANE are fabricated religio-politico documents with a calculated purpose. They did not 'evolve' as bards sang them around campfires.
4. The Bible is antithetic to ANE religions.
5. The purpose of the author of Genesis was to show the rise of the worship of Yahweh.
6. Finally, the basic issue of both the Bible and the ANE texts is the question, 'Who will control men and the world?'
Some scholars have tried, and done well, in defending the Old Testament against critics who attempted to show it unhistorical. However, the tendency has been to use archaeological data to: a) 'prove' the Bible; and b) explain the details of Scripture, rather than developing a comprehensive system which brings together the Bible with the external data to better understand both. We need to synthesize the Bible with the cultures in which it was written. We are not satisfied with attempts made thus far.
1. The source material for the Bible is NOT the ancient near eastern texts we know today. Probably the most serious misjudgment (in our opinion) made by many Biblical scholars is that the Bible is derived from other ANE sources. Well-known W.F. Albright agrees, 'Enough, however, has been said to accentuate the significance of Israel's borrowings from Canaanite religion' (Albright 1946:94). Mesopotamian scholar Samuel Noah Kramer who mastered Sumerian also agrees.
...its (the Old Testament) roots reach deep into the distant past and spread wide across the surrounding lands (Kramer 1959:143-44).
Some scholars suggest Scripture and the texts may be cognates. That is, that they both come from a common source. This is possible. But it is only to say that there was, then, really just one source-the one originally composed and preserved by the worshippers of Yahweh. If we say that the Scripture accounts derived from other sources this throws the understanding of both the sources and the Bible into hopeless confusion.
The Sumerian King List
According to Genesis 5:1, the texts utilized to compose Genesis preceded Moses. The Hebrew word for book is Sefer, meaning a written record. Since the worshippers of Yahweh existed independently of other religions, they must have had their own documents to follow (for instance, Genesis 26:5 tells of four kinds of written records before Moses) and tells that Abraham (500 years before Moses) obeyed four kinds of God's written laws. One of the four words, 'statutes', for instance, means 'inscribed writing.'
These two systems existed side-by-side, beginning with Genesis on one hand and documents like the Sumerian King List on the other. Neither grew out of the other. How can we assert this? Simply because of the indications of written records from the beginning as we find in Genesis 5:1 and 26:5, along with the phenomenol accuracy of the Table of National in chapter 10. Genesis 5:1 states that 'this is the book (sefer) of Adam', in other words, written by Adam. Sefer is always a written document.
In comparing the Bible with other ANE literature, we are dealing with historical facts in the Bible, and a contrived religio-politico system in the extra-biblical texts which are in constant opposition.
The fact that we cannot find copies is not unusual. We do not even have very ancient Old Testament manuscripts (the earliest are from Qumran). Temples are the place where religious literature is found. Since no temples were built until the time of Israel's kingdom, this is another reason the earliest literature of Yahweh followers has perished.
2. The Bible is historical fact, not a collection of myths and epics. To say that the early chapters of Genesis are shadowy myth, containing only germs of historical truth, is becoming increasingly untenable. The old custom of mythologizing the early chapters of Genesis created a fog, making it impossible to discover its true purpose. Certainly, there may be aetiological (explaining the origin of things) accounts. But they are not fictional. They are factual. Much valuable work has been produced by scholars which, when only slightly differently interpreted for instance, can shine a floodlight on God's Word.
3. The myths and epics of the ANE are fabricated religio-politico documents with a calculated purpose. Documents, or texts, found on clay tablets of the ANE reveal an effort by power-hungry men to control as many people and as much property as possible. The myths and epics contained in them are mythical in that they are deliberately untrue. Historical elements there may be. But these are only pegs on which to hang the fables. They are fabricated religio-politico documents, almost always discovered in the palace-temple of ancient cities (Roux 1964:87-101). The underlying purpose of these fabrications was to give the commoner the illusion that the king-high priest consorted with the gods and that he was a 'son of the god' (op. cit.: 96). Being the 'son of the god' (a different god in each city), he owned everything, along with the priesthood. Thus he could take anything he wished from the people.
Just as Ezra and Nehemiah read aloud and explained the Torah to a huge crowd (Neh 8:1-9:3), likewise the pagans did with their literature. Documents contrived by scribes and priests were intended to be read aloud to all the people at various festivals (op. cit.: 96, 100-01, 191-92). After the religious brainwashing, they may have given anything the king wished. When men have forsaken Absolute Truth, all that is left is fantasy-a dream world. Rousas Rushdoony makes the point,
The myth reveals a hatred of history. . . The purpose man then sets for himself in his myths is to end history, to make man the absolute governor by decreeing an end to the movement that is history. Where his myths acknowledge man's lot in history, man ascribes his sorry role, not to his depravity, but to the jealousy of the gods. The goal of the myth, progressively more clearly enunciated in time, has become the destruction of history and the enthronement of man as the new governor of the universe (1967:1).
The ruins of Khattushash, the ancient Hittite capital, guarded by two stone lions on either side of the city's western gate. Located near the center of the Hittite empire (present-day Baghazkoy, Turkey) Khattushash flourished from 1600 to 1200 BC through its military might and its control over the richest silver and iron mines in all of Asia Minor.
Thus, one should see the myths and epics for what they are - a deliberate attempt by ambitious and evil men (under the leadership of evil spiritual influences) to subjugate the populace and extort from them, along with the supporting priest-nobles, all that is needed for the most lavish life style. When man becomes completely degenerate, he develops a system to support his degeneracy. Occasionally a ruler might be more lenient with the people. But, none ever relinquishes divine kingship.
These religio-politico texts can only be recognized for what they are by comparing them with the Bible. Not to do so, makes them basically incomprehensible in their historical context.
4. The Bible is antithetic to ANE religions. The Bible is an absolutely unique book. It actually establishes a positive system of Yahweh worship, not simply an antithesis. Other religious literature can be compared and similarities found. But, the Bible can only be understood apart from them, yet reflecting them in its opposition. If we grant that the Bible is an antithesis to ANE religion, this will explain the apparent, but strained, similarities.
Even though they are separate systems of thought, there will be similarities when they oppose over basic issues. Being opposites, they may react against each other. The clash between them may mount to the point where they go beyond polemics, and attempts are made at the destruction of the other's system and adherents. 'Against this religion (Canaanite) the Israelites reacted with such vigor that we find only the scantiest traces of it in Yahwehism...' (Albright 1946:94). The strange actions, for instance, of the Israelites before the fall of Jericho may well have been a travesty of the pageantry of the Canaanite Keret Epic which had similar pageantry. But one is a reaction against the other, not a copy of it!
To say that the Bible was derived from those religions and literature, distorts the Bible and does no credit to those religions, either (i.e., we misunderstand them, too). Whereas there is sometimes almost a complete syncretism in pagan religions (e.g., the pantheons of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome), it is forbidden among the followers of Yahweh.
Part of Babylonian Creation Story
The Bible is the revelation of God in history. Since the culture was similar to that of the other lands of the ANE, there will be similarities for that reason. Similarities will also be seen when: a) one mocks or derides the other; b) one counterfeits the true; c) there are common cultural traits used in both, such as pageantry and drama. Documents of both systems were written to be read aloud. Thus there will be similarities in the manner of presentation also.
There must be a very close correlation between the Bible and extra-Biblical texts. If we grant that the Bible is completely reliable historically, we should eventually be able to make complete correlations.
5. The purpose of the author of Genesis was to show the rise of the worship of Yahweh. The purpose of Moses in compiling Genesis was to show the beginning of Yahweh worship with its ultimate blessing to all mankind. Over against it is also laid out the rise and growth of anti-Yahweh systems which caused the continual ruination of mankind.
The worship of Yahweh did not originate with Moses (as some contend, according to Exodus 3:13-16); it began with Adam and Eve, and the first reflexes of it in worship were shown by Abel. Note the word Elohim in Genesis chapter one is used of the Creator. In chapters two and three, Elohim is equated with YHWH. Double names for God thus do not support the Wellhausen theory, but are traditional in most of the ancient near eastern religions. Then, in chapter four, the designation is simply Yahweh alone, with Cain worshipping Yahweh wrongly, and Abel doing it rightly. Here too, we have the first example of defiant anti-Yahwehism.
The Enuma Elish Babylonian Creation Story.
The worship of Yahweh was carried on in the open air by Cain and Abel. Noah built an altar. So did Abraham. No early worshipper of Yahweh built a temple. This explains why no trace of Yahweh worship has ever been uncovered by archaeologists during this early period. No temples were needed, because the followers of Yahweh were not grasping for power and control over people.
6. Finally, the basic issue of both the Bible and the ANE texts is the question, 'Who will control men and the world?' The Bible has a continuous theme running all through it, from Genesis to Revelation. The theme is something like: 'Yahweh is the Creator, King and Redeemer of all creation.' The uniting factor of both testaments is the basic question, who will control men and the world now and forever? There is a continual contest throughout Scripture between Satan and God to control men. On the world scene, the contest is often seen between the emissaries of Satan and Yahweh God.
In conclusion, one must not impose one's preconceptions on Scripture. We should seek to determine what it actually says. It claims to be the word of the living God. If this is so, then it is not a disjointed set of humanly fabricated volumes.
I am Cyrus, king of the world. ... All the kings of the entire world from the Upper to Lower Sea, ... all the kings of the West... brought their heavy tributes and kissed my feet in Babylon. So says Cyrus the Great on the Cyrus Cylinder.
Albright, W. F.
1946 Archaeology and the Religion of Israel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.
Kramer, S. N.
1959. History Begins at Sumer. Garden City NY: Doubleday.
1965 Biblical History in Transition, Pp. 32-53 in The Bible and the Ancient Near East., ed. G.E. Wright. New York: Doubleday.
1964 Ancient Iraq. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin.
1955 Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament. Princeton: University Press.
1967 Mythology of Science. Nutley: Craig.