This is Part III of my review of the documentary hypothesis/JEDP theory and the book, Before Abraham Was: A Provocative Challenge to the Documentary Hypothesis, by Kikawada and Quinn. All page references point to it.
Many Noahs, Many Floods
In the previous installment of this series, I showed how Noah’s flood was a critical test for the documentary hypothesis. Adherents of the theory had to find a way to show that the Noah section was a late work composed by various editors. The Noah account is a useful case because there are other flood stories that predate Genesis. These stories shed light on Genesis. Namely, they reveal stylistic elements also found in Genesis. In Genesis alone, those elements were perplexing — the hypothesizers took them to be the DNA of late editors. Now we know that those perplexing elements are features of ancient religious epics.
What I did not say before, I can say now: the documentary hypothesizers are in an unfair fight. They showed up without all the data. Their theory was born prematurely, at a time when the scholarly world was not broadly trained in the parallel flood stories or archaeological advances. They were trying to fit the Biblical text to a historical period without knowing the period. They were missing what we now know from the progress of Semitics and archaeology.
An explosion of knowledge came in the past 100 years. It came from excavations throughout the Middle East. Half-way through the 20th century, archaeology was cranking out volumes of new data. At the same time, linguistics and Semitic studies were undergoing major advances (including the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls).
Through archaeology and the deciphering of Akkadian, Ugaritic, Hittite and Egyptian (and the ever improving grammars of each), we now peer into the past with a more powerful telescope. The hypothesizers of the 1800s did not have our tools. They were trying to do more than their technology allowed. They were like doctors from the 1600s attempting a heart transplant. Conversely, we know too much to go back to their primitive practices. We can’t put the archaeology back in the box. We can’t take refuge in the older methods. We must interpret Genesis with knowledge of ancient Near Eastern studies and we must do so equipped with all the relevant Semitics languages.
Two Kinds of Old
The knowledge gained from our modern methods is not new knowledge. It is new to us, but really it is quite ancient. We are recovering information that was not available to the investigators of the 1800s. Archaeology does not reveal new truths, it reveals old truths long forgotten.
By recovering ancient languages and excavating long abandoned cities, we are traveling back in time. Though the facts are new to us, they are really old facts that are more valuable than the old theories of the 1800s. No matter how old the documentary hypothesis is to the academy, it is not an ancient fact. As we dismantle old theories from the 1800s, we are really reestablishing older facts from the ancient world. Rejecting the documentary hypothesis is not done out of a love for newer and updated theories, but out of a regard for the ancient contexts of scripture.
Two Kinds of Historical
Genesis is a historical book. It is historical in two senses. In the first sense, it records real history. In the second sense, the way that it records history fits with the history writing of its time. Other creation accounts have survived from the ancient world. Other accounts of the flood are preserved on clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing. These works predate Genesis and they shed light on the content of history and on the structure and format of history writing.
While parts of Genesis seem strangely written to us, they fit nicely with how history was recorded. Where Genesis seems choppy or disjointed to us, the original readers might have seen things differently.
They might have seen a unity that eludes us; the primeval history of Genesis might presume a kind of sophistication no longer common. Hard as it is for us to keep in mind, Genesis is, from the standpoint of ancient Near Eastern civilization, a late work. (36)
Genesis is a late work relative to the other creation and flood stories, but it is a work written in the context of a world where those stories were known.
Mesopotamian flood and creation stories predate Moses’ writing. These earlier stories were copied and they spread among the ancient peoples. For example, a tablet from the Gilgamesh epic was found in Canaan at Megiddo. These epic histories could be shared because of a shared language. Akkadian was that common language. The Akkadian version of the great flood is the story of Atrahasis. He was the Akkadian Noah. The Gilgamesh epic likewise preserves a great flood story.
These stories, and others like them, reveal aspects of a milieu. They are echoes from expired civilizations. And Moses was part of that ancient milieu. Genesis is not to be understood as completely detached from these other records.
Let us assume that the author … of Genesis 1-11 presumed that its audience would be familiar with the primeval history as it was usually told in the ancient Near East. This is not a very daring assumption, for the land of the Hebrews was often both politically and culturally dependent upon the great civilizations occupying the Tigris and Euphrates river systems. Not a very daring assumption but potentially a very illuminating one. If we could reconstruct the convention for primeval history as it developed in the ancient Near East, we might just be able to recover an important part of the rhetorical context in which Genesis 1-11 was composed. Then we might just be in a position to determine to what extent the apparent diversity of Genesis 1-11 is in the text and to what extent it only seems to be there because we have applied inappropriate standards of judgment. (40-41)
A connection must be established between Genesis and its ancient context. The evidence of connectedness is everywhere — not only is Genesis connected to its world, but the various cultures of Egypt, Canaan, Anatolia and Mesopotamia demonstrate linkage. These connections and their various forms will occupy us for the rest of this blog and the next few to come.
Connected to Noah through Diffusion
Human knowledge radiates from an ark. Noah stood as the head of a new humanity when he and his family began the process of repopulating the planet. In Noah, all theology had a point of singularity. That theology diffused outward over time. Fragmented ideas about temples and sacrifices were corrupted and practiced even as they preserved faint memories of father Noah. Notions about beginnings morphed under the influence of rebel priests who were guardians of rival temples. In Egypt, the gods multiplied, even as the idea of “g o d” was retained. Likewise, the flood story itself underwent mutations even as the devastating memory survived in the minds of each new generation.
Truth was diffused even as it was modified and corrupted. Corruption shows up in perverted versions of sacred space, competing creation accounts, priesthood or kingship.
However, the diffusion of common ideas and truth is what concerns us most. It shows itself in a wide range of human activities, such as law codes, city formation, covenants and treaties, architecture, art, warfare, pottery, writing, and even literature.
Within literature, we find shared sentences, faint sayings or scant phrases that were written down and kept across ancient cultures. For example, in the Amarna letters, the phrase “the rising of the sun to its setting” (EA 162, 369) is the same phrase used in the much later book of Malachi in 1:11, “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts” (ESV).
Far and Near Connections
Homer, in the 8th or 9th century BC, used flood imagery and equated the phenomena as coming from the gods. Later Greek commentators spoke of these floods with allusions to Mesopotamian parallels (37-8). The great flood story was not completely lost, not even in faraway places (far from Moses).
Closer to Moses and Genesis, the story of creation and the flood were more pointedly preserved in Mesopotamian versions. Not only were the stories preserved, but the methods of communicating them illustrate a diffused and connected formatting.
Connected in the use of Doublets
Connectedness exists at the level of form. For example, ancient temples exhibit form equivalence, and those forms change over time. The tripartite temple-form used by Solomon has cognate instances outside of Israel. Likewise, Genesis shows a literary form that connects it to other pieces of literature.
One feature that has been discovered in the earlier epics (earlier than Genesis) is the use of doubles. Genesis 1 tells of creation and the creation of man. Genesis 2 does a double-take, zooms in, and adds more details to the story of the creation of man. This double-telling is recapitulation, and it is not unique to Genesis.
A Sumerian creation story, the story of Enki and Nimah, tells of the creation of man using two accounts (39). This retelling is not assonance or antithesis, it is an ancient pattern used in writing cosmological history. This double-telling is not to be understood as the proof of rival editors who couldn’t agree about the story; for them, it was not fiction but religion. Their method of telling the beginning of all things is the structure of epic records.
Using the Right Label: Religious Epic or Myth?
The epic genre was used to relate first and ultimate things; it was done their way. And we have every reason to believe that it was taken seriously. For example, ancient worshipers went to temples to worship. They did not regard their religion as false, but as binding. Their view of reality was informed by the temple, the priests and the story of the gods they worshiped.
“Myth” may not be the best label for the genre of these ancient accounts. Myth implies that what we know to be true (the content of the accounts) equals the format of the accounts. For example, since we know that the earth was not made from the body of a dragon, we assume that any creation account that says as much is mythological.
However, mythological is a loaded word. The ancient people did not think of their beliefs as myth. They understood their cosmological stories in terms of their worship, their identity and their cultural history.
Modern examples will illustrate the point. The Koran or the Book of Mormon are considered real and valid histories by the worshipers in those religions. The literary style is not myth even if the content is deemed to be myth by outsiders. The genre of the Koran and Book of Mormon is not mythology, despite what one thinks of the contained ideas. In the same way, the ancient creation stories are not to be categorized as myth and assigned that genre.
By not labeling them as myth, we don’t thereby endorse the content; we simply recognize that the genre is something different. The genre is about believed history and first things. Genesis follows a similar genre. The difference between Genesis and other creation stories is not a matter of genre alone, but truth content. It is not the format of telling the cosmology that reveals the main differences, but the God who stands behind the real creation.
If we grant that Genesis is the same in genre, then myth is not the right label for Genesis or its rivals. It may be more accurate to classify these old methods of cosmological history writing as either epic, or better, religious epic. By attaching the adjective “religious” we acknowledge that these histories are distinct from other kinds of epic histories. Namely, they function within the worship life of the community that reads and believes the history. For that reason, epic alone may not do justice to this particular genre.
Having established a framework for discussing Genesis — arguing that we must read it in its ancient context — the next few blogs will look at the connectedness of Genesis to other religious epic literature that existed during the time of Moses.
Eastside Church of the Cross