The degree to which the Bible interacts with the mythologies of Israel’s neighbors is a fact that is all-too-often better known and understood by its critics than by its believers. Jews and Christians often find themselves confronted with claims by atheists and neo-pagans alike that the ancient Jews simply stole from the legends of the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and of course the Canaanites in creating their own holy books. Unfortunately, while these parallels are well known to scholars, an understanding of them has not filtered down to the lay level. Indeed, many believers reflexively reject seeking out and understanding these cultural similarities. After all, Sola Scriptura! Others, unfortunately, find their faith in the Bible–and therefore, in the God of the Bible–undermined or destroyed because they were never prepared to deal with such a line of attack. It is a shame and a tragedy that both the Jewish and the Christian worlds have failed to prepare their young people for such challenges–especially since, properly understood, comparative religious studies of the ancient near-east pose far more opportunities to better understand the Word than to undermine it. After all, the Bible wasn’t written in a vacuum! Just as understanding the nature of Epicurean philosophy and its impact on Greco-Roman thinking helps one to understand many of the details of Paul’s letters (such as his dissertation on the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15), understanding the pagan worldview helps one to understand the arguments of the prophets against the pagan paradigm.
These legends also provide extra-Biblical support for pre-historical events such as the Flood or the Tower of Babel. We would be right to be suspicious if only the Bible contained a record of a worldwide Flood that wiped out nearly all of humanity. The fact that the Flood legend is so ubiquitous in so many cultures all around the world, with versions appearing even in Native American tales, isn’t evidence that the authors of Scripture “stole” it, but rather that the Flood was indeed a primordial event that affected all of mankind. Pagan mythology and theology serves a similar purpose. After all, even most ardent fundamentalists understand that the Bible’s claim isn’t that the gods of the pagans are non-existent, but that they are demonic entities that are not worth worshipping (Deu. 32:17, Psa. 106:7, 1Co. 10:20).
Moreover, since all of humankind shares a common ancestry, and therefore a common history, why should it surprise us that certain motifs concerning the spiritual world appear in both Israel and in its near-eastern neighbors? In fact, the Bible’s first eleven chapters are almost entirely devoted to “correcting” ancient near-eastern mythology. For example, there is a great deal of debate today on how (or if) to reconcile the creation account of Genesis with our modern scientific knowledge. Neither young-earth creationism, nor old-earth progressive creationism, however, can really claim to interpret the text according to its original historical purpose. To suggest that the ancient Hebrews would have read into Genesis 1:1 the creation of a universe over 30 billion light-years across is, of course, ludicrous. To the ancients, “the heavens” referred to that which they could see with the naked eye: Sky, clouds, the sun, moon, and stars (which included the “wandering” stars, or planets), etc. They did not, and could not, distinguish between the atmosphere and outer space, let alone interplanetary, interstellar, and intergalactic space.
They also had no conception of, and no concern about, our current scientific debates about the ultimate origin of a universe that was largely invisible to them and which we have only begun to perceive in the last century via our powerful (and in some cases orbital) telescopes. Nor would they have cared about the extent to which evolution played a role in the development of the earth’s life-forms, or if it did at all. Atheism and materialism were not even on the table for discussion.
What was on the table for discussion was the means by which the visible world was created and by whom. All Ancient Near-East (ANE) pagan systems personified nature into their gods. These gods, in turn, were not eternal, but arose (evolved) spontaneously from a chaotic, primordial world which they proceeded to shape and vie over.
For example, the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish tells us that Abzu and Tiamat, the personifications of fresh and salt water, mixed together and created the gods. Apsu wished to kill them, but Tiamat prevailed in keeping them alive. Ea, the chief of the gods, killed Apsu in his sleep, leading to Tiamat seeking revenge. Marduk in turn killed Tiamat in battle and divided her, using half of her corpse to form the earth and half to form the heavens.
The Egyptians and Greeks had myths of a similar sort, with the structure of the world and the very laws of nature arising from the emergence, marriages, births, wars, and deaths of the gods. The chief point of Genesis is to correct these pagan traditions of personified nature. In their place, Genesis asserts that in the beginning was one God, transcendent and separate from the visible world, and that he alone created the natural entities and forces that the pagans worshipped. God did not bring the world into being by strife, nor with the help of (or death of) other gods, but simply by the Word of his power. The deep (Heb. tehom) was not a god or a monster, but was simply the primordial ocean over which the Spirit of the Living God brooded before acting to create, and so forth. This is the plain-sense, historical interpretation.
Does this mean that Genesis has nothing to speak to today’s issues, or that it is ahistorical and simply a polemical device for countering paganism? Not at all. First of all, its polemical value is anchored on being a true, historical account by the One who created everything. And if that is the case, then we should expect that as our scientific knowledge of creation expands, we should find confirmation of God’s account. Secondly, the major difference between paganism and philosophical materialism is that paganism personifies the natural elements. (Though given how non-theists tend to personify “the Universe,” “the Cosmos,” and “Evolution” when speaking of the design in nature, there’s an even thinner line between the two than may be apparent at first glance.) The Bible’s response to paganism would therefore answer materialism as well–and such a response would have to be rooted in real, verifiable natural history in order to be effective. Moreover, if the God of the Bible is truly all-knowing and eternal (outside of the created dimension of time), we would expect that he would anticipate future attacks on his sovereignty over creation just as much as those in the past. But now consider the inverse: Just as the Bible acts to correct the errant beliefs of paganism, paganism in turn must have distorted an original knowledge of the Creator: “Because, knowing God, they didn’t glorify him as God, neither gave thanks, but became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and traded the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed animals, and creeping things” (Rom. 1:21-23).
Paul is not speaking of all individual men having a knowledge of the Creator from Creation, which they all then individually rejected in favor of paganism, but rather of the original rejection of the Most High by men thousands of years before at Babel.
To be continued . . .