Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Against the Gods" by John Currid: A Review

This book is about the relationship between the writings of the Old Testament and other ancient Near Easter literature. It is difficult, complicated, and much -debated topic in the field of biblical studies today. To be frank, there is little consensus regarding exactly how the two relate to each other. There are extremes, to be sure: on the one hand, some believe that ancient Near Eastern studies have little contribute to our understanding of the Old Testament and, in fact, constitute a danger to scripture. On the other hand, there are some who would say that the Old Testament is not unique but it is merely another expression of ancient Near Easter literature that is grounded in myth, legend, and folklore. Surely the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. It is certainly undeniable hat the historical, geographical, and cultural context of the Bible is the ancient Near East, and study of the era has much to add to our understanding of the Old Testament. But it is also true that the Old Testament worldview is unique in the ancient Near East, and this is immediately confirmed by its all-pervasive monotheism. it simply does not swallow ancient Near Eastern thought hook, line, and sinker. And so, the question for modern minds in this regard is, what precisely is the relationship of the Old Testament to ancient Near Eastern literature? (9)
There once was a man who was warned of an upcoming disaster of a great and deadly flood. Warned by his maker, the man builds a large ship, an ark if you will, and invites his family and the animals on board in order to survive the deluge. After the rain stopped and the water began to evaporate, he sends out a number of birds. The first ones return unable to find the land. The final bird never returns and the man knows the ordeal is almost over. When he gets off of the boat, the man makes a sacrifice to his maker.

Sound familiar? Its the Epic of Gilgamesh, not the biblical story of Noah and the Ark.

Scholars agree that the Gilgamesh Epic predates the biblical account of the flood and its discovery has led to an increased rejection of the biblical narrative. But it isn't just the biblical flood in which archeologists have uncovered similar biblical tales in the ancient Near East. Creation accounts of the Sumerians, Egytians, ancient Babylonians, and others have striking similarities with the Hebrew text. Likewise, other ancient Near Eastern cultures have synonymous stories of water parting, staff's turning into animate objects, and other stories that resemble popular biblical tales.

What are we to make of these similarities? Do they suggests that the biblical narrative, especially in the books of Genesis and Exodus are Hebrew myths as most scholar argue? Do these ancient Near East legends undermine the historicity of the Pentateuch as many now believe?

In his book Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Crossway, 2013) Dr. John Currid argues that such conclusions are unnecessary and dishonest. Admitting the similarities are not accidental but purposeful, he puts forward the argument that the motive behind the Hebrew tales is not only to correct the record, but also to make a theological argument. They are, in essence, a defense of Yahweh, the God of the Jews.

The polemical argument, as the subtitle suggest, is the main argument of the book. The biblical authors purposefully borrow language from Egypt and elsewhere, common at that time, to make a theological argument against the gods. Perhaps some examples would be helpful here. The Exodus story provides the best examples.

First, the reader might take for granted the numerous language in Exodus of the "arm of the Lord" and other similar phrases. One could easily and casually overlook such language. However, it is borrowed from the Egyptian culture. There are countless examples in Egyptian literature and myths about the "arm of Pharaoh" and the strength of the Pharaoh's arm. What the biblical author is doing is mocking the Egyptian religion and Pharaoh worship. It isn't Pharaoh who has a mighty arm, but God.

Similarly, the frequent use of "thus says" in Exodus is purposeful. Egyptian texts frequently speak of "Thus says Pharaoh" and "Thus says" such-and-such god. The Exodus writer uses the same language, again, mocking the Egyptian religion. In Exodus 5:1, Moses tells Pharaoh, "'Thus says the LORD,' let my people go!" In verse 10 of the same chapter, we read "'Thus says Pharaoh,' I am not going to give you any straw." What we have is a war between the will of two gods. The God of Israel and the gods of Egypt.

In addition, consider the scene of Moses' staff turning into a snake and swallowing the snakes of the Egyptian snakes. The language of "swallowing" was common in Egyptian thought and was a way of saying that one has overcome something/someone. And so it isn't just that Moses' staff literally swallowed, but also metaphorically swallowed the staffs of the magicians (note also that Pharaoh's army is "swallowed" in the Red Sea). Also, it is not an accident that the inanimate staff turns into an animate snake (likely a cobra). The snake represented power, might, and strength. Moses, through the power of Yahweh, exercises authority over snakes, causing his staff to turn into snakes, and "swallows" the snakes of the magicians. The gauntlet is laid down in this important scene and the ten plagues that follows continue the storyline of this great cosmic war. Yahweh proves to be greater than the gods of Egypt.

This is all polemics. The authors of Scripture, even beyond Exodus, utilize common themes and myths of their time and the cultures around them and "set the record straight," if you will, and make the argument that the God of the Jews is the one and only true God. The gods did not create, Yahweh created. The gods did not part the waters, God did. The gods did not cause it to flood, God did. The gods did not deliver, God did.

I really loved this book. I have often wondered how we are to reconcile the similarities between the biblical narrative and ancient Near Eastern myths. Currid shows helpfully here that Judaism is not a religion of myths like the polytheistic cultures around them, but something unique. Though he warns that one cannot so easily explain all the similarities as polemical, he certainly shows that writing off Scripture as a sanitized version of ancient myths is unacceptable.

This has helped me to hermeneutically understand the Old Testament. It has showed me that growing studies of ancient Near Eastern culture and literature is not something that should concern Christians (will they find something that undermines the Bible?) but actually give us incredible insight into the Bible we affirm. I highly recommend it as an invaluable resource for pastors, scholars, inquisitive Christians, and skeptics. Currid's audience is not to scholars, but to average readers new to the subject matter and that is what makes it so great.

We can have confidence in God's Word. Currid shows us why we can and why the God of the Bible is greater than all the other gods.
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