A while back, Green Baggins did a brief post on the suspension of Peter Enns. Not surprisingly, a number of liberal commenters came to the defense of Enns, including Paul Seely. Both here and elsewhere, Seely has attempted to argue that portions of Gen 1-11 are directly indebted to pagan mythology.
A couple of years ago, Noel Weeks published an article in the WTJ in which he documents the way in which Seely manipulates and oversimplified the evidence through selective citation—thereby generating specious parallels between Genesis and ANE mythology. Here is some of what Weeks has to say:
“If we’re dealing particularly with the OT, then the problem is greater because of the lack of extrabiblical material from Palestine…Externally written material from Palestine that will illumine things such as cosmological beliefs is nonexistent. The resort to Ugaritic material to fill the gap left by the lack of Palestinian material brings its own problems of being certain that Ugarit is fully representative of Palestinian beliefs and practices. Mute archaeological findings may somewhat fill that gap but material remains speak to a limited range of issues,” WTJ 68 (2006), 284.
“One crucial assumption is that biblical revelation cannot hold a different position on the issue in question from the surrounding world…How does one construct an argument to prove that the Bible may not depart from universal practice? The Bible frequently tells Israel not to be like the nations. Since an unstated premise of the apologetic that sees cosmological and historical statements as a concession to their time is that we may distinguish religious statements in Scripture from other statements…Yet, there is a theoretical possibility that the Bible, for whatever reason, deviates from surrounding cultures even on ‘non-religious’ issues…The argument to negate this possibility has to establish a universal, or near universal, external situation and then argue that what the Bible describes is identical to or at least close to that universal situation. Of course, it can be attempted, but it is well to be aware of the pitfalls. If there is a common or near universal modern mind and it is clear that premodern practice deviates from that, then the tendency can be to combine together all premodern expressions as being the universal converse of the modern, when actually there are considerable differences among premodern beliefs and practices. It follows that the whole argument must collapse if there are actually varying beliefs and practices in the premodern period, especially in cultures contemporary with the Bible,” ibid. 284-85.
“When we identify a certain element of Scripture as coming from the scientifically naïve assumptions of the time, and therefore distinguishable from the theological content of the biblical message, are we interpreting Scripture in its historical context? To some people we are, because the cosmology and prehistory of Scripture must be separable from its theological message because the cosmology and prehistory is the area that Christian apologists find difficult to defend. Yet, the same question could be answered quite differently. Is a distinction between the cosmological and theological demonstrably part of the common conception of the world in which Scripture originated? The answer is an unambiguous negative! That distinction is a modern one and thus is part of what we bring to the past,” ibid. 285.
“It is common to postulate that the Bible shared the common view of primitive societies that the land was surrounded by sea upon which it floated and was surmounted by solid heavens…One does not need to prove what the ancient Japanese, for example, believed in order to weaken his argument. The force of Seely’s argument depends upon there being a uniform premodern belief. All that is needed to undermine the argument is an example of a different belief, preferably from a culture close to ancient Israel. The culture contemporary with the writing of the OT that gives us the most information about cosmological beliefs is Mesopotamia,” ibid. 286.
“Significant Mesopotamian evidence exists in a text which shows a drawing of land surrounded by a circular ocean. In reference to this drawing, Seely does not mention that the map also shows regions beyond the sea. Horowitz is undecided whether these regions are islands or larger landmasses. Whatever the case, the drawing is not evidence for a simple picture of the earth as land surrounded by a circular ocean…Further evidence of land beyond the sea comes in the Etana Epic when Etana, looking down from a great height, compares the sea to a ditch—presumably with banks on either side,” ibid. 286.
“ A Neo-Assyrian text gives three levels to the earth: the earth’s surface; the region of the god Ea, which is generally seen as the watery Apsu; and the underworld. Yet, there is not a consistent belief that below the solid surface was a watery Apsu. Building texts describe the foundations of a building being placed on the underworld or the surface of the underworld. The roots of mountains also go down to the underworld. Further complicating the picture is a text where the gods dig a ditch for the sea with a plough so that the sea would actually rest on the earth’s surface. These varying pictures should warn us that there is not a simple, uniform physical picture being presented,” ibid. 286-87.
“Through recent discussions of the relationship of the Bible to other cosmologies, one text has been disproportionately used: the Babylonian Creation Account, or Enuma Elish. There are some problems with its common comparison with the Bible because it is a text known for its aberrant character and is not typical of the oldest Mesopotamian cosmologies,” ibid. 287.
“Further, the cosmology of Enuma Elish is by no means straightforward…The common identification is that Apsu is sweet (fresh) water, based on texts where apsu, as a common noun, refers to springs and canal waters. Tiamat is obviously related to the noun tamtu, meaning ‘sea,’ thus the common explanation that Apsu and Tiamat stand for fresh and salt water respectively,” ibid. 287-88.
“Immediately there is difficulty in deriving a physical picture from this action. The ‘deep’ or Apsu, is often pictured as the domain of Ea. In such cases it seems to be in the Persian Gulf, which is salt water. Apsu can also be found in fresh water, and Apsu is also the name of Ea’s temple in Eridu…Yet, if that is the case, was drawing a physical picture the text’s purpose?” ibid. 288.
“Older translations such as by P. Jensen and A. Heidel saw the following lines (IV: 142-145) as describing the formation of the earth over Apsu, thus giving a three-tiered universe of sky, earth, and Apsu. This translation cannot be sustained and it is now clear that these verses are still talking about the sky. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary puts forward an alternate translation: ‘The esgalla (great temple) (called) Esarra which he created, is the sky.' The text says that this temple is equivalent in dimension to the Apsu. Note that the text is once again concerned with a temple, but it would seem to be one of cosmic dimensions. An index to the difficulty of this passage is that yet a different interpretation is presented by A. Livingstone. He believes that the Esarra is a new level of the cosmos, situated between heaven and the Apsu,” ibid. 288.
“The fate of the other half of Tiamat is continued in an incomplete text. What is clear is that the Euphrates and Tigris rivers are described as coming out of her eyes (V:55)…There are problems in trying to form a physical picture from this description. We have seen that Tiamat is generally equated with the sea, or at least a watery body. In his treatment of ‘the waters above the firmament,’ Seely concedes the point that, contrary to his other attempts to argue universal prescientific notions, primitive peoples do not generally think of water above the sky. Hence, he has to argue that the biblical account is closely related to Enuma Elish. Thus, it is crucial to his whole argument that a guard be set to prevent the waters of the half of Tiamat, now become the sky, from escaping. Here Tiamat is very clearly watery, and that is crucial to Seely’s argument,” ibid. 288-89.
“Let us consider the other half of Tiamat. Surely it must also be watery, yet it seems to be laid over Apsu, which we have seen was also a body of water. Seely’s solution is to suggest that it is the water of Apsu which is emerging through Tiamat. That is in a way logical in that springs and the Tigris and Euphrates are fresh water; however, the text itself does not mention Apsu in this context. Anyway, why did water need to come from Apsu in this lower half if Tiamat was also watery?” ibid. 289.
“One suspects that behind these difficulties there is a problem. If prescientific people think in terms of the world as a flat disk, surrounded by sea and floating on that sea, then the waters from below that emerge as springs must be the waters of the sea, namely, salt water. Yet, they are fresh. If we are correct in seeing Apsu as sweet water and Tiamat as salt water, then the composer at least recognized the distinction. Further, if the waters of Tiamat’s half that was raised to the sky are the source of rain, then one would expect rain to be salt water,” ibid. 289.
“What physical and geometric model can we form from Enuma Elish if Apsu, the dwelling of Ea, which, according to other texts is watery, is built upon Apsu which is fresh water? If half of Tiamat is the sky, is the sky conceived of as salt water? What about the other half of Tiamat? If that becomes the earth, should not the earth become salt water? If Livingstone is correct and there is a level below the half of Tiamat that became the heavens, what does that do to the geometry of the cosmos?” ibid. 289.
“What this examination shows us is that one can form a physical and geometric model if one is selective in what one chooses to quote from Enuma Elish, but not if one takes each passage that should be relevant. This situation raises a fundamental issue. Was the author thinking in terms of a physical and geometric model? For modern thinkers cosmology primarily implies a physical model. In trying to abstract the cosmology of an ancient text, we naturally look for what physical model we can extract. By selective quotation, we can obtain such a model. Yet, if all the details will not fit a physical and geometric picture, are we engaging in correct exegesis?” 289-90.
“I strongly suspect that the aim of Enuma Elish is not to build a physical cosmology, but to provide a background for Esagila, the temple of Marduk at Babylon…If that is the case, is it legitimate to take parts out of context and to try to form a physical cosmology?” ibid. 290.
“Take for example Ps 24:2. Seely makes a point of the fact that the relationship of the land to the waters in this passage and in Ps 136:6 is explained by the preposition ‘al which has ‘upon’ as its primary meaning. The problem is that there are also passages where this preposition ahs a primary sense of ‘above’,” ibid. 291.
“Judgment by water is a recurrent theme in the biblical text. We find it first in the flood, with its clear connections to the creation account. It appears again in the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan. It is frequently invoked as a metaphor of threat and judgment…I am suggesting that it is in that context that we interpret passages that describe the relationship of land and water,” ibid. 291.
“It may be objected that we may still discern the underlying physical cosmology in such passages. Perhaps! Attempts to do so take us back to the already mentioned problem of the relationship of fresh water and salt water. The threat from water to the earth involves both sweet and salt water. Rivers may overflow their banks; sea may invade the land…there is no need in this picture to investigate the relationship of salt water to fresh water; however, once we attempt to turn this into a physical picture, we cannot avoid the issue of the physical relationship of fresh to salt water. If both biblical and other ancient texts were not thinking in terms of a comprehensive physical model, then the problem does not arise,” ibid. 291`.
“Seely argues that there is a common premodern conception of the sky as a solid dome…Seely’s view has been contested…Birds fly in heaven (Deut 4:17) and God is enthroned in heavne (Ps 11:4), so it cannot be conceived as a solid structure. Seely attempted to deal with this in his original article by saying that heaven is wider than raqia. However, the prooftexts that he cites for that proposition are all texts which show that heaven is not solid. Thus, they prove that heaven is wider than the raqia only if we accept the point at issue that the raqia must be solid; therefore, a non-solid heaven cannot be completely synonymous with raqia. This is a clear example of assuming the point at issue,” ibid. 291-92.
“Mesopotamian texts are not a great help to us because there seem to be different views in Mesopotamia… Even if we ignore the problem in assuming that biblical views must be the same as external cultures, if there is no unanimity in the Mesopotamian tradition, then we cannot invoke the tradition to explain the Bible,” ibid. 292.