Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Revisiting the Days of Genesis

Last night I skimmed B. C. Hodge’s Revisiting the Days of Genesis. I focused on the parts that interested me, so it’s quite possible that I missed some important caveats. But here’s my general impression:

i) It’s basically taking the same course charted by John Walton. There’s something ironic about Walton’s position. He entitled his book The Lost World of Genesis One. He meant that was a “lost world” because the true meaning was lost to later generations until modern archeology uncovered the background information necessary to recover or rediscover the original intent of the narrator.

Yet Walton also spends a lot of time trying to prove his position from sundry OT passages. That, however, raises the question of whether modern archeology is the missing key to understanding Gen 1. If Walton can make a good case for his interpretation from the biblical materials alone, then archeology seems to be, at most, a useful supplement which improves the accuracy of our interpretation, even though the basic interpretation can be gotten from Scripture alone.

I also find that tension in Hodge’s treatment. It combines direct exegesis of the Biblical text with comparative Semitics. Is the basic interpretation dependent on comparative Semitics, or independent of comparative Semitics?

ii) Hodge gives the cosmic temple interpretation yet another workout, adding various details to the emerging construct. The cosmic temple interpretation has become an academic fad. I don’t necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense. One potential value of academic fads is the exhaustive examination of a particular thesis. The thesis is explored, developed, and critiqued from just about every conceivable angle. All the pros and cons are duly weighed.

iii) However, the danger of academic fads is to treat the hot new theory as a revolutionary and comprehensive explanation. In an interview, Claude Shannon once remarked on how some people were trying to make information theory explain too much. Chaos theory went through the same phase.

iv) I think Hodge does a good job of documenting architectural metaphors in Gen 1, teasing out the numerology in the creation account and the flood account, and discussing the nature of serpentine symbolism.

He also makes an interesting observation about how the first six days of the creation week are anarthrous. The definite article is reserved for the seventh day.

v) I’m not convinced by his treatment of Balaam’s talking donkey. There’s lots of evidence in Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature that snakes could function as symbolic, numinous figures. But one can’t just switch from that to a donkey, as if a donkey held the same emblematic significance in ANE culture.

Moreover, Balaam’s donkey doesn’t seem to stand for something else. It’s a beast of burden which Balaam is using for transportation. That’s a far cry from the Egyptian tale of bearded, gilded talking serpent, from which Hodge segues into the narrative of Balaam, the donkey, and the angel. There’s scarcely any connection.

vi) Then there’s the use of comparative mythology to provide a backdrop. In principle, one can use alleged background material in two different ways.

You can try use it to flesh out a general cultural milieu or intellectual ethos. This supposedly supplies an unspoken preunderstanding which both author and audience shared. This may be something the narrator takes for granted, or it may be something he uses as a foil.

Or you can try to use it to pinpoint specific literary influence, where a Biblical text is allegedly indebted to an extrabiblical text.

vii) Apropos (vi), Hodge alleges fairly specific parallels between Genesis and the Enuma Elish. Of course, there’s nothing new about that claim. However, I have serious methodological reservations about that analysis.

To my knowledge, the Enuma Elish doesn’t represent mainstream ANE thinking–even assuming there is such a thing as mainstream ANE thinking. Rather, from what I’ve read, this is a sectarian, in-house document where one priestly faction is attempting to supplant another priestly faction by writing a new backstory to retroactively validate the supremacist claims of its own patron god. If that’s the case, then there’s no reason to think this would be a framing device for the Biblical writer. It’s way too parochial. A literary outlier.

There’s a danger of sampling bias when we use background material, or what we take to be background material. Scholars use what they have. They can only use what’s available. And what’s available is what happened to survive the ravages of time. So we need to ask if what survived is likely to be representative or more provincial.

Just because we happen to have the Enuma Elish when so much other ANE literature perished doesn’t automatically make that representative or relevant. It’s natural to default to extant comparative material simply because it’s extant. But is it really comparable? Or do we simply fall back on that because that’s all we’ve got to work with, and so we treat it as if it’s germane?

We need to remind ourselves that that’s just an accident of history. If you’re the last man standing, that makes you stick out. But there’s no reason to assume it enjoyed that degree of prominence when the Pentateuch was written.

viii) Moreover, if all we had to go by was the Enuma Elish, I don’t think ingenious scholars would find the same patterns. Rather, they are mapping Gen 1 onto the Enuma Elish.

ix) On another issue, Hodge uses Ezekiel’s theophany (as well as Dan 12:3) to interpret Gen 1. But, of course, Ezekiel isn’t the Pentateuch, so there’s no antecedent reason to assume it sheds light on Gen 1.

But perhaps Hodge simply thinks that Gen 1 and Ezekiel both bear witness to a stock ANE cosmography, so you can indirectly use Ezekiel to illuminate Gen 1.

x) This also goes to the question of dating OT books. If you think the Pentateuch was written during the Babylonian Exile, or received its final redaction in that historical setting, then Ezekiel could actually antedate Gen 1. Ezekiel could influence Gen 1, or the Pentateuch generally. That’s the opposite of the traditional view, where the direction of influence is in the reverse.

Since I accept the traditional dating of the Pentateuch, I reject that historical reconstruction.

xi) Another issue is whether there’s a consistent ANE cosmography. For instance, Baruch Halpern thinks there was a dramatic shift in ANE cosmography from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. Cf. “The Assyrian Astronomy of Genesis 1 and the Birth of Milesian Philosophy,” “Late Israelite Astronomies and the Early Greeks,” in From Gods to God: The Dynamics of Iron Age Cosmologies.

My point is not to endorse his arguments, but that’s in part because I don’t share his views regarding the historical composition of the OT canon.

xii) In sum, I think Hodge’s monograph contains some useful exegetical insights, but I also find it unconvincing or unsatisfactory in other respects. It takes its place alongside the work of Walton, Beale, Desi Alexander, Gordon Wenham and others in that general vein. It makes a limited, but helpful contribution to our understanding of Genesis, as long as you make allowance for the limitations I’ve noted.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Steve, thanks for the write up.

    Let me clarify a couple things where I think maybe there was some confusion.

    First, I try to do in the book the first option you suggest, which is to show common ANE ideas and thinking as a backdrop for Genesis (Walton does this in his latest book as well). I do the same with other biblical texts, so, for instance, I don’t use Ezekiel or Daniel as a background for Genesis 1, as though the author knows those texts, but to show the conceptual framework under which the author of Genesis is likely working. As such, I don’t pinpoint Enuma elish as some sort of framework for the text either. In fact, I’ve noted often, as you have here, since the time of my thesis over a decade ago, that Ee is a unique account and not at all similar to other ANE accounts, and that Genesis is not using it as its prototype. The author is likely aware of the text, but it makes no difference to my interpretation if he does know of it or not. It employs common imagery seen throughout the ANE, so I quote it a few times for that purpose, but not because I think the author of Genesis is interacting with it directly in some way. Some scholars do believe that, but that idea is fading. I do think that the author is interacting with Atra-hasis in this way, but I don’t develop this at all in the book.

    Second, I agree with you that one can’t jump from serpent imagery to donkey imagery. There may be some sacred connection of a donkey itself, but I haven’t gotten a chance to read Ken Way’s book about sacred donkeys yet, so I don’t know. It’s never been a subject I pursued. But my analogy was with talking animals in general as signifying something supernatural. Granted, there is a limited amount of talking animals in literature that don’t fall under the category of allegory, but from what we do have, it seems that it signifies the presence of some supernatural being—the difference here, of course, is that the donkey is signifying the presence of another being, where the talking serpents usually signify that the serpent is a supernatural being. But I agree that this would need to be developed further in order to really prove the analogy concrete.

    Finally, I do think that concepts to which the language refers and the language itself cannot be separated and still be understood well, so the question concerning whether the interpretation is dependent upon the text itself or concepts within the culture displayed throughout other texts would have me simply answer, “Yes.” I think the concept of Genesis 1 and 2 as creation described as two temples, one from the view from above and one from the view from below, is important to understand the entire theological argument of the book, without which, the message becomes, not lost, but less potent (i.e., it lacks color). Yet, modern readers would have a hard time seeing those temples without understanding the background literature. Hence, I would say it’s both/and. The interpretation is dependent upon the text when the text has been interpreted in light of the concepts to which its language refers. That’s something I try to note in the beginning of the book when I say that learning Hebrew needs to be understood as more than grammar and lexicographical glosses, but as that which references an entire world that may have different concepts than we do.

    That’s not to say that it would not have been discovered without it, as I seem to remember some years ago reading a church father who noted the temple imagery and thought how interesting it was that he did so without the aid of ANE literature as a backdrop.

    I hope that clarifies my intentions with some of those things. Thanks again for the comments.