Thursday, January 10, 2019

Genesis and the ancient Near East

It's become very popular to say we should interpret the OT in light of its ancient Near Eastern background. That's true or false depending on how we develop the idea. Two of the more prominent exponents are John Walton and Peter Enns, but there are others. This is becoming influential in evangelicalism. 

But one problem with this line of thought is that scholars like Walton and Enns speak with great confidence about their interpretations, as if once you grant the ancient Near Eastern frame of reference, then there's scholarly consensus on how to interpret Genesis. But that's far from monolithic. There are scholars who agree with the frame of reference, but arrive at very different conclusions. 

It's my impression that Walton is to the right of Enns. In addition, it's my impression that Walton is a better scholar than Enns. However, David Tsumura is a more distinguished scholar than either one. And it's revealing to compare his conclusions to theirs. I'll be quoting some excerpts from David T. Tsumura, "Rediscovery of the Ancient Near East and Its Implications for Genesis 1–2," Kyle Greenwood, ed. Since the Beginning: Interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 through the Ages (Baker 2018), chapter 10.

Mark Smith now agrees that the translation "chaos" should be avoided...If Gen 1 were a polemic against Tiamat, its author would have used a form such as t'mh or t'mt based on the Akkadian proper noun directly, or perhaps have used yam, "Sea", the enemy of the storm god Baal, who was the counterpart of Marduk. 

When one takes a closer look at both accounts [Gen 1-2], it is evident that they are not two "parallel" versions of the same or similar "creation" stories…Gen 2, which in a strict sense is not a creation story but an organizational text and serves as an "introduction" to Gen 3. A story without any reference to the sun, the moon and the stars, or the sea is not a true cosmological account. Gen 1, which locates the creation of humanity as the grand climax of the creation of the cosmos, is not of the same literary genre as Gen 2-3, which is concerned with the immediate situation of humanity on the earth. Both chapters , however, do reflect essentially the same cosmology. In Gen 1:2 the initial situation of the "world" is described in linguistically positive terms as an unproductive and uninhabited "earth", totally covered by an expanse of water, while in 2:5-6 the initial state of the "earth" is described by the negative expressions "no vegetation" and "no man"…In Gen 2:6 the underground ed-water was flooding the whole arid of the "land" (adama), but not the entire earth (eretz) as in Gen 1:2, so it describes a stage, as in Gen 1:9-10. 

The two stories view the creation of  human beings from two different perspectives. The first presents their nature and function in the framework of the entire creation of the world and as the Creator's representatives on earth; the second explains their relationship with each other and with the other creatures in their physical environment. This is the discourse-grammatical phenomenon of "scope change," that is, "zooming in from an overall perspective to a close-up, with a corresponding shift in reference."…Since biblical narratives such as Gen 1-2 were aural discourses, written to be heard, it is not surprising that they are characterized by repetition and correspondence, like poetic literature. 

According to one theory [the framework hypothesis], places were created on days 1-3, and their corresponding inhabitants are created on days 4-6. However, such correspondences do not work well, for sea creatures (day 5) live not in the heavens (day 2) but in the seas (day 3). More important is the fact that in day 3 the land (eretz) is created, and in day 6 its inhabitants are created, namely, "plants," "animals," and "human beings." 

While the ancient Hebrews held a cosmology different from the modern scientific view, they seem to have had one similar to the ANE cosmologies. yet their similarities are sometimes overemphasized. The similarities are often due to linguistic similarities with a metaphorical purpose, as in the case of tnn and "fossilized" expressions such as "to crush the heads of Leviathan" (cf. Ps 74:14 NJPS). Furthermore, terms such as "foundations" and "pillars" of the earth appear only in poetical texts of the Bible, and we see the term "Sheol" only in a collocation with verbs such as "to descend". They are not to be taken as indicating the Hebrew understanding of the structure of the cosmos. They are simply idioms in which the original meaning of each element is already "ossified" or fossilized. [In a footnote, Tsumura illustrates his point by drawing some comparisons with Japanese Christian terminology.]

Nicolas Wyatt holds that bara "implies, in the process of separation, the preexistence of that thing or those things that are separated." Similarly, John Walton's "functional" theory holds that the Gen 1 creation story has nothing to do with material origins but simply describes the functional origins of the cosmos. He interprets Gen 1:1 as, "In the initial period, God brought cosmic functions into existence." However, Wardlaw's recent detailed study concludes that the qal and niphal of br' (bara is qua) mean "to create, do (something new)," while only the piel means "to cut, hew." 

The OT describes the cosmos as either bipartite, "heaven and earth"  (e.g. Gen 1:1; Ps 148), or tripartite, "Heaven, earth, and waters" (Exod 20:11; Neh 9:6; Ps 96:11; 146:6; Hag 2:6)–but in the latter case the "water(s) is always "the sea" or the like, never the underground fresh tehom water. 

The uniqueness of Genesis is in its order of commands: the waters' gathering together and the dry land appearing, not the other way around as in the cosmogonic myths in Egypt and Japan, in which a hill or an island appears out of the oceans. 

Recently Walton, following Weinfeld and Levenson, has claimed that as in the ANE, "the cosmology of Gen 1 is built on the platform of temple theology: both of these ideas–rest [Gen 2:2] and the garden [2:8-9] are integral to the temple theology of the ancient world." He holds that "in Genesis, the entire cosmos can be portrayed as a temple, because the cosmos and temple serve the same functions, that is, to house a deity. Peter Enns holds a similar view, but he assumes that "God's victory over chaos" enabled him to create the world, which is his temple. But Enns makes no distinction between the so-called Chaoskampf motive and the theomachy for Baal's temple building "after his defeat of Yam." One should note that in Ugaritic myths the god Baal cannot be called a "creator"; he did not make or create anything.

Creation in Gen 1 has nothing to do with temple building. Even though in poetic texts such as Pss. 18:15; 24:2; 75:3; and Job 38:4 the cosmos is sometimes described using architectural terms as "foundation" and "pillar," the only such term in Gen 1 is raqia (vv6-8), which can be translated as "firmament," that is, a dome. Conversely, there is nothing garden-like about Israel's tabernacle or temple, while the main purpose of a garden is to provide food for humans. Eden is said to have become a pattern for describing the Israelite sanctuary, and even the land of Israel. It is indeed possible that "the tabernacle menorah was a stylized tree of life." However, many of the suggested similarities seem suspicious, such as comparing the tunics of animal skins with which God clothed Adam and Eve to the tunics of linen worn by the priests… Walton's mistake, it seems to me, is that he tries to combine the temple motif, which he thinks is in Gen 1, and the garden motif (Gen 2-3).

It is more likely that ed was borrowed directly from the Sumerian. Both ed and edo mean "high water" and refer to the water flooding out of the subterranean ocean. The phrase "was watering" suggests an ample supply of water, rather than just moisture.

Although there is a Sumerian word edin, "plain, steppe," the etymology of Eden is better explained by the Semitic word 'dn found in Ugaritic, Aramaic, and Old South Arabic…which probably has the literal meaning "to make abundant in water supply." The Aramaic term is parallel to Akkadian tahdu, "well-watered"…The biggest problem for a gardener would be how to control the abundant waters. God drained the garden by the four rivers that flow down from it. The geographical relationships are as follows: the garden is in Eden, which is in the land, which is in the earth

Despite the fact that a majority of scholars support a Sumerian connection for the "tree of life," there is no evidence for such a tree in Mesopotamian myth and cult. Its identification with trees on various Mesopotamian seals is pure hypothesis. Also, no phrase such as "tree of life" is attested in Canaanite mythology, though we do find the phrase "tree of death".

Gen 2:10 says that a river went out from (or in) Eden. Since this is the river that watered the garden within Eden, the river likely came out in the garden part of Eden, which was probably the highest part of Eden, so the movement of this water is most likely vertical, like a spring (cf. ed-water in Gen 2:6), for in order for the river water to water the garden, it has to flow from the highest place in the garden. In Gen 2:20, the adverb "there" (sam) means the garden, where the river divided into four "branches" (NJPS) and flowed downward from the garden. 

Some scholars compare the garden of Eden and four rivers with the ANE motif of four rivers flowing from the temple, as well as the abode of the Ugaritic god El at the "source of the two rivers". However, Eden is not the Lord's abode, and the four rivers are introduced as real rivers with proper names rather than as symbolic indications of the four quarters of the earth.

The "southern" hypothesis is that the garden of Eden was in the Sumerian Dilmun, "the land of the living," which lay near the head of the Persian Gulf. This hypothesis identifies the Pishon and the Gihon with actual rivers not far from the mouths of the Tigris and the Euphrates and interprets the rivers as converging at Eden. However, the problem is that Gen 2:10 says the rivers start in the garden.

The "northern" hypothesis is that Eden is in eastern Turkey or Armenia…The items bdellium (NIV, "aromaic resin) and soham (usually, "onyx stone") are difficult to identify, but if soham were rather to be identified with lapis lazuli, Havilah might be in Afghanistan…Cush [may be] "the eponym of the Kassites," [the original homeland of the Kassites may be located in the Zagros Mountains, east of Tigris river] and the only one that would fit the phrase "in the east" of Gen 2:8. Cush thus probably refers to somewhere in the northern or possibly southeast Mesopotamia. The author's vantage point is most probably near the Euphrates, looking east. From these details, it seems the author is locating the garden somewhere in Eastern Turkey or in Armenia, near the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates, and this is a long established, widely held view. Certainly the garden was not simply a Utopia in the semiheavenly place (cf 2:15-17). 

What does it mean that God "ceased on the seventh day from all his work that he had done" (22, my trans.)? Did God become tired and rest on the seventh day? Both the verbs in the Genesis passage and the Fourth Commandment (Exod 20:11) are carefully distinguished. In Gen 2:3, sbt means basically "to cease from, stop (the work)," focusing on the "completion" of God's creative work, hence "cessation" but in Exod 20:11 nwh, "rest," emphasizes the result of cessation. 

Did the biblical author expect his readers to read ANE religious views into these chapters? Did they combine the motifs of "rest" and "garden" to get the themes of the temple as  a divine dwelling?…The Genesis account takes a very different stances from the ANE toward the divine, the world, and the human being's calling, and there is a clear distinction between the divine world and the human world. The Lord is the sole divine agent and significantly is without any female consort. In fact, in the ANE only Genesis deals with the creative actions by a personal deity without any involvement of a goddess. 

For the modern Western reader the similarities between the Bible and the ANE religions may be a problem. However, an ancient polytheistic reader would not be struck by the similarities but would take them for granted…It is the differences that would surprise him…We can see this from the reactions of later polytheists on hearing the Genesis creation story for the first time, such as the Japanese Jo Niijima and Kanzo Uchimura, at the end of the 19C,when the country was opened up to Western cultural and religious influence. 


  1. Nice to see some sane commentary on Genesis 1-3.

    How certain is the interpretation of the Hebrew text regarding the 4 rivers coming *out* of the Garden vs. the 4 rivers converging *into* the Garden? If the latter is at least a plausible interpretation, we have a pretty slam-dunk case for the Garden's location in the northern region of the Persian Gulf (which used to be a dry Oasis during the last ice age).

  2. Hugh is a well-meaning fellow, and frequently useful (especially in his field of expertise, such as cosmological fine-tuning). But he doesn't have training in the biblical languages or theology, so he is susceptible to blunders in exegesis.