Theology/Old Testament term paper 998

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Old Testament

The Old Testament is a compilation, and like every compilation it has a

wide variety of contributors who, in turn, have their individual influence

upon the final work. It is no surprise, then, that there exist certain

parallels between the Enuma Elish, the cosmogony of the Babylonians, and

the Book of Genesis, the first part of the Pentateuch section of the Bible.

In fact, arguments may be made that other Near Eastern texts, particularly

Sumerian, have had their influences in Biblical texts. The extent of this

'borrowing', as it were, is not limited to the Bible; the Enuma Elish has

its own roots in Sumerian mythology, predating the Enuma Elish by nearly a

thousand years. A superficial examination of this evidence would

erroneously lead one to believe that the Bible is somewhat a collection of

older mythology re-written specifically for the Semites. In fact, what

develops is that the writers have addressed each myth as a separate issue,

and what the writers say is that their God surpasses every other. Each

myth or text that has a counterpart in the Bible only serves to further an

important idea among the Hebrews: there is but one God, and He is

omnipotent, omniscient, and other-worldly; He is not of this world, but

outside it, apart from it. The idea of a monotheistic religion is first

evinced in recorded history with Judaism, and it is vital to see that

instead of being an example of plagiarism, the Book of Genesis is a

meticulously composed document that will set apart the Hebrew God from the

others before, and after.

To get a clear picture of the way the Book of Genesis may have been formed

(because we can only guess with some degree of certainty), we must place in

somewhere in time, and then define the cultures in that time. The

influences, possible and probable, must be illustrated, and then we may

draw our conclusions.

If we trace back to the first appearance of the Bible in written form, in

its earliest translation, we arrive at 444 B.C.. Two texts, components of

the Pentateuch referred to as 'J' and 'E' texts, can be traced to around

650 B.C. Note that 'J' refers to Yahweh (YHVH) texts, characterized by the

use of the word 'Yahweh' or 'Lord' in accounts; 'E' refers to Elohist

texts, which use, naturally, 'Elohim' in its references to God.1 But 650

B.C. isn't our oldest reference to the 'J' and 'E' texts; they can be

traced, along with the other three strands of the Pentateuch, to at least

1000 B.C. Our first compilation of these strands existed in 650 B.C.. We

must therefore begin our search further back in time.

We can begin with the father of the Hebrew people, Abraham. We can deduce

when he lived, and find that he lived around 1900 B.C. in ancient

Mesopotamia2. If we examine his world and its culture, we may find the

reasons behind certain references in Genesis, and the mythologies they

resemble.

The First Babylonian Dynasty had begun around 1950 B.C. and would last

well into the late 16th century B.C.. The Babylonians had just conquered a

land previously under the control of the Assyrians, and before that, the

Summering. Abraham had lived during a time of great prosperity and a

remarkably advanced culture. He was initially believed to have come from

the city of Ur, as given in the Bible as "...the Ur of Chaldees". Earlier

translations read, however, simply "...Land of the Chaldees"; later, it was

deduced that Abraham had come from a city called Haran3. In any case, he

lived in a thriving and prosperous world. Homes were comfortable, even

luxurious. Copies of hymns were found next to mathematical tablets

detailing formulae for extracting square and cube roots.4 The level of

sophistication 4000 years ago is remarkable. We can also deduce that it

was a relatively stable and peaceful society; its art is characterized by

the absence of any warlike activity, paintings or sculptures.5

We also have evidence of an Israelite tribe, the Benjamites, in Babylonian

texts. The Benjamites were nomads on the frontier of its boundaries, and

certainly came in with Babylonian ideas- culture, religion, ethics.

The early tribes of Israel were nomadic, "taking with them the early

traditions, and in varying latitudes have modified it"6 according to

external influences. The message remained constant, but the context would

subtly change. In addition to the Benjamites in Mesopotamia, there were

tribes of Israel in Egypt during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom period7, which

certainly exposed these people to Egyptian culture as well as Babylonian

culture as a result of trade between the two kingdoms. Having placed

Abraham and certain early Semites in this time, we can now examine the

culture they would have known.

The Babylonian Dynasty had as one of its first leaders a man known as

Hammurabi. In addition to being the world's first known lawgiver, he

installed a national god for his people named Marduk 8. Marduk's story is

related in the Enuma Elish:

It begins with two primordial creatures, Apsu and Tiamat. They have

children, who are gods. These children became too noisy and disruptive to

Apsu, who wished to kill them. One of these gods, Ea, kills Apsu first.

Tiamat becomes enraged, and increasingly threatening towards Ea and the

remaining gods for killing her mate. One by one, the gods seek to quiet

Tiamat, but each fails. However, one god, Marduk, agrees to stop Tiamat,

but only if he is granted sole dominion over all other gods. They agree,

and Marduk battles Tiamat, killing her and creating the world from her

corpse. In addition, Marduk slays one of the gods who allied himself with

Tiamat, and from this dead god's blood, Marduk creates man. 9

On the surface, it looks and sounds nothing like Genesis. However, we can

begin to draw our parallels as we go into more detail. For example,

Babylonian poetry has no rhyme, but it has meter and rhythm, like Hebrew

10. Notice the similarity in the next two passages:

"Half of her he set in place and formed the sky... as a roof.

He fixed the crossbar... posted guards;

He commanded them not to let her waters escape" 11

and

"Then God said, 'Let there be a dome... to separate one

body of water from the other.'" Genesis 1:6

"All the fountains of the great abyss burst forth, and the

floodgates of the sky were opened..." Genesis 7:11

Also compare the creation of days and the special significance

conferred upon the seventh:

"Thou shalt shine with horns to make six known days, on

the seventh with... a tiara." 12

>From Genesis (1:31-2-1):

"Evening came and morning followed- the sixth day...

"So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because

on it He

rested from all the work he had done in creation."

We can summarize the similarities like so: each created the firmament, dry

land, the celestial bodies, and light. Each makes man the crowning

achievement. On the seventh day, God rests and sanctifies the day. In the

seventh tablet of the Enuma Elish, the gods rest and celebrate. These

similarities strongly suggest a common knowledge of the Enuma Elish among

writers of the Book of Genesis (each section of Genesis is composed of four

different sets of writers). In addition to Babylonian influence, look at

the following taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which can be traced

back to 3000 B.C.:

"I am Re..

I am the great god who came into being by himself..."13

Compare that to the familiar "I am who am." These similarities are of

secondary importance, however; we now begin to see the departures. For

one, if Marduk is all-powerful, why does he do battle with Tiamat, when a

word would suffice? For example:

"Then God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light.

"Then God said, 'Let there be a dome in the middle of the

waters, to separate one body of water from the other.'

And so it happened..." Genesis 1:3, 1:6

God's word alone is sufficient to render unto the world any change He

wishes. This is a radical innovation in a world where pantheistic religion

more closely resembles a super-powered family that doesn't get along very

well. The Egyptian god Re may have been self-created, but he is by no

means all-powerful, and not at all the only of his kind. Marduk is a

warrior who can defeat primordial serpents, but the Hebrew god has but to

speak:

"...and it was; He commanded, and it stood fast." Psalms, 33:9

The word of God is all-powerful.. And here we begin to see our greatest

departures. We have a monotheistic religion, the first of its kind,

created amidst a culture that, in the case of the Babylonians, has up to

fifty gods!14 Not only is there but one god, but he is all-powerful, so

much so that he does not find it necessary to wrestle with nature or defeat

mighty primordial gods. He simply speaks and it is done. It is our first

occurrence of divine will impose upon the world. Furthermore, it is a god

without a precursor, without creation. He is something apart from this

world. Tiamat and Apsu lived in a world already created (and by whom?);

the Egyptian gods have a multitude of births of gods in their texts15.

In fact, there was once a debate on the translation of a single verb in

the Bible, "bara", meaning "to create". Later translations modify this to

"bero", meaning

"to create from nothing". When written in Hebrew, only careful scrutiny

would distinguish the two. The distinction is important, however, because

it changes the implications involved in creating. Does God create the

world from something or nothing? In the following passage,

"When God began to create heaven and earth- the earth being a

desolate

waste, with darkness upon the abyss and the spirit of

God hovering over the waters- God said, 'Let there be light!' And

there was light."

it is inferred that God is creating with something. The next translation,

"When God began to create the heaven and earth, the earth was a

desolate waste and darkness was upon the abyss and the spirit of

God was hovering over the waters. And God said, 'Let there be

light!'

And there was light..."

implies that God began by creating a desolate waste, then creating light,

then shaping the waste, and so forth. All this as a function of one

verb16. As another departure, examination of creation stories by

Summering and Babylonians show that they begin with subordinate clauses

such as "when" or "On the day of."17 Genesis clearly diverges from this:

"In the beginning" clearly sets apart the text from any other, making it

the actual start of all time and space as we know it. It also puts the

Hebrew god outside of time and space.

There would be no point in arguing that the Old Testament was

influenced by the contemporary cultures of its writers; the facts clearly

point to innumerable external sources of inspiration. But while we can

acknowledge these similarities, we must also acknowledge that the writers

of the Book of Genesis are making a radical departure from the norm: they

have created a monotheistic religion, and their god is all-powerful, beyond

the scope of human comprehension. Typically, gods are represented as

something akin to humans on a grander scale; the Hebrew god is simply not

measured or scaled; He is an unknown quantity, set apart from the bounds of

human knowledge. These similarities serve a function as a contrast to the

differences between these religions. It would seem that the writers

acknowledged these other religions, and addressed each one by creating a

god that surpasses all others. The god that creates himself is one of

many; the Hebrew god stands alone in his might. The god that created the

world defeated another god, and formed the earth from the corpse; in

Genesis, God speaks and his words transform into actions. God exists

before the matter He shapes to His will. The writers have then, in fact,

minimized the actions of all other gods in comparison to one all-powerful

deity such as this. By drawing comparisons to other texts, the message can

be lost in attempting to find the roots of certain ideas. But the origins

of the stories are not nearly as important as the overall message being

stated, and while the ideas they resemble may be old, the message is clear

and unique: there is but one, and He is beyond all that is. His will alone

suffices, and He predates even time itself. And that message has changed

the world.

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