SPECIAL TOPIC: THE OLD TESTAMENT AS HISTORY (from Genesis and Joshua)

Christianity and Judaism are historical faiths. They base their faith on historical events (accompanied by their interpretations). The problem comes in trying to define or describe what is "history" or "historical study."  Much of the problem in modern theological interpretation rests on modern literary or historical assumptions projected back onto Ancient Near Eastern biblical literature.  Not only is there not a proper appreciation of the temporal and cultural differences, but also of the literary differences. As modern western people we simply do not understand the genres and literary techniques of Ancient Near Eastern writings, so we interpret them in light of western literal genres.

The nineteenth century's approach to biblical studies atomized and depreciated the books of the Old Testament as historical, unified documents.  This historical scepticism has affected hermeneutics and historical investigation of the Old Testament.  The current trend toward "canonical hermeneutics" (Brevard Childs) has helped focus on the current form of the Old Testament text.  This, in my opinion, is a helpful bridge over the abyss of German higher criticism of the nineteenth century.  We must deal with the canonical text that has been given us by an unknown historical process whose inspiration is assumed.

Many scholars are returning to the assumption of the historicity of the OT.  This is surely not meant to deny the obvious editing and updating of the OT by later Jewish scribes, but it is a basic return to the OT as a valid history and the documentation of true events (with their theological interpretations).  A quote from R. K Harrison in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 1, in the article, "Historical and Literary Criticism of the Old Testament" is helpful.

"Comparative historiographic studies have shown that, along with the Hittites, the ancient Hebrews were the most accurate, objective, and responsible recorders of Near Eastern history. . .Form-critical studies of books such as Genesis and Deuteronomy, based on specific types of tablets recovered from sites that include Mari, Nuzu, and Boghazköy, have shown that the canonical material has certain nonliterary counterparts in the cultures of some Near Eastern peoples. As a result, it is possible to view with a new degree of confidence and respect those early traditions of the Hebrews that purport to be historiographic in nature" (p. 232).

I am especially appreciative of R. K. Harrison's work because he makes it a priority to interpret the Old Testament in light of contemporary events, cultures and genres.

In my own classes on early Jewish literature (Genesis – Deuteronomy and Joshua), I try to establish a credible link with other Ancient Near Eastern literature and artifacts.

A. Genesis literary parallels from the Ancient Near East

1. Earliest known literary parallel of the cultural setting of Genesis 1-11 is the Ebla cuneiform tablets from northern Syria dating about 2500 b.c., written in Akkadian.

2. Creation

a. The closest Mesopotamian account dealing with creation, Enuma Elish, dating from about 1900-1700 b.c., was found in Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh and several other places. There are seven cuneiform tablets written in Akkadian which describe creation by Marduk.

1) the gods, Apsu (fresh water – male) and Tiamat (salt water – female) had unruly, noisy children.  These two gods tried to silence the younger gods.

2) one of the god's children, Marduk, helped defeat Tiamat.  He formed the earth from her body.

3) Marduk formed humanity from another defeated god, Kingu, who was the male consort of Tiamat after the death of Apsu. Humanity came from Kingu's blood.

4) Marduk was made chief of the Babylonian pantheon.

b. "The creation seal" is a cuneiform tablet which is a picture of a naked man and woman beside a fruit tree with a snake wrapped around the tree's trunk and positioned over the woman's shoulder as if talking to her.

3. Creation and Flood – The Atrahasis Epic records the rebellion of the lesser gods because of overwork and the creation of seven human couples to perform the duties of these lesser gods.  Because of (1) over population and (2) noise, human beings were reduced in number by a plague, two famines, and finally a flood, planned by Enlil.  These major events are seen in the same order in Genesis 1-8.  This cuneiform composition dates from about the same times as Enuma Elish and the Gilgamesh Epic, about 1900-1700 b.c.  All are in Akkadian. 

4. Noah's flood

a. A Sumerian tablet from Nippur, called Eridu Genesis, dating from abut 1600 b.c., tells about Zivsudra and a coming flood.

1) Enka, the water god, warned of a coming flood

2) Zivsudra, a king-priest, saved in a huge boat

3) The flood lasted seven days

4) Zivsudra opened a window on the boat and released several birds to see if dry land had appeared

5) He also offered a sacrifice of an ox and sheep when he left the boat

b. A composite Babylonian flood account from four Summerian tales, known as the Gilgamesh Epic, originally dating from about 2500-2400 b.c., although the written composite form was cuneiform Akkadian, is much later.  It tells about a flood survivor, Utnapishtim, who tells Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk how he survived the great flood and was granted eternal life.

1) Ea, the water god, warns of a coming flood and tells Utnapishtim (Babylonian form of Zivsudra) to build a boat

2) Utnapishtim and his family, along with selected healing plants, survived the flood

3) The flood lasted seven days

4) The boat came to rest in northeast Persia, on Mt. Nisir

5) He sent out three different birds to see if dry land had yet appeared

5. The Mesopotamian literature which describes an ancient flood draws from the same source.  The names often vary, but the plot is the same.  An example is that Zivsudra, Atrahasis, and Utnapishtim are all the same human king.

6. The historical parallels to the early events of Genesis can be explained in light of man's pre-dispersion (Genesis 10-11) knowledge and experience of God. These true historical core memories have been elaborated and mythologicalized into the current flood accounts common throughout the world.  The same can also be said of: creation (Genesis 1-2) and human and angelic unions (Genesis 6).

7. Patriarch's Day (Middle Bronze)

a. Mari tablets – cuneiform legal (Ammonite culture) and personal texts written in Akkadian from about 1700 b.c.

b. Nuzi tablets – cuneiform archives of certain families (Horite or Hurrian culture) written in Akkadian, located about 100 miles SE of Nineveh, circa 1500-1300 b.c.  They record family and business procedures.  For further specific examples, see Walton, pp. 52-58.

c. Alalak tablets – cuneiform texts from Northern Syria from about 2000 b.c.

d. Some of the names found in Genesis are specified as place names in the Mari Tablets: Serug, Peleg, Terah, Nahor.  Other biblical names were also common: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Laban, and Joseph.

8. "Comparative historiographic studies have shown that, along with the Hittites, the ancient Hebrews were the most accurate, objective and responsible recorders of Near Eastern history," R. K Harrison in Biblical Criticism, p. 5.

9. Archaeology has proven to be so helpful in establishing the historicity of the Bible.  However, a word of caution is necessary.  Archaeology is not an absolutely trustworthy guide because of

a. poor techniques in early excavations

b. various, very subjective interpretations of the artifacts that have been discovered

c. no agreed-upon chronology of the Ancient Near East (although one is being developed from tree rings)

B. Egyptian creation accounts can be found in John W. Walton's, Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990. pp. 23-34, 32-34.

1. In Egyptian literature creation began with an unstructured, chaotic, primeval water.  Creation was seen as developing structure out of watery chaos.

2. In Egyptian literature from Memphis, creation occurred by the spoken word of Ptah.

C. Joshua literary parallels from the Ancient Near East

1. Archaeology has shown that most of the large walled cities of Canaan were destroyed and rapidly rebuilt about 1250 b.c.

a. Hazor 

b. Lachish

c. Bethel 

d. Debir (formerly called Kerioth Sepher, Jos. 15:15)

2. Archaeology has not been able to confirm or reject the biblical account of the fall of Jericho (cf. Joshua 6).  This is because the site is in such poor condition:

a. weather/location 

b. later rebuildings on old sites using older materials

c. uncertainty as to the dates of the layers

3. Archaeology has found an altar on Mt. Ebal that might be connected to Joshua 8:30-31 (Deuteronomy. 27:2-9).  It is very similar to a description found in the Mishnah (Talmud).

4. The Ras Shamra texts found at Ugarit show Canaanite life and religion of 1400's b.c.

a. polytheistic nature worship (fertility cult)

b. El was chief deity

c. El's consort was Asherah (later she is consort to Ba'al) who was worshiped in the form of a carved stake or live tree, which symbolized "the tree of life"

d. their son was Ba'al (Haddad), the storm god

e. Ba'al became the "high god" of the Canaanite pantheon.  Anat was his consort

f. ceremonies similar to Isis and Osiris of Egypt

g. Ba'al worship was focused on local "high places" or stone platforms (ritual prostitution)

h. Ba'al was symbolized by a raised stone pillar (phallic symbol)

5. The accurate listing of the names of ancient cities fits a contemporary author, not later editor(s)

a. Jerusalem called Jebus, Jos. 15:8; 18:16,28 (Jos. 15:28 said the Jebusites still remained in part of Jerusalem)

b. Hebron called Kiriath-arba, Jos. 14:15; 15:13,54; 20:7; 21:11

c. Kiriath-jearim is called Baalah, Jos. 15:9,10

d. Sidon is referred to as the major Phoenician city, not Tyre, Jos. 11:8; 13:6; 19:28, which later became the chief city 

 

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