Read This Book 2: What Question Is Genesis Answering?

Do some of these phrases look familiar? Images like these of the ancient Near Eastern view of the cosmos do more to explain the stories of creation and the flood than modern evangelical attempts to force biblical conformity to scientific findings.

In Chapter 2 of Inspiration and Incarnation, Enns tackles the first of what he calls the three problems evangelicals must confront when reading the Old Testament: the similarity between key stories of the Old Testament and other ancient Near Eastern literature.

I confess this has never really bothered me – and still doesn’t. It seems like if something happened in the mists of pre-history, then it will be passed down in various ways by different cultures, and they will look similar when it all finally gets put in writing. So the fact that the Creation story bears a strong resemblance to the Akkadian poem Enuma Elish, or the Flood stories to the Mesopotamian tales of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh,while interesting, doesn’t put my faith on edge.

Enns says it’s a question of unique revelation: “If the Bible reflects these ancient customs and practices, in what sense can we speak of it as revelation?”

More interesting is the similarity between the Mosaic code of law and the ancient secular law codes we have found. Many of the Levitical commands have striking parallels in the Code of Hammurabi, which was set down centuries before the Ten Commandments were. “The true faith of Israel and the false faith of her neighbors look similar,” Enns writes.

Finally, and most troubling, is the recent discovery of the Mesha Inscription. Mesha was a Moabite king mentioned in the Old Testament who paid tribute to Omri, the king of Israel (2 Kings 3:4-5). He is mentioned as rebelling against Ahab and then disappears from the Bible. But archaeologists have discovered a monument Mesha made to himself that confirms exactly what the Bible says. So what’s the problem? Here’s the opening of the Mesha Inscription:

Omri was the king of Israel, and he oppressed Moab for many days, for Kemosh was angry with the land.

Change the names and roles around, and it sounds just like the Bible, doesn’t it? Our king, the good guy, was oppressed by this other king, the bad guy, because our god was angry with us. It’s not history, Enns writes, so much as historiography, and so too are the historical events recorded in the books of Samuel and Kings. (Chronicles is apparently a totally different nut to crack.)

Once again, Enns presents the problem as one of 21st century culture imposing itself on ancient culture.

The questions we must ask are these: What did it mean to record history? What can be called good or accurate history writing by standards that were in existence when the Bible was written?

Emphasis mine. One final problem he notes is the striking similarity between Proverbs 22:17-24:22 and the much older Egyptian wisdom literature known as Instructions of Amenemope. Not only does this section of Proverbs shift in tone from the sections surrounding it, but the language it uses parallels the Egyptian text, and in Proverbs 22:20, the writer asks, “Have I not written 30 sayings for you?” The Instructions of Amenemope contains 30 chapters. It seems likely these two chapters of Proverbs, at least, were copied from the older pagan text.

To all these potentially troubling parallels, Enns seems to say so what?

That’s not to say he dismisses the evidence, simply that he continues to question why we make such a big deal of the possibility that God would have spoken to an ancient Mesopotamian people using ancient Mesopotamian, and not modern American, traditions, stories and customs.

To Enns, the key is Abraham. He’s the father of the Israelites who ultimately wrote these things down, and before he met God, he was nothing more than a man from Ur, the seat of Mesopotamian civilization, steeped in the myths and culture of that time.

The Mesopotamian world from which Abraham came was one whose own stories of origins had been expressed in mythic categories for a considerable length of time. Moreover, the land Abraham was going to enter, the land of the Canaanites, was likewise rich in its own myths. … As God entered into relationship with Abraham, he “met” him where he was – an ancient Mesopotamian man who breathed the air of the ancient Near East. We must surely assume that Abraham, as such a man, shared the worldview of those whose world he shared and not a modern, scientific one.

The story God told Abraham, and in turn had Abraham tell his descendants, was radical enough without trying to explain the concepts of natural selection, heliocentrism and gravity keeping us from spinning off a planet moving hundreds of thousands of miles per hour through space. Enns has an interesting parallel: In that polytheistic world, the idea of one single God who loves and cares for humanity would be akin to someone today telling us the Greek gods were real and actually do rule the world from Mount Olympus. “In its original setting,” Enns writes, “the Bible was already a radical challenge to the status quo.”

Emphasis again mine. I’ll leave you with this quote from Enns that I think sums up his argument quite well:

It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a modern worldview such as whether the days were literal or figurative, or whether the days of creation can be lined up with modern science, or whether the flood was local or universal. The question that Genesis is prepared to answer is whether Yahweh, the God of Israel, is worthy of worship.

I think we can certainly answer that question in the affirmative.

Enns goes on to discuss the problems raised by the prospect of biblical history looking more like subjective historiography, but we’ll leave that one for another day.

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