Have you ever wondered what to do with all the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) documents that so closely resemble certain parts of the Old Testament? Consider Genesis alone: other ANE documents tell of the creation of mankind, the birth of heavenly beings, a global flood, the construction of temples for their gods, the defeat of chaos, of wandering patriarchal figures, and more. And these are only concepts or historical events; one could also consider the similar narratival and literary features found between the Old Testament and ANE documents.
The problem of methodology has been alive since around 1900, when the famous Bible-Babel controversy exploded. Newly discovered ANE documents left some believing the Old Testament had simply borrowed from the ANE, while others stressed the Old Testament’s thorough uniqueness. There was much reaction on both sides. Since then, refinements in methodology have been made, and the compare-contrast model has become quite popular. That is, one should simply find the points of similarities and dissimilarities between the Old Testament and its ancient neighbors’ writings and make suggestions about what might be borrowed and what might be unique.
Less often in the mass of literature does one find a consistent strand of argument that the Old Testament is polemicizing against the ANE documents. That is, they so closely resemble the documents because they are comparing the religion of Israel with the neighboring religions and subverting them by showing the superiority of Yahweh over all other gods (e.g., Exod 15:11: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?”).
John Currid’s new book does just that. He begins with a brief chapter on the history of research on OT-ANE relations, follows that with a chapter on the nature of polemical writings, and then provides nine chapters of comparative studies, including the creation account, the flood, the flight of Moses, and more. The theme of the book is that the Old Testament is polemicizing against the false religions of Israel’s neighbors.
Currid’s book is of immense help to those who want to preach the Old Testament faithfully. Of course the New Testament is a primary source for understanding the Old Testament, but if we really do believe the Old Testament was written in space and time, in a certain culture, then understanding how to relate the Old Testament to other ANE writings is a responsible part of exegesis. And this is no academic exercise; it is often a great part of the richness of the passage. For example, if the plagues in Exodus are truly attacks on Egyptian gods (“on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD” [Exod 12:12]), then the passage becomes less about judgment on Pharaoh and more about the ultimate supremacy of our great God over against all other false gods and idols. And note there the obvious polemical tone, which Currid is trying to highlight in the other passages that he examines.
For a primer on OT-ANE relations and an approach on how to study the Old Testament in its historical context, Currid’s work is one of the best and I would highly suggest buying it and reading through it before preaching that next Old Testament series. One word of caution, though, is that not every text has to be polemical. John Walton has discussed the shared “cognitive environment” of Israel and her neighbors, so that, for example, each nation may describe a war victory in a very similar manner. That does not mean that one is borrowing from the other, or that one is polemical against the other. They may simply be recording the war victory in a manner that everyone in their culture would understand.
Note: You can read the Books At a Glance Summary of this book here.
Against The Gods: The Polemical Theology Of The Old Testament