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Yahweh – A Moral Monster? Not According to Copan

21st July 2008

As I mentioned in my previous post, Yahweh – A Moral Monster?, I wanted to interact with Paul Copan’s article written in response to the views of the so-called “new atheists.” In this post I will review Copan’s article, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics” (available from the Evangelical Philosophical Society website here), which rehearses many of the classic evangelical responses to the problem of the Canaanite genocide. While I will provide some of my own evaluation, I will leave the bulk of my own perspective for my next post.

I should note that Copan is concerned with responding to broader charges against the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible by the new atheists and aims to “discern the powerful moral vision of the OT” against their criticisms.  My interaction with Copan will restrict itself to those points that intersect with the genocide question.

ANE Cultural Context
Copan’s first point is that “We must allow the OT ethical discussion to begin within an ANE setting, not a post-Enlightenment one.” This is certainly correct. Our world is not the world of the Bible. The ANE was a harsh world and the OT reflects this. He further argues that while the OT world is harsh and different than our world, you also find that “God is incrementally ‘humanizing’ ANE structures within Israel to diminish cruelty and elevate the status of, say, slaves and women-even if such customs are not fully eliminated.” While I would agree to a certain extent (for instance, there are a number of studies that compare the Deuteronomic Code [DC] with other biblical and ANE law codes and finds that the DC is more “enlightened” – for lack of a better term), I would also be wary of trying to paint the ANE worse so that the Hebrew Bible looks far better in comparison. That being said, understanding the harsh world of the ANE will at least help us understand the biblical portrayal of Yahweh more sympathetically perhaps. In my mind, it is also useful to recognize that ancient Israel would naturally embed their view of God in their cultural context (uh, how could they not?), and this image of God would naturally not fit our modern sensibilities (of course, this raises the question of revelation, though you could just flip the point and say that God revealed godself in ways that would be understandable to ancient Israelites).

Development & Diversity in the OT/HB
Second, Copan maintains that there are “differing ethical demands for differing historical contexts in OT Israel’s history.” Thus, even within the OT/HB there is development. The divine command to wipe out the people in the land (Canaanites et al) was a one time command at a very specific period of Israel’s history (although herem warfare did crop up again with the Amalekites and King Saul, although this was related to the conquest of Canaan; see 1Sam 15). “Genocide” was not Israel’s modus operandi. The Deuteronomic laws themselves make a distinction between “holy war” in general and war against the lands “God is giving them as an inheritance” in particular (compare Deut 20:10-15 and vv. 16-20).

Formulaic and Stylized Nature of the Biblical Witness
A third major argument Copan raises concerns the nature of the biblical witness. Let me quote him in full:

Let me add a few more thoughts about warfare here. First, Israel would not have been justified to attack the Canaanites without Yahweh’s explicit command. Yahweh issued his command in light of a morally-sufficient reason-the incorrigible wickedness of Canaanite culture. Second, the language of Deuteronomy 7:2-5 assumes that, despite Yahweh’s command to bring punishment to the Canaanites, they would not be obliterated-hence the warnings not to make political alliances or intermarry with them. We see from this passage too that wiping out Canaanite religion was far more significant than wiping out the Canaanites themselves. Third, the “obliteration language” in Joshua (for example, “he left no survivor” and “utterly destroyed all who breathed” [10:40]) is clearly hyperbolic. Consider how, despite such language, the text of Joshua itself assumes Canaanites still inhabit the land: “For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you” (23:12-13). Joshua 9-12 utilizes the typical ANE’s literary conventions of warfare.

Copan highlights a number of points here. First, he notes that, biblically speaking, the Canaanites “had it coming” due to  “the incorrigible wickedness of Canaanite culture.” While this reflects a biblical perspective (see especially Deuteronomy 9-10 where it says, among other things, “It is not because of your [Israel’s] righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations Yahweh your God is dispossessing them before you” [Deut 9:5]), it makes me a bit uncomfortable since history has made it clear that it is easy for one group to demonize another.

Second, Copan notes that the language of herem is formulaic and naturally filled with hyperbole, and the biblical text also seems to imply in a number of places the failure of the Canaanite operation. Of course, as I already mentioned, that Israel failed historically in their ethnic cleansing (or even if it is propagandistic fiction), doesn’t change the fact that the Bible portrays Yahweh commanding it.  While I concur with Copan that the texts employ certain formulaic language in regards to Yahweh war, the narrative examples provided in the biblical text (e.g., Jericho in Judges 6, Saul and the Amalekites in 1Sam 15), suggest that when the biblical text talks about killing all “men, women, and children” it is not an exaggeration.

God’s Prerogative
Copan then makes what he considers is the crux of his argument concerning the Canaanite genocide. Again, I quote in full:

if God exists, does he have any prerogatives over human life? The new atheists seem to think that if God existed, he should have a status no higher than any human being. Thus, he has no right to take life as he determines. Yet we should press home the monumental difference between God and ordinary human beings. If God is the author of life, he is not obligated to give us seventy or eight years of life.
….
That being the case, he can take the lives of the Canaanites indirectly through Israel’s armies (or directly, as he did when Sodom was destroyed in Genesis 19) according to his good purposes and morally sufficient reasons. What then of “innocent women and children”? Keep in mind that when God destroyed Sodom, he was willing to spare the city if there were even ten innocent persons. Not even ten could be found. Given the moral depravity of the Canaanites, the women were far from innocent.

In connection with the killing of children and babies, Copan argues that “death would be a mercy, as they would be ushered into the presence of God and spared the corrupting influences of a morally decadent culture.”  This argumentation makes me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, least of which it  presupposes a NT understanding of the afterlife (the OT is not clear what happens after death). That being said,  I am not sure how we can get around the notion of Yahweh’s/God’s rightful prerogative over human life. If Yahweh is God — if God is God — then does not he have the perrogative to judge his creation? This point by Copan brings the discussion out of the OT/HB and into the Christian Bible as a whole, since the NT also portrays God as the ultimate judge over his creation.

This, then, is Copan’s response. In my next post I will provide some of my own thoughts on the subject.


Posted in Biblical Teaching, Deuteronomy, Exodus, Joshua, Theodicy, Yahweh War | 7 Comments »

Precious Moments Akedah

15th July 2008

I came across this image as I was going through some old email; a student made it a number of years back. It certainly gives quite a different spin on the Akedah — the binding/near sacrifice of Isaac — as found in Genesis 22!

The Precious Moments Akedah


Posted in Akedah, Bible, Genesis | 5 Comments »

Canucks and Creation

4th July 2007

A recent poll suggests that 60% of Canadians believe that God was somehow involved in creating humankind, whether directly or indirectly. According to the Canadian Press-Decima Research survey, Canadians fall into three groups:

  • 34% believe in some sort of evolutionary creationism (or theistic evolution) where humans developed over millions of years under a process superintended by God
  • 26% hold to a young earth creation view that God distinctly created humans within the last 10,000 years
  • 29% hold to an atheistic evolution in which evolution occurred with no help from God

The poll was conducted in the third week of June 2007.

Here is an excerpt from the Toronto Star article about the poll:

“These results reflect an essential Canadian tendency,� said pollster Bruce Anderson. “We are pretty secular, but pretty hesitant to embrace atheism.�

The belief that God had a direct or indirect role in creation was widespread among the 1,000 respondents questioned between June 21 and 24. A majority of those polled held this view in every region of the country, in rural and urban areas, and regardless of education.

And there were a few surprises: Conservatives were more likely than Liberals to say that God had no part in the process, and Alberta, regarded as the birthplace of social conservatism, had one of the lowest levels of beliefs for strict creationism at 22 per cent.

But in this controversial area, the devil is in the breakdown of the numbers.

For instance, while Liberal party voters were more likely than Conservatives to credit God with some contribution to creation, Conservative voters were less likely to write God out altogether. Only 22 per cent of Tory respondents said God had no role, as opposed to 31 per cent of Liberals.

Liberal respondents were far more likely to be what could be termed “soft evolutionists� or “soft creationists,� with 41 per cent saying God guided the process of human development, as opposed to 34 per cent of Conservatives seeing creation in those terms.

Regionally, Quebec respondents were by far the most likely to say God’s role in creation was a delusion, with 40 per cent saying the evolutionary process had no interference from an intelligent designer.

British Columbia respondents were the next sub-group who could be termed strict evolutionists, with 31 per cent saying God was not involved. Least likely to hold this view were respondents in the Prairie provinces — 21 per cent.

The findings suggest the least educated were most likely to be creationists, as were respondents living in rural Canada.

Among respondents without a high-school diploma, 37 per cent said they believed God alone created humans less than 10,000 years ago, whereas only 15 per cent of university-educated respondents were strict creationists.

Rural respondents also had a plurality who believed in strict creationism at 34 per cent, whereas only 22 per cent of urban dwellers said they believed God alone created humans.

Anderson said the findings suggest Canadians lack consensus on creation, but also don’t view the issue as polarizing.

“It’s more as though for many, these feelings are unresolved,� he said. “We believe in a higher being, we know what we don’t know, are comfortable not knowing, and choose not to press our views upon one another.�

That is not the case in the United States, where similar polls have suggested Americans are more polarized on the subject. In a recent U.S. poll, 45 per cent said God created humans, and 40 per cent said evolution was God guided. Only 15 per cent said God played no part in creation.

These results accord well with the informal polls I conduct when I teach my Genesis course as well as with my own general impression based on anecdotal evidence.

What do you think?


Posted in Canadiana, Creation, Genesis, News | 3 Comments »

Ideas of Origins and Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Part 1

29th January 2007

Next to a close reading of the biblical text, one of the most important steps in its interpretation is knowledge of the ancient cultural and literary context of the Bible. For proper interpretation, we need to know a text’s genre. Genre functions to mediate between speakers and hearers by establishing common guidelines that control both the production of a certain texts and their interpretation. We work with and recognize different genres all the time in day to day life. But when we come to the Bible – an ancient document that is linguistically, culturally, and historically remote from us — our ability to identify certain genres is attenuated due to our unfamiliarity. Misreading a text’s genre leads to incorrect interpretation. Thus, when approaching the biblical creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, it is essential to have some knowledge of other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts. This isn’t necessarily easy to do, since many of the ancient texts are difficult to understand conceptually. In connection with ancient cosmologies, Richard Clifford notes “ancient oriental literature is alien and difficult to understand, though the many biblical phrases and ideas in our discourse may trick us into thinking otherwise… Particularly difficult are ancient cosmogonies. Major differences separate them from modern conceptions” (Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible, p. 198).

This is the first of four posts on ideas of creation in ancient Mesopotamia. This post will discuss some methodological issues surrounding the study of Mesopotamian texts and highlight some of the resources available for studying this literature. The second and third posts will survey Old Babylonian texts and Neo-Babylonian texts, respectively. The fourth post will synthesize some of the findings and relate them to our understanding of the biblical creation texts. I should note that I am by no means an expert in ancient Mesopotamian literature. A lot of this work originally derived from a graduate course I did with Dr. Ronald F. G. Sweet at the University of Toronto a number of years back.

Approaching the Diversity of Materials

There a number of methodological issues surrounding the interpretation of ancient Mesopotamian creation texts. First, in relation to the nature of the textual evidence, the problem is not that there is a paucity of material, but that the available material is of such a wide scope historically and culturally that it would be erroneous to speak of a uniform view of “creation in Mesopotamia.� The ancient culture of Mesopotamia covers a period of more than five thousand years and at least two groups of entirely different peoples and languages. Therefore, it is necessary to recognise that the myths and stories relevant to this topic are by no means homogeneous, and should not be described as an absolute unity. The tendency to create uniform views where none exist needs to be guarded against, and the generalisations that result from this study must be recognised to be just that—generalisations. A related dilemma is the composite nature of many of the extant texts. Many later works borrow—or even copy directly—motifs and themes from earlier texts. The supreme example of this is the Akkadian Gilgamesh Epic. Tigay’s reconstruction of the evolution of the epic identities a number of separate Sumerian stories that underlie the final form of the Gilgamesh Epic (see his The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic).

Second, uncertainty of our ability to understand across the borders of conceptual conditioning (to echo Oppenheim) highlights the important hermeneutical issue of imposing modern questions on ancient texts. While questions about origins were certainly not avoided in ancient Mesopotamia, they were almost always subsidiary issues. The primary purpose of much of the ancient mythological and epic literature was to exalt one deity over another or to explain the organization of human society, rather than provide a systematic teaching concerning creation. For instance, Jacobsen notes, in relation to Enuma elish, that “world origins . . . are essentially accidental: gods were born out of mingling of the primeval waters and they engendered other gods� (The Treasures of Darkness, p. 191). Similarly, only the first twenty lines of the first tablet of Enuma elish actually deal with the creation of the universe, while the bulk of tablets four through six covers its organisation. Furthermore, it is impossible to speak of the Mesopotamian view of the creation of the cosmos without speaking of the creation of the gods: in Mesopotamia theogony and cosmogony were inextricably intertwined.

(This perhaps is not so different from the biblical worldview considering that the two major biblical creation accounts are incorporated into the book of Genesis, the first book of the primary history.” Because of our modern preoccupation with creation (and especially as it relates to science) we tend to isolate discussions of ancient Israelite ideas of creation from their narrative context in the much larger biblical picture.)

Arrangement and Dating of the Sources

Another major difficulty in doing a study such as this is the question of how best to arrange and present the data. Should the compositions be grouped according to language, subject matter, cultural origin (i.e., are they Sumerian, Assyrian, or Babylonian), or date? Each of these options has its own pitfalls, but for the purposes of this study the texts will be presented according to their date.

This does not solve all problems though, as dating Mesopotamian literature also has its associated uncertainties. Dating can be based on two variables: (1) the date of the extant text; and (2) the date of its original composition. This study will use the first criteria. While this is not ideal, it is the most reliable, as in many cases there is no scholarly consensus concerning the original date of composition of many texts. This is due primarily to historical circumstances and the type of literature we have. Historically, the Babylonians, Assyrians, and the various other political groups that had their turn at ruling in ancient Mesopotamia almost without exception accepted and built upon the older religious traditions of the Sumerians. It is therefore almost impossible to draw a clear distinction between, for example, the specifically Sumerian and the Assyrian and Babylonian elements in the religious texts.

Most of the texts containing materials that are useful for this study tend to come from two periods of Mesopotamian history. First, most of the earlier Sumerian myths, epics and hymns date from the Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000–1600 BCE). Ringgren notes that “it is precisely in these last centuries [of the Sumerian ‘empire’] that most of the works of Sumerian literature seem to have been written down. It is probable that they existed earlier . . . but were transmitted in oral form� (Helmer Ringgren, Religions of the Ancient Near East [London: S.P.C.K., 1973], 3). The tablets themselves principally come from archaeological excavations in places such as Nippur and Ur. Second, a lot of the materials representing the views of the Babylonians and Assyrians have been found at Ashurbanipal’s (668–626 BCE) library at Nineveh (Kouyunjik, in modern Iraq). The date of most of these texts fall into the Neo-Babylonian Period (ca. 1000–500 BCE).

It should be noted that there is some correlation between the date of the text and its language. For example, most of the compositions coming from the Old Babylonian period are written in Sumerian, while those from the Neo-Babylonian era are typically composed in Akkadian. This approach will also allow — albeit in a limited fashion — both a diachronic and a synchronic analysis of the information. Synchronically, all the texts can be probed for similarities and differences that might be significant. Diachronically, any change in thought between the two major historical periods can also be noted.

Annotated Bibliography of Texts and Discussions

The resources for the study of these ancient stories may be broken up into three categories: guides to the literature, primary texts in translation, and discussions of the ideas of origins and creation in the texts themselves as well as in connection with the biblical creation stories.

Guides to ANE Literature

  • Kenton L. Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible. A Guide to the Background Literature. (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2005). This is one of the best and most recent guides to all of the background literature. It includes an introduction to comparative study of ANE texts and ANE archives and libraries, as well as a discussion of all of the relevant texts organized by genre. Original publication data and other useful bibliography is included for each ancient text. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context. A Survey of Parallels Between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990). Similar to Sparks, though a bit dated and written for a more conservative audience. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com.
  • John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). While not a guide to the literature, this work is an excellent introduction to the worldviews and value systems of the ancient Near East and how the worldviews expressed in the Bible are similar, yet at times distinct, from them. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com.

Primary Texts in Translation

  • Bill T. Arnold and Bryan Beyer, Readings from the Ancient Near East: Primary Sources for Old Testament Study (Encountering Biblical Studies; Baker, 2002). A college-level collection of excerpts (with introductions) of the most relevant ancient texts; written by a couple evangelical scholars. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). A highly readable, yet critical, translation of the major Mesopotamian mythological texts (e.g., she represents the various lacunae and reconstructions in her translation). Highly recommended. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • A. R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2 vols.; Oxford: Ocford University Press, 2003). The definitive critical edition with translation, including apparatus, photographs, and line drawings for all of the tablets in existance. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds., The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions, Monumental Inscriptions and Archival Documents from the Biblical World (3 volume set; Brill, 2004). A detailed reference work for the study of the OT/HB and the ancient Near East, this book provides reliable access to ancient Near Eastern texts that have some bearing on the interpretation of the Bible. Translation of recently discovered texts is included, alongside new translations of better-known texts. The recognized replacement of Pritchard’s ANET. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • Thorkild Jacobsen, The Harps that Once… Sumerian Poetry in Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987). A classic collection of Sumerian texts by the noted scholar. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C. (Rev. ed.; New York: Harper, 1961). A somewhat dated translation and discussion of Sumerian texts by the renowned Sumerian scholar; needs to be read in light of Jacobsen’s and other more up to date work. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • W. G. Lambert, and Alan R. Millard, Atra-Hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (New ed.; Winnona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1999). The standard critical translation of this important Mesopotamian epic. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels (Fully Expanded and Revised; Paulist Press, 1997). An accessible college-level collection of brief excerpts from ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the OT. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • James Bennett Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament with Supplement (3rd edition; Princeton University Press, 1969). This is the classic collection of ancient texts that shed light on the OT/HB. Dated, though still highly recommended. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com

Discussions of ANE Texts and Biblical Ideas of Creation

  • Richard J. Clifford, Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and the Bible (CBQMS 26; Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1994). An excellent introduction and discussion of the ANE creation accounts and their relevance to the Bible. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com.
  • Richard J. Clifford and John J. Collins, eds., Creation in the Biblical Traditions (CBQMS 24; Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1992). A good collection of essays dealing with different ideas of creation found in the Bible. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com.
  • David Damrosch, The Narrative Covenant. Transformations of Genre in the Growth of Biblical Literature (Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987). Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com
  • Ronald A. Simkins, Creator & Creation: Nature in the Worldview of Ancient Israel (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 1994). An intriguing examination of the cultural world of the Bible and the ancient Near East, especially as it related to conceptions of creation. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com.
  • Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982). Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com

The next instalment will survey Old Babylonian texts relating to creation.


Posted in Ancient Near East, Creation, Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia, Series | 8 Comments »