June 12, 2017
by Dr. David Schreiner
Why read anything but the Bible?
I recently finished teaching OT 516 this spring. OT 516 is WBS’s introductory course to the Old Testament, and it focuses on issues of history and interpretation. There is a lot of reading involved, including primary texts of the ancient Near East. Alongside readings from the Old Testament, my students read extra-biblical accounts ranging from prophecy to creation.
Because I echo Christopher Hays when he emphasizes a need for cultural literacy (Hays, Hidden Riches, 3–4). If we are convinced that understanding Israelite culture will help our biblical interpretation, then we must read the literature from the larger culture of which Israel was a part. When we do this, we soon realize that Israel’s neighbors were asking the same fundamental questions about the world, humanity, and theology.
Contextualizing the OT
Reading primary texts from the ancient Near East establishes an important criterion for comparison, allowing the uniqueness of the Old Testament to come into focus (Hays, 4–5). So, instead of comparative analyses being some type of “attack” on the integrity of Scripture, or the undermining of its theology, such analyses contextualize the message of the Old Testament in its cultural milieu. This allows us to fully appreciate the beauty of The Sacred Text.
But what do I mean by the phrase, “The Sacred Text?” First, I use every word intentionally. The Old Testament, and Scripture as a whole for that matter, is a text. In particular, it’s an ancient text, written by ancient authors who used ancient forms and conventions. Yet this text is not just any other text from antiquity. It is God’s revelation to humanity, revealing what is necessary for redemption through the channel of ancient Israel. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this sacred text is The Sacred Text. It reveals the Truth about the world and God’s redemptive plans for it. So, as I say, “The Old Testament is an ancient text, but it’s not just any ancient text.”
The Gilgamesh Epic: A Case Study
I was reminded of these realities recently while examining the Gilgamesh Epic, one of the most famous texts from Mesopotamia. Without a doubt, the importance of the Gilgamesh Epic for understanding the Old Testament is a comparative one.
On the one hand, it offers a non-Israelite example of how a lengthy narrative can be the result of centuries of preservation, development, and standardization. Tigay’s The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic is the classic text for articulating these realities. However, A. R. George’s critical The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic is more impressive. Regardless of preference, scholarly ideas about the Old Testament’s compositional history are not just the ramblings of crazy people. Sure, they can get out of hand and go sideways, becoming illogical to the point of absurdity. But they are based on widely accepted conventions.
On the other hand, the theology and worldview of the Gilgamesh Epic both illuminates and argues with the Old Testament. The Mesopotamian flood account that is famously preserved in Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic is well-known. There, a man named Utnapishtum recounts to Gilgamesh a massive deluge that wipes out virtually all of humanity, save Utnapishtum and a select few. Brought on by reasons that are not quite clear, when the gods realize the storm they have unleashed, they completely freak out and cower in fear. Eventually, Utnapishtum’s boat rests on a prominent mountain range, and he releases a series of three birds to determine the level of the flood waters. Eventually, he departs the boat and offers a sacrifice, to which the gods fly like flies on stink.
Much has been said about this, including the random and fickle gods in contrast to the control and reason of Yahweh. However, there are other notable features. For example, in both the Old Testament and the Gilgamesh Epic, the flood is a part of a larger narrative. In the latter, that Utnapishtum recounts the story only to demonstrate to Gilgamesh that Utnapishtum’s immortality is an anomaly suggests that the flood account is really a digression in the plot line of the Epic. By contrast, the biblical flood account is by no means a digression. Rather, the biblical flood and Noah’s salvation is the bidding of a righteous but benevolent God responding to creation’s further spiraling back into chaos.
Also, the Gilgamesh Epic should really be understood as a lengthy wisdom treatise that offers an extended commentary on the nature of humanity in relationship to the physical and spiritual world. At the end, Gilgamesh can only resign himself to the splendor to his city and the bidding of the gods, who have been proven to be just as petty and unpredictable as humanity. However, the Old Testament’s worldview is notably different. Instead of selfish, fickle deities, the Old Testament testifies to a holy and loving God that seeks a relationship with his people. The covenant, which clearly articulates how to act and what to expect, largely defines this relationship.
Admittedly, there is nothing overly shocking about the statements that I have made here. The biblical worldview can surely be articulated without an awareness of the Gilgamesh Epic or any other primary text of the ancient Near East. However, the truly revolutionary elements of that worldview and the uniqueness of Israel can never be fully appreciated without those primary texts.
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