Saturday, October 19, 2013

Book Review: Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament by John D. Currid

Some of Christianity’s detractors accuse it of being a copycat religion that drew from the mythology and legends of its predecessors. It is true that there are similarities between the Old Testament (O.T.) accounts of creation, the flood and the life of Moses, for example, and the stories of other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) religions. But there are also notable differences – differences that people have far too often overlooked.

John Currid, professor of Old Testament at the Reformed Theological Seminary, explores the relationship between the O. T. and the literature of other ANE nations in his Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament. His thesis is straightforward: Yes, O.T. accounts reflect other religions, but their authors purposely use them to denounce the false gods of Babylon, Egypt, Canaan, etc. In other words, they use them polemically.

In the first chapter, Currid offers a brief outline of the history of ancient Near Eastern studies and its relationship to the field of Biblical studies. He notes that, “prior to 1798, the world’s knowledge of the history of the ancient Near East was principally derived from the Bible and from some early Greek writers who preserved some aspects of it in their own histories” (Kobo, Ch. 1, p. 2). Archaeology was in its infancy. In fact, systematic archaeological work didn’t begin in earnest until the 19th century. Only then did scholars start to learn more about the people and various cultures of the Ancient Near East.

In the second chapter, Currid discusses the nature of polemical thought and writing. He defines polemical theology as “the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning” (Kobo 2:1). Its purpose, he explains, was “to demonstrate emphatically and graphically the distinctions between the worldview of the Hebrews and the beliefs and practices of the rest of the ancient Near East” (2:1). He comments on a number of polemical expressions (such as “the strong arm” of the Lord) and motifs (such as the serpent) and notes how they are used in the Bible compared to their use in Egyptian literature.

Chapter 3 offers a detailed comparison of Genesis 1 and other ANE creation accounts such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish and the Egyptian cosmologies. Currid notes that the similarities between them are superficial while the differences are profound and important, beginning with the very nature of the Creator. The pagans were polytheistic and they believed the universe emanated from the gods, making them part and parcel of the world, unlike the monotheistic, transcendent God of the Bible who is separate from his creation.

In Chapter 4, Currid examines ANE flood accounts in juxtaposition with the story of Noah. He begins with the various Sumerian tales and then examines the well-known Gilgamesh Epic and a number of other legends from Mesopotamia and Egypt. Again, he points out the differences between the God of the Bible and the mythical gods, noting, for example, that the latter are limited in ability and in jurisdiction whereas the former is the omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God of the world. Ultimately, he notes that, if the biblical stories are true, one would expect to find information about them in extra-biblical literature (4:30).

In Chapter 5, Currid looks at the story of Joseph, the Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers and the “Spurned Secductress” motif found in the literature of the Egyptians, Hittites and Mesopotamians. Again, the Bible glorifies the one true God as the goal of the Hebrew writer is to “banish all rivals” (5:19).

In the sixth chapter, Currid compares the story of Moses with other so-called ‘deliverers’ such as the Egyptian Horus, noting that the writer of the Biblical account “takes the famous pagan myth and turns it on its head in order to ridicule Egypt and to highlight the truth of the Hebrew world and life view” (6:25-26).

In Chapter 7, the author takes a look at one of the foundational events of the Judaeo-Christian faith – the exodus. He compares it to the Flight of Sinuhe, a work that is considered a classic of ancient Egyptian literature. Currid notes that, while Sinuhe yearns to return to Egypt, the land of his birth, Moses longs to leave it because “he is not a son of Egypt” (7:12). In fact, the account of the Israelites’ flight is “acutely anti-Egyptian” (7:13) putting it at the opposite pole from the Sinuhe story.

In chapter 8, Currid examines the “I Am” statement of God as it compares to that found in the Egyptian Book of the Heavenly Cow. He notes that it is possible that “the ancient Egyptians borrowed or usurped the divine epithet from the Hebrews and then applied it to (the god) Re and Pharaoh” as a means of ‘demolishing” the God of the Israelites (8:21). In other words, cultural sharing often works in both directions.

In the ninth chapter, the author discusses the rod as a symbol of the Egyptian pharaoh’s sovereignty and the authority and power of the nation’s gods. Egyptians believed it to be imbued with magic. Enter Moses and Aaron with their own staffs. The latter used his rod to swallow those of the Egyptian magicians – a sure sign of Yahweh’s omnipotence. Also key is Moses’ use of a simple shepherd’s crook. Egyptians despised the lowly occupation of shepherding. Therefore, Moses’ use of a shepherd’s tool to defeat them was particularly humiliating.

In the tenth chapter, Currid discusses the parting of the Red Sea. Ancient Egypt had its own account of a priest separating the waters of a lake as recorded in the Westcar papyrus. However, as the author points out, it was not written as history, but as a myth to promote kingship (10:5) and, once again, we see how the Bible uses the Egyptian people’s legend to taunt them.

Chapter 11 explores Canaanite motifs. The Bible contains many references to Canaan and its religious practices. This is not surprising given that the Israelites entered Canaan at the end of their long exodus and began their nationhood there. Among other things, Currid discusses Baal the mythical storm god and the misplaced belief that El and Baal blended and evolved into Yahweh.

 In conclusion, Currid notes that there are many approaches one could take in examining the relationship between the Bible and other ANE texts, but that polemical theology is one of the most important ones because it helps to “highlight the distinctiveness and uniqueness of the Hebrew worldview over against the dominant setting of the rest of the Ancient Near East (2:15). Yet, it is an area that has so far been neglected. Therefore, Currid’s book on the subject is much-needed.

He writes for the layperson as well as the scholar. He presents the information clearly and effectively, providing numerous graphs that allow for a quick and easy comparison of Biblical accounts and the various mythological tales. Against the Gods: A Polemical Theology of the Old Testament will help readers understand how and why people have readily dismissed the Bible as myth because of the similarities between it and comparable ANE texts as well as provide a detailed exploration of the differences to demonstrate why Old Testament accounts can be taken seriously as history. Therefore, it is recommended.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Mary Lou is a Canadian journalist who has just completed her Masters in Theological Studies. She writes fiction, poetry and plays as well as non-fiction.


MaryLou said...

There's an interview with Currid about the book here:

user said...

I agree with the notion that perhaps some Ancient cultures borrowed stories from the bible. However, I disagree with chapter 8, the Ancient Egyptians used to absorb the Gods that they thought were "interesting" (for a lack of a Better word). I do not think they did it to ridicule, it was just their culture. Also where is the evidence that says that Egypt thought shepherding was a disgrace?

John said...

Thanks for the review & for bringing this book to our attention. Currid was one of my profs in seminary. I just added this to my wishlist.

The Janitor said...

>>where is the evidence that says that Egypt thought shepherding was a disgrace?

Gen. 46:34

user said...

Thank you janitor!

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