Part 1: Do ancient Near-Eastern studies cause a crisis for biblical faith?

The flurry of reviews about this weekend’s opening of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, have also meant that media outlets and commentators have highlighted the many extra-biblical versions of the deluge narrative in hopes of accounting for and commenting on Aronofsky’s unique reimagining of the well-worn tale.  With the veritable flood of extra-biblical texts being presented to readers of these reviews, I thought it a good time to discuss whether or not scripture’s similarity to the surrounding ancient near-eastern culture presents a problem for our faith in the God that inspired it.

For many, the similarity of the biblical text to the cultures that produced and surround it has been a particular stumbling block of faith.  For them, the new data that we are learning everyday about scripture’s earthly authors obscures the God behind their writing to the point of non-existence. How is this religious text different from the Canaanite, Mesopotamian, Egyptian or Greek Mythology? Over the course of the next week, in three parts, I will begin to gesture towards a solution.

Do ancient Near-Eastern studies cause a crisis of faith? Part 1


In the months leading up to Noah’s release a number of media outlets also highlighted the similarities and notable divergences between a newly translated Mesopotamian flood text (translated by Irving Finkel of the British Museum) and the biblical account of the flood. In assigning significance to this find, Joel Baden on the CNN Belief Blog has argued that the new Mesopotamian translation reminds us that, “Everyone,” meaning the individual cultures of the ancient Near East, “reshapes the Flood story, and the ark itself, according to the norms of their own time and place.”

In this particular instance, the ark itself seems to have been reshaped. The “new” tablet describes a circular ark, similar to river-going vessels, while the biblical text describes an oblong vessel, similar to the types sailing the ancient seas. In other words, the biblical writers and the Mesopotamian writers fashioned arks after forms familiar to them.

This type of enculturation of the biblical text has frequently led to a crisis of faith among scholars, pastors, and lay persons alike.  The reasoning goes that, for a part of the bible to be the authoritative, inspired word of God then it has to be unique, or it has to transcend the culture it was first communicated to and for.

For example, if the flood narrative is just one, among many different variations on the same theme, then the biblical account is neither unique nor transcendent. The Israelite narratives about Yahweh are simply an Israelite attempt to reason out the cosmos, no different from the Mesopotamians or Egyptians. This whole “inspired word of God” thing becomes a shell game to impute divine authority to the biblical text where none is deserved.

Alternatively, if the story is similar enough to extra-biblical texts, but slightly different in the details, aren’t the biblical writers just adapting someone else’s mythology to suit their own needs. Again, we have a shell game to the benefit of the biblical writers and the ancient powers-that-be that may or may not have sponsored them.

I have watched as these lines of reasoning have played out to a near complete loss of faith in colleagues. But is this how we should respond to the enculturation of God’s self-revelation?

The biblical text and cultural interaction

This latest extra-biblical flood text is not the first to have been discovered, nor will it likely be the last. This type of cultural interaction on the part of the biblical text with extra-biblical sources has been well known for some time. It is not exclusive to the flood narrative either. In a thousand different places and in a thousand different ways the biblical text interacts with, adopts, rejects, augments, and ignores the cognitive environment  of the ancient Near East.

John Walton, in his work on Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament has outlined seven general ways in which the biblical text interacts with its greater cultural context.

  1. It may “totally ignore” extra-biblical cultural elements and “present a different view”
  2. It may display a “hazy familiarity” of extra-biblical cultural elements “leading to caricature and ridicule”
  3. It may possess “accurate knowledge” of extra-biblical cultural elements leading to “rejection.”
  4. It may disagree with the greater near eastern cognitive environment “resulting in polemics, debate, or contention”
  5. It may also display “awareness” of extra-biblical cultural elements “leading to adaption or transformation”
  6. It may “consciously imitate or borrow” extra –biblical cultural elements
  7. Finally, there may be a subconscious shared heritage.

It has been the job of scholars working in background studies to identify which cultural interaction may be taking place in any given biblical text.  While these particular interactions lay in various places on a spectrum from similarity to contrast, what is clear is that the biblical text, God’s self-revelation, no matter how it is related to the surrounding culture is, in fact, an expression of culture in one way or another.

The biblical writers were not unfamiliar with this concept. They also knew that the enculturation of God’s self-revelation had the potential to lead to a crisis of faith. In the next installment, we will see how a well-known story about a previously unknown prophet illustrates both Walton’s spectrum of interactions and the crisis of faith that can come from them. Indeed, when Elijah bursts onto the pages of the book of Kings, God’s self-revelation begins to engage culture a little too much for comfort.

Continue the discussion with Part 2: Elijah’s Crisis of faith

In the meantime, join the discussion below: What doubts/questions have been raised in your own faith journey when you have encountered new information about the ancient world of the biblical writers?

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