The Old Testament and Myth

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, early archaeologists of the Near East were discovering tens of thousands of texts, often written on clay tablets, from ancient Mesopotamia… Egyptian writing…scripts of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and other Near Eastern peoples… These ancient texts were often directly pertinent to the Bible.  Many contained myths, such as that of a great flood, which was parallel to the story of Noah in Genesis 6-9 in great detail.  (Michael Coogan – Harvard)

Not a single person or event known form the books of Genesis through 2 Samuel is mentioned in a contemporaneous nonbiblical text… As a result, scholars have no conclusive answers to questions such as these:  When did Abraham live or did he even exist?  When did the Exodus from Egypt take place, if at all?  That is not to say that there may not be some authentic historical memory preserved in the narrative of earlier times, but it has been so refracted by the lenses of various sources that we can say little about what may actually have happened.  The farther back we go in the biblical narrative, the more we are in the realm not of history but of myth.  (Michael Coogan – Harvard)

[Genesis creation stories]  the differences in these two accounts are striking… … two different version of the same story, which use different terminology for no less important a character than God, and which contain a considerable measure of inconsistency over the order of creation, over men and women’s relation to it, and indeed over the question of man and woman’s relation to each other.  Such phenomena are repeated over and over again throughout the first five books of the Bible.  For instance, there are different, and somewhat contradictory account of the flood, Abraham’s migration, God’s covenant with Abraham, and manna and quail in the wilderness, the Ten Commandments and the history rules prohibiting the eating of certain animals.  … … What are we to make of all this?  The consensus of scholarship is that the stories are taken from four different written sources and that these were brought together over the course of time to form the first five books of the Bible as a composite work.  (John Riches – Professor Glasgow)

What is vital for a correct understanding of the biblical text is awareness that many of the rules of mythological thinking continued to be in force, as far as images were concerned.  Thus… they do not share our distinction between historical fact and symbolic fact.  For them, both could be written about in much the same kind of way.  (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford)

It is conceivable that such localised, perhaps devastating, floods were the origin for the stories told by the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians that have so many details in common with the story of Noah and his Ark in the Hebrew Bible.  The first such story appear to be a Sumerian eversion, perhaps dating back to about 2700 BCE, featuring a man named Ziusundra who survives the Flood.  In a version dating to several hundred years later, the survivor is a man named Atrahasis.  By 1800 BE, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is Utnapishtim who survives the Flood and tells the story to the epic’s protagonist, Gilgamesh.  Only much later, most likely sometime between 1200 and 900 BCE, was the biblical version of Noah and the Flood written down.  The details of these stories are too close to be coincidental. In essence, the versions seem to originate from the same story, although some of the details differ – the name of the Flood survivor, the number and types of birds released immediately after the Flood, and the reasons behind the inundation.  In the earlier versions, for example, the flood is sent because humans are too noisy; in the biblical  version it is sent because humans are too evil and corrupt.  The biblical story of the Flood may therefore be an example of a “transmitted narrative” – a story that is not only handed down from generation to generation within a tribe or people but from culture to culture as well, as from the Sumerians to Akkadians to Babylonians, and then to the Israelites, perhaps via the Canaanites.  However, in terms of archaeology, no indisputable evidence for a worldwide flood as het been uncovered by archaeologists.  Similarly, no remains of Noah’s Ark have yet been found by a credible professional archaeologist… … The flood has echoes in legends from Central America to South Asia, and it almost certainly predates Judeo-Christian times. Scholars believe it was most likely transmitted to the Israelites from Mesopotamia: in the far older Epic of Gilgamesh, we encounter Utnapishtim, a man chosen by the gods to live alone in a boat full of animals while the world around him ended in a deluge. Just like Noah, as the rains stopped he sent out both a dove and a raven to gauge whether the waters had receded.  I am going to look for an ark, it won’t be that of Noah. Maybe it would be Utnapishtim’s.  (Eric H. Cline – Professor George Washington, previously Stanford, Yale)

Historical research undermined the chronology of the Bible; it uncovered evidence of the existence of earlier civilisations not known to the biblical writers.  … If the view of history constructed out of the Bible was vulnerable to attack, then so too was its cosmology.  Copernicus taught that the planets, including of course the earth, revolved around the sun.  … [contrast Joshua 10:12].. Even Luther and his disciple Melanchthon use the biblical story to dismiss the views of Copernicus. .. later debates between Darwinists and Creationists in the nineteenth century continued the same theme:  Darwin’s view of the origin of humankind in a line of mammals running through the apes clearly provided a very different account of human origins to that in Genesis.   (John Riches – Professor Glasgow)

“I… released a raven, the raven went, and saw the waters receding.  And it ate, preened, lifted its tail and did not turn around”.  (quotation from the Epic of Gilgamesh)

Today the term myth is often used in a negative way to refer to something that is exaggerated or untrue.  In ancient cultures, myth did not have this negative connotation; myths could be regarded as stories that contained poetic rather than literal truths.  (Geraldine Pinch – Oxford)

The Bible claims that Moses received a new revelation, but even a new revelation was of necessarily expressed in language and imagery that was already current.  The Hebrew language was a Canaanite dialect, and Canaanite was a Semitic language, like Akkadian.  Israelite religion, too, did not emerge in a vacuum.  Its novel aspects came into being as modifications of beliefs and practices that had been current for centuries.  The Hebrew language uses the world El for God, and the term inevitably carried with it associations of the Canaanite high good.  The biblical creation stores draw motifs from the myths of Atrahasis and Enuma Elish, and from the Epic of Gilgamesh.  In short, much of the language and imagery of the Bible was culture specific, and was deeply embedded in the traditions of the Near East.  Consequently, it is necessary to keep the myths and stories of near Eastern religion in mind when we turn to the biblical text… … Whether Ugarit is properly described as Canaanite is a matter of dispute, but the gods that appear I the Ugaritic tables (El, Baal, Anat, etc) are the same deities that figure in the Hebrew Bible. (John J. Collins – Professor Yale)

Points about symbolism

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, So it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up, in order that all who are believing in him may have eternal life.  John 3:14-15

The Tree of Life, or the Cosmic Tree, is a symbol common in many ancient religions.  In Judaism it is associated with the almond tree; the almond was used as the pattern for the cups, capitals and flowers of the menorah.  In the Bible it appears not only in the Adam and Eve story, but also in the New Testament.  The cross is associated with the Tree of Life, mentioned again in Revelation (22:2).  The Tree of Life stood at the centre of the world (the Garden of Eden), and Christ’s crucifixion is said to have happened at the centre of the world.  The two trees of Eden (Life and Knowledge) are also reflected in ancient Babylonian religion – the Tree of Truth and the Tree of Life, which stood at the eastern entry to the Babylonian heaven.  (John Bowker – Professor Gresham, Cambridge)

It is no coincidence that the myth of the great flood originated in Mesopotamia, a land of marshes and wandering rivers where the line separating solid from liquid was uncertain.  For Sumerians and Akkadians (the Akkadian Empire being the neighbouring Mesopotamian civilisation to the Sumerians) water was the origin of life, but it was also the chaos to which everything could return if it were not for the protection of many gods…  (Richard Miles – Sydney and Cambridge)

And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times? (Numbers 22:28)

I would argue that these archaic songs that locate Yahweh’s movements

in the southeast—in Edom/Seir/Teman/Midian/Cushan—are

our most reliable evidence for locating Sinai/Horeb, the mountain of

God. The search for origins and the reconstruction of history from

material that arises in oral tradition is always a precarious task. The

singers of narrative poems—I speak of them as epic sources—follow

certain traditional patterns that include mythological elements. They

do not contain what we would call history in the modern sense of

that term. We are dealing with epic, which does not fit easily into

either the genres of fiction or of history. How can the historian ferret out valid historical memory in such traditional narratives? Perhaps he cannot. I am inclined to think,

however, that old traditions that have no social function in later

Israel—or traditions that actually flout later orthodoxy—that such

traditions may preserve authentic historical memories, memories too

fixed in archaic poetry to be revised out or suppressed. (Frank Moore Cross – Professor Harvard)

the cycle of traditions rooted in the plains of Moab, in ancient Reuben,

in which Moses plays a dominant role, and in the related Midianite

tradition, rests on historical memories, very early epic memories. This

does not mean that the modern historian can treat these memories

uncritically as history. Traditional memories may have distorted,

telescoped or reshaped the core. This happens to orally transmitted

narrative, even when it is preserved in the formulas and themes of

oral poetry. But in pursuing his critical task, the modern historian

can often ferret out important material for the history of Israelite

religion and society. (Frank Moore Cross – Professor Harvard)

The religions of Israel’s neighbors were sophisticated, tolerant

polytheisms with universal gods usually reflecting the powers of

nature. They differed little from the religions of Greece and Rome,

and when East and West came into contact, the gods of one pantheon

were quickly and easily identified with their equivalents in the other.

A fundamental mythic pattern in Canaan and Mesopotamia describes

the cosmos as emerging from theomachy, a conflict among the gods,

in which kingship in heaven—and hence on earth—is established by

the victory of the storm god, the god of fertility and life. Human

society participates in these orders of creation because kingship on

earth was rooted in divine kingship, which was properly unchanging

and eternal. (Frank Moore Cross – Professor Harvard)

When Enosh had lived 90 years, he became the father of Kenan. 10 After
he became the father of Kenan, Enosh lived 815 years and had other sons and
daughters. 11 Altogether, Enosh lived a total of 905 years, and
then he died. (Genesis 5:9-11) [lots of other examples of people living to be not
far off 1000 years old in Genesis 5]

Likewise, the biblical account of Eve eating the forbidden fruit and its myriad consequences has striking parallels to the story of Pandora, who set free the winged Evils, the misfortunes that plague mankind: Old Age, Labor, Sickness, Insanity, Vice,
and Passion.’ Both hearken back to a primordial sin, and both provide a myth of the origin of evil. Yet both myths include a forward-looking hope for redemption. In Pandora’s case, Hope is the last to come out of the box.’3° And in the case of Eve there is hope for the Messiah. (Howard Abraham – Professor University

The second objection to the use of “mythology” in terms of Jewish tradition is that it suggests that the beliefs under consideration are not true. Even the mere identification of a culture’s beliefs as mythological indicates that it is being viewed from the outside rather than from the perspective of a believer. That is why, with a few exceptions, there has been such great reluctance to identify any of the biblical narratives as myths or to bring the tools of mythological inquiry to bear on Judaism or Christianity. While it is true that the study of these religions from a mythological perspective does imply the distance of critical inquiry, it does not mean that the traditions being examined are therefore false. Mythological studies are now commonly linked with psychological ones, and scholars such as C. G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Erich Neumann, Marie Louise Von Franz, and Sigmund Hurwitz have demonstrated how it is possible to recognize a dimension of psychological truths underlying mythic traditions, where myth can be seen as the collective projection of a people. And not only psychological truths, but the deepest existential truths. Indeed, this is the reason that myths persist, because the questions they raise are perennial. (Howard Abraham – Professor University Missouri)

It quickly becomes evident that there are two basic concepts of the Messiah: one, a heavenly figure of supernatural origin who makes his home in a heavenly palace; the other, a human Messiah, an exceptionally righteous man who takes on the mantle of the Messiah and initiates the End of Days. In time, these two separate motifs were combined into a single myth in a clever manner: there were said to be two Messiahs, whose fates were linked.101 One is identified as Messiah the son of Joseph (Messiah ben Joseph) and the other is the heavenly Messiah, Messiah the son of David (Messiah ben David).102 According to this combined myth, Messiah ben Joseph, the human Messiah, will be a warrior who will go to war against the evil forces of Gog and Magog103 and die in the process. He will be followed by Messiah ben David, the heavenly Messiah, who will defeat the evil empire and initiate the End of Days. In some versions of this myth, Messiah ben David will prove he is the real Messiah by resurrecting Messiah ben Joseph.104 In the myths of the heavenly Messiah, he is described as a supernatural figure living in his own heavenly palace, known as the Bird’s Nest, waiting to be called upon to initiate the End of Days.105 Some versions of this myth emphasize his suffering,106 while others describe the Messiah as being held captive in heaven or in hell…. … in general the human Messiah is described as the Tzaddik ha-Dor, the greatest sage of his generation, who will step into the role of Messiah if all the circumstances happen to be right. Naturally, there are many failures, due to one mistake or another. These are recounted in a series of myths about why the Messiah has not yet come. there are two models of monotheism in Judaism: one in which there is one god and no other divine figures higher than the rank of angels, and a second model, in which other divine figures are acknowledged to exist, but they are subject to God, who is the king of the gods. This second type of monotheism is known as “monolatry,” where worship of only one God/god is allowed, but the existence of other gods is acknowledged, at least tacitly.115 In Judaism, it is defined as a stage in the religion of ancient Israel when the existence of gods other than Yahweh was admitted, but their worship was strictly forbidden.116 That there was worship of some forbidden gods by the ancient Israelites has been demonstrated by archaeological discoveries, as well as by the tirades of the biblical prophets against such worship, such as the women weeping over Tammuz (Ezek. 8:14), or the people defending their worshipping the Queen of Heaven (Jer. 44:17-19). There is also evidence of the awareness of other gods in several biblical verses, such as Who is like You among the gods (ba-elim), O Lord? (Exod. 15:11).117 Also, in Psalm 82, God stands in the divine assembly; among the divine beings (Elohim) He pronounces judgment (Ps. 82:1). Above all, many parallels exist to the biblical account of the Flood. One Mesopotamian Flood myth is found in the Epic of Atrahasis, who, like Noah, is the survivor of the great Flood. The god Ea-Enki advises Atrahasis to build an ark. Ea-Enki says: “Place a roof over the barge, cover it as the heavens cover the earth. Do not let the sun see inside. Enclose it completely. Make the joints strong. Caulk the timbers with pitch.”131 This is very much like the directions God gives to Noah to build the ark.132 So too does Atrahasis fill the ark with animals. Another Flood myth, an even closer parallel, is found in the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, in which Utnapishtim is parallel to Noah. Ea, the divine patron of fresh water, warns Utnapishtim about the coming Flood and tells him to build an ark and take specimens of every living thing on board. In this way Utnapishtim and his wife are the lone human survivors of a Flood brought on by the divine assembly that was intended to destroy every other mortal. Another great Flood myth, this one Greek, is recounted in the Latin poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is remarkably similar to the biblical account of Noah, and even includes a dove. Here Zeus floods the earth, intending to wipe out the entire race of man. But Deucalion, King of Phthia, is warned by his father, Prometheus, and builds an ark. All the world is flooded, and all mortal creatures are lost except for Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha. Deucalion sends out a dove on an exploratory flight, and is reassured by it.133 These Flood narratives with their distinct parallels strongly suggest that all of them— including the biblical narrative of the Flood—are based on the same ancient Mesopotamian tradition from the third millennium BCE.  (Howard Abraham – Professor University Missouri)

In Christianity, God is said to have incarnated His son, Jesus, as a human; thus the essence of the Christian myth is that a divine figure became a human being. This follows the pattern of Jewish myth where it is angels who are incarnated as human. Genesis 6 describes how the Sons of God cohabited with the daughters of men, begetting giants. Rabbinic commentaries identify the Sons of God as two angels, Shemhazai and Azazel, who descended from on high, took on human form, and sought out human women for lovers.136 These angels revealed all kinds of heavenly secrets, including magical spells, and taught women the arts of seduction. In addition, the prophet Elijah, who was taken into heaven in a fiery chariot, is an angel who often appears in human form on earth.137 Another variant of this divine-to-human pattern concerns how the talmudic sage Rabbi Ishmael was conceived. It is said that Rabbi Ishmael’s mother was so pious that God sent the angel Gabriel to take the form of her husband and to meet her at the mikveh, the ritual bath, and to conceive a child with her. She, of course, had no idea that it was a disguised angel and not her husband who met her. She conceived that day, and when Rabbi Ishmael was born, he was said to have been as beautiful as an angel.138 This is the same theme of human women having intercourse with an angel, but here it is with God’s approval, while the angels Shemhazai and Azazel broke their promise to God that they would not fall into sinful ways. So too are there myths in which the patriarch Jacob is identified as an angel who came down to earth in human form. We can now see that this myth, so strange at first, is part of an explicit pattern in Jewish mythology, that of a divine figure becoming human. Sometimes these echoes even become overt. The first century philosopher, Philo, proposed that it was God who begat Isaac, not Abraham, although God made sure that Isaac closely resembled Abraham. Philo even says that this child was born to the “virgin” Sarah. Here we find a direct parallel to later Christian lore. Indeed, there are an extensive number of parallels with Hellenistic and Canaanite mythology. What this indicates is that Jewish mythology was not isolated from the other mythologies. It was resonant with the motifs that were the psychic currency of their neighboring cultures. (Howard Abraham – Professor University Missouri)

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