Origins: The Ancient Impact and Modern Implications of Genesis 1-11
Nashville: Morgan James, 2019. 250 pp. pb. £12.99. ISBN 978-1-68350-950-9Paul Copan and Douglas Jacoby
The absolute difference between Israel’s God and the gods of the ANE is emphasised (31‒42). Only Israel’s God is uncreated; has total authority over the primeval dragon and the chaotic sea (49‒50); provides for, and seeks relationship with, humanity (83); values obedience rather than technological progress (123‒125); sends a flood expressly to judge sin—unlike the pagan gods, riled by humanity’s clamour (160); and scorns Babylonian ziggurat religion (197f).
Copan and Jacoby offer an accessible introductory commentary on the prologue to Genesis. They stand within the scholarly consensus, and explain to readers, living amidst the new paganism of the twenty-first century, how Gen. 1‒11 challenged and subverted the old paganism of the Ancient Near East (ANE).
Familiar elements of the stories are richly symbolic: Eden (84‒87); the snake as a ‘chaos creature’ representing pagan fertility religion (98); an anthropomorphic God (103‒104); cherubim, borrowed from pagan religion, as metaphorical guardians (110); and ‘sacred numbers’ giving symbolic ages of righteous patriarchs (perhaps contrasted to powerful kings celebrated in the Sumerian King List, 133‒137).
Readers should recognize that ‘Genesis is seriously interacting with the ancient world, critiquing its polytheistic worldview whilst providing a credible alternative’ (xii). ‘Most of the material in Gen 1‒11 closely parallels pagan accounts of primeval history’ but ‘turns them on their heads. The folly of idolatry is exposed, often even satirized’ (14), the pagan myths parodied (201).
In the Table of Nations (Gen. 10), the term ‘sons of’ indicates peoples of relevance to Israel’s history, not biological relatedness (190‒191). Should Gen. 10 (with its plethora of languages, v. 5, 20, 31) follow Gen. 11 (which describes the proliferation of languages)? The authors acknowledge the texts as figurative critiques of pagan religion for which chronological sequencing is inappropriate.
‘All of Gen 1‒11 critiques ancient culture and beliefs, and if we can understand this critique, we will not only better grasp the message of Genesis, but also be better equipped to engage our own culture’ (25). The radical newness of biblical theology shines most clearly when people can spot the differences from the original enveloping pagan myths; and they can do this only if they are familiar with those myths (15‒16, 206).
Inevitably, certain topics invite further discussion. There is insufficient information about what constitutes ‘death’ (Gen 3:3‒4). I am confused by the statement that humans ‘were created with perishable bodies that God sustained in existence, but God withdrew that sustaining grace when they rebelled, and natural mortality took effect’ (82). Spiritual death, separation from God, is the result of sin (as in the terms of the covenant; Dt. 30:15, 19).
It is mystery to me how people can read Gen. 1‒11 as prosaic data about past events, when the alternative, seeing it as a subversive retelling of pagan sagas, shows the sublime character of Israel’s God (207). How ever did little Israel discover a God of such glory in an all-prevailing pagan environment of such squalour—apart from revelation?
If humans had never sinned, would the Bible story go directly from Gen. 1‒2 to Rev. 21‒22 (112)? Such thinking is speculative, but Gunton believes otherwise: ‘had there been no fall, it would have still been the Father’s good pleasure to come into personal relation with us through the incarnation of his Son’ (Christ and Creation, 96) (53). To read them correctly—as contrasting Israel’s holy God with paganism’s unholy deities—is life-giving.
Graeme Finlay has taught scientific pathology, and is currently an Honorary Academic, at the University of Auckland.
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