Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Nick Wyatt, The Mythic Mind: Essays on Cosmology and Religion in Ugaritic and Old Testament Literature (BibleWorld Series; London/Oakville: Equinox, 2005). Pp. xiv + 305. Paper, US$37.50. ISBN 1-84553-043-8.

For over a quarter of a century, Nick Wyatt has researched ancient religion, ranging from India to Egypt, with Ugaritic and biblical literatures as his focus. All but the last of the thirteen essays in this volume have been published previously.

Chapter 1 (“The Problem of the ‘God of the Fathers’,” pp. 1-5) rereads Genesis 46:3 as “I am El your father” rather than “I am El (or “God” or most literally, “the god”), the god of your father,” in light of “El your father,” as attested in 49:25.

Chapter 2 (“The Development of the Tradition in Exodus 3,” pp. 6-12) interprets the early Elohist form of the Exodus tradition as the divine help of the god, El; Yahweh is nowhere in view in the original Elohist kerygma as reconstructed by Wyatt. In Judah, it was Yahweh who was at center of the tradition. Even if the reconstructions are speculative, it is salutary to see Wyatt's recognition of El's place in early Israelite religion.

Chapter 3 (“The Significance of the Burning Bush,” pp. 13-17) offers a symbolic understanding of the burning bush as a perpetual theophany analogous to the Temple menorah.

Chapter 4 (“Who Killed the Dragon?” pp. 18-37) studies different references to the battle over the cosmic enemy in the Ugaritic Baal Cycle. The first is based on a controversial understanding of the title of the goddess Athirat as “the Lady who treads on the Sea[-dragon]” and on a rather speculative understanding of the final passage in the Baal Cycle. The passage opening the second version, attributed to Anat, is characterized as an invitation to a sacred marriage (hieros gamos), though without evidence or argument. The third, predicated of Baal, lies at the heart of the text, while a fourth version with El as the divine conqueror is posited without textual evidence. In these versions, Wyatt sees a kind of “mythical overkill” about the triumph of the divine realm. Wyatt further explores the meaning and significance of the various deities in the text, amplified by various comparisons with the Rig Veda.

Chapter 5 (“Sea and Desert: Symbolic Geography in West Semitic Religious Thought,” pp. 38-54) undertakes an analysis of the meanings of topographical zones, in terms of center, boundaries and periphery.

Chapter 6 (“Symbols of Exile,” pp. 55-71) explores the meaning of the sabbath, circumcision, and dietary laws essentially as substitute symbol system of space and time for Judeans after the loss of kingship.

Chapter 7 (“Of Calves and Kings: The Canaanite Dimension in the Religion of Israel,” pp. 72-91) follows C. F. A. Schaeffer in seeing the god El (and not Yahweh as such) behind the Exodus formularies in 1 Kings 12:28 and Exodus 32:4 and 8. He quite plausibly extends this view to Numbers 23:22 and 24:8.

Chapter 8 (“The Darkness of Genesis 1.2,” pp. 92-101) views ʾereṣ in Genesis 1:1-2 as ambiguous, inviting both meanings of “world” (“earth”) and “underworld,” which are both attested in Ugaritic.

Chapter 9 (“The Significance of Ṣpn in West Semitic Thought: A Contribution to the History of a Mythological Motif,” pp. 102-124) deals with the cosmic associations of the mountain by this name. The Greek forms of the name are derived from *ṣpy in its meaning, “to spread out,” while the Hurro-Hittite and Akkadian forms are traced to the root's meaning, “to look out.” Among other suggestions, Wyatt sees nôp in Psalm 48:3 [some ET, 48:2] as Memphis instead of “height” (because of np for Memphis in KTU 1.3 VI 9).

Chapter 10 (“The Vocabulary and Neurology of Orientation: The Ugaritic and Hebrew Evidence,” pp. 125-150) continues the study of space, specifically words for directions. These are expressed variously in spatial terms, cosmological or solar terms, or in topographic terms. Wyatt traces the patterning of the oppositional distributions of words for left-right/north-south and before-behind/east-west to the structure of the human brain.

Chapter 11 (“The Mythic Mind,” pp. 151-88) takes up the problem of myth in the study of the Bible, which he relates to the problems between the disciplines of theology and history of religion. Wyatt discourses on the history of the human species and situates myth as a narrative form of early human thought. He turns to mythic material in the Bible, especially in divine battle ranging from cosmogony to apocalyptic.

Chapter 12 (“Water, Water Everywhere…’: Musings on the Aqueous of the Near East,” pp. 189-237) examines nomenclature for the cosmic ocean and studies its various conceptions.

Chapter 13 (“Androgyny in the Levantine World,” pp. 238-55) finds examples of divine androgyny in various Egyptian texts, in KTU 1.23 (often called “The Birth of the Beautiful Gods”), and in biblical texts such as Job 38:8-9 and Psalm 19. The cases proposed make assumptions of the West Semitic texts that are by no means clear. For example, in the case of KTU 1.23, it is assumed that the speech addressed by the females is addressed to El as father and mother when it is equally likely (if not more so) that the speech is directed to their parents. This sort of uncertainty about the quality of the evidence affects Wyatt's interpretations and his larger proposals.

In exploring aspects of ancient texts, in particular space and time, these studies often focus on monarchies as the mediating institutions of such symbolic forms. Methodologically, the studies pry from the biblical texts meanings that have been missed by prior commentators, in part through re-vocalizations or re-readings of words and in part through Wyatt's particular sensibilities about the meaning of the text in view of what he takes to be the proper comparative material. The comparative enterprise, which ranges from India in the east to Egypt and the Aegean in the west, is more phenomenological than historical or genetic in nature. There usually are no clear means indicated to chart the larger relationships between West Semitic literatures and other corpora. The comparative character of the studies, often with a focus on the person of the king and the symbolic world surrounding him, arguably places this work in the tradition of Sir James George Fraser's The Golden Bough and Theodore H. Gaster's Thespis. Despite various speculations, the studies advance the case for the place of El in early Israelite religion, and they pay considerable attention to symbolic dimensions of the texts, which are at times downplayed in other studies. Indeed, all too often symbolic worldviews expressed in the ancient texts are insufficiently explored by scholars, and it is to Wyatt's great credit that he takes these seriously. The volume conveniently follows the social science format for citation of secondary literature, which issues in a helpful bibliography. The book contains indexes for textual references, names and places.

Mark S. Smith, New York University