Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review
In his most recent publication, Joseph Blenkinsopp makes use of not only ancient Near Eastern texts, but also Christian and Jewish sources to illustrate how the broader literary context illuminates the biblical creation story. The Akkadian Atrahasis Epic, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Babylonian Enuma Elish are the primary, but not the only, documents used by Blenkinsopp to highlight similarities between the biblical story of creation and other Mesopotamian literature. All creation accounts in the ancient Near East entailed not only stories about the origins of the world but also described a subsequent tension between humanity and the gods or the rest of creation. This tension reaches a climatic judgment that is followed by a new beginning. Because these and other creation accounts include much more than the initial act of creation, Blenkinsopp argues that a focus on a chronological understanding of Gen 1 fails to include the entirety of chapters 111 as part of the creation story.
Biblical creation is about the beginnings of creation, but with special concern towards humanity, who appears in the midst of an ongoing tension between order and chaos. For Blenkinsopp there is no evidence for a creation ex nihilo. Humanity appears amidst a world where chaos is constantly threatening order, suggesting that creation is theologically more concerned with theodicy than with the omnipotence of God. Blenkinsopp's main argument for this fuller meaning of creation comes from his analysis of what he calls the five-fold or pentad toledot structure in Gen 111. The first toledot marks the introduction of humanity into creation. The middle toledot marks the deluge, the explosion of chaos upon creation. The final toledot forms the new beginningthe introduction of the Shemite line. This toledot structure marks Blenkinsopp's creation, un-creation, re-creation pattern for Gen 111. While Blenkinsopp spends some time on the toledot literary structure, his knowledge and use of ancient Near Eastern literature seem to be the main hermeneutic, not only for this fuller understanding of creation but also for addressing other problematic issues related to the text.
In chapter one, Blenkinsopp addresses how Gen 111 is characteristic of other ancient Near Eastern myths. Serpents who speak to humans, great floods that cover the entire globe, and patriarchs who live to be nearly 1000 years old are all features that illustrate the mythological nature of the creation account. Atrahasis plays a dominant role in shaping the biblical creation story. Both make reference to a permanent Edenic space that is threatened by sin, which leads to expulsion, later global judgment, and a subsequent uncertain future by those who survive (p. 8). Blenkinsopp also makes reference to the Greek myth by Hesiod where Prometheus assists humanity by stealing fire essential for technological development from the gods. The gods punish this act of disobedience by spreading plagues throughout the world.
In chapter two, drawing on Mesopotamian and Greek creation stories, Blenkinsopp then makes one of his main arguments, namely, that the seven day creation story is not a story of a god creating all which exists ex nihilo. Biblical creation is rather about the creation of what is visible out of a shapeless mass. In the creation story no mention is made of the origins of the angels or how evil came to exist in the Garden. And even though the origin of evil is never explicitly mentioned, Blenkinsopp argues that the biblical author has pointed to its presence at the beginning of creation. Moral evil or chaos, according to Blenkinsopp, is present at creation within the shapeless mass or tōhû wābōhû.
Blenkinsopp argues that evidence for this lies in part in the Hebrew word těhôm which is related through a Semitic cognate to the word Tiāmat, the goddess who represented the waters and from whom the earth was created. The author of Genesis, a learned priest and scribe familiar with the creation stories of Mesopotamia, has demythologized the word in the biblical creation story. But the semantic connection to chaos surfaces in other parts of the canon where God is described as being in conflict with the seas and the creatures within it (Ps 74:1217).
The semantic connection of the root těhôm with chaos in creation narratives means that at the beginning of creation in the biblical narrative chaos is present although dormant. Only later when humanity proves unfaithful to their covenant with Yahweh does chaos break forth. Biblical creation is not a story only of initial creation, but it is also an introduction of humanity within an environment where chaos already exists and threatens to break out in destruction. The biblical flood is a prime example where humanity is judged by water.
The presence of chaos at creation and its sudden impact over God's order during times of unfaithfulness shows that the biblical creation story is more about the mystery of evil in God's creation rather than a theological story about God's omnipotence. Blenkinsopp argues that this fits the genre and theme of other ancient Near Eastern parallels; all highlight the problem of evil. The Israelites were therefore not primarily concerned with questions of the chronological timeframe of creation, nor with a theology of God as one who creates within a vacuum.
In chapter three Blenkinsopp highlights the parallels of the creation of humanity with the Atrahasis account of the lesser deities, the Igigi, who were given the command to till the earth for the gods. Another parallel is found in the lullu (man) of Enuma Elish, which were created out of wet clay and brought to life through the blood of a deity. The story of the fall is also illuminated by Mesopotamian literature. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu is created by the goddess Aruru, who lives in peace with the animals and protects them from a hunter. A prostitute, Shamhat, is hired to seduce Enkidu away from life in the wilderness towards life in the city. She is successful and as a result the animals abandon him. In the story Gilgamesh searches for eternal life. Gilgamesh is given a plant, like a Tree of Life, called Old Man Grown Young, which will give him renewed vitality. But while he is bathing a snake comes along and steals away with the plant.
In chapter four Blenkinsopp finds parallels to the Cain and Abel story and genealogical form in Gen 5. The triadic arrangement of the sons of Noah (Shem, Ham, and Japheth) are shown to be a standard means in creation myths of showing the genealogical origins of a people. In the myth of the Deucalion, a Greek Noah is the patriarch of the three family lines of the Greek nation. There is also the common theme in the ancient Near East of twins who form the origins of different nations, similar to the biblical Esau and Jacob. According to Philo of Byblos the origins of the Phoenicians go back to two brothers, Hypsouranios and Ousoos. There is also the famous story of fratricide in the narrative of Rome's origins: Romulus murders his brother Remus, as recorded by the historian Livy.
In chapter five there is an interesting appeal to the MT and an acceptance of a 4,000-year cycle or great year which was first formulated by Archbishop James Ussher in 1650. While Ussher used this cycle to arrive at a year of creation at 4004 b.c.e., Blenkinsopp's chronological calculations lead him from the creation of Adam to the rededication of the temple in 1 Maccabees. This conclusion hints at the time of a much later redaction of the Genesis material in 164 b.c.e. Blenkinsopp shores up his argument by appeals to Wellhausen and Kuhl, both of whom hinted at some type of 4,000-year scheme (p. 110). There is a parallel between the antediluvian genealogy in Gen 5 and the antediluvian kings in the Babyloniaca of Berossus. The significance of the seventh place in the genealogy is similarly paralleled with the birth of the Babylonian Evedorachos and the Sumerian Enmeduranki in the king lists, who are either considered sacred in the eyes of their god or are closely related to an astrological tale, as is the case for the biblical character Enoch. The biblical antediluvian line ends with the story of the mysterious sons of God who have sexual relations with the daughters of men. As in Jubilees, which retells the account of how a corrupt community of giants were responsible for the coming deluge, so the biblical account includes its own story of why the deluge was to come.
Chapter six recounts the more famous parallel of the biblical texts within the Mesopotamian literary deposit. Details of the biblical flood are compared to the stories of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh. In Atrahasis, a plague is followed by a flood and only the hero Atrahasis and his family survive. In both stories the hero makes an ark that is covered with pitch, another close parallel with the biblical account. The flood within the broader creation account of Gen 111 is further evidence that creation is about the tension between order and chaos. The flood is the same raging waters described in Gen 1:2 and again a wind is swirling over its surface. The command to fill the earth at creation is repeated after the flood, depicting a new beginning.
In chapters seven and eight Blenkinsopp continues to appeal to ancient Near Eastern literary influence on the biblical texts. Key highlights are the parallels he identifies between the postdiluvian genealogy of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and the familiar triadic pattern in the descendents of Deucalion, the son of Prometheus whose three sons constitute the three branches of the Greek peoples: the Dorians, Ionians, and Aeolians.
In this commentary on Genesis, Blenkinsopp does address other issues related to the study of the book, such as authorship and the literary structure of the toledot. His predominant contribution to the study of Genesis lies in showing how the biblical texts fit within the literary context of other Mesopotamian literature. Blenkinsopp makes a strong case to view Gen 111 as myth and not history by showing how themes and stories in the biblical account follow traditional ancient Near Eastern creation myth patterns. Origins in the ancient Near East functioned to establish norms to address contemporary issues; they addressed issues of theodicy rather than issues of chronology. But with all of these helpful literary connections to the broader ancient Near Eastern context, there is at times too much attention drawn to their similarities and not enough to their differences. For example, does it follow that because Enuma Elish or the Atrahasis Epic have distinct parallels with Genesis, their meanings for words or themes must be similar as well? This problematic hermeneutic is no different than viewing all contemporary religious themes and words as relatively the same and therefore key in interpreting each other. While many religions hold similar beliefs and have similar themes, they are in the end very different.
A case in point is Blenkinsopp's arrival at the meaning of the image of god by use of an Akkadian cognate that typically means statue. While it may be helpful to know what the word commonly means in ancient Mesopotamia, linguists are convincing in showing that words do not contain meaning by themselves, but only mean something in a particular linguistic context. It is problematic to take a typical reading in ancient Israeleven more so in the entire ancient Near Eastand assume that it must be the meaning for a word in a problematic passage. Before a connection can be made to a parallel text, even with one from the same period and cultural milieu, the linguistic context must be examined first in the attempt to locate the meaning. Blenkinsopp convinces the reader that one cannot force a chronological reading of the biblical creation account, but he is less convincing in his attempt to demonstrate that the biblical text must carry the same meaning as the ancient Near Eastern literary milieu.