Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Geller, Markham J. and Mineke Schipper (eds) Imagining Creation (IJS Studies in Judaica, 5; Leiden: Brill, 2008). Pp.xxii+424. US$178.00. ISBN 978-90-04-15765-1.

This volume collects ten essays presented at the University College London in March 2003 in a seminar entitled “Creation Stories.” It is a diverse collection including treatments of the typical Egyptian accounts by Quirke (“Creation Stories in Ancient Egypt,” pp. 61-86), Mesopotamian stories by Lambert (“Mesopotamian Creation Stories,” pp. 15-60) as well as relatively unknown accounts from the South Sahara by Schipper (“Stories of the Beginning: Origin Myths in Africa South of the Sahara,” pp. 103-128). All essays include translations or summaries of their creation stories making this volume useful as a main course text. Often each author's specialist translation or fieldwork collects difficult-to-access stories such as Arab stories of the pre-Islamic period (“Arab Creation Stories Beyond the Pale,” pp. 367-388). The innovations of this volume are in its wide collection of varying creation stories, moving beyond historical parallels to anthropological ones, and giving attention to the comparative potential between oral and written stories.

As is the case with collected essays, unless the authors intentionally strive towards responding to and dovetailing each other's work, essays are often left in a relational limbo. This is all the more apparent when the collected essays are generally concerned with comparisons between their subject matter. But the reader will find in this volume a solution to such problems in the introduction by Mary Douglas (March 1921 - May 2007) in what was one of her last published essays. Douglas begins the discussion in her own experiences of enlightenment rationalism and its tensions with Christianity that resisted the comparative endeavour. Asking how the comparative task shall proceed, Douglas reflects upon more recent warnings against comparative studies, but rightly states that these criticisms leave the reader with no scope or roadmap as to how to proceed.

Giving a refreshing twist to the genre of “introduction” in a collected series of essays, Douglas critiques the authors in this volume for their warnings against comparing varied creation stories. She poignantly asks: “What are we to do with this book of essays if we are not allowed to compare myths?” (pp. 5-6). She offers a solution by pointing out their similar approaches and classifies them as “reception history approaches” or as approaches which treat creation stories as “religious poetry.” Douglas then uses each creation story in the volume and places them into three helpful and unique categories from which the comparative endeavour can continue: fire-side stories (primarily for entertainment, though also having didactic qualities), scholarly stories (often used for apologetic purposes), and then stories that establish a social charter. In these ways Douglas has brought more comparative scope and potential to the volume.

The choice of a wide selection of creation stories was not designed merely to place a difficult task before Douglas, it was the intention of the editors to challenge the idea that biblical creation is the most influential of stories (p. x). This challenge is somewhat contradicted by the contributors since the common story to which all refer is the biblical one. Further, there remains a gap in this volume in that the biblical story is not given a scholarly analysis along with the others. While such absence likely intends to make comparative connections without reference to the biblical story, thus dethroning its central place, there are consequences for this decision. Robert Alter's translation of Genesis 1-2, without his commentary, stands at chapter 7 (is the choice of chapter intentional?). The effect may be that the biblical account stands as the untouchable, unanalyzed creation story not subject to the same analysis that the others face. The removal of Genesis from analysis paralleled with the constant mention of it by the contributors may be antithetical to the editors' purpose. Whatever the intent of this choice, it would have been beneficial to include an analysis of the Genesis creation account.

Beyond the volume as a whole, the individual treatments make a variety of contributions. Lambert's full and recent translation of the Enuma Elish is a contribution in itself. It is a welcome addition to Talon's translation in the State Archives of Assyria Vol. IV and perhaps in some aspects Lambert's is a freer, more literary translation.

Quirke helpfully suggests that comparative endeavours seek differences as well as similarities and notes the recent trend toward the former. He observes that Egypt contains creation motifs rather than a story. Written and pictorial sources are accessibly described and observations are offered about Egyptian notions of creation as process and cycle.

Doniger's “You Can't Get There From Here” (pp. 87-102) demonstrates how Indian creation myths upset the objective for accessing an Ur-text. She analyzes the “I am” language in the Indian Rig Veda (which offers comparative potential with Exodus 3:14) and observes multiplicity in which each god has its own world but at the same time lives in the belly of another god. The multiplicity and the cycle in creation discussed by Doniger are also characteristic of the Egyptian stories discussed by Quirke.

The analysis of the African creation stories by Schipper (pp. 103-138) will be helpful for classes and scholars of post-colonial studies. Its attention to oral stories (also see Badalanova below) which were often written down by missionaries, may challenge biblical scholars who make a chronological distinction between oral and written texts differentiated by formulaic sayings based on a simplified use of the Parry and Lord school of thought.[1] This reviewer was particularly interested in, and taken back by, a story from the Congo on the origins of black and white. Formulations of self-identity and its relationship to primitive and developed civilizations in these stories would be fruitful topics in post-colonial studies within Departments of Religion, Bible, English, History or Political Science.

Then Wout Jac. van Bekkum assesses “Modern Jewish Attitudes of the Concept of Myth” (pp. 139-156). This essay offers a good summary of the debate traced from Philo and the Rabbis to nineteenth century Jews who accepted the science of myth. Freedman discusses “Lurianic Creation Myths” of a Cabalist (1534-1572 CE) and demonstrates the Cabalists' warning against a literal meaning of myth. A lengthy essay by Badalanova (“The Bible in the Making,” pp. 161-366) explores the Slavonic alternatives to the biblical account that maintain yet expand on it. Like Schipper, Badalanova pays attention to the role of oral tradition and its simultaneous role with written traditions. The oral tradition consists of the “folk tradition” that was the mode by which local beliefs were incorporated into the written tradition. It includes eighteen colour figures that are assessed for their preservation of, yet development upon, the biblical creation accounts. For biblical scholars, Badalanova helpfully compares developments in these “folk traditions” with the developments of biblical stories by Jubilees and Enoch.

Finally al-Udhari (“Arab Creation Stories Beyond the Pale,” pp. 367-388) reconstructs pre-Islamic Arab creation stories and offers notable conclusions that the Quran is Jahili in its perception. The attention to the prehistory of the Quran and the role of myth in the pre-Islamic period brings this topic in line with the shared awareness these essays have of each texts' prehistories. Yet al-Udhari's essay leaves out all footnotes (except one of his own books) since the author thinks Arab studies are currently a rehash of footnote scholarship (p. 376). Whether or not this is true, the absence of footnotes, leaves the non-specialist with no access to further reading and no way of assessing al-Udhari's claims.

That said, al-Udhari contextualizes his early exposure to creation stories by recounting his youth when rawat (storytellers) traveled the countryside. He entertainingly recalls when a rawi exposed him to Iblees (a version of Satan) about whom his mother had neglected to tell him. Yet the rawi's presentation of Iblees was of a curious trickster figure (likely due to the audience being a child) while his mother's understanding of Iblees was of a Satan figure. Al-Udhari's personal recounting, like with Schipper's own retellings of the African stories, invite the reader in and engage the reader in the act of storytelling which is a paramount feature in creation accounts, a process sometimes lost on the Western reader.

Individually, the essays are introductions to the creation stories of scholars' particular texts and traditions. While introductory, often the translations or summaries of creation stories gathered in each essay's appendix represent the most recent and sometimes only collection of such stories. As a volume these creation stories are suitable for classroom use or for those scholars interested in anthropological parallels. Thankfully the essays are not left in an uncertain relationship given the masterful introduction by Douglas. Her essay alone represents a most helpful categorization of creation stories in their widest perspective.

Shawn W. Flynn, University of Toronto

[1] Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales (HSCL 24; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960). reference