Eric Smith

Eric Smith recently completed his Ph.D. studies at Trinity College - Bristol under Gordon Wenham.  His thesis, The Sumerian Mythographic Tradition and Its Implications for Genesis 1-11, contends myth functioned as speculative philosophy in ancient Near Eastern cultures. He currently teaches Hebrew Bible at Nebraska Christian College in Omaha, Nebraska USA.  Forthcoming books include a Pentateuch textbook with Fortress Press, a Job Commentary for Zondervan, and a monograph on ancient Near Eastern Land Grant Customs for Equinox.  

Ancient Near Eastern myth as speculative philosophy

Myth has been characterized by some moderns as nothing more than a “primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world of nature” (Frazer), a product of poetic fantasy from prehistoric times that is subsequently misunderstood and misinterpreted by moderns (Müller), “a repository of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual to his group” (Durkheim), and as a “group dream” that is nothing more than the symptom of “archetypal urges within the depths of the human psyche” (Jung). Joseph Campbell, perhaps the most influential American student of myth in the 20th century, claimed that myth was all of these.

The question this paper seeks to address is how to characterize the myth of the ancient Near East, including the narrative sections of Genesis 1-11. Jung’s idea of group dreams flowing from the depths of the human psyche has of course fallen out of favor, but his notion of archetypes in myth remains. Also, Campbell’s observation that myth is “all of these” may be true, but I contend it is not true of ANE myth. The mythographer’s job is necessarily one of looking for regularities and consistencies, often at the expense of the unique. The role of this paper is in some ways counter the role of the mythographer, in that I am explicitly seeking that which sets ANE myth apart. When we approach Genesis 1-11, although the observations garnered by mythographers over the years about the many flood stories, creation stories, and genealogies (just to name of few of the elements of Genesis 1-11) gathered from around the world are useful and interesting from a mythographic perspective, they do not give us the hermeneutical tools needed for an emic reading of the text. Rather, an emic perspective comes from situating Genesis 1-11 in its broader context of ANE story telling.

With that in mind, I contend that ANE story, what we call 'myth,' is the chosen method of speculative philosophy of the ancient Near East, including ancient Israel. The speculation was carried out via analogical logic rather than the discursive logic characteristic of western philosophy. From a functionalist perspective, the role of myth in ancient Near Eastern societies was philosophical speculation on ‘ultimate’ questions such as the gods, humanity, suffering, cosmology, etc. For example, rather than beginning with an a priori statement and developing a case from it using discursive genre, the philosophers of the ancient Near East told a story of the gods creating humans to do their work for them so they could take it easy and enjoy the good life. Genesis 1 counters this view by claiming God created humanity to have dominion over the earth.

An example of what I mean by 'analogical' is in order. The use of the word [yqr 'firmament' in Genesis 1 has been a thorny issue for concordists. The NIV has attempted to get around the issue by translating [yqr ambiguously as 'expanse.' Others have attempted to make the term scientifically acceptable by translating 'atmosphere.' However, Seely has convincingly shown that the term refers to a solid dome. Rather than simply postulating a denominative from the verb [qr which is used of beating something out, Seely undertakes thorough lexical analysis of Old Testament usage of the noun form as well as looking at ancient Near Eastern evidence, particularly the Mul-Apin series of astronomical texts, enūma eliš, and the omens of enūma Anu Enlil. Since the [yqr is a solid dome there is no structure to which it can be compared in modern, scientific descriptions of the cosmos. However, rather than attempt to identify the [yqr scientifically as a concordist would or assume the text is scientifically inaccurate because it reflects ancient world view, I see the [yqr as reflecting an ancient analogy that breaks down upon scientific investigation. As Walton notes, “The text is using ancient conventional thinking about structure to communicate other, more important issues. Nevertheless, it is not accurate to say there is no such thing as a rāqîa꜂—there is a rāqîa꜂, and it is blue. But it is an observed reality with a function connected to it, not a structural reality.” In my opinion, reading the analogy as reflective of ancient Near Eastern cosmology is better than fixating on where the analogy breaks down and declaring the text false or flawed.