About This Blog

Friday, September 6, 2013

"Against the gods" (John D. Currid)

TITLE: Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament
AUTHOR: John D. Currid
PUBLISHER: Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2013, (160 pages).

Who shapes who? Is the Old Testament context shaped by the surrounding cultures of the Ancient Near East (ANE)? Or is the culture in the ANE influencing the early writers of the Bible? John Currid, Professor of Old Testament studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte argues that the historical, geographical, and the cultural contexts of the ANE can add valuable insights into our understanding of the Old Testament. This book looks into the relationship of the ANE to the Hebrew Scriptures, in the hope that not only will it spur greater interest in the area of "polemical theology," it will add more excitement and enthusiasm into the studies of ancient texts. What Currid tries to do is to maintain a healthy respect for the genre of studies, through appreciation and understanding of why the ancients think, write, and behave as they are. According to Currid, the reason we ought to study the ANE context is simply because not only is the ANE studies quite recent, it is also one of the most neglected. Polemical theology is about using the images, symbols, and stories of the ancient times, and to bring into them new meanings, especially from a theological standpoint.

Currid's survey of the historical study of the Old Testament genre is enlightening. He observes that modern scholars are shifting away from the Hebrew position of an "original, single, and unique" worldview. Early studies were based on explaining the hostilities between the Greeks and the Persians (5BC), the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mesopotamia archaelogy, many of which are simply discovering the artifacts for what they are with "innocent discovery." By the 19th Century, the mood turns toward "suspicion" where scholars see the biblical writers borrowing much material from the ANE instead of being unique in themselves. For instance, Friedrich Driver thinks that the biblical writers simply take the myths and stories of the ANE, strip them of the polytheism influences and the present a "sanitized" version for biblical purposes. By 1906, researchers start to focus on using the ANE as a way to shed light on the history of the biblical texts. From 1945 to the present, with advanced linguistic studies, more scholars consider the biblical history more as "invention and propaganda."

Calling polemical theology as a way in which the biblical writers counter the cultures and practices of their age, Currid aims to highlight the superiority of the biblical authors in three ways. First, while the Hebrew writers have borrowed a lot of ideas from the ANE, they maintain a focus on a superior God, that guides their borrowing.  Second, the biblical texts are authoritative enough that while there are parallels between the ancient biblical texts and the ANE, the Bible not only confronts but has the ultimate Word. Third, the picture of the Creator LORD God is the overwhelming God over all other gods, superior over all other ancient deities, and sharpens the focus on Monotheism. In other words, the biblical texts are unique, superior, and overwhelmingly single-minded on the Creator God, in contrast to ANE's broad descriptions of many gods.

Genesis 1 is a popular passage in polemical theology studies. Many 20th Century scholars believe that Genesis 1 is directly dependent on the ANE materials, accusing the ancient biblical writers for "crass plagiarism" of ANE stuff. Many evangelicals in the 21st Century takes a similar approach. They believe that while writing to a culture where people are familiar with the ANE, the biblical writers actually "demythologized" the stories, and then infused the monotheism message. Currid thinks otherwise, insisting that while there are parallels between Genesis and the ANE, one need to look behind the ANE and ask where the ANE originates. He argues carefully that it is the ANE that has borrowed from the Bible instead. In addition, the Bible is a "polemic" against the ANE as it sharply distinguishes the difference between them and the superiority of the Hebrew God. For instance, it is not the ANE that informs the biblical narrative of creation. It is the biblical narrative that presents the earliest clue on how the ANE derives their existence in the first place.

Currid goes on to talk about the Great Flood where many cultures worldwide have at least some record of a great liquid deluge. From Sumeria to Babylonia, Ugarit to Egypt, there are many parallels to the biblical texts.Yet, underneath the superficial similarities, Currid powerfully distills the distinctiveness of the biblical genre and sets forth profound differences theologically, morally, covenant-ally, and the literary beauty. The differences are huge not only in the details but also in the underlying worldviews. The Bible is independent rather than dependent on the ANE texts. Rather than to claim that the Bible plagiarises the ANE, it is actually the Bible that speaks polemically against the beliefs of the ANE. For example, the biblical writers are stanchly monotheists in contrast to the polytheistic stance of the ANE. The similar motifs of "spurned seductress," "triangle of characters," betrayal, and sexuality based on revenge. What makes the Bible morally superior is the stand that God takes with regards to wanton immorality.

Then there is the hero motif, where the threatened baby becomes saved, and ultimately delivers the nation. While the ANE seems to focus on the battle of the gods and among men, the Bible focuses of delivery under the watchful eye of One Divine God.  One interesting example is the story of Moses, which happens within the nation of Egypt, and is a symbolic demonstration that even within an Egyptian context, the Hebrew God stands superior. Other examples that Currid use to compare the Bible with the ANE are the story of Moses, the Exodus deliverance, the appearance of the I AM, and how the Bible is a polemic against the Canaanite motifs.

So What?

Currid demonstrates an impressive array of knowledge on the ANE culture and religious beliefs. (Hey, he is Professor of Old Testament after all!) He is able to bring together the fragments of the myths and stories popular in the ancient times, to compare and to contrast with the biblical texts. That is no easy feat, given that every fragment chosen requires careful scholarship, archaeological considerations, as well as interpretive angles. Understanding the ANE is always a challenge. What makes modern man able to understand the mindset and the logic of the ancient races? What qualifies us to even attempt to make a polemical statement either from the Bible or from the ANE perspectives?

There is one chief requirement to anyone embarking on such studies. Openness and humility. By acknowledging the works of the different experts and scholars in ANE literature and culture, we enter into the discussion as a participant, not a sage by the stage, but as a guide by the side. We cannot be dogmatic about the beliefs. Neither can we make the ancient works say things that they do not actually say. Currid chooses the angle of polemical theology in understanding the ANE. Thus the label, "Against the gods." It is important to remember that it is not the author who is specifically against the ANE gods. It is the Bible that is pitted against all other gods. It is in understanding the key thrust of the Old Testament not to worship idols. It is the consistent argument that Israel is not to have any other gods before the LORD God. With this theological framework, Currid is able to anchor the entire book on one chief premise: It is not the Bible that copies from the ANE. It is the Bible that understands the ancient contexts, captures the underlying mood of the times, and speaks out against the errors and the idols of the age.

This book is a book on how the biblical writers, against all odds, are able to speak into the culture, not as blind and helpless participants, but as clear-headed writers, fully focused on one God who is over all, and above all powers. I warmly recommend this book to anyone keen to learn more about the contexts of the Old Testament stories.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Crossway Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

No comments:

Post a Comment