Ancient Near East

The Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Mythology

Nun, god of the waters of chaos, lifts the barque of the sun god Ra

by Paul Miles

Mythological hermeneutics is a growing threat to evangelicalism today. The notion is that Genesis does not give a literal account of human origins, but is a monotheistic rearrangement of pagan texts from the Ancient Near East and therefore is subject to error. If this accusation were coming only from atheists or even progressive Christians, it would be unfortunate; but mythological hermeneutics is infiltrating evangelicalism, so we need to equip ourselves with responses.

A Test: Who Said It?

It may be difficult to believe that such a liberal idea could threaten evangelicals, since we are known for defending Biblical inerrancy, so here is a test.

The test

In the chart below are five statements about Genesis from various sources. Can you identify whether each statement comes from an atheist, a progressive Christian, or an evangelical?

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Was Moses a Plagiarist?

Archaeologists discovered several ancient Near Eastern law codes in the first half of the twentieth century. Many of the laws contained in these codes bear a striking resemblance to some of the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament. This fact has forced Old Testament critics to revise their late date for the Pentateuch (Albright, 109). But the relationship between Mosaic Law and the ancient Near East legal codes has also given rise to another form of criticism. Modern critics argue that Moses (or whoever authored the Pentateuch) received his laws from his ancient Near Eastern neighbors. This claim raises an important question for the Bible-believing Christian: Did the Mosaic Law ultimately originate with God or with pagan societies? More bluntly, was Moses a plagiarist?

The ANE Legal Codes

Below is a summary of the ancient Near East legal codes, listed according to rank of antiquity. Most of these legal codes are casuistic in form though some apodictic laws are found in the Hittite law codes. Casuistic laws are framed in conditional language, the protasis introducing a particular scenario and the apodosis rendering a corresponding judgment (hence they are also called “case laws”). Apodictic laws are categorical commands or prohibitions, like those in the Decalogue (cf. Alt, 101-71).

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The Creation Narrative - Genesis 1 & 2 (Part 10)

Read the series so far.

Adam Is Tested

In the next section (2:15-17) we read of God giving the man a straightforward command:

Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an actual tree. It is not called a symbol and need not be seen as one. I agree with Merrill that we should not think of “good and evil” in this place as contrasting values so much as an idiom for comprehensive knowledge.1 Certainly, ethical knowledge would be included, since all knowledge bears an ethical stamp, but the innocence of our first parents does not at all lead us to think they were ignorant of the meanings of the terms “good” and “evil.” God is communicating meaningfully to Adam, not speaking over his head. Every word which God speaks to Adam presupposes his ability to receive and comprehend it. Thus, the expression “to freely eat” was just as well understood as the designation “every tree of the garden.” Again the warning “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die” was God speaking to a comprehending and responsive creature. He was not speaking into the air.2

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