Bible as Ancient Literature

Go with Gilgamesh, but lose the animal livers.

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What is Religious Literature?

Religion begins with the experience of something uniquely holy, at once terrifying and fascinating, sublime and numinous. As a culture discerns symbols, metaphors, and analogies to identify and name the numinous, its deities provide a framework for understanding the most urgent matters of human concern: birth and death, the regularities and eruptions of nature, social solidarity and authority, personal solitude and the wish for forgiveness. 

Religion is man's effort to elicit meaning and value from confrontation with the holy. Through acts of worship he enters into formal communion with the divine; through myths and theology he seeks to explain the relation between the divine and the actualities of life. Proceeding one step further, religious literature collects, records, and organizes this lore and teaching, enabling man's positive responses to the holy to be transmitted over the span of generations.

old hebrew bible openCommon Elements in Ancient Near Eastern Literature

The Bible--the surviving religious literature of ancient Israel--faces in two directions. It draws on the ideas and skills of three previous millennia of Near Eastern creativity and opens new paths. No appreciation of the Bible can overlook the degree to which it reflects elements common to other cultures.

The physical structure of the universe, taken for granted by biblical writers, characterizes ancient Near Eastern literature as a whole: The earth is a thin disk floating in the surrounding ocean; the heavens are a dome (the firmament) that holds back the "upper waters" unless its windows are opened to permit the rain to fall. Under the earth lies Sheol, the abode of the dead (see Ps. 88: 3-12). In the heavens there meets a divine assembly where God announces his judgments (1 Kings 22: 19). Although all humans descend to the underworld when life is over, the Bible mentions two who are raised up above to join the celestial creatures in heaven (Enoch in Gen. 5:24 and Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11). Demonic spirits wander about in the world (Azazel in Lev. 16:8, the satrys in Isa. 34:14) and even YHVH is capable of demonic behavior (Ex. 4:24).

Like the gods in other ancient literatures, the God of Israel is portrayed in anthropomorphic terms: He walks in the garden of Eden "in the cool of the day" (Gen. 3:8); His bow appears in the sky after the rainstorm (Gen. 9:13); He sits on his heavenly throne surrounded by marvelous angelic beings (Isa. 6:1-2).

Like other peoples, ancient Israel recognized the efficacy of magic (Ex. 7:11-12), acknowledged the power inherent in blessings and curses (Num., chaps. 22-24), and assumed the ability of some men to ascertain God's will through dreams, sacred dice, and oracles. Like other religious writings, the Bible inculcates reverence for holy men (2 Kings 2:23-25), for kings (Ps. 2:6-7), and for priests (Num. 16). Common to Israelite and other ancient religions are sacrificial offerings, a preoccupation with ritual uncleanliness and purity, and atonement rites performed by priests set apart from the laity.

Parallels in Other Peoples’ Literature

Many forms of biblical writing have parallels in the literature of other peoples. Genesis borrows details from the Mesopotamian epics of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh in connection with the legend of a world-wide flood. Biblical figures of speech are influenced by earlier Canaanite poetry, as is parallelism, a feature distinguishing poetry from prose in the Bible.

Biblical law shows many similarities with the legal collections of ancient Mesopotamia. Aspects of Hittite and Assyrian treaties between a king and his vassals are used to explicate the covenantal relationship between YHVH and Israel. Egyptian models are used for Psalm 104 and for a section of the book of Proverbs (22:17-23:11). As other ancient works are discovered in the future, it will become even more evident that the Bible is an integral branch of ancient Near Eastern literature as a whole.

The Uniqueness of the Bible 

Yet the differences are crucial and decisive, because the borrowings were transformed by Israelite monotheism. A few examples will indicate the scope of the reshaping that took place.

Mythological themes retained in the Bible, such as the marriage of divine beings with human women, are abbreviated in the extreme and barely integrated into the narrative (Gen. 6:1-4). Biblical heroes are not worshipped as semi-divine beings. In biblical religion, the underworld is not a subject for religious speculation; indeed, the absence of a positive conception of personal immorality, other than through one's descendants, poses theological dilemmas resolved only at the end of the biblical period.

The biblical cult includes no rites to placate the ghosts or demons. There is no ancestor worship. The practice of magic is forbidden, as are consulting the dead, investigating the livers of sacrificial animals, observing the flights of birds, and other widespread forms of divination (see, for example, Deut. 18:10).

The Israelite wonder-worker derives his power not from knowledge of occult arts, but from direct divine interpretation. Verbal revelation from God through the prophet is far more important in biblical Israel than in other ancient civilizations. The Bible has such a profound sense of the contrast between its view of the world and everyone else's, that much of the text is a sustained polemic, explicit or implied, against "idolatry," a category embracing all polytheistic religions and some of their most cherished beliefs about ultimate reality.

Differences from Other Epics

Compared to the epics of other peoples, the biblical narratives underwent drastic reorientation and simplification. Absent are myths of the birth of the gods, their rivalries and feuds, their sexual relations, their annual cycles of death and resurrection--all of which provide classic motifs in ancient literature.

Biblical thought eliminates the notion, found in many pagan mythologies, of a primordial, inescapable Fate to which man and gods are subject, a Fate that can, at times, be manipulated though incantation, divination, and wisdom. Instead the Bible is preoccupied with the moral condition of mankind, with the signs of divine providence and the wonders that accompanied the formation of Israel, and with the meaning of mundane, historical events in relation to the supreme and unconditional will of a God not limited by destiny or Fate.

Perhaps the overarching theme of the Bible is the tension between God's will and man's: between what should be (God's demands) and what actually is (man's failure, on the whole, to respond adequately to the divine expectations). As a result, the basic theological conceptions of sin and faith, holiness and redemption, justice and repentance are reworked and given new significance.

The following article is reprinted from Jewish People, Jewish Thought, published by Prentice-Hall.

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Robert M. Seltzer

Robert Seltzer is a Professor of History at Hunter College (CUNY).