The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis

So today I enrolled in my course on ANE studies at SOAS University. I had a good read of Richard Hess and Dave Tsumura’s book ‘I studied inscriptions from before the flood’, including a rather interesting essay by assyriologist Wilf Lambert on the relationship between Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish. It is interesting to see that the parallels between the two texts are not as strong as is often claimed, and indeed, despite some clear relationships (as with the division of the waters) there are not enough parallels to establish literary dependence of one on the other. Rather, Genesis shares parallels with all literature of the Near East.

It is likely for this reason that Irving Finkel, Lambert’s student (who is an atheist) does NOT cite Genesis 1 as one of his examples of Biblical texts with strong dependence on mesopotamian literature.

Also today I stumbled across this blog post, arguing against the use of ANE texts for biblical interpretation:

Its a good post, but still has some flaws. Yes, there were major differences between Babylon Egypt, Hattusa and Palestine, so we cannot take some random text from babylon or Egypt and assume it is relevant to the Bible. But with Ugarit it is a whole different kettle of fish. We know that Ugarit and Israel shared strong linguistic and cultural similarities. The Bible sometimes uses the same linguistic formulas as the Baal Cycle, often word for word, as in Isaiah 27:1, we also know from Israelite history that the Ancient Israelites had contacts with Canaanites religion. I therefore propose, in light of my reading today, that Ugarit and Phoenicia are more appropriate contexts to read the Bible in than babylon or Egypt, except, of course, when the parallels are simply overwhelming, as with the flood story.

What do you think about the ANE context of the Bible? Is it necessary?

I think it’s helpful in understanding how the Israelites may have thought. I don’t think there is a dependency between any of the stories necessarily, but that they are similar because they share a culture. I don’t think the Israelites copied other cultures’ stories or anything like that (and I’m not a fan of the Documentary Hypothesis either).

The Gilgamesh story is similar to the Noah story likely because there was an actual flood that was quite memorable. I don’t think it was global. Flood stories in other geographic areas are usually very different.

The creation stories have some notable dissimilarities, and I think those highlight the difference between God and the mythological gods.


Congrats on taking up the program of studies at SOAS, Reggie!

I am a fan of Brian Godawa’s approach in God Against the Gods. He maintains that the Israelite Scriptures subvert the contemporary literature of their neighbors. They adopt their neighbors’ conventions and structure, but not as mimicry. Rather, they use those literary forms to expose the false claims of false gods and to proclaim the true God who is worthy of praise and obedience–the one true Creator, Yahweh.

Godawa’s thesis has obvious application to the relationship between Biblical faith and science, but I will refrain from exploring it since the thread has not gone there.


1 Like

I agree, though there is some dependence of the flood story on Akkadian texts (given how the genesis flood story shares more similarities with later more developed texts than older more “accurate” ones. I don’t think the writer of Genesis plagiarised Gilgamesh any more than Dawkins plagiarised Darwin


To some extent yes, the drought in 1 Kings 17 is very likely a polemic against the worship of Baal, who was the rain god (even the language of ‘neither dew nor rain’ has strong parallels with Ugaritic literature). That being said, I think Godawa over-states things and reads into the text, when it is often much more simple to suggest that Israel and Ugarit shared cultural imagery (so one wouldn’t need to pilfer from the other).

Dar Reggie,
I certainly do not agree with the underlying assumption of the post, and that is:

We affirm that there is but one true, proper, and genuine sense of scripture, arising from the words rightly understood, which we call the literal: and we contend that allegories, tropologies, and anagoges are not various senses, but various collections from one sense, or various applications and accommodations of that one meaning.

For anyone who has walked the gospel of John, you will see the literal contradictions.

After this he went down to Capernaum, he, and his mother, and his brethren, and his disciples: and they continued there not many days. John 2:12

The ANE interpretation of this text is much more enlightening than its literal, travel guide value. Literally you walk up to Capernaum, so why did John write down, if his meaning was only literal?

In a sense of understanding the cultural-historical context of the text yes but we should see the Bible as unique and as God’s Word to humans.