The Bible That Borrows Part 2: The Babylonian Bible

I was six years old and living in the drab, grayish-brown desert outside of El Paso, Texas.

One Sunday, a family from church kindly invited us to their house for lunch. Like any good Texas family, they lived about as far away from every other human as they possibly could.

Also, like any good Texas family, they owned an enormous amount of what ordinary people would assume completely useless land. And, like, six or seven four-wheelers.

My story begins after lunch on this day, when their ten-year-old son took me out on one of them. I rode on the back, and we took that little two-stroke wonder everywhere. Full speed down the slopes, nimbly around rocks and thistles and the occasional groupings of cacti.

For a six-year-old boy, this was peak life. My soul was wide open (as were my eyes and mouth).

And that’s when the boy driving that four-wheeler turned around, looked me right in the eye, and yelled, “DUCK!!!”

He yelled it loudly. He yelled it clearly. And before you and the Almighty, his voice traveled back to me just fine. So, you probably expect that we were approaching some low obstruction and that, whatever it was, I ducked below it.

You are correct that we were approaching a low obstruction.

However, in my six years on the Earth of running around, kicking soccer balls, hopping fences, getting dirty, and watching Looney Tunes—for whatever reason—nobody had ever used the word “duck” to me like that before. I’ve never been extremely tall, and even the tallest six-year-olds can safely walk beneath most things. Also, I had lived the first four years of my life in the Philippines, and many people there don’t speak English all the time. To this point, I’d only lived in the US for two years.

So, when he looked back at me and said “duck”, the image that appeared in my head was . . . a duck.

And I began looking around for one.

As we approached his house, what came next—perfectly at the level of my head and at about twenty miles per hour—was a clothes line.

Everything above my neck immediately halted, but my legs and feet continued forward with the momentum of the four-wheeler below me.

Which meant the next thing was the rebound.

My forty-five pound body was no match for that clothes line, and I propelled off of it so hard that for a moment time seemed to stop. As I seemingly floated there, hands clawing at the air, it was as if for two seconds or two years—hard to say from my perspective—Newton’s laws of motion gave way to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And then . . .

*THUD*!

“I yelled back at him to duck!” the boy truthfully explained to his dad, who looked guilt-ridden at my dad, who turned back at me and asked, “Did you hear him call at you to duck?”

Now, today I can admit how ignorant I was then, but six-year-old me was no idiot. As I scanned the room, it was clear that I was the only person who hadn’t already known that word, and context clues had more than filled in what to me had previously been unknown. And nobody likes to be that ignorant guy, that guy who took out a baseball that was signed by Babe Ruth and actually played with it.

So I preserved my dignity.

“No, I couldn’t hear him over the sound of the four-wheeler,” said me, who heard him just fine.

I didn’t know it at the time, but God taught me something about the Bible that day. And I learned it more than twenty years later.

….

This week’s installment is information heavy, and much of it won’t seem interesting right away. I know how busy you are, and I want to honor your time, so let me tell you exactly where I’m going.

Traditionalists generally believe that Moses wrote the Bible’s first five books, and around 1,400 or 1,500 BCE.

However, virtually everything I believe today about the Bible hinges on one foundational premise: Not only did Moses not write the first books of the Bible, but they were written about a thousand years after his time—after Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. Once you accept this premise, the Bible—let alone its first five books—takes on a different character.

That’s where I’m taking you. Now, let me make my case.

Genesis c1

Most people don’t wake up in the morning and think about the Bible’s writing style. The good news is I do, so you don’t have to.

The Hebrew Bible begins with the immortal words, B’eresheit bara Elohim, commonly translated “In the beginning God created.” Whoever the author was, he made important choices when he began the Bible this way, and in a short time we will come right back to them in detail. Those choices matter.

For right now, I simply want you to notice how these words relate to what the writer says next. In verse two, we are told that the Earth (“ha’arets”) was tohu wa’vohu, commonly translated “wild and waste”. So, with the phrases b’eresheit bara and tohu wa’vohu, we are two verses into Genesis c1, and we can see that the writer of Genesis c1 has either a habit or a preference for alliteration. You’ll see why this is important when we get to Genesis c2.

Then the writer gives us a series of number patterns; we are told that God spent the first three days separating:

  • on day one, dark from light;
  • on day two, the “waters above from the waters below”; and
  • one day three, the sea from the land, etc.

Once separated, God spent the next three days sequentially filling the things he separated, and in the same order of the things that he separated. So, we are told:

  • on day four he filled with the sun, moon, and stars what he separated on day one—the heavens;
  • on day five he filled with birds and sea creatures the things he separated on day two—the sky and the sea;
  • on day six he filled with land animals the thing he separated on day three—the land from the sea.

Hebrew writing after the Babylonian exile frequently employs the same parallel literary structures found in Genesis c1. Zechariah is one example, but there are plenty more.

It is also interesting that this Elohim fills the things he separates, because the Hebrew word bara, which usually gets translated “created”, more literally means “filled” or “fattened.”

(The same word we translate “created”, we translate “fattened” in Genesis c41 about the cows in Pharaoh’s dream).

The rhythm continues with the writer at the end of each day informing us that God saw what he made was “good”. The Hebrew word for “good” is tov. Because the word tov appears twice in the text with reference to the third day, Jews for thousands of years have believed that the third day of the week is double blessed and usually have weddings on that day. Don’t believe me, read the first sentence of John c2.

More numbers. To some, what follows will sound forced and even spurious at first. Especially, because Rob Bell says it, considering Rob Bell apparently is the devil. But there are distinct patterns of threes, sevens, and tens in Genesis c1.

Threes

We’ve already seen one pattern of threes—there are three days of separating and three days of filling. Also, bara occurs in three different places in Genesis c1. In the last place, it occurs three times.

Sevens

The first sentence in Hebrew is seven words. The second sentence is fourteen words. Ha’arets is written twenty-one times. Elohim is written thirty-five times. “It was so” is written seven times. “And God saw” is written seven times.

Patterns of three. Patterns of seven.

*Yawns*

Three and seven add up to ten (I can’t believe I just wrote that).

*Yawns harder*

Yes? Okay, bear with me.

Tens

“To make” is written ten times. “According to their kinds” is written ten times. “And God said” is written ten times—three times about people, seven times about other creatures. “Let there be” is written ten times—three times about the heavens, seven times about ha’arets.

See it now? Patterns of threes and sevens and tens—they are the skeletal structure of Genesis c1The writer of Genesis c1 prefers orderly literary arrangement, which is interesting because the narrative, which describes a transition from chaos to order and arrangement, begins with “deep water”—which, in ancient near-eastern literature is typically a literary device used to symbolize chaos. Here, the writer depicts Elohim conquering chaos and making order. He does so not just through the narrative of the creation, but also through a literary structure that begins with the ineloquent “tohu wa’vohu” (kind of like saying “wishy washy” or “splishy splashy”) to the majestic orderly arrangement of the days of creation.

You’ll understand in about ten minutes why this transition from chaos to order is important.

One more point from verse one. The translation, “In the beginning”, isn’t bad, but probably could be improved. Amy-Jill Levine argues persuasively that it should be “When in the beginning.” Another permissible translation is “When in the summit.”

Again, you’ll understand why this too is important in about nine minutes and fifty seconds.

Finally, throughout the Old Testament, there are numerous names that we translate “God.” Here, the Hebrew writer of Genesis c1 chose the name Elohim each time. This is interesting to say the least because the word is both plural and generic—really on par with saying “the gods.” For some reason, the writer of Genesis c1 did not like to use the sacred name, Yahweh. Although, perhaps even more strangely, this will change very suddenly.

And that’s the end of Genesis c1. Now that Elohim has created all ha’shamayim (Heavens) and ha’arets (Earth), the modern reader gets to the subsequent chapters ready to see what happens in those primordial places. In a sense, that’s the rest of what the Bible covers.

Sort of.

Genesis c2 and c3

Okay, so you’ve just read the account of the creation. If the Bible was like any other work of literature written by a single person, we would expect to move on to what happens next, right?

But that’s not what happens in Genesis c2.

When you get to Genesis c2, the story just seems to start over:

“This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.” Genesis c2

You may think that’s an odd thing to say. That c1 was about creation, so we should be moving on now. Right?

So you read on, perhaps thinking those words aren’t meant to tell you what’s coming, but simply to summarize what the reader just read.

But something weird happens.

Genesis c2 has *ANOTHER* account of the order of creation

And it’s different.

And if Genesis c1 is correct, then Genesis c2 is wrong.

In the Genesis c1 narrative there were plants before humans, but in the Genesis c2 narrative there were humans before there were plants. Further, in Genesis c2 animals are made after humans, even though Elohim made them before humans in Genesis c1 (English translators try to “fix” this, but the Hebrew is unmistakeable—especially if you read verses 18 and 19 together).

And speaking of Elohim, the writer of Genesis c2 and c3 suddenly and without explanation starts referring to God as Yahweh—no longer just Elohim.

And that’s not all that has suddenly changed. Remember the number patterns I talked about? Number patterns of any variety go away. Even in English, Genesis c1 has an unmistakeable beat and rhythm, but Genesis c2 and c3 trade beat and rhythm for an arhythmic narrative prose.

Finally, instead of alliteration as the linguistic art form, the author of the chapter goes all out in aggressively making puns. First, God makes “man” (the Hebrew word for man is “adam”) out of the ground (the Hebrew word for ground is “adamah”). In other words, according to this ancient Hebrew suburban dad, God makes the “adam” out of the “adamah.” And then the first man is named Adam.

The serpent we are told is arum (“cunning”), but the humans are arumim (“naked”). The names of the rivers make their own pun in the story, though this one requires more explaining, and I think you get the point.

A few questions need to be asked.

Why are there two creation stories?

Why are they stylistically different?

Why are they factually different?

Why do all these changes happen at the same time?

Are there other parts of the Bible that act this way?

If the answer is yes (the answer is very yes), does that mean something?

Stick with me.

II Samuel tells a story about God causing King David to conduct a census of Israel. Then I Chronicles (written many centuries after II Samuel) tells us the EXACT story about King David’s census. Only in the chronicler’s retelling, SATAN rather than God caused King David to do it. That’s a detail—was it God or Satan?—that, had these stories been written simply by God zapping them down to human writers, you would have expected him to have told the same way both times (really, you would expect him to just tell the story once). In fact, II Chronicles—written two or three centuries before Christ—records the very first reference to any person specifically named “Satan” in the whole Bible.*

*(“The serpent” in Genesis is never called Satan. “Satan” in Job is actually “ha’shatan” which literally means “the accuser.” The account in Chronicles, likely a 3rd-century writing, is the first time anyone in the Bible wrote about someone namedShatan” or שָּׂטָן.)

The Bible is full of these doublets.

In fact, there are about thirty more in just the Old Testament.

Which raises many questions, chief among them:

Uh, why?

Again, going back to the idea that these are the direct words of God, does God have a habit of forgetting that he has already told a particular story? Not that I could blame him. I have told many stories to the same people many more times than just twice.

But does God forget how he originally told the story?

Or is something else really important happening here?

(There is.)

I just described several divergent characteristics of Genesis c1 and Genesis c2. It’s worth noting that these discernible patterns come and go in unison throughout the Bible, even within the same books.

It’s almost as if the finished versions of these books are a patchwork of concurrent narratives that later—probably centuries later, and perhaps during a time of national trauma—were sewn together.

(Actually, that’s exactly what they are.)

Documentary Hypothesis

The writer of Genesis c11 tells us that Abram’s father, Terah, was 70 when Abram was born, and that Terah died at the age of 205. A little subtraction tells us that when Terah died, Abram would have been 135. Right?

(Take a second and do this math.)

The writer of Genesis c12 (and reiterated in Acts c7) tells us that after the death of Terah, God told Abram to leave Harran. So, again, Abram must have been no less than 135 when he was called to leave Harran. Right? Right?

(Take a second and make sure you’re still with me.)

But Genesis c12 v4 specifically says that Abram was 75 when he left Harran.

Meaning, one of these two accounts in your Holy Bible is wrong.

And that’s my point. There are at least two accounts.

At least two.

Again, the traditional view has long been that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (called the “Pentateuch”), but scholars of the 18th century and on to today have seriously questioned that view in light of the composite nature of the text—doublets that in unison take on different literary forms, use different names for God, and often contain contradictory information. Further, increasingly more scholars in the last two centuries have taken seriously a variety of sentences that Moses almost surely didn’t write:

  • Numbers c12: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Because what humble man writes that?)
  • Deuteronomy c34: “No one knows [Moses’s] burial place to this day.”
  • Deuteronomy c34: “Since [Moses died], no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses.” (This statement most naturally suggests that consider time had passed, and many prophets had come and gone since Moses).

So, let’s talk about documentary hypothesis. You may need a cup of coffee for this part, but if you want to understand modern biblical scholarship, I promise this is something you need to know.

The literal story of the history of the Jewish people describes God establishing the priestly order before the nation of Israel became a thing. However, about a century and a half ago, a Lutheran from Germany, Julius Wellhausen, pondered several profoundly dangerous questions.

If the Bible is potentially made of composite sources that contradict each other, is it possible that the Bible is not an accurate record of Israel’s history? And, if so, is it possible that the priestly order did not begin until much later? And, if so, what does that mean?

His seminal work, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (“Prolegomena to the History of Israel“), is often compared to Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. It is long, tedious, and not exactly full of humor.

But it is probably the most important modern work of Christian theology.

The idea Wellhausen systemically described—and which is where nearly all modern scholars begin, even if they diverge somewhat from his view—generally holds that there were at least four independent sources—one from Judah (what scholarly works call the “J” source), a source from its northern neighbor, Israel (the “E” source), the author of Deuteronomy (the “D” source), and the Priestly source (“P”).

According to Wellhausen, what we today call the Old Testament (what Jews call the Tanakh) is a dicing and splicing of these sources by a later editor (who Wellhausen calls a “Redactor”).

His theory is called documentary hypothesis, and here’s a picture of it.

400px-Documentary_Hypothesis_Sources_Distribution_English.png

But again, to one who considers the Bible without factual error, it matters little where these sources came from or who put them together. If God one day caused some guy named Ralph to write down and splice together what had once been parallel oral traditions, that would not be theologically significant. As long as these people were writing word-for-word the words of God and not their own opinions, inerrancy would be safe.

Today, when some part of the Bible appears to be in conflict with another, evangelicals usually say that we simply need to think harder or that the proper understanding hasn’t yet been revealed to us.

The idea that the Old Testament books were themselves composite works assembled by an editor had been suggested before Wellhausen’s time. What Wellhausen did was systematically identify the composite parts. And once he deconstructed them, he persuasively put them back together in a way that has since led to the creation of hundreds if not thousands of conservative safe places. Wellhausen advanced two main arguments:

First, the Old Testament does not accurately reflect Israel’s history.

Second, when Ralph or whoever else assembled and edited the Old Testament, he did so to advance an agenda specific to the Israelites who were recovering from a national trauma.

In painstaking detail, Wellhausen demonstrated that, contrary to how it appears in the text, the priestly order and the law were not present throughout all of Israel’s history. That thousands of years of simple worship became increasingly formalized over time.

And it turns out that archeology is WAY more favorable to the 19th century Wellhausen than to modern conservative evangelicals.

  • The entire Old Testament is written using a Hebrew alphabet system that did not exist during Moses’s time;
  • There are town names in the books of the Old Testament that did not exist during Moses’s time;
  • Centuries-old archeological digs of Jericho do not support the story of its destruction described in the book of Joshua; and
  • There is little to bear out the story of a large, enslaved Hebrew ethnic group in Egypt, as described in the book of Exodus.

Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. Nor is much of the Old Testament historically reliable. Nor was it ever intended to be. Nor is the Old Testament nearly as “old” as its name suggests.

To many people, this is terrifying. The common reaction to Wellhausen is that the Bible cannot be biased because that would make it just any other work of human literature. Notice the straw man argument used to describe documentary hypothesis on the evangelical website, Got Questions?.

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 3.49.44 PM.png

Got Questions? scoffs at documentary hypothesis as just “liberal theology’s attempt to call the veracity of the Pentateuch into question.” And that’s unfortunate. Documentary hypothesis is not an attempt to do anything other than reach a reasonable conclusion from the totality of the evidence. Documentary hypothesis should be judged on its own merits rather than the motivations of some of its advocates.

Some of your brains are presently on fire, and that’s perfectly fine. Changing your mind is no small feat, and not without consequences. Walk with me.

I’m going to take you to the 6th century BCE literature of the Babylonian Empire. When the Israelites were held as captives in Babylon during this time, it is virtually certain that they were exposed to their literature. The authors of the “books of Moses” borrowed from Babylonian literature to make specific theological arguments to their people.

Arguments I literally affirm.

Babylon

I told you earlier that I would talk about the importance of the choices that the author made in writing the first sentence of the Bible. Let’s do that now.

The Babylonian army of King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the known world in the 6th century BCE, Israel and Judah in 586 BCE. The Bible gets this right. One of the most important characteristics of the conquering was “the exile”—Jews forcibly removed from their land in and around Jerusalem and placed in Babylon.  When there, the exiles were exposed to Babylonian literature, and I want to highlight two pieces of literature on which scholars have written extensively. Keep your Genesis hat on.

The first is the Enuma Elish.

The Enuma Elish begins with the Apsu, the god of fresh water, and Tiamat, the goddess of deep salt water. These two gods are depicted to represent primordial chaos. Then, a god named Marduk leads gods of wind against Apsu and Tiamat.

In this battle between the older gods of water and the younger gods of wind, the wind gods essentially blow up the salt water god, Tiamat, and split her open in two. The top half made a vault of water in the sky; the bottom half made the earth’s sea.

Does this ring a bell?

Also, remember how Genesis c1 begins with the “spirit”, or literally “wind”, of Elohim hovering “over the deep”? Interestingly, the Hebrew word for deep, tehom, when enunciated sounds almost exactly like Tiamat. In fact, the etymology is the exact same.

Does this ring a bell?

(If it doesn’t ring a bell, read it again. Keep reading it until it does.)

At the end of the story, Marduk creates humanity out of the blood of Tiamat and humanity being made slaves to Marduk and his buddies, a convenient end for Babylonian kings who were made to be viewed as gods.

Notice the similarities:

  • Both stories establish order out of chaos.
  • Both separate “the waters above from the waters below.”
  • Both start with darkness before the creation.
  • Both involve wind blowing on deep water.
  • Light exists in both before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars.
  • The sequence of creation is similar, including the creation of the “firmament”, dry land, stars, sun, and humanity.
  • The creation is followed by rest.

One last thing, and the point to which I’ve been building for the last fifteen minutes. Remember how I mentioned earlier that “When in the summit” is a possible translation of the first words of Genesis?

The first words of the Enuma Elish are “When on high.”

The clever writer of Genesis c1 wants his powerless and oppressed Israelite comrades to know one specific thing.

The gods of powerful Babylon are up on high.

But Elohim, the God of lowly Israel, is higher.

!!!!!

I love it.

Next, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic is long, but the relevant part of it begins with a god who tells a certain Utnapishtim (1) that the other gods are going to wipe out the world with a flood and (2) to build a boat. Utnapishtim builds a boat and brings animals on the boat. He even sends out a bird to see if the water has receded.

Even traditionalists can admit that this at least resembles the story of Noah, but there’s more.

Utnapishtim is granted the gift of immortality. Later in the story, Gilgamesh wants to revive his friend, Ankidu. After some cajoling, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that there is a plant on the bottom of the sea that will grant Ankidu immortality. Gilgamesh dives to the bottom of the sea and actually gets the plant. When Gilgamesh reaches the surface, he is tired from the dive and takes a nap.

Guess what comes and takes the plant away during his sleep.

Seriously, guess.

Yeah.

A serpent.

Ever hear about a serpent that separated humans from an immortality-granting plant?

Haha, I sure do.

In light of the internal elements of the Old Testament that point to it being written after the exile, as well as the literary works the Israelites would have been exposed to during the exile, I’ve become convinced that the Old Testament wasn’t written to tell history. At least not the way we tell history.

It’s much more interesting than that.

So Why Was Genesis Written?

I have taken great pains to show you how Genesis borrowed so heavily from Babylonian literature, and you have taken even greater pains to read it. What I’m going to do next is tell you what I think it means.

The Old Testament was put together after the Babylonian exile, a time when the people of Israel were recovering from a national crisis. The Israelites—whose core understanding of God was tied to their land—were asking themselves “If God allowed us to be exiled from our land, is God still with us today?” Ralph the assembler of the Old Testament was a priest who wanted the people of Israel to know that God was still with them. However, God would keep them in their land only if they maintained zeal in worshiping him according to the priestly code we read in Leviticus and not just in any old way.

(Today, we sometimes use what is said about the Old Law to strain the New Testament for every discernible instruction on worship we can find, lest we be consumed for offering a “strange fire.”)

Adam is a mythological character who symbolizes the Israelites. The Garden of Eden is the temple in Jerusalem where Heaven and Earth come together. Adam is exiled from the land that God gave him, just as the Babylonians exiled the Israelites from their land. And Adam is exiled from the garden because of his desire for earthly power, just as the priests argued that Israel was so exiled from their land.

Importantly, while our Ralph borrowed from Babylonian literature to make his argument, he also carefully distinguished Elohim from the gods of the stories from which he borrowed.

  • The sun, moon, and stars are depersonalized;
  • Light exists before the sun appears (an insult to their often-hostile neighbors to the south, the Egyptians, who worshipped Ra);
  • Chaos is depersonalized;
  • Creation was effortless;
  • There’s no divine conflict;
  • If Marduk was “on high”, Elohim apparently is in the “summit”, the highest place; and
  • Elohim doesn’t make humans his slaves.

In other words, the God of Genesis is bigger, better, higher, and more compassionate than the god of Israel’s neighbors. If there’s a literal truth in Genesis, that’s it!

In subsequent posts, I’m going to show other ways the Bible does this. Really, if you want to be a person who goes “back to the Bible”, you need to go back to the Bible’s writers and their conventions for telling their national stories. They aren’t ours.

I sometimes get called a “liberal” for how I read the Bible. But ask yourself: what’s more liberal? To interpret the Bible using our modern standards of telling history or to interpret the Bible using their standards?

This brings me back to my original story.

We often hear the ancient Hebrews the same way I heard my friend on that four wheeler years ago in El Paso. Sometimes they tell us to duck, and we go about the barren, lifeless West Texas desert in search of a duck.

Next Week

This week’s installment argued that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Bible. This bothers some of you because you’ve read the New Testament and know that Jesus called those books the “book of Moses.” You’ll understand better what Jesus is doing very soon and why it doesn’t bother me.

Next week we’ll build on this discussion and talk about the Dead Sea Scrolls. See you then!

Part 1 Part 3

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