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Joseph Lam
 on April 21, 2010

Biblical Creation in its Ancient Near Eastern Context: An Introduction

Genesis 1 represents an Israelite "retelling" of the creation story in the face of the sea of alternate stories that existed in the ancient world.

beautiful mountain peak above the clouds with sun shinning on it

It has been my experience that many Christians have not given sufficient thought to how the Old Testament was composed––that is, to the “human” side of the inspiration of Scripture. While the New Testament, for the most part, provides us with models of authorship that are familiar to us (e.g., one particular person writing a letter to another person or group), the Old Testament picture is inherently more complex; books like Psalms and 1-2 Kings, both of which seem to self-consciously reflect longer processes of composition, furnish relatively uncontroversial examples of this.

Incidentally, much of Old Testament scholarship in the past century has concerned itself with exactly such questions of composition and authorship, though (unfortunately) not always coming out of perspectives that desired to hold on to the divinely-inspired truth of Scripture.

As a Christian and a biblical scholar, I care both about Scripture as truth and about the ongoing scholarly conversation regarding the composition of the Hebrew Scriptures. And so, when I was asked recently to speak on the story of creation in Genesis 1, I welcomed the opportunity to give my thoughts on the interaction between this text and its ancient Near Eastern context. However, it occurred to me that such a task would involve not merely presenting the apparent biblical and extra-biblical parallels, but also providing a way for my audience to understand them in their proper context. In particular, I wanted to articulate a broader framework of biblical composition that takes into account contemporary developments in the historical-critical study of the Bible, while remaining compatible with a Christian view of inspiration.

My recent essay is the result of my reflection upon these issues. My argument in brief is this: that Genesis 1 represents an Israelite “retelling” of the creation story in the face of the sea of alternate stories of origins that existed in the ancient world. This is not to assert that Genesis 1 was simply “made up” (though the exact processes by which God guided the human authors of Scripture necessarily involve some element of mystery); nor do I want to imply that the story is false in terms of its truth claims (properly discerned). Rather, my point is that the writer of Genesis 1, far from being just passively “influenced” by other ancient Near Eastern literatures (as is often assumed in biblical scholarship), was consciously aware of the motifs found in these alternate accounts of origins, and made deliberate use of them in crafting the biblical creation story. The biblical writer was essentially saying: “You have heard that the world came into existence some other way… but I’m telling you instead that it happened this way.”

In particular, I note three points of deliberate contrast that Genesis 1 makes with respect to other ancient creation stories (especially Babylonian ones). First, the God of Israel is the supreme Creator, and performed the act of creation without having to contend with other inimical forces. Second, creation is intrinsically good, not dualistic or chaotic. Both of these first two points are quite distinctive from an ancient Near Eastern point of view.

The third point of contrast has to do with the portrayal of the heavens and the earth as God’s temple-abode in the Genesis account, and how (by implication) human beings function as God’s image within that temple. If Genesis 1 indeed presents creation as God’s temple, as recognized by many scholars (most recently and notably, John Walton), then it seems to me that the phrase “image of God” (Gen 1:27) begs to be understood within the symbolic world of ancient temples – namely, as analogous to the physical idol in the sanctuary. The second commandment bars the use of physical images in worship partly because it is living, breathing human beings who are to function as God’s image in the world. In fact, it is possible to argue, on grammatical grounds, that the phrases “in our/his image”/”in the image of God” in Gen 1:26, 27 really have the sense of humans being made “in the function of” or “as” God’s image, as opposed to being made out of some sort of divine “mold.” Overall, this point is critically important for Christians who endeavor to live in a biblically-informed way: as human beings we are called to be God’s image in the world, to display God’s characteristics as an idol reflects the nature of the deity it represents.

As a final point, I see a close parallel between the task of Christian biblical scholars and the goal of BioLogos. Just as BioLogos seeks to articulate an approach to the Christian faith that makes room for honest intellectual pursuit of science, so biblical scholarship that is distinctively Christian ought to seek out an approach to the biblical text that is not only faithful to the divine authority and inspiration of Scripture, but also robust enough to engage with ideas coming out of the modern critical study of the Bible in general.

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