Book Review: Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament

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AuthorJohn D. Currid,
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Crossway (August 31, 2013)
ISBN-13: 978-1433531835
PurchaseAmazon.Com
Reviewer: John Span

Professional Egyptologist, professor or Old Testament and author of the Evangelical Press commentaries on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, John Currid sets out to examine “what precisely is the relationship of the Old Testament to ancient Near Eastern literature.” Currid’s bottom line is that the Bible uses–even subverts– the religious contexts of its neighbors to drive home the point of the uniqueness of Yahweh in relationship to His people. This is what he calls polemical theology. Currid weaves a lot of his previous material including his book Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament along with various journal articles and supplements this with a significant amount of new material. He makes reference to a lecture series he gave at the Reformed Theological Seminary in 2007 entitled “Crass Plagiarism: The Problem of the Relationship of the Old Testament to Ancient Near Eastern Literature” and they can be accessed here. Due to the pithiness of the book, the reader would be well advised to listen to these lectures first.

Crass plagiarism?

The lectures and the present book both refer to Friedrich Delitzsch’s contention that the Bible simply stole Babylonian ideas and transplanted them into Genesis and thus is guilty of “crass plagiarism.” “Not so,” says Currid, and he goes on to show the comparison and contrast of the Biblical text with other texts that would superficially seem to have parallels in word and thought. A sampling of Biblical examples he uses for his argument includes:

  • Creation ex nihilo vs Egyptian, Hittite and Ugaritic stories  (Gen 1-2);
  • The Flood as compared to other flood stories (Gen 7-9);
  • Joseph and the spurned seductress motif (Gen 37:12-36, 39:7-18)
  • The Birth of Moses and the deliverer from persecution motif  (Ex 2:1-10)
  • The Flight of Moses and the hero’s exile motif (Ex 2:11-25)
  • I Am who I Am and the co-opting of this name by the sun God Re (Ex 3)
  • God’s strong arm (Ex 3:19-20) vs. Pharaoh’s supposedly strong arm
  • “Thus says the Lord” (Ex 5:1) vs. “Thus says Pharaoh” the supposed incarnation of the gods
  • The Rod of Moses trumping the rod of Pharaoh and the magicians  (Ex 4:1-5; 7:8-13; 14:19-31)
  • The Parting of the Red Sea and its Egyptian parallels (Ex 14:19-21)
  • Canaanite parallels including Psalm 29 and its polemical nature, and that of Elijah and Yahweh’s victory over Baal by the withholding of the rain   
  • Yahweh the true heavenly rider (Isa 19:1-15; Ps 104:3) vs. Baal the impostor

Currid has assembled a wide range of data, to debunk the myth that the Biblical authors simply sanitized stories from the surrounding religions and incorporated them into the text. Rather,  under the rubric of polemics, the stories were taken to highlight the contrast of the eternally existing Living God Yahweh, with the human-created polytheist gods who were simply a projection of human imagination. Helpful comparison and contrast tables make this easy to understand.

Interaction with other scholars

Currid surveys a century and a half history of the study of Ancient Near Eastern religions, including a proliferation of archaeological finds. Naturally he leans towards his specialty, namely Egyptology. He interacts with a range of scholars and treats even those with whom he disagrees with respect. Perhaps he is too restrained in his treatment of John Walton and Peter Enns who essentially see the first part of Genesis as “culturally descriptive rather than revealed truth.”  To his credit, Currid counterbalanced those authors with that of Gerhard Hasel who minces no words:

“It appears that the Genesis cosmology represents not only a ‘complete break’ with the ancient Near Eastern mythological cosmologies but represents a parting of the spiritual ways brought about by a conscious and deliberate antimythical polemic which meant an undermining of the prevailing mythological cosmologies.”

So what?

How does one apply such a book to today? Currid stresses this in a pod cast which is found here, but in this area the book seems to fall short. In his pod cast he underscores that he wrote the book as a defence against attacks against the Bible which want to call it a myth, as well as an encroaching liberalism which seeks to undermine the authority of the Scriptures. He worries that when parishioners and scholars see superficial parallels–for instance of a Babylonian flood account–then they give equal weight to the non-Biblical account and the Biblical account.  In the pod cast he shows that the terms myth and worldview have been re-defined by some modern scholars and this is a direct result of post-modernism. He sees this akin as “nailing jelly to a wall.” Granted, he closes the book with a strong statement:

“In addition, and of utmost importance, is the truth that the biblical writers often employed polemical theology as an instrument to underscore the uniqueness of the Hebrew worldview in contrast to other ancient Near Eastern conceptions of the universe and how it operates. In this day and age, when a considerable number of scholars seek to diminish the originality and uniqueness of the Old Testament, this is no small thing.”

For instance, as one reads with interest the story of how the Egyptians co-opted the name “I AM who I AM” for the Sun god Re, and how Yahweh essentially took that name back with demonstrations of power, before and during the Red Sea crossing, one has to ask if there are modern day examples of the same. Is it possible that Islam co-opted the God of the Bible, Jesus, and the patriarchs and used them for its own purposes?

Towards a Biblical theology of other religions: Almost

Helpfully Professor Currid delineates three areas where the comparison and contrast between the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Bible are most poignant. First is the area of myth, versus the true history of Israel;  then the theology of the ANE, namely that its gods personified nature, versus Yahweh who created and upheld and directed nature at his command; and finally the view of humans, or anthropology, in which the ANE sees humans as slaves to serve the whims of the gods, compared to humans in the Biblical view who are made in the image of God. It goes without saying that this data shows that ANE religions were anything but benign, and that they constituted a powerful offensive against Biblical truth. This is demonstrated in the Egyptian example of the Heavenly Cow. Currid strongly suggests:

“If the biblical stories are true, one would be surprised not to find some references to these truths in extra-biblical literature. And indeed in ancient Near Eastern myth we do see some kernels of historical truth. However, pagan authors vulgarized or bastardized those truths— they distorted fact by dressing it up with polytheism, magic, violence, and paganism. Fact became myth. From this angle the common references would appear to support rather than deny the historicity of the biblical story.”

This leads to an obvious question: “what about the so-called “truths” found in other religions today?”

Conclusion 

This work by John Currid contains provides the reader with a wide overview of the current state of studies of ANE religions as they relate to the Bible. It also contains  powerful data to use in formulating a modern day theology of other religions and a Biblical doctrine of God. How should one examine Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam?  The book provides tantalizing clues, but the brevity of the book seems to have precluded a chapter or two which might have brought this together. This reviewer would gladly anticipate such a full-length work by such a widely read scholar as Dr. John Currid.

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About Author

John Span has worked with his family in West Africa among an unreached 'Fulani' people group for the last ten years. His mentors have challenged him to think theologically, especially in the area of missions to Muslims and he desires to inspire others to do the same. In the last year he has been a frequent contributor to the St. Francis Magazine.

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