Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Scripture and Cosmology IV

Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. DownersGrove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 

Part I, Part II, Part III

In chapter four, Greenwood systematically surveys every passage in the Old Testament that he views as treating the topic of creation.  This of course includes Genesis chapters 1 and 2, but also many other passages that are often overlooked in the investigation of the biblical view of creation.  Here is a list of passages that he treats: Gen 1, Gen 2, Ex 20:8-11, Neh 9:6, Job 38:2-11, Psa 8:3-8, Psa 19:1-6, Psa 74:12-17, Psa 95:1-7, Psa 104:1-17, Psa 136:1-9, Prov 8:22-36, and Isa 40:12.

After systematically exploring all of these passages, Greenwood draws the following conclusions:
First, a seven day creation week is only present in Genesis 1, although an allusion to the week is also found in Exodus 20:11.  Second, aside from Genesis 1 the order of creation is more closely related to the ancient cosmological structure than it is to the structure of a week.  Third, the various biblical creation accounts are poetic in nature, using metaphors, anthropomorphic language and other literary devices to convey concepts that would otherwise be foreign to human understanding.  Fourth, the various creation accounts conform to the notion that God is the author of all aspects of the created order.  Fifth, each of the creation accounts emphasizes God's sovereign power over the cosmos.  God is not locked in an epic battle with the forces of nature, but has subdued them and commands them to submit to their assigned purpose.  Finally, the general guiding principle for the authors of these creation accounts is the three tiered cosmological structure. God is the maker of the heavens, the earth, and the seas. 
These conclusions provide several important insights.  First, there is a decentralization of the 7 day week of creation.  Second, the poetic nature of the creation narratives is a genre marker that informs us that we should not primarily be looking for historical/factual material in these passage. Third, the ancient three tiered conception of the cosmos was the backdrop and worldview of the all of the ancient biblical passages that treat creation.


  1. Greenwood wrote that "each of the creation accounts emphasizes God's sovereign power over the cosmos. God is not locked in an epic battle with the forces of nature, but has subdued them and commands them to submit to their assigned purpose."

    But that misses the fact that many ancient Near Eastern creation tales (both Egyptian and Mesopotamian) featured not only crude polytheistic notions and conflicts, but often also featured notions of a high moral creator god who was above all the other gods, and who created via word or thought.

  2. The Israelite god creates without struggle in Genesis 1, but just as the Egyptians and Mesopotamians told different stories about creation, some with no conflict at all, there is evidence of more than one creation story in the Bible. Mark S. Smith in The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 points out that the book of Psalms includes some creation hymns that were probably composed earlier than Genesis 1 and adds that those hymns and other creation passages in the Bible may represent some of the earliest beliefs of the Israelites about creation. However, because Genesis 1 was composed with greater sweep, significance, and priestly precision, and placed at the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures, those other creation passages lost the prominence they once held.

    Some of the earliest creation passages in the Bible depict Yahweh in conflict with watery foes, not unlike Marduk’s battle with the primeval water goddess Tiamat, or Baal’s battle with the sea-god, Yam. Professor Smith has an excellent discussion of such biblical passages in a section of his book subtitled, “Creation as Divine Might.” Concerning Psalm 74:12–17, for example, he says that it “makes the divine conflict over the cosmic enemies of the water the basis for the establishment of the sun, moon, and stars as well as the boundaries of the earth”39:

    Yet God is my king from of old,
    Who works deeds of deliverance in the midst of the earth.
    You divided the sea by Your strength;
    You broke the heads of the sea monsters in the waters.
    You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
    You gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
    You broke open springs and torrents;
    You dried up ever-flowing streams.
    Yours is the day, Yours also is the night;
    You have prepared the light and the sun.
    You have established all the boundaries of the earth;
    You have made summer and winter.

    Smith adds that other texts, “such as Psalm 89:11–13, Job 26:7–13, and 38:1–11 [also] refer to a divine conflict at the beginning of creation.”

    Though the Lord’s defeat of cosmic foes was sometimes applied metaphorically to the Hebrew defeat of the Egyptians (as in the book of Exodus story about Yahweh splitting the waters of the sea in half and then closing them to smash the Egyptians), the names of the sea monsters defeated by Yahweh in Psalm 74 are found in texts from ancient Ugarit where they are identified as foes whom Baal defeated. Mythical tales of Baal’s conquests of sea gods and monsters also parallel those of Marduk, who conquered Tiamat (an ocean goddess and monster), subduing her with his mighty wind and then piercing her. Compare such tales with the image in Job 26:12–13 (from the Jewish Publication Society Hebrew Bible or Tanakh): “By His power He stilled the sea; By His skill He struck down Rahab. By His wind the heavens were calmed; His hand pierced the Elusive Serpent.”

    Smith goes on to explain the evolving nature of the creation story in the Bible:

    Genesis 1 built on and supplanted other Israelite versions of creation that understood the primordial universe as a field of battle between two divine wills. It envisions instead a royal-priestly power beyond all powers, enthroned over the world understood as a holy place similar to a sanctuary. . . . The royal politics of creation expressed in texts such as Enuma Elish and Psalm 74 were replaced partially in Genesis 1 with a priestly order imbued with the proper religious life of the Sabbath [“rest on the seventh day”], and festivals of the priestly calendar [the “appointed times” of Gen. 1:14].

  3. Some Christian scholars are invoking or emphasizing false dichotomies when comparing ancient Near Eastern high moral henotheistic gods (like Marduk) and Israel’s high moral god. A high moral henotheistic god who were ruled over all the other gods, was a common ancient Near Eastern trope. Marduk was such a god for the Babylonians. And just like the Israelite high god, the Babylonian high god Marduk created the heavens and the earth and did not need mankind to do his work for him. It was not seriously imagined that Marduk would simply starve to death if humans didn’t perform sacrifices to him.

    Also, in the case of ancient Near Eastern gods like Marduk and Yahweh we see that animal sacrifices, prayers, praises, priesthoods and temples were de rigeur, in a sense they were demanded if one was to worship a high moral god, a henotheistic, monolatrous or monotheistic god. And the Israelite versions of such things were far from being the earliest.

    In fact when the Babylonians were overrun by the Assyrians, the Babylonians didn’t imagine their high god Marduk was dead, but that Marduk sent the invasion and was punishing them for their lack of fidelity to Marduk, which is much like the Israelite view of God. Compare these lines from Babylonian Wisdom Literature:

    “[The citizens of Babylon] had oppressed the weak, and handed the weak into the power of the strong. Inside the city there was tyranny, receiving of bribes, people plundering each other’s things, sons cursing fathers in the street, slaves cursing masters, they put an end to offerings [to the gods], they laid hands on the property of the temple of the gods, and sold silver, gold and precious stones… Marduk [the high god of Babylon] grew angry and devised evil to overwhelm the land and destroy the peoples,” cf. W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 5.

    In fact, the idea that a divine being gave the king of Babylon his laws for the nation preceded the Israelite idea that a divine being gave the Israelites their laws.

    Even the idea that a divine being dictated how it wanted its temple to be built preceded the Israelite idea that Moses was given the layout of the tabernacle and David or Solomon the layout of the Temple by Yahweh. These were common tropes.

  4. Yahweh does not appear as unique as was thought prior to the discovery and translation of many ancient Near Eastern languages, inscriptions and tablets, starting in the mid-1800s. In all such cases the god(s) were perched on a celestial balcony, so to speak, gazing at the drama below, handing out blessings and curses to individuals and nations alike; at least that’s what the people believed who built the temples, founded the priesthoods, invented holy rituals, and performed burnt offerings (so the smoke would ascend to heaven as a “soothing aroma”—see Genesis 8:21; Exodus 29:18, 25; Leviticus 3:16, 6:21 and Numbers 15:3, 10). Moreover, the Israelites shared with their neighbors the eastward orientation of their tabernacle and temple, the placement of important cultic objects within them, the designation of areas of increasing holiness, rules for access to the Holy Place and Holy of Holies, as well as practices like circumcision and sacrificial offerings.58 Like other nations, they feared the anger of their god and subsequent punishment if attention was denied him. The duty of kings and priests was to ensure such attention was maintained, for the safety and security of the nation.

    On sacrifices as food... see Gary A. Anderson, Sacrifices and Offerings in Ancient Israel (Harvard Semitic Museum, Harvard Semitic Monographs, Number 41, 1987). Excerpts from pgs. 14 & 15 below:

    “Countless texts from every period describe YHWH’s sacrifices as food. The altar itself is called the sulhan YHWH, ‘the table of YHWH.’ The sacrifices can be called lehem YHWH, ‘YHWH’s food.’ The aroma of the burnt offerings is said to be reah nihoah le- YHWH, ‘a sweet savor to YHWH.’ A common offering type consists of bread, oil and wine (Num 15.1-12; Ex 29.40), the common elements of a meal in the biblical period. Bread and wine are described as elements which gladden the hearts of gods and people (Jg 9/9,13; Hos 9/14). We should also mention the visits of divine messengers who regularly partake of sacrificial meals. And… these terms are freely introduced into all genres of Israel’s literature in almost all periods. [See footnotes 57-59 in Anderson’s work for further references]

    “The apologetic tendency on the part of modern biblical scholars has made several aspects of biblical religion difficult to appreciate. One prominent example is the restoration programs of Haggai and Zechariah. If one assumes that the distinctive aspect of Israelite cultic life is its intent to eschew all vestiges of Canaanite fertility practice, then what does one do with a theological program which quite consciously and explicitly identifies Temple building with renewed vigor of the land? This restoration program has been somewhat of an embarrassment for biblical scholar who use Canaanite materials for apologetic reasons.”

    You may want to consider read my four posts on monotheism, monolatry, henotheism in the ancient world:

  5. Edward, thanks for your comments. I look forward to reading some of your writings.