Monday, October 15, 2012

Crack open a can of worms

I recall the first time that I sat through a presentation on the origins of the Pentateuch. As a first year university student from a conservative, evangelical upbringing, my attitude was very incredulous. After all, what do J, P, E, and D sources have to do with my Methodist faith? I did not begin considering the historical context of biblical literature until the next year with my first in-depth Bible study and an introduction to the historical critical method. I soon found that once the lid is off of the metaphorical can of theological worms, the squirmy annelids do not return to their enclosed home. In fact, the theological worms bore new holes in unexpected places, and, in a surprising twist for a former conservative evangelical, they make the theological soil even more fertile.

It is in this fertile, theological worm-infested soil that the myths that parallel the Hebrew Bible stories are scattered. The process is indeed as messy as it sounds, but the revelation that the writers of the Hebrew Bible may have borrowed from religious stories from neighboring peoples does not have the shaking effect that I experienced as a sophomore undergraduate. I already was familiar with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, but I must admit that I was surprised by the sheer number of myths, histories, and documents from the ancient Near East that are awfully similar to my favorite Bible stories. In the face of this religious milieu, I have tried to imagine what a perpetually occupied or conquered people might do in order to keep their people’s identity alive for posterity. I hope that it would not include molding a golden calf, but I can see how a priest or elder would borrow a popular myth and spice it to their people’s taste.
Sargon of Agade, yet another dude who
needed to learn to swim at an early age

A good example of this could be the story of Sargon of Agade. Sargon was a famous king of a great city-state who as an infant was plucked from a river by a royal attendant, raised in the royal courts, and then achieved great, miraculous exploits that cast a long shadow on the descendants of the ancient city-state. It roughly parallels the narrative of Moses, one of the most important figures in the Hebrew Bible. The story also precedes the biblical narrative by well over a thousand years, which is certainly enough time for an entirely different culture to acquire and add certain details to the life narrative of a great patriarch. The familiarity of the story adds authority to the Israelites’ traditions, and the J-source writers did not have to worry about intellectual property hounds on their tail. It makes perfect sense to me that the writers of the Hebrew Bible took details from other neighboring people’s myths to create their own traditions.

However, it is not easy to remove myself from 21st century, Western ears and inhabit the space of a priest in 6th century BCE Palestine. Christian and Jews alike regard the Pentateuch as the Mosaic Law, and the Torah lays the groundwork for the ancient ethics that multiple empires later used for their own societal laws. Needless to say, the stakes are quite high. Even so, whereas religion and state are separate in Western democracies, this is simply not the case for the civilizations of antiquity. Mythologies were a way of understanding the world, including the place of civil authorities, which students even find in the “right of kings” argument as late as 17th century European monarchs.

In that way the Mosaic Law is not so unique in grounding its ethics and mandates in a covenant between a deity and ruler of the people. The beginning of the Code of Hammurabi is replete with honors from Babylonian gods that protect the empire and guarantee its prosperity. Hammurabi clearly wanted to show that his laws were not simply whims of a tyrant, though it seems likely that he could have ruled that way if he wanted. The king grounded his rule in religious imagery that is found throughout Babylonian mythology of Marduk, who is present in the Enuma Elish stories as well. The Israelites did not have a monarch until well after the establishment of the Law, but Moses did act as de facto leader of the Israelites during the Exodus. Ascending the mountain of God to receive the laws of the chosen people is not so unlike invoking the national god in unveiling a new system of imperial laws.

The individual laws of the Torah were at times also surprisingly similar, but nations today also borrow laws from constitutions that existed beforehand. For example, Hammurabi ordered that slaves be freed after three years, and the Sabbath laws of the Torah make many references to the fair treatment of slaves. Of course the Torah’s laws are to a whole different degree of justice than Hammurabi’s laws were, and considering that the priestly writers were in Hammurabi’s descendants’ empire while writing their notes, perhaps that makes sense. An oppressed people would naturally be more concerned about freedom for the captives, and they would likely have a vested interest in showing how much further their laws of justice go than the laws of their captors. Rather than lessening the power of the Mosaic Law, the context strengthens the claim that the Hebrew Bible is special in a way that other codes contemporary with it were not.

This is all to say that I personally am quite comfortable with the documentary hypothesis and that the Hebrew Bible is likely a conglomeration of ancient influences, many of which came from non-Israelite cultures. The debate enters an entirely different phase if I am to facilitate the same discussion within a local congregational context. As my conservative evangelical upbringing attests, many congregations do not teach the historical critical method. Many people base their faith in texts that they confidently assure each other have divine origins, namely that of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I would not be so quick to point out that the stories about the patriarchs are very similar to patriarchs of other ancient Near East civilizations, and that is not only because I want to keep a pastoral assignment.

I recognize that it took me years to come to grips with how my favorite Bible stories had a historical, cultural, and indeed even a political context. While the goal of a full-time student is to learn many new and exciting concepts that shake up prior conceptions, parishioners are often part of faith communities for very different reasons. It is like a community garden: most people participate in the community garden for fellowship and to get fresh produce. I am not sure that most community gardeners would want to know the fine art of bonsai, and the sort of pruning that is part of bonsai is not generally healthy for a bell pepper plant. There is a time and place for such teaching, but the pastor should be careful in introducing concepts like non-traditional origins of holy scriptures.

However, I do think that teaching the story of the creation of the Hebrew Bible (and the New Testament for that matter) can be quite communally edifying. In the same way that Americans celebrate the creation of the Constitution, people who claim the Pentateuch as holy scripture should also celebrate the creation of the Torah. That it survived at all is an incredible testament to favorable circumstances that could be viewed as the very hand of Providence. The writing process is also a testament of how different religions gave rise to an amazing prophetic tradition that has an afterlife that continues today. As a pastor, I would like to celebrate the diverse origins of the Hebrew Bible instead of hide them.

Various faith traditions claim that God is still speaking in the world today, including several Christian denominations. In my own Methodist tradition, I understand that scripture is only one-quarter of the revelation of God. Just as the writers of the Hebrew Bible used their creative and rational faculties to draw from millennia of ancient Near East mythology, increasingly Christians today draw from a variety of religious traditions to understand the world around them. This is the exciting, relatively new realm of postmodern interpretation, whether post-colonial, womanist, or some other tradition. In deconstructing metanarratives about the origins of holy scriptures, I become free to engage in the same creative processes that my spiritual ancestors did thousands of years ago. It is a can of theological worms worth opening.

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