Against The Gods (Book Review)
I had the chance to read this for my Old Testament class as I’m working toward my Masters, so I thought I’d share my review here.
The courthouse of scholarship puts the Bible under examination. This examination explores the relationship between the Old Testament writings and its influence from ancient Near Eastern neighbors. The prosecution brings questions like: Did biblical authors plagiarize from surrounding cultures? Is the Bible guilty of “crass plagiarism”?
John D. Currid, Ph.D, professor of Old Testament at RTS, addresses these questions in his book Against the Gods: the Polemical Theology of the Old Testament. The main idea of his book is to explore the relationship between the literature of the ancient Near East with the Old Testament writings and to argue that Scripture is not in danger of plagiarism. Furthermore he argues that the Old Testament is not just another expression of “ancient Near East literature that is grounded in myth, legend, and folklore” (9). Currid offers a rebuttal in the form of polemical theology. In this theology, the “biblical writers use thought form and common stories in the Near Eastern culture, but they have a radically different meaning” (25). Polemical theology rejects all false gods and testifies for a monotheistic orthodoxy.
In each chapter, Currid helped me better understand the Old Testament as he develops his main idea. I appreciated that Currid was mildly technical as he built a case for polemical theology, but his book was not overly burdensome. Chapter 1 states a brief history of ancient Near Eastern studies. Currid brings out tablets, excavations, and language translations as evidence from regions such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. Currid labors to reconstruct history in order for readers to see the similarities as well as the foundational differences.
Chapter 2 brings the nature of polemical thought and writing to the witness stand. In his use of polemical expressions and polemical motifs, Currid “highlights the distinctiveness and uniqueness of the Hebrew worldview over against the dominant setting of the rest of the ancient Near East” (32).
Currid focuses on narratives in chapters 3-7. Currid questions the relationship between Genesis 1 and other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts in chapter 3. His main question is whether or not the Hebrew creation account provides distinct thought at its very core (35).
I appreciated that Currid showed how the Bible differs from ancient Near Eastern accounts in three ways. First, the nature of the creator is different. The Hebrews have one God versus the polytheism of the ancient Near East (40). Second, “The purpose of humanity’s creation is distinct” (42). Men were not made to labor for the gods as in the Mesopotamian myths. Third, the biblical writers have no interest in theogony. The Hebrews believed that “the universe is God’s creation, but it is not God” (40). God created the entire universe ex nihilo, thus arguing for Yahweh’s omnipotence, sovereignty, and in-comparability (43).
In chapter 4 the Noahic Deluge in Genesis 6-9 is brought in as an appeal in order to consider differing worldviews. Noah’s flood story is compared to the Sumerian Flood Story, The Epic of Atrahasis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Atrahasis at Ugarit, Berossos, and a flood account in Egypt. Many similarities exist, but “the differences that exist are not merely details of the text; they are a the deeper level of worldview, theology, and belief” (57).
Chapter 5 offers a defense for polemical theology by exploring the story of Joseph, the tale of the two brothers, and the “spurned seductress” motif. While the “spurned seductress” is a recurring theme in the ancient Near Eastern literature, the analysis shows that the biblical narrative is not presented as “folklore or as mythic” (73). The biblical genre is historical narrative, thus serving as a polemic against the ancient Near Eastern folk tales (73).
Chapter 6 explores “the birth of the deliverer.” Similarities exist between: Moses’ birth story, and The Birth of Horus narrative, but I appreciate how Currid notes that the biblical text differs because it “does not take place in the mythic or legendary sphere” (85). God really delivers people from great peril. “Myth becomes fact” (85).
Chapter 7 presents the flights of Sinuhe and Moses. The two stories share a plot line, but again the endings differ and offer great insights for the church today. For example, Currid notes that while Sinuhe is a true son of Egypt, Moses is not. “By use of a polemical ending, the author taunts Egypt and her nationalistic fervor: Moses didn’t crave Egypt or the kingly deity; he longs only to serve Yahweh” (95).
Chapter 8 shows a contest over the divine epithet “I Am that I Am.” Both Exodus 3 and the Egyptian Book of the Heavenly Cow seek to answer the question: who is “I Am that I Am”? And where the Egyptians attempt to mock the Hebrew God, the biblical author shows that “that name truly belongs to the God of the Hebrews. He uniquely is the eternal, sovereign God of the universe!” (108).
Chapter 9 opened up new Old Testament understanding for me because it addresses the symbol of authority, power, and sovereignty—the staff or rod of Moses. The whole episode in Exodus is a matter of theology. “It was a question of who was the one true God.” (118). I did not know that in Egypt the staff was associated with the Cult of Osiris and was seen as “imbued with magic or the power of the gods” (116). The irony is that the Hebrew leaders possessed a rod and used it to humiliate and defeat the Egyptians (117). Currid notes that the “real power of the universe was not in the staff but in the god. Yahweh was victorious, not because of the type of rod that was used, but by his great power and sovereignty” (119).
Chapter 10 investigates the parting of the waters. The splitting of the Red Sea is placed against The Third Tale. The similarities are clear: two “spiritual leaders divide a deep body of water through supernatural means” (125). The Egyptian story is not historical literature, whereas the Hebrew story is historical fact. Even the language used in the Exodus account is a polemical play against Pharaoh’s power as Yahweh is shown to be greater (129). Again this chapter brought new insights about the OT.
In chapter 11 I found myself in the jury box. What would the verdict be? The final bit of evidence presented was concerning Canaanite motifs. The head of the Canaanite pantheon, “El” is paralleled with Yahweh, but the biblical text ends up being a polemic against the Baal and Canaanite religion. Baal is not the one who thunders; “the God of glory thunders” (Ps. 29:3). The point is to exalt Yahweh and to ascribe glory only to his name.
The new insights I found in this book build a strong case for Yahweh’s sovereignty. I believe Against the Gods will aid my future ministry. Not only will polemic theology help in explaining the OT, God’s oneness and sovereignty will help in teaching opportunities where so many people are looking to “other things” to be their god. As a critique, I wish the author had clarified whether the Hebrew writers consciously penned their narratives as a polemic against other religions. I was left questioning whether that was intentional or just a secondary aspect. I also wish Currid would have arranged his material to emphasize the differences of views more clearly. Additionally, Currid could have been more explicit in stating that the Old Testament is not primarily a product of the surrounding ANE cultures. Currid also could have highlighted God’s character that transcends culture more. Overall Currid’s book was great a great resource for investigating this subject.