Review of Debra Scoggins Ballentine, The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition (2015)

destruction_of_leviathan

 

I wanted to make a note of a recent publication that deserves more attention, The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition, by Debra Scoggins Ballentine, which is a revision of her dissertation from Brown University. The book presents a comprehensive review and functional analysis of the mythological motif of combat with the Sea/Dragon in West Asia, spanning a period of almost three millennia. She sums up the basic thrust of her argument at the beginning of the first chapter:

This study explores how the theme of divine combat was meaningful for particular authors in particular contexts, that is, how it was useful for saying things about, responding to, portraying, and shaping socio-political realities. The conflict topos was employed in part for ideological purposes in various historical situations, as the following chapters demonstrate through analysis of both whole narrative articulations of the conflict topos and examples of the conflict motif used outside of a narrative context. Ancient West Asian stories of divine combat generate a narrative hierarchical relationship among their characters, and the taxonomy of those mythical characters was consciously projected onto historical persons and polities for ideological purposes. Those aligned with the victorious deity are validated and endorsed by association with that deity. Those aligned with the sea or dragons are, the authors hope, destined for defeat, invalidated, and delegitimized.

The analysis is thorough, theoretically sophisticated, and very well done. For anyone interested in exploring more deeply a theme of crucial generative significance for a variety of narratives in both the Old and New Testaments, The Conflict Myth is a must read. Ballentine not only illuminates the flexibility, variation, and consistency of the conflict motif over a wide geographical and temporal frame, but she powerfully demonstrates how the study of the ideological function of myth can enrich our understanding of familiar stories from the Bible.

Perhaps most provocative is her conclusion that the various enemies featured in the conflict myth are not “agents of chaos” but should rather be understood as “agents of an alternative divine power structure.” Accordingly, she pleads that scholars avoid using “chaos” or “Chaoskampf” with reference to the conflict theme. On the one hand, I think that Ballentine is absolutely right that “chaos” as a descriptive label has been overused and abused, that all the enemies defeated by warriors gods should not be simply homogenized together or decontextualized and in some cases their ontology and status is portrayed as not substantially different from other deities. Yet to my mind to characterize the theme of divine combat with the Sea as merely conflict between competing power structures also hardly does justice to its mythological resonances. One needs to differentiate between specific creative articulations of the motif as attested in specific literary sources (Yam in the Baal Cycle, Tiamat in Enuma Elish) and its more basic underlying mythological structure and conceptual background, which originally seems to have been closely tied to cosmogonic creation and some sort of conflict with primordial “chaos.” In the eastern Mediterranean where the myth appears to have developed the basic idea was that a god had defeated a primordial Sea monster at the beginning of time and established his mountain throne 0n top of it, in the process creating a well-ordered cosmos, with sea, dry earth, mountains, fresh water, and sky. The myth is reflected in numerous biblical and extra-biblical texts and also makes sense within the local topography of the region (Batto 2013; Kottsieper 2013; Ayali-Darshan 2014).

That this primordial Sea monster can accurately be associated with a concept of “chaos” or “Chaoskampf” is supported by various considerations: 1) this Sea monster is primordial or pre-creation and is the stuff upon which the cosmos are established; 2) it is portrayed as monstrous in form, suggesting it is unlike other more benevolent anthropomorphic deities; 3) it is associated with the watery deep and sea, which are inherently chaotic and dangerous; and 4) it is located at the periphery of the cosmos from the perspective of humans and thus occupies a pole opposite from the ordered center (Smith 2001: 27-33).

I would therefore argue that the terminology of “chaos” and “Chaoskampf” is still useful as a description for some versions of the West Asian conflict topos, and even in those cases where the enemy of the warrior god is not identifiable or coterminous with chaos per se, such as with Yam at Ugarit in the Baal Cycle, resonances of the chaoskampf theme nevertheless lie in the background and inform how ancient readers would have inevitably approached the narrative, e.g. when El sides with Yam and calls him his “beloved” for kingship, it only makes El look thoughtless and foolhardy, since the Sea was formidable and dangerous and could not be a worse choice for rulership over the gods on mount Zaphon.

 

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Ayali-Darshan, N. 2014. The Question of the Order of Job 26,7-13 and the Cosmogonic Tradition of Zaphon. Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 126: 402-417.

Batto, B. 2013. The Combat Myth in Israelite Myth Revisited. Pp. 217-236 in Creation and Chaos: A Reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf Hypothesis, ed. J. Scurlock and R. H. Beal. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Kottsieper, I. 2013. El. Das wissenschaftliche Bibellexikon im Internet. https://www.bibelwissenschaft.de/de/stichwort/17172/. Accessed 9/25/16.

Smith, M. 2001. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. New York: Oxford University.

 

אל קנה ארץ: Creator, Begetter, or Owner of the Earth?

 

I have a new article up on the meaning of the verb qny in the divine epithet qny ʾrṣ, variously translated “Creator,” “Begetter,” or “Owner of the earth.” I argue that the verb never means “to create” in West Semitic and that all attested usages can be explained on the assumption that they derive from a single root with the basic meaning “to acquire, come into possession.” The correct translation of Hebrew qnh šmym wʾrṣ in Gen 14: 19, 22 is “Owner of heaven and earth.”

Review of Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity, ed. Ingrid Hjelm and Thomas L. Thompson

In recent decades historical study of the Hebrew Bible has experienced a number of interpretive shifts as a result of developments in the broader social, intellectual, and academic environment, which has led many scholars to view the narratives of the Bible as more literary construction than authentic sources for the history of Israel-Judah. At the forefront of this movement has been a collection of scholars loosely associated with Copenhagen and Sheffield, often decried as biblical minimalists, who have pioneered new perspectives on the relationship between the Bible, history, and myth and provoked greater methodological introspection and rigor in the field as a whole.

The present volume Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity (Routlege 2016) represents the latest contribution by some of the key figures in this discussion, which gathers papers on a variety of topics that attempt to address the question of the nature of the biblical literature, as well as a valuable introduction that offers a brief overview of the minimalist-maximalist debate and a concluding theological homily about the relevance of this scholarship to religious lay people.

For this review I will summarize the main argument of each paper and then offer a brief assessment:

1. With his typical eloquence, P. R. Davies offers a postmortem on the old biblical archaeology (e.g. Albright et al) and outlines some general principles on a historical approach to the Bible that integrates insights from archaeology, anthropology, and critical exegesis along with some individual case studies. His central point is that archaeological research without critical literary-historical analysis of the Bible is flawed from the start.

Davies’ contribution is a must-read, if nothing else for his broad historical perspective and penetrating criticism about how biblical scholarship got to where it is today.

2. Building on recent scholarly trends, F. Poulsen deconstructs the traditional interpretation of the exodus from Babylon as the central theme of Isa. 40-55 and highlights the metaphorical and figurative nature of the language, as exemplified in Isa 49:8-12.

The article is well argued. While understanding prophetic literature as having originated in a metaphorical framework presents challenges for interpretation, because the language cannot be correlated straightforwardly to a certain historical context, attention to metaphor opens the way to a reappraisal of the meaning and intention of this literature.

3. T. Hasselbalch offers a new approach to the problem of composite traditions by paying close attention to how constituent parts of a text function on a symbolic and social level, with a case study of 4QMMT. She draws an important distinction between representational and non-representational meanings reflected in a text, that there is often an audience within an audience, and that the particular shape of a text often serves to reinforce ideological positions and sustain cultural identity and memory.

This study has important implications for the study of various biblical traditions, but unfortunately her contribution does not go beyond a treatment of 4QMMT itself.

4. N. P. Lemche revisits his earlier thesis that the Old Testament is a Hellenistic book.

Although provocative and worth reading, I didn’t find his specific arguments that the Old Testament was produced in a diasporic context and that the history of Israel was modeled on Greek literature very convincing. The claim that the Persian period is unlikely to have been the setting for the composition of much biblical literature sits somewhat in tension with Davies’ position advanced earlier in the volume.

5. In line with Lemche, P. Wajdenbaum argues that the biblical literature is dependent on classical sources such as Homer, Herodotus, and Plato.

This presentation was less than satisfactory, for Wajdenbaum adopts a rather synchronic approach to the Pentateuch, rejecting the findings of literary-historical criticism, and speaks of parallels in generalities without demonstrating dependence per se.

6. R. Gmirkin surveys Greek and Hellenistic literary genres in biblical literature without supposed ancient Near Eastern parallels in order to advocate for the Hellenistic origin of the Hebrew Bible.

Many of the parallels that Gmirkin notes are interesting and worth studying, but unfortunately his discussion of literary influence and dependence is plagued by the same methodological issues as in Wajdenbaum. If this article is any indication, Gmirkin does not seem to have paid much attention to the widespread criticism that his previous book on Berossus and Manetho received.

7. M. Müller discusses the new scholarly assessment of the Septuagint as a distinct and independent witness to the Old Testament of early Judaism.

The ideas expressed in the article are not new or unfamiliar, but the account of the history of Septuagint scholarship would nevertheless be valuable to someone interested in a short review of the subject.

8. F. Cryer argues that the community of Qumran did not know any integral canon of the Hebrew Bible that corresponded with the later MT text.

The article is dated and was first published in 1996.

9. G. L. Doudna presents an archaeologically-informed argument that Qumran Ib and II should be distinguished from one another and that the main period of Qumran was Ib when the site was closely associated with Jericho. Because the Qumran biblical texts are pre-stablization in the form of the MT and may be dated  to the end of Qumran Ib, then this implies that “the stabilization of the biblical text seems best dated late in the first century BCE or early first century CE, perhaps related to the new temple of Herod” (p. 148).

The article is among the most intriguing contributions in the volume. The reconstruction represents a real challenge to the status-quo thinking on the history of Qumran and the development of the Hebrew Bible, so it will be interesting to see how Qumran scholars respond.

10. The conclusions of J. Hogenhaven are largely in the negative: the evidence of the Qumran library yields little information about or interest in canon formation.

Again, the scholarship is not new or innovative.

11. F. A. J. Nielsen explores how missionary work and the propagation of the Bible in Greenland contributed to the creation of a unique native Christian identity.

Interesting, but of marginal relevance to the theme of the book.

12. J. West closes the volume with a sermon-like discussion that argues for the contemporary theological value and relevance of work produced by “minimalists” (T. Thompson, K. Whitelam, N. P. Lemche, P. R. Davies, and J. van Seters) for the life of the Christian church.

Although West’s presentation is idiosyncratic in some respects, one the one hand suggesting that the church should not be afraid of investigating the mythical dimension of scripture and on the other adopting a qualified position on biblical inerrancy, it is refreshing to see someone openly grappling with the theological implications of contemporary historical-critical study.

In sum, the volume Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity provides a welcome consideration of a variety of topics relating to the nature and origin of the Bible, though the quality of discussion is unfortunately very uneven and the emphasis on Greek influence and canon formation was rather confusing. I was particularly disappointed that the contributors did not devote more attention to the question, “If the Bible is not history, what is it then?” Highlights were the Introduction, Davies, Poulsen, Hasselbalch, Doudna, and West.

[Note: I received a free review copy from the publisher]