Chapter 2 of Against the Gods: The Polemical Writing of the Old Testament by John D. Currid
In the study of the relationship of Hebrew religion and culture with the environment of the ancient Near East, one of the most neglected areas of research is what can be termed polemical theology. We will begin by defining that term, and then we will explore a few concrete examples of it as it appears in the Old Testament. Polemical theology is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning. The biblical authors take well-known expressions and motifs from the ancient Near Eastern milieu and apply them to the person and work of Yahweh, and not to the other gods of the ancient world. Polemical theology rejects any encroachment of false gods into orthodox belief; there is an absolute intolerance of polytheism. Polemical theology is monotheistic to the very core.
The primary purpose of polemical theology is to demonstrate emphatically and graphically the distinctions between the worldview of the Hebrews and the beliefs and practices of the rest of the ancient Near East.1 It helps to show that Hebrew thought is not a mere mouthpiece of other ancient Near Eastern cultures. Even the notorious higher critic Hermann Gunkel recognized this fact when he commented, “How incomparably superior the Hebrew legend is to the Babylonian! . . . And this also we may say, that the Babylonian legend strongly impresses us by its barbaric character, whereas the Hebrew legend is far nearer and more human to us.” 2 Although I sharply disagree with Gunkel’s portrayal of Hebrew writing as legend, I affirm his statement of the unique Hebrew conception of the universe and its workings. Polemical theology is one way in which the biblical writers demonstrate that uniqueness. The purpose of polemical theology is to demonstrate the essential distinctions between Hebrew thought and ancient Near Eastern beliefs and practices.
With that definition in mind, let us examine some brief and straightforward examples of polemical theology at work in the Old Testament. The examples are divided into two categories: polemical expressions and polemical motifs. We begin with the most basic level of polemic, that is, the idiomatic parallel, and we will observe three instances of this type of polemic at work in the text.
A STRONG HAND
Some common expressions found in ancient Egyptian texts to describe the power of Pharaoh over his foes are that the monarch had “a strong hand,” or “he possessed a strong arm,” or he was “the one who destroyed his enemies with his arm.” It is polemical and ironic that the author of the book of Exodus assigns the same features to Yahweh as he humiliates and destroys Pharaoh and Egypt (Ex. 3:19–20; 6:1; 7:4; 15:6, etc.).3 James Hoffmeier comments on this parallel, asking, “what better way for the Exodus traditions to describe God’s victory over Pharaoh, and as a result his superiority, than to use Hebrew derivations or counterparts to Egyptian expressions that symbolized Egyptian royal power?” 4
In one sense, the Hebrew writers are “guilty” of borrowing expressions and concepts from the surrounding cultures. The idioms mentioned above are characteristically used of Pharaoh in Egyptian writings throughout the history of that land. Yet the biblical writers employ such borrowing for the purpose of taunting. The Hebrew authors use polemic to call into question the power of Pharaoh, and to underscore the true might of Yahweh!
An additional clear example of a parallel usage of idiomatic expression appears in Exodus 5.5 In that chapter both Yahweh and Pharaoh give mandates introduced by the idiom “Thus says . . .” (Ex. 5:1, 10). The Egyptians were well aware of the use of that expression to preface the very commands of a deity. Their own texts, such as the Book of the Dead, frequently introduced the will of the gods with the words “Thus says . . .” For example, the 175th chapter of the Book of the Dead concludes the speech of the god by saying, “Thus says Atum.” 6 The ironic use of this idiom by the biblical writer in Exodus 5 sets the stage for the ensuing confrontation between the gods of Egypt (including Pharaoh) and the God of the Hebrews. This parallel is a conscious criticism of Pharaonic sovereignty: only Yahweh is God, and only his word truly and always comes to pass.
THE HEAVENLY RIDER
Another important example of an idiomatic parallel occurs in Isaiah 19. Verses 1–15 of the chapter are an oracle by the prophet against the nation of Egypt. The opening verse draws the reader’s attention immediately because it focuses on Yahweh’s menacing arrival in Egypt:
Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud
and comes to Egypt;
and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.
The picture of Yahweh as one who rides on the clouds is not unique to Israelite culture (cf. Ps 104:3). Ugaritic literature, which dates to the fourteenth–twelfth centuries BC, uses the same epithet to describe the Canaanite storm-god Baal. It declares:
Seven years Baal will fail
Eight years the rider of the clouds, no dew, no rain.7
Given the poetic parallelism of the two lines, the attribute “rider of the clouds” is to be ascribed to the pagan god Baal.
How are we to understand the same epithet being used for two different gods, and the fact that the pagan reference appears centuries before the Hebrew citation? Some scholars argue that this is evidence that Yahweh somehow evolved from Baal, or that perhaps there is some type of syncretism at work here. In reality, it is more likely that the biblical author of Isaiah is making an implicit criticism of Baalism: Baal does not ride on the clouds; Yahweh does! Certainly that meaning would have been clear to the Israelites of the time, who were living in the land of Canaan and were quite knowledgeable of Canaanite culture.
The point of connection of these three polemical examples is comparative linguistics and particularly the parallel usages of idiomatic expressions. Many polemical parallels, however, go far beyond mere linguistic affinity. Numerous events and motifs of the Old Testament record can be seen and understood as polemics against ancient Near Eastern life and culture. At this time we will look at three examples of this larger polemical category.
THE SERPENT CONFRONTATION
Exodus 7:8–13 relates the story of Moses and Aaron changing their staff into a serpent.8 This activity by the Hebrew leaders is an attack on Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and it strikes at the very heart of Egyptian belief. In the first place, on the front of Pharaoh’s crown was an enraged female serpent/cobra called a uraeus. The Egyptians believed this serpent was energized with divine potency and sovereignty. It was considered the very emblem of Pharaoh’s power; it symbolized his deification and majesty. “When Moses had Aaron fling the rod-snake before Pharaoh, he was directly assaulting that token of Pharaonic sovereignty—the scene was one of polemical taunting. When Aaron’s rod swallowed the staffs of the Egyptian magicians, Pharaonic deity and omnipotence were being denounced and rejected outright. . . . Yahweh alone was in control of the entire episode.” 9
Second, the casting down of the rod was a challenge to the power of Egyptian magic as described in many of Egypt’s mythological texts. Egyptian documents are loaded with examples of priests and magicians performing extraordinary feats, including changing inanimate objects into animals. The Westcar Papyrus, for example, tells the story of a lector-priest who makes a wax crocodile come to life by throwing it into a lake.10 Later, he bends down, picks up the crocodile, and it becomes wax again. In the narration of the historical incident of Exodus 7, the biblical author is perhaps subtly pointing to the fictional character of Egyptian mythological texts. Moses and Aaron truly performed what Egyptian myths merely imagined. Myth became fact.
Finally, the textual evidence from Egypt demonstrates that the Egyptians had great pride in their power to manipulate venomous creatures. The two Hebrew leaders thus humiliated and defeated the magicians in something that traditionally rendered glory to the Egyptians. As Hengstenberg remarks, “Moses was furnished with power to perform that which the Egyptian magicians most especially gloried in and by which they most of all supported their authority.” 11
When the great Hebrew prophet Elijah makes his first appearance in Scripture, he is pictured confronting Ahab, the king of Israel. The prophet pronounces a curse upon Israel in the name of Yahweh, that “there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1). Drought is the promised punishment for a covenant-breaking Israel (Deut. 11:16–17). Israel, under the leadership of Ahab and Jezebel, has become Baal-saturated. Baal worship predominates throughout the land. Paganism reigns in these dark times. Thus, the Lord brings judgment on the entire nation for its apostasy.
It is critical to note that the form of punishment is lack of rain. This is purposeful and a directed curse: Israel has been worshiping Baal, who is the Canaanite god of storms and rain. The reality is that Baal does not control those elements of nature; only Yahweh does. Elijah demonstrates that truth when he says that rain will not return unless it comes by his word. It will not appear by the word of the priests of Baal, nor by the word of Ahab, nor by the word of Jezebel—only by the word of the prophet of Yahweh. Yahweh alone directs the weather, by his sovereign hand.
THE THUNDERING DEITY
One of the great pictures in the Old Testament demonstrating Yahweh’s presence with his people is his thundering forth from the clouds and causing the earth to tremble at his appearance. For example, Yahweh appears in this way at the critical event of the revelation at Mount Sinai.12 We read,
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. . . . Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. (Ex. 19:16, 18)
Ugaritic literature employs similar imagery for the theophany or appearance of the Canaanite storm-god Baal. For instance, one text says,
Then Baal opened a slit in the clouds,
Baal sounded his holy voice,
Baal thundered from his lips . . .
The earth’s high places shook.13
A common scholarly interpretation of this parallel is that it proves syncretism. Michael Coogan, for example, says that “the character of the god of Israel is thus a composite; while Yahweh is primarily an El figure, many of the images and formulae that distinguish him from El are adopted from the theology of Baal.” 14 Such a parallel, however, hardly proves dependence or borrowing. It could just as easily be coincidental or, as is more likely, a purposeful polemic of the biblical author against pagan Canaanite belief. In other words, it is not Baal but Yahweh who thunders from the top of the mountain and causes the earth to quake. Indeed,
The mountains quaked before the LORD,
even Sinai before the LORD, the God of Israel. (Judg. 5:5)
Some scholars downplay the role of polemical theology as an important factor in the proper interpretation of the Old Testament.15 To the contrary, I would argue that many of the parallels between ancient Near Eastern literature and the Old Testament, from creation accounts to flood stories, may be properly and fully understood only through the right use of polemical theology. In this regard, I would wholeheartedly agree with Bruce Waltke when he says that the biblical authors “refuted the pagan myths by identifying the holy Lord as the true Creator and Ruler of the cosmos and of history.” 16 The biblical writers often use polemical theology to counter ancient pagan myths that are noxious to the Hebrew faith centered on monotheism. The purpose of this book is to demonstrate to the reader the value of a right understanding of polemical theology to a good and proper interpretation of the Old Testament.
One important caveat for us to realize is that polemical theology is only one lens through which to view the relationship between the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern literature. So, for example, there is no question that the Hebrews and the Egyptians borrowed many things from each other that did not have a polemical angle. “One needs only consider the interrelationship of the Hebrew and Egyptian languages and vocabularies.” 17 In addition, numerous cultural and religious practices were similar as well. Thus, for instance, the taxation systems of Solomon and of the Egyptian monarch Shoshenk I were quite similar because there certainly was an institutional connection between the two. What is not clear is who influenced the other, although I lean to the position of Alberto Green, who argues that Shoshenk I modeled his levy system after that of Solomon.18 In any event, there are many ways to examine and study the relationship between the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern texts. Polemical theology, in my estimation, is one of the more important ones. It helps to highlight the distinctiveness and uniqueness of the Hebrew worldview over against the dominant setting of the rest of the ancient Near East.
1 See the discussion in John D. Currid, “The Hebrew World-and-Life View,” in Revolutions in WorldView, ed. W. A. Hoffecker (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2007), 37–70.
2 Quoted in Friedrich Delitzsch, Babel and Bible (Chicago: Open Court, 1903), 136.
3 For an in-depth study of this parallel, see David R. Seely, “The Image of the Hand of God in the Exodus Traditions,” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1990).
4 James K. Hoffmeier, “The Arm of God versus the Arm of Pharaoh in the Exodus Narratives,” Biblica 67 (1986): 387.
5 See the full development of this idea in John D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), 83.
6 See “The Primeval Establishment of Order,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard, 3rd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 9–10.
7 Translated by the author from I Aqht 42–44.
8 For an extended discussion of this passage, see John D. Currid, “The Egyptian Setting of the ‘Serpent Confrontation’ in Exodus 7:8–13,” Biblische Zeitschrift 39 (1995): 203–224.
9 Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament, 94.
10 Adolf Erman, The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians (New York: Dutton, 1927), xxix, lxviii–lxix; William K. Simpson, The Literature of Ancient Egypt (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973), 15–30.
11 Ernst W. Hengstenberg, Egypt and the Book of Moses (Edinburgh: Thomas Clark, 1845), 98.
12 1 Kings 19:11–12 is another powerful example of God appearing in this way.
13 Quoted in Michael D. Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 21.
14 Ibid., 20.
15 See, for example, C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 137–160, in which he argues that Genesis is a “very gentle” polemic against alternate ancient Near Eastern worldview stories.
16 Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 200.
17 Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament, 26. For a good overview of many of these linguistic contacts, see Thomas O. Lambdin, “Egyptian Loan Words in the Old Testament,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 73 (1953): 145–155; R. J. Williams, “Egypt and Israel,” in The Legacy of Egypt, ed. John R. Harris, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 257–290; and idem, “Some Egyptianisms in the Old Testament,” in Studies in Honor of John A. Wilson, Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 35 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 93–98.
18 Alberto R. Green, “Israelite Influence at Shishak’s Court,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 233 (1979): 59–62.
Chapter 2 of Against the Gods: The Polemical Writing of the Old Testament by John D. Currid (Posted with Permission)