Friday, January 07, 2005

Genesis: Logos or Agon?

One of the best things that can happen in Biblical studies (or anywhere) is when a thoughtful scholar says something weird. By weird, I mean new, something that has not been tested or assimilated into business as usual and that we haven't worked with before. Sometimes this is because they have made a mistake or have a fixed idea, a cookie-cutter methodology or a goofy obsession.

But sometimes, this is because they have a new vision, seeing ancient realities that were shaped differently from the way we envisioned them before. This is when the rest of us have to scramble to decide what we think, whether to accept, reject or rethink this vision, and what the consequences would be.

Based on the books I've read (and I can never read enough in this field!), I would submit that in 2003, the book that did this best in Hebrew Bible was Michael Fishbane's Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (look around on the link for the book at a decent price), and in 2004 that book was Bill Schniedewind's How the Bible Became a Book. If you want to get a sense of the most interesting stuff that might happen in Biblical studies in the next few years you could do worse than to look at these two.

I've been thinking about both of these books lately (one of the reasons I got Bill Schniedewind to speak at my conference), but Fishbane's book in particular raises a crucial problem I want to try and solve. Fishbane's book begins with an analysis of scholarly attempts to explain away mythic imagery in the Bible and Jewish tradition. In a comprehensive and convincing polemic, Fishbane argues that these denials come from a case of denial: that they are apologetic attempts to sanitize a religion--and what's worse, in trying to save ancient Judaism from itself they miss out on much of its true religious vitality and maybe even its theological core.

A case in point, he says, is God's creation of the universe. Since the discovery of the most elaborate Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, scholars have read Genesis 1 alongside it, noting the parallels in theme and organization. But a stark contrast was pointed out: unlike Enuma Elish, which culminates in a dramatic and gory battle between the supreme god and a cosmic monster, there is no battle in Genesis 1: the universe obeys him completely. Scholars highlighted this difference, using it to show that Israel's strict monotheism had expunged (or, in Jacob Milgrom's rather mythic language, "eviscerated") myth.

But it's not that simple, writes Fishbane:

"it bears recalling that the creation account in Genesis 1 was not always the opening or foundational narrative of a 'Bible.' In fact, many other accounts and apostrophes of the creation circulated in ancient Israel, and some of them were even recited in prayers preserved in the book of Psalms. Among these, there are several examples in which a divine combat against the sea is featured..."

Among the texts Fishbane is thinking of here are the alternative creation accounts, both violent and nonviolent, of Psalms 74, 89 and 104, Job 37:14-27 and 38:2-18, and Proverbs 8.

Accordingly, the complete biblical evidence seems rather to indicate two different models of the creation. One of these we shall designate the 'logos model', since it particularly or primarily emphasizes a verbal creation...Genesis 1 is the pre-eminent example of this mythic type, with its theology of an absolutely sovereign creator who speaks and shapes dormant or unresistant matter into effective (viable) existence and order. Over against this type we may place the 'agon model', which gives dominant emphasis to acts of strife and subjugation at the beginning of the world; and particularly since it is God's victory over antagonistic creatures of the sea that marks His great sovereignty and might."

But what if you need logos to have an agon? The problem is this: given that Fishbane has seen something new, and true, in Biblical myth that is expressed in his logos/agon opposition, what does it mean that the two most famous Ancient Near Easten combat myths, Enuma Elish's Marduk v. Tiamat and the Ugaritic Baal epic's Baal v. Yam, are actually examples of both models at once? Does this fusion extend to the Bible too? If the two ideal types Fishbane proposes are, in reality, a good deal more mixed, is there any other way of seeing the common features of the diverse creation accounts?

Of course, as a humble Semitic philologist, rather than theology I'm just going to look at the grammar. My hope is, building on Fishbane's insight, to discover something neither he nor I have quite seen yet.


Göran H said...

Thanks for an interesting post! (It seems like the link to the book page for 'Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking' was wrong. )

Tim said...

I agree that it is fascinating stuff. I must now add Fishbane's book to the list for urgent reading! Though it seems to me that this is how myths work, they are not like scientific equations, they are more like literary products, linking, alluding and sidling up to the subject. So it is almost inevitable that if two such approaches exist in a culture (in cultures) any particular telling of creation will allude to both...

Sarah Roberts said...

Here is maybe one way to look at it. In the Enuma Elish, it is not the conflict itself that is the creative act but the division of the chaos-monster's body that is enabled by the conflict. The various parts of the body were fashioned into the seas, mountains, rivers, and land of the terrestial world. In the Priestly creation narrative in Genesis, the motif of conflict is absent because primeval chaos is not construed as an animate being opposing the Creator. It is already an inanimate state of primeval chaos which can then be fashioned in the physical world like the inanimate carcass of Tiamat in the Enuma Elish. God creates the heavens and the earth by dividing and fashioning the primeval deep and darkness: by temporally separating darkness into divisions of Day and Night, by spatially separating the waters to create the expanse of heaven, and by spatially separating the terrestial waters into divisions of Land and Sea. (As an aside, it is interesting that Philo of Byblos characterized primeval chaos as muddy with earth and water existing in a comingled state) There is thus a bit of an apples and oranges comparison between the Enuma Elish and Genesis stories. The former includes an overt conflict myth that explains how primeval chaos became inanimate and subdued (whereas the demythologized account in Genesis presents chaos as inanimate from the beginning), while the latter characerized the splitting and reorganization of chaos as verbal acts. The poetic allusions to the conflict myth in the OT are interesting, however, because they associate the defeat of the monster with the placing of limits on the sea -- which in the context of Genesis 1 pertains to the division of the terrestial waters into land and seas. John Day has a great book on the conflict myth and I recall he compares the similarities and differences between the Enuma Elish, the Priestly account, and the Hebrew poetic conflict allusions.

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