In the past 125 years or so, archaeologists have found much literature and many artifacts from ancient places and cultures such as Egypt, Assyria, Ugarit, Mesopotamia, and so on. The field of ancient Near East studies is growing every year. It’s hard to keep up!
In light of these recent findings, archaeologists and scholars have noted quite a bit of overlap between the OT and other ancient Near East literature. No matter how one interprets the overlap, it’s impossible to deny that ancient Near Eastern literature and the OT have some commonalities. While I don’t believe that the OT stories are mythical like other ancient Near Eastern literature, I do believe we need to take the overlap seriously and ask questions: “Why is there overlap? What does it mean? How does it affect our translations and interpretations? etc.”
One very helpful answer to these questions is found in John Currid’s book, Against the Gods. In it, Currid argues that quite often when the OT uses the language or wording of other ancient Near Eastern literature, it does so in a polemical way. Here’s how Currid explains:
“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” (p.25).
In the rest of the book, Currid gives quite a few examples of what this means for the interpretation of various OT passages, themes, and motifs. Here are a few stories/topics that Currid covers: the creation story, the flood story, the Joseph story, the rod of Moses, and the parting of the waters in the Exodus, etc.
While this book might not be the most exciting topic for some people to read, it isn’t too long (under 150 pages) and it’s written well enough that many readers will be able to understand it. And although I’ve heard some of these polemics before, the book was very helpful because it gave me more insight into the cultural context of these OT stories. The book also helped me grow in my interpretation and understanding of the OT stories discussed. I really appreciated it and do recommend it!
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015