Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament

John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament. Carol Stream, IL, Crossway, 2013. Currid is the Carl McMurray Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC.

I'd like to thank Crossway for this complementary copy for review.

Currid begins his book by saying that the book is not an attempt to be an exhaustive look at the relationship between the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern literature. His purpose is merely to give an introduction to the topic to laymen and to emphasize what he considers to be occasionally deemphasized by some scholars, namely, the polemical aspect of the Old Testament's use of ANE ideas found within that culture's literature.

As an introduction for layman, the book will be nothing new to scholars, unless those scholars are so unfamiliar with the literature of the ANE that they still believe the older views of borrowing that was prevalent during the pan-Babylonian phase of Old Testament studies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Currid mainly works his way through the Pentateuchal traditions (i.e., creation, the deluge, the story of Joseph, and the story of Moses) and argues that much of what has been considered as borrowed is often commandeered for polemical purposes. He does not reject nor deny that there is quite a bit of assimilation of ancient Near Eastern ideas within the biblical text, but merely wishes to point out that the Bible's polemical use of other concepts makes it unique.

He identifies the main uniqueness of the Bible in terms of its monotheism and the intended historicity of its accounts, although there are many other issues where the Bible presents itself as unique (e.g., the presentation of mankind as made to rule creation as a king rather than a slaves to serve the gods food and do their labor for them).

He's sees a lot of what is said as a "turning on its head" major cultural ideas in an effort to convey YHWH as supreme and sole deity.

The book is very short. He makes some good observations, again, nothing too new that anyone not familiar with the literature would notice--although, I did like the observation that story concerning Horus as the abandoned and redeemed child was purposely set on its head by the biblical author to show that Egypt was like the evil Seth who sought to kill the child rather than the innocent Horus who had favor with deity.

However, many connections that Currid seeks to make can be disputed. For instance, the idea that the Exodus author is interacting with an older myth where a magician folds the water on top of itself, rather than just seeing, as most Exodus scholars do, the text as an allusion to the creation motif where water is split and dry land appears because YHWH is creating through the chaotic event.

There is also a lack of interaction with the idea that there are just these common motifs within ANE culture that play out because (1) they're things that do occur often, and (2) they are prevalent in other ANE cultures. Is the biblical author attempting to interact with all of them? Some of them? None of them? It just depends upon whether one sees the motif as specific to a particular story or as a result of a culture-wide phenomenon.

The book is a nice little introduction to some of the Egyptian literature out there that may intersect in some way with the biblical text, and much of that may, indeed, be polemical (Currid does have some good arguments for some of it), but I'm not sure how much any of this is really that new to anyone.

I also thought that Currid did not really clearly articulate how the Bible was being polemical. In many instances, he seems to be saying that the biblical portrait is historical, but then that the biblical author uses these myths to flip the message on its head. But this latter observation seems to be what most Old Testament scholars would say. If I can summarize what I think he is getting at, I would say that he views the biblical text as polemical in the sense that it is really how the events took place and God is using myth, brought into existence in real life and history, to convey powerful messages to His people and His enemies.
This is different than many scholars who would merely say that the ideas are flipped, but neither are historical, or that history is presented in these terms, even though the details of the events may have taken place otherwise.

I think all three of these options may be true, depending upon which text is at issue. But there is little discussion along these lines, and the book could have really benefited from that.

Overall, if one is looking for an introduction to these issues, I would recommend Currid's book with a few others that, surprisingly, would be more along the lines of linguistics and interpretation in the comparative process, rather than in direct comparative studies, where the author is just comparing rather than analyzing how he does his comparisons, since I think that is what may be lacking here in some instances.

But Currid does leave us with a wise note in approaching the subject:

Polemical theology certainly does not answer every question about the relationship of the Old Testament to ancient Near Eastern literature and life. There is much to that relationship that simply cannot be understood and explained by the use of polemics. At times, however, polemical theology can serve as a solid and reliable interpretive lens by which one can properly see the significance of a parallel. In addition, and of the utmost importance, is the truth that the biblical writers often employed polemical theology as an instrument to underscore the uniqueness of the Hebrew worldview in contrast to other ancient Near Eastern conceptions of the universe and how it operates. In this day and age, when a considerable number of scholars seek to diminish the originality and uniqueness of the Old Testament, this is no small thing. (141)

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