One of the most foundational elements of an intelligent and thoughtful engagement with biblical texts is calibrating one’s expectations. If one truly desires to try to begin the task of understanding the messages of the biblical authors then he or she must ask the appropriate questions from the text and expect it’s ancient authors to address particular issues in ways that make sense within their circumstances. Furthermore, a thoughtful student of the Bible should have a firm enough grasp of the history of thought to understand where modern expectations, assumptions, and perspectives differ from ancient ones. If we don’t calibrate our expectations then our observations concerning the Bible are likely to be little more than assertions of our own belief structures and opinions and in many areas we will misunderstand the unique messages of biblical texts.
Calibrating expectations is an ongoing task for us all; no one ever does this perfectly and individuals from every ideological position do it badly or not at all. Yet, a recent blogger kerfuffle provides me with an opportunity to illustrate two ways in which we can calibrate our expectations of biblical texts in order to avoid gross misinterpretations and hopefully understand the Bible better.
Now to the kerfuffle: Kevin deYoung wrote a post in which he outlined “10 Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam” which generated responses from T. Michael Law and Christopher M. Hays (Chris Tilling purred approvingly) and, taking a respite from Dr. Who and Star Trek postings, James McGrath. There are many elements to this discussion but let me reflect on two aspects in particular which relate most acutely to calibrating expectations. We could address several misconceptions in point number two of deYoung’s list but he reveals at least two ways in which he has failed to properly calibrate his expectations:
Our expectations of biblical texts must be calibrated in accord with ancient conventions. deYoung states: “The biblical story of creation is meant to supplant other ancient creation stories more than imitate them. Moses wants to show God’s people ‘this is how things really happened.’” The first sentence is little more than an unsupported opinion but I guess to some extent that is what you get with top ten lists. The very last idea, though, reveals that deYoung really doesn’t know how ancient cosmology worked. In fact, at this point he is guilty of his own point number one, that is, of importing post-Enlightenment thought onto the Bible but I digress. A while back, almost a year ago, I wrote a post which I titled “Was an Ancient Israelite Dumber than a Swede?” in which I tried to recalibrate expectations that we bring to biblical cosmologies but it appears that large segments of the world population didn’t read it (then why do I blog…?). You can read the whole thing but what I persuasively demonstrated, I think, is that ancient peoples never intended their cosmologies to state “how things really happened” in scientific or historically accurate ways.
Our expectations of biblical texts must be calibrated in accord with the narrative world of the Bible. The last two sentences from point number two reveals that deYoung did not do this either: “The Pentateuch is full of warnings against compromise with the pagan culture. It would be surprising, then, for Genesis to start with one more mythical account of creation like the rest of the ANE.” Again, much to critique here but why would he think that it is surprising for the Bible to condemn paganism yet describe–and even prescribe–things similar to what pagans do? There are many examples I could give to illustrate why this is incredibly unsurprising but let’s pick just one of the most prominent examples of this very thing. In many places the Bible forbids divination yet at the same time it authorizes measures that under most circumstances are exactly what “pagans” did in divinatory rituals. The Ummim and Thummim are likely little more than “yes or no” query devices which were extremely common all throughout the ANE. The only difference between how they are described within biblical texts and their use in cognate cultures was that outside of the Bible “yes or no” queries were generally directed toward the sun-god Shamash while the Bible tells Israel to direct them to Yahweh. Therefore, it is not surprising in the least if Genesis started out with “one more mythical account of creation like the rest of the ANE” (I’m not comfortable with this phraseology but since they are deYoung’s words I’ll let it stand for the sake of this discussion). Furthermore, how else would they start it? Does deYoung expect that in a pre-scientific world it would make sense for someone to break all conventions of how people understood and described the universe and say: hey, I know it will take a few thousand years for people to adopt a hyper-scientific expectation of how cosmologies must work and I know that you have no categories for this kind of thinking but here it goes anyway–this is ‘how it really happened.’?
If we don’t calibrate our expectations of the biblical texts in these two ways we will do little more than bring the expectations that we form from our own life experiences. Accordingly, in large measure the unique voice of Scripture will be squelched and thoughtful biblical study will never rise above a recapitulation of our own self-generated perspectives and opinions.
John Hobbins has some valuable reflections on the forthcoming Ancient Near East Monograph volume that I was a part of (the book was available for download for a couple days, however, SBL uploaded an earlier draft version with a few formatting errors so they pulled it down and we are still waiting for it to be fixed and then made available once more).
John reflects upon a prevalent reality in which scholars merely debate and recapitulate secondary literature; a lament that we both share:
Scholars are known to succumb to a grave and debilitating disease: that of spending all their days reading each other rather than the texts and other artifacts that are supposed to be the objects of their research. In the blessed assurance that someone else knows more about a particular text than she does, a specialist will often say little or nothing about a text that has not been said before. “I and my secondary literature, tenured and blest, watching and waiting, looking above” (with apologies to Fanny Crosby).
It’s a shame.
I whole heartedly agree. Learning original languages–notice the plural; in my opinion one is not a competent biblical scholar unless he or she has at least a working knowledge of the handful of cognate languages, furthermore other more distantly related but culturally significant ones are also desirable–is hard, time consuming work. It is far easier just to learn Hebrew, dabble in some Greek and then move on to write a dissertation and such. Yet, spending the extra time and effort at the front yields huge dividends throughout one’s reflective life. John discusses the importance of Akkadian and Sumerian–I will not use parenthesis for Sumerian since I translated Sumerian texts for my dissertation–for biblical studies:
It is not too much to say that one cannot be a serious student of the ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, or of pre-classical Mediterranean antiquity without a working knowledge of (Sumerian and) Akkadian and of the field of Assyriology. Grounded, detailed knowledge of ancient cultures and ancient history can only be acquired by reading lots of texts, not in translation, but in the original languages. Again, culturally informed, close readings of ancient texts are only possible on the basis of intimate familiarity with the texts in the languages in which they were written.
The entire piece is well worth a read. Also, I’ll post an update when the Akkadian reader is available.
I’m taking a short break from my vacation to mention that the book, Akkadian Prayers and Hymns: A Reader, is now available for download–for free–at the ANE Monographs section of the SBL website. Alan Lenzi did an incredible job putting this project together and I am very happy to be a part of it. I contributed two prayers to this book–”An Ershahunga to Any God” and “Girra 2″–we provide cuneiform, transcription, normalization, translation, grammatical and literary notes, introduction, and biblical comparative suggestions for each text. If you are interested in Akkadian or studying some hymns and prayers that are cognate to biblical ones then I think you will find this book helpful.
I’d like to say a quick thank you to Alan for inviting me to join the project and vastly improving my contributions through his thorough critiques, Jay Crisostomo for looking my prayers over and correcting some of my errors, and the other contributors for producing such fine work.
Here is the second video in the series that I am producing to coincide with the publication of the forthcoming monograph, Reading Akkadian Prayers in the SBL ANE Monographs series. I edited two prayers for this volume; the “Prayer to Any God” is one of them (for a translation of this prayer and the introductory video click here). This video briefly–it is under 2 minutes–explores the role of rituals within religions and the “Prayer to Any God” in particular. Enjoy and let me know what you think.
A couple weeks ago a really fantastic article concerning the contributions of Edward Hincks toward the decipherment of Akkadian and Sumerian was published (and freely accessible) in the Cuneiform Digital Library Journal. Kevin Cathcart details it all and overturns many facets that were previously regarded as facts. Definitely worth a read. (Bonus: You can preview Cathcart’s festschrift on Google Books)
Nele Ziegler souhaite mettre à la disposition des lecteurs intéressés son étude: «Le royaume d’Ekallâtum et son horizon géopolitique», dans D. Charpin & J.-M. Durand (éd.), Florilegium marianum VI, Recueil d’études à la mémoire d’André Parrot,Mémoires de NABU 7, Paris, 2002, p. 211-274 Le royaume d’Ekallâtum
In an earlier post I compared Bob Cargill’s takedown to Nolan Ryan’s manhandling of Robin Ventura. Well, maybe Bob is really Darryl Strawberry cold cocking an opponent in his own dugout (I couldn’t find the video of this but I’ll never forget it; you can read about it here, it is #3). A friend of mine emailed me after my post and pointed out some aspects of Bob’s presentation that weren’t exactly right. Then, my friend emailed me again and told me that Ed Cook posted similar thoughts as comments on Bob’s blog. My favorite line from Ed was when he and Bob were going back and forth on how to interpret a segment of the Aramaic text as presented by Accordance and finally Ed pulled out the trump card:
I prepared, tagged, and glossed the Accordance targum modules of which you post a screenshot, so I know what I’m talking about.
Personally, with what little sense I have I know that when Ed Cook talks about Aramaic I stop talking, listen, and nod in agreement—resistance is futile; you will be assimilated. However, why am I talking about Aramaic, it is at least a millennium after all the stuff I’m interested in…