Bible as Ancient Literature

Go with Gilgamesh, but lose the animal livers.

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What is Religious Literature?

Religion begins with the experience of something uniquely holy, at once terrifying and fascinating, sublime and numinous. As a culture discerns symbols, metaphors, and analogies to identify and name the numinous, its deities provide a framework for understanding the most urgent matters of human concern: birth and death, the regularities and eruptions of nature, social solidarity and authority, personal solitude and the wish for forgiveness. 

Religion is man's effort to elicit meaning and value from confrontation with the holy. Through acts of worship he enters into formal communion with the divine; through myths and theology he seeks to explain the relation between the divine and the actualities of life. Proceeding one step further, religious literature collects, records, and organizes this lore and teaching, enabling man's positive responses to the holy to be transmitted over the span of generations.

old hebrew bible openCommon Elements in Ancient Near Eastern Literature

The Bible--the surviving religious literature of ancient Israel--faces in two directions. It draws on the ideas and skills of three previous millennia of Near Eastern creativity and opens new paths. No appreciation of the Bible can overlook the degree to which it reflects elements common to other cultures.

The physical structure of the universe, taken for granted by biblical writers, characterizes ancient Near Eastern literature as a whole: The earth is a thin disk floating in the surrounding ocean; the heavens are a dome (the firmament) that holds back the "upper waters" unless its windows are opened to permit the rain to fall. Under the earth lies Sheol, the abode of the dead (see Ps. 88: 3-12). In the heavens there meets a divine assembly where God announces his judgments (1 Kings 22: 19). Although all humans descend to the underworld when life is over, the Bible mentions two who are raised up above to join the celestial creatures in heaven (Enoch in Gen. 5:24 and Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11). Demonic spirits wander about in the world (Azazel in Lev. 16:8, the satrys in Isa. 34:14) and even YHVH is capable of demonic behavior (Ex. 4:24).

Like the gods in other ancient literatures, the God of Israel is portrayed in anthropomorphic terms: He walks in the garden of Eden "in the cool of the day" (Gen. 3:8); His bow appears in the sky after the rainstorm (Gen. 9:13); He sits on his heavenly throne surrounded by marvelous angelic beings (Isa. 6:1-2).

Like other peoples, ancient Israel recognized the efficacy of magic (Ex. 7:11-12), acknowledged the power inherent in blessings and curses (Num., chaps. 22-24), and assumed the ability of some men to ascertain God's will through dreams, sacred dice, and oracles. Like other religious writings, the Bible inculcates reverence for holy men (2 Kings 2:23-25), for kings (Ps. 2:6-7), and for priests (Num. 16). Common to Israelite and other ancient religions are sacrificial offerings, a preoccupation with ritual uncleanliness and purity, and atonement rites performed by priests set apart from the laity.

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Robert M. Seltzer

Robert Seltzer is a Professor of History at Hunter College (CUNY).