Bible as Ancient Literature

Go with Gilgamesh, but lose the animal livers.

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Parallels in Other Peoples’ Literature

Many forms of biblical writing have parallels in the literature of other peoples. Genesis borrows details from the Mesopotamian epics of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh in connection with the legend of a world-wide flood. Biblical figures of speech are influenced by earlier Canaanite poetry, as is parallelism, a feature distinguishing poetry from prose in the Bible.

Biblical law shows many similarities with the legal collections of ancient Mesopotamia. Aspects of Hittite and Assyrian treaties between a king and his vassals are used to explicate the covenantal relationship between YHVH and Israel. Egyptian models are used for Psalm 104 and for a section of the book of Proverbs (22:17-23:11). As other ancient works are discovered in the future, it will become even more evident that the Bible is an integral branch of ancient Near Eastern literature as a whole.

The Uniqueness of the Bible 

Yet the differences are crucial and decisive, because the borrowings were transformed by Israelite monotheism. A few examples will indicate the scope of the reshaping that took place.

Mythological themes retained in the Bible, such as the marriage of divine beings with human women, are abbreviated in the extreme and barely integrated into the narrative (Gen. 6:1-4). Biblical heroes are not worshipped as semi-divine beings. In biblical religion, the underworld is not a subject for religious speculation; indeed, the absence of a positive conception of personal immorality, other than through one's descendants, poses theological dilemmas resolved only at the end of the biblical period.

The biblical cult includes no rites to placate the ghosts or demons. There is no ancestor worship. The practice of magic is forbidden, as are consulting the dead, investigating the livers of sacrificial animals, observing the flights of birds, and other widespread forms of divination (see, for example, Deut. 18:10).

The Israelite wonder-worker derives his power not from knowledge of occult arts, but from direct divine interpretation. Verbal revelation from God through the prophet is far more important in biblical Israel than in other ancient civilizations. The Bible has such a profound sense of the contrast between its view of the world and everyone else's, that much of the text is a sustained polemic, explicit or implied, against "idolatry," a category embracing all polytheistic religions and some of their most cherished beliefs about ultimate reality.

Differences from Other Epics

Compared to the epics of other peoples, the biblical narratives underwent drastic reorientation and simplification. Absent are myths of the birth of the gods, their rivalries and feuds, their sexual relations, their annual cycles of death and resurrection--all of which provide classic motifs in ancient literature.

Biblical thought eliminates the notion, found in many pagan mythologies, of a primordial, inescapable Fate to which man and gods are subject, a Fate that can, at times, be manipulated though incantation, divination, and wisdom. Instead the Bible is preoccupied with the moral condition of mankind, with the signs of divine providence and the wonders that accompanied the formation of Israel, and with the meaning of mundane, historical events in relation to the supreme and unconditional will of a God not limited by destiny or Fate.

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Robert M. Seltzer

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