Sunday, October 18, 2009

Creation As Polemical Protest

In R. Chaim Navon's recent book Genesis and Jewish Thought (pp. 59-63), he notes that there are striking similarities and differences between the Torah's creation story and that found in various ancient Near Eastern texts. His resolution is as follows: The Torah spoke to the heresies of that era and intentionally negated them by using terminology and narrative tools. In effect, the Torah's creation story is, at least in part, a polemic against the religious myths of the Ancient Near East.

This is not a novel approach. I initially thought that it could be found in R. Joseph Hertz's commentary to the Torah but he only notes the differences. He does not suggest that the Torah intentionally polemicized against ancient religions. However, Prof. Umberto Cassutto discusses this at various points in his 1944 commentary to the Creation passage.

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His brother-in-law, Prof. A. S. Hartom has a delightfully concise description of this approach in his 1955 commentary to the Torah (p. 13):

As for specific details, we can speculate that the Torah intended to negate the legends and mythological stories that were prevalent among the nations of the Ancient Near East
Nahum Sarna has the most eloquent and sustained elaboration of this approach in his 1966 book Understanding Genesis (ch. 1).

The question I was asking myself is why this approach took so long to make its way into Modern Orthodoxy? [Cassutto's ideas about the authorship of the Torah are beyond Orthodoxy, as are Sarna's (as described in the introduction to his above book).] While I did not conduct a thorough search, I could not find this approach in any Orthodox text. Not even Da'as Mikra on Genesis mentions it. Why?

Here are some answers I considered:
  • The approach is theologically problematic. I don't see why, though. The Rambam throughout Moreh Nevukhim writes that certain laws were intended to rebut specific practices of the ancient world. And the Chovos Ha-Levavos writes that there is no mention of the World-To-Come in the Torah because the generation that received the Torah was not ready for a message like that. So there doesn't seem to be any problem with suggesting that the Torah was designed specifically for the benefit of its immediate recipients.

  • It's a weak explanation. I'm not so sure. It seems to have lasted the test of time. Two recent academically up-to-date Christian commentaries accept it -- James Mckeown, Two Horizon Old Testament Commentary: Genesis (pp. 12-17) and David Cotter, Berit Olam: Genesis (p. 9) [yes, this last one is Christian although it is so philosemitic that I find myself repeatedly confirming that the author is called Father David Cotter.]

  • It implies that the Torah was written during the Babylonian exile. Because that is when the Jews were potentially influenced by the Babylonian creation story called Enuma Elish. No, for two reasons. First, the Land of Israel was the crossroads of the ancient world, so all religions were wandering around then. And regardless of when Enuma Elish was written, it was orally transmitted for centuries prior. But regardless, there were othere creation stories from other civilizations, such as the Atrahasis Epic and the Egyptian creation myths (cf. Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis, pp. 8-10).

  • Orthodoxy is theologically conservative. Modern Orthodoxy has, in the past, been reactive and only rethought ideas when confronted. However, this is a long-standing confrontation so, even if true, this would not provide an adequate explanation.

  • There was no need. Since people like Prof. Sarna answered the problem so eloquently and exhaustively, there was no need to restate it in an Orthodox text.

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