By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


When one launches out in search of determining which documents borrowed from which documents, they take on a difficult task. Neither must it be the major goal of such research in comparative studies. Rather, when finding any similarities and differences in such documents, this assists those who study Biblical manuscripts and those examining the ancient writings of the Near East to get a bigger picture. To anyone really interested in what the Bible says and reveals to human understanding, it must not come as a surprise to discover that their comprehension of God and the world around them can be found in the larger culture from which they came. Therefore, when writers of biblical manuscripts offer criticism and disdain for the larger culture around them, it must be taken in context related to the current thinking, writing and cultural norms of that era. Therefore, effort must be given to understand the Biblical version of events and those found in Near East documents so as to gain a fuller and more complete discernment of each one and how they interacted with each other. In so doing, we give ourselves a better chance of seeing what they thought of themselves and how they conducted themselves rather than what we think of their behavior.

When reading the Old Testament, some are confused as to why the text found in First and Second Kings reads very similar to that contained in First and Second Chronicles. To begin with, in ancient biblical manuscripts, First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings constituted one book. Only later as a result of the invention of printing did they become separated for publishing and reading purposes. Most scholars believe that this early recording of the political history of Israel came into being through priests who documented what happened during their era. Later, when the monarchy became more fully established, then royal chroniclers became the resource for documenting how the Nation of Israel developed and the subsequent reign of each king under which they served. Therefore, to understand the intent of the writers in detailing the events they include and to what degree they describe them, can be better comprehended by recognizing that one group saw it from a religious point of view and the other from a royal perspective.

The same formula holds true when trying to understand the literary genres of the Biblical Texts and those of the Near East. Furthermore, just as poetry in Hebrew does not depend on rhyme and meter to express itself in beauty, so we must understand how differently these genres of literature operated in the ancient world than the way similar genres function in our world. Whether we look at Historic Literature, Legal Literature, Wisdom Literature, or Prophetic Literature, we find similarities between Biblical material, Near East material and even modern day literature. But they must be judged on their own, in context, and not dismissed or thought of as being less emotive on our thinking because they do not agree with our methods. We must endeavor to determine as much as possible who wrote it, when they wrote it, why they wrote it and their intent in writing it. This serves as an essential ingredient to the theological and literary explanation of the text when we understand the genre of the manuscript in order to arrive at a legitimate interpretation.

When similarities occur between that written in the Bible and that contained in ancient Near East manuscripts, it helps acknowledging the perimeters and characteristics of the genre active in the ancient mind that penned it. For instance, what did they consider to be historical writing back then. We know that today journalistic perimeters require identifying who, what, where, why, when and how. Furthermore, eyewitness accounts supersede those which come second-hand. So often we find genealogies played an important role for ancient writers. It must be determined if the author assembled them for the same reasons we do today. Furthermore, family relatives and near relatives often morphed into references such as brother and neighbor. Therefore, must we required further delineation in order to consider it acceptable for today’s understanding?

On occasion when comparing genres of Biblical literature and Near East documents, similarities are found in the level of content, and in some cases, even in wording. This poses the question of whether or not each instance must be taken to represent an individual observation. When observing the same law or proverb in both Biblical Texts and Near East Texts, rather than expecting that one preceded the other, we must examine their uniqueness and how the writer intended them to be understood, especially by analyzing the genre and literary context in which these laws and proverbs exist. When both the Hebrew version and that found in the Near East documents appear exactly the same, rather than looking to prove which came first, there exists the option of accepting that both came to be under the influence of an earlier common source which preceded both the Hebrew and the Near East accounts. Just as we trace Abraham from Adam down through Noah and on through Shem, likewise what man understood from encounters with God in the past flowed down into literature through oral traditions in different branches of humankind. And like any account, as each generation passed it on to another, the story grew larger, more complex and designed to meet the mindset of the day.

Another thing to consider involves those laws and proverbs which evince significant differences as being in contrast to one another. For instance, both Hebrew and Mesopotamian literature contain texts that tell the story of a righteous man who suffered for his faith that compares to what we find in the book of Job. First of all, this becomes acceptable when we consider that Job, a contemporary of Abram, lived in Uz while Abram came from Ur, but both descendants of Shem. The difference between the two accounts involves a different theology, while at the same time using a similar mentality prevalent in the Near East with the friends of Job being used a foils to test his resolve. But Job remains faithful to his beliefs by not accepting the mentality of appeasement offered by his friends, a mentality representative of Near East thinking.

Likewise, when we read in Neo-Assyrian literature of the Early Iron Age about Sargon of Akkad, the founder of the Dynasty of Akkad, the forerunner of the Chaldean and Babylonian kings in the area from which Abraham came, he is described as a legendary figure in tablets deposited in the Library of Ashurbanipal from the 7th century BC. According to this legend, Sargon was the illegitimate son of a priestess. She brought him forth in secret, and then placed him in a basket of reeds on the river. He floated down the river until he was found by Akki, a man in charge of the irrigation system fed by the river.  Akki raised him as his own son. This quickly brings to mind the story of Moses. So the question could be raised, was the story of the Israeli lawgiver a retelling of the story of Sargon but from a Jewish perspective. Or, should we allow that such an occasion could have occurred more than once, and that it was a modus operandi of that day in dealing with children whose lives may be in danger.

To miss the point/counterpoint dialogue, forgoes understanding the critical nuances contained in these exchanges. Keeping an open mind and showing appreciation for how similar genres existed with different methods of writing and expression, did not exist in great quantity when the examination of Near East Documents verses Hebrew Documents in the late 1800’s into the early 1900’s began in earnest. Therefore, it becomes important that such oversight must not be continued and exacerbated in today’s climate of research and comparative studies. Let’s give each group credit for telling the story the way they saw it and how it applied to their understanding of God and history. Surely an omniscient God knows how it happened and is pleased to let us investigate how it played out. Abram left Chaldea where God was known by the name Marduk, and when he met Melchizedek they called Him El Elyon, the Highest God or the God on High. Today there are some who still refer to Him as Jehovah and others as Yahweh. What will future generations think when they examine our literature in which similar factors of patience and conditioning must applied when examining ancient documents, as we do today with ancient writings of the past.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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