That many traces of ancient Near Eastern mythology have survived in the book of Genesis has long been recognized. The story of the Fallen Angels who formed unions with the sons of men is a clear example of myth, and the story of the Flood has indubitable links with the Gilgamesh epic. More doubtful are the alleged links between the first account of Creation and the Babylonian Creation epic. There Marduk fought with Tiamat and split her body in twain to form the earth and the firmament of heaven. There is one tenuous link with this in the first chapter of Genesis in the word tehom, which suggests Tiamat. But in Genesis there is no suggestion of any combat or ascription of personality to tehom; neither does tehom supply either the earth or the firmament of heaven In the Babylonian Creation epic, we read, Marduk “split Tiamat into halves like a shell-fish. One of these he used as a firmament, to impede the upper waters from flooding the earth; and the other as a rocky foundation for earth and sea” In Genesis tehom stands for the watery deep, and it supplies neither the rocky foundation nor the firmament above. The firmament divides the waters which are above it from those which are below and is therefore distinct from both, and in the story of the Flood we read that the fountains of tehom burst forth, and the windows of heaven were opened. This at once warns us that we must not too readily read Near Eastern mythology into the Biblical account, though it must be agreed that motifs from that mythology have been drawn on in some of the narratives.
In the volume under review the authors take sixty-one stories from the book of Genesis and rabbinical embellishments of them, and then offer comments on them and parallels from ancient Near Eastern or classical sources. The interested reader can find many of the rabbinical stories in Louis Ginzberg’s great collection of Legends of the Jews; and a vast number of parallels from all over the world in Sir James Frazer’s Folk-lore in the Old Testament. In recent years Cyrus Gordon has emphasized the links between the literature of Greece and the mythology of the ancient Near East, particularly in Before the Bible, and advanced the view that the Hittites of Asia Minor provided the vital link with both sides. There is nothing fundamentally new, therefore, in the enterprise of the authors.
It must, however, be observed that the word “myth” in the title is given a very liberal interpretation, and many scholars would question its relevance to a large number of the passages selected for study here. The authors define myths as “dramatic stories that form a sacred charter either authorizing the continuance of ancient institutions, customs, rites and beliefs in the area where they are current, or approving alterations.” Not all the stories of the book of Genesis carry any clearly aetiological meaning. Many of the patriarchal stories may…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.