Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament Reviewed

Currid

Currid, John D. Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. 153 pp., $17.99 paper.

Parallels between the literature of the Hebrew Bible and that found elsewhere in the ancient Near East (ANE) have long since been noted. While it is beyond doubt that some relationship exists between these texts, the nature of the relationship continues to be a matter of debate. Did the biblical authors simply plagiarize their material, sanitizing the pagan aspects? Or, did the Hebrews incorporate elements of ancient Near Eastern culture and religion for a driving theological purpose. In his book, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament, John Currid argues that the latter is the case.

In the prologue, Currid presents the basic elements of the work, including the topic, purpose, and audience. In describing the topic of the book, Currid states, “This book is about the relationship between the writings of the Old Testament and other ancient Near Eastern literature” (9). From the outset, he makes clear that he understands the worldview of the Bible to be “altogether unique, as confirmed by its all-pervasive monotheism” (9).

The explicit purpose of the book, as expressed by the author, is to advance the discussion regarding the parallels between biblical literature and its ANE counterparts by proposing an alternative explanation, namely, polemical theology (9). Though this stands as the authors goal, he writes the book “for those who know little about polemical theology, not the scholarly community (9-10).”

The structure of the book consists of eleven chapters exploring various aspects of the polemical theology; its history and notable occurrences in the Old Testament. The opening chapter seeks to provide a cursory outline of the history of ancient Near Eastern studies, considering the relationship between ANE studies and biblical studies. Through the discovery of a wealth of ANE texts beginning in the 19th century, scholars have uncovered various parallel accounts of familiar biblical narratives. During this time, Currid states, a hermeneutic of suspicion led some scholars to conclude that the biblical authors were guilty of “crass plagiarism.” On the other hand, the increase of material required greater degrees of specialization, producing fields of scholarship previously unknown. The chapter concludes with a brief sketch of the state of “evangelical” scholarship on the question of the parallels between the ANE and biblical texts. Currid says that many evangelical scholars have emphasized the similarities between these texts to the detriment of their dissimilarities.

The burden of chapter two is to define and explain polemical theology. Currid provides the following definition: “Polemical theology is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in the ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning” (26, italics original). The new meaning that Currid finds in the biblical text is centered on monotheism. This device used by the biblical authors graphically contrasted their worldview and that of the rest of the Near East. Hence the differences between the texts are more telling than the similarities. Currid provides several introductory examples of polemical theology such as polemical expressions (eg. “the strong arm of the Lord”) and motifs (eg. The confrontation of the serpents in Exod 7). Currid makes clear that he is not proposing polemical theology as a king of theological center, but rather one of many lens through which to read the OT.

The remainder of the book focuses on specific instances of polemical theology in the OT including the creation account, flood narrative, the birth of Moses, and the self-designation of the God of Israel as “I am.” In each chapter, Currid summarizes the relevant data from the biblical and the ANE texts. In many cases, he discusses the provenance and date of the ANE texts, framing the biblical accounts as later compositions. As such, the biblical authors, who were familiar with ANE ideology and religion, intentionally employed linguistic parallels and structured the very events and objects of each episode as a critique of ANE practice (119).

In light of this summary, one may see the value of this work. Many have been unsettled upon the discovery that events and narratives in the biblical text may have preexisted in other pagan documents. Yet, rather than the biblical authors simply rehashing ancient mythology, Currid’s thesis provides a viable solution for many of these parallels. Though the subject of ancient Near Eastern textual data may appear to be inaccessible to a lay reader, Currid designed the book to reach such an audience. The clarity of his writing style, in addition to frequent charts comparing biblical and ANE texts, allows the reader to easily follow the discussion. Moreover, the length of the book (153 pgs.) serves as an invitation to lay readers, avoiding the intimidation of a large scholarly tome.

Yet with all of its strengths aside, the book, in my opinion, contains some significant weaknesses. First, one may quickly discern the tension between the intended purpose and audience of the book. Though written on a more popular level, Currid hopes “to advance the debate a little, stir up some thoughts, and perhaps make some progress in the discussion”  regarding the parallels between biblical and ANE texts (9). Yet this debate does not occur on a popular level, but rather in the halls of scholarship. Furthermore, the methodology and conclusions that Currid manifests would only be acceptable within an evangelical readership. For example, the claim that the worldview of the Bible is unique in its “all-pervasive monotheism” (9) would certainly not go unchallenged by critical scholars. Thus, the participants in the debate that Currid hopes to advance are limited from the outset. This critique would most likely not be an issue for the author, as both he and the publisher focus on a more conservative audience, but a clarification, however brief, could be helpful nonetheless.

A second point of critique I wish to raise, in my view, is the most significant. Throughout the work, Currid emphasizes both the literary artistry of the biblical author and the historicity of the events recorded, but nowhere satisfactorily explicates the relationship between the two. The question becomes, if the biblical authors deliberately employ polemical elements in the unfolding of these narratives, how is the historicity of these events to be understood. The problem would be greatly diminished if linguistic parallels were the only element employed by the biblical authors, but as Currid himself states, the Hebrews authors “[structured] the very events and objects of the episode[s] as a critique of [ANE] practice” (119, emphasis added). While I am sure that Currid would have an available answer to this question, an extended discussion of this relationship may benefit the careful reader. For, on the surface it appears to be a contradiction to defend the historicity of a particular event, while simultaneously affirming the creative artistry of the author in restructuring the events themselves.

One final point of critique that will be noted here is Currid’s extensive quotation of himself. On the one hand, this stands as evidence of his substantial achievements as an academic. Yet on the other hand, the reader may find the frequent quotations, many times without any introduction, to be odd. I could not help but wonder if there was not another way to make his point that did not require a self-quotation. This may be a preference on my part, but I did find it to be strange.

With these critiques noted, I recommend this work to anyone interested in Old Testament theology. While many of the specific cases mentioned may readily be found in technical commentaries, Currid distills them in a concise, readable fashion. For those with no exposure to ANE studies, this book could serve as door to more advanced study.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament Reviewed

  1. Pingback: LXXI | Biblioblog Carnival—October 2013

  2. Thanks for the review Andrew. I appreciate your criticisms and was actually wondering about a “lay level” comparative ANE/OT book myself. The whole thesis of the book, i.e. polemical theology, assumes Israelite religion is sui generis–a claim you rightly point out many would strongly reject. Sounds like the book is preaching to choir, which is not necessarily a bad thing as long as everyone knows it–author included.

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