“The Book of Genesis”
Recently, Gary Rendsburg’s audio course on Genesis became available at The Great Courses web site for just $29.95, and I couldn’t resist. In future posts, I would like to review this series of lectures more completely, but for now, let me just say that it’s pretty good — especially with respect to internal literary analysis — but it does have some serious problems.
Professor Rendsburg, a self-confessed maximalist who believes Abraham was a historical figure and rejects the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), does acknowledge that many of his positions are not currently the consensus viewpoints, but he does an inadequate job of presenting other viewpoints. I don’t criticize him for holding contrary opinions. After all, this is Vridar. But if a lecturer is going to discuss minimalism or the DH, then he or she should at least present them fully and correctly.
Through a glass, darkly
As I said, I want to take a more detailed look at Rendsburg’s course in the future, with special emphasis on the DH. However, this post is about something else altogether: namely, the way scholars steeped in either the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, if you prefer) or the New Testament seem to have a limited, if not skewed, understanding of the surrounding contemporaneous world.
We should, of course, err on the side of forgiveness, say, when a New Testament scholar expresses surprise on discovering that for many decades people have theorized that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays or the sonnets. Sure, you thought everybody knew that, but it isn’t his bailiwick. And if that same NT scholar thinks the DH can be proved by comparing variations of the divine name in the Psalms, well even there we could make excuses (but I won’t), since the OT is also not his within his realm of expertise.
However, we cannot countenance the lack of knowledge when it comes to the surrounding cultures of the subject matter that an academic claims to know on a professional, scholarly level. If you assert that you know how the ancient Hebrews or Israelites compared to their neighbors, then you’d better understand those other cultures as well as possible.
Immortality: The “ultimate quest”?
Specifically, how much emphasis did the religions of the Ancient Near East place on the attainment of eternal life? According to Rendsburg:
Notice how the focus throughout this story [The Fall of Adam and Eve] is on the Tree of Knowledge with the Tree of Life receiving only an occasional mention. “Why?” we may ask. “Why the focus on the Tree of Knowledge with little or no attention given to the Tree of Life?” It is here that we may bring the larger picture of the Ancient Near East to bear on our question. As we have illustrated in this lecture, looking at the material from Ancient Near East as a whole allows us to gain a greater understanding of what the Biblical text is doing.
Most ancient Near Eastern people saw eternal life as the ultimate quest for mankind. The best example of this is to be found in the Gilgamesh Epic from Babylonia. I already mentioned that this composition was the literary classic of the ancient world. We have early versions of this story going back to the third millennium BCE in the Sumerian language. . . In short the Gilgamesh Epic has an exceedingly long tradition in ancient Mesopotamia, as its story was told and retold for generations.
The story . . . relates for us the life of Gilgamesh, a legendary king from the city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia. The dominant theme in this great epic poem is the hero’s quest for eternal life. Once Gilgamesh witnesses the death of his dear friend, Enkidu, he comes to the realization that he himself will one day die. Gilgamesh, however, does not want to die, and thus he sets his course on determining how he can live forever. That is what I mean by the quest for eternal life. That again is the main theme of this classic composition. (The Book of Genesis, Lecture 5: “The Ancient Near East”)
Professor Rendsburg then summarizes Gilgamesh’s meeting with Utnapishtim, the “Sumerian Noah,” upon whom the gods conferred eternal life after he and his wife survived the flood. In later lectures, he promises, we will compare and contrast the Biblical story of the flood with the story of Utnapishtim.
He returns to his treatment of Gilgamesh, concluding:
The story ends with our hero crying, consoling himself, resigned to the fact that he will not achieve immortality, and even the next best thing — rejuvenation — has slipped through his fingers. (The Book of Genesis, Lecture 5: “The Ancient Near East”)
Rendsburg seeks to draw a distinct contrast between the apparent lack of interest the book of Genesis places on eternal life for humans and the intense interest shown by the surrounding cultures. To hear him tell it, the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites were practically obsessed with eternal life, as exemplified by the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the quest is, in his words, “the dominant theme.”
A matter of interpretation?
I strongly disagree with both of Rendsburg’s conclusions. I will grant that people can and do interpret literature differently. For example, we may take issue with Laurence Olivier’s statement that Hamlet is “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” That characterization strikes many as rather shallow, but it isn’t wrong, per se.
On the other hand, saying that the Epic of Gilgamesh is all about a man’s quest for eternal life more than misses the point. While it is true the epic does spend a great deal of time portraying Gilgamesh on a mad quest for immortality, it is clearly understood as precisely that — a mad quest, a fool’s errand.
Upon the death of his great friend, Enkidu, Gilgamesh roams the Earth, overcome with grief for his friend and fear of his own mortality. By the time Gilgamesh finds Utnapishtim, the only man who has attained immortality, his cheeks are hollow, his face is burned by winter chill and desert sun. His fine clothes wore out long ago; now he wears animal skins. He is weary to his bones.
Note the words of Utnapishtim who says when he first meets Gilgamesh:
Said Uta-napishti to him, to [Gilgamesh:]
‘Why, Gilgamesh, do you ever [chase] sorrow?
You, who are [built] from gods’ flesh and human,
whom the [gods did fashion] like your father and mother!
‘[Did you] ever, Gilgamesh, [compare your lot] with the fool?
They placed a throne in the assembly, and [told you,] “Sit!“
The fool gets the left-over yeast instead of [fresh] ghee,
bran and grist instead of [best flour.]
(p. 85, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Andrew George, 2003)
In other words, Gilgamesh has worn himself out worrying about things he cannot change when he should pay attention to the here and now. Let’s be clear: according to ancient Mesopotamian religions, nothing could be more certain than human mortality. Death is the great leveler. Wise man and idiot, rich man and pauper, we all end up in the underworld.
“Yes: the gods took Enkidu’s life.
But man’s life is short, at any moment
it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake.
The handsome young man, the lovely young woman —
in their prime, death comes and drags them away.
Though no one has seen death’s face or heard
death’s voice, suddenly, savagely, death
destroys us, all of us, old or young.”
(p. 178, Gilgamesh: A New English Version, Stephen Mitchell, 2006)
However, despite the one inescapable, grim fact of life — that it ends — we persevere.
And yet we build houses, make contracts, brothers
divide their inheritance, conflicts occur —
as though this human life lasted forever.
The river rises, flows over its banks
and carries us all away, like mayflies
floating downstream: they stare at the sun,
then all at once there is nothing.”
(p. 179, Gilgamesh: A New English Version, Stephen Mitchell, 2006)
Gilgamesh attains wisdom
When the epic begins, we learn that Gilgamesh — two-thirds god and one-third man — is a fine physical specimen, but as a king he’s a holy terror. He gives his people no rest. He takes their able-bodied young men, presumably for public works or for war. He takes their young women, demanding the right of the first night. Instead of a shepherd to his people, he is a wolf.
By the end of the epic, however, Gilgamesh has changed. He has learned love and respect through his relationship with Enkidu. And he has finally learned to accept his mortality after meeting Utnapishtim, and after losing the magical plant of rejuvenation without ever tasting its fruits.
The “dominant theme,” then, is not the burning desire for eternal life, but maturity and acceptance of one’s fate. Gilgamesh starts out as a brash, tireless, rapacious youth, but ends up a mature adult who can appreciate his great and beautiful city. To quote another lecturer from the old Teaching Company, Robert Oden, whose courses are now, sadly, out of print:
It’s also a kind of “growing-up” poem. He starts as an adolescent and he achieves maturity at the same time that he achieves the certain knowledge that humans as humans die. To be human is to be mortal. From the Mesopotamian standpoint the greatest temptation on earth was the Egyptian standpoint, the Egyptian temptation, the temptation to think that human beings could live forever. There’s nothing that’s worse, the Mesopotamians said, than the false illusion human beings could live forever. (Oden, The Hebrew Bible, Lecture 7 — Primeval History: The Garden Tower and Flood)
We cannot take Rendsburg’s conclusions about the main thrust of the Epic of Gilgamesh and his assertion about eternal life being the ultimate focus of people living in the Ancient Near East (except for the Egyptians) merely as an alternate interpretation. He is flat-out wrong.
A distorted view of reality
How do these things happen? We seem to ask this question depressingly often around here. Why would an Old Testament scholar know so little about the Epic of Gilgamesh? Yes, he knows the outline of the story and can tell you the names of the characters. True, he knows it originated as a Sumerian myth that spread to other neighboring cultures and evolved over the centuries.
However, Rendsburg doesn’t know the most important things about it — what it meant to the cultures who read it and how it relates to their view of humankind and our place in the order of the universe. It reminds me of my parents’ generation as compared to my generation and today’s generation. It’s certainly true that my father could have told you the date “Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” as well as the names of his three ships. It’s also true that it’s becoming less and less likely people today could even tell you what Columbus did, let alone what year he first sailed westward.
On the other hand, only a very small fraction of one percent of Americans in the past century could tell you what really happened on those voyages. They know a tiny bit about 1492, but they know nothing of Spain’s Edict of Expulsion from the same year nor of the New World atrocities of 1493 and beyond. But that’s the ordinary person in the street. We don’t expect them to know much beyond the dates they had to memorize and platitudes they were taught in grade school.
A trained professional historian knows better or at least is supposed to know better. However, in biblical studies, we frequently find theologians and doctors of divinity who are so immersed the Bible that they remain astonishingly ignorant of the rest of the ancient world. Consider, for instance, the case of New Testament scholars who are so steeped in the study of the Synoptic Gospels, that they believe the way Matthew and Luke copied Mark (often word for word) is the “normal” way in which ancient authors used other works.
Rendsburg is determined to see stark differences between the cultures of the ancient Hebrews and their neighbors. He imagines that non-Hebrews saw the quest for eternal life as the “ultimate concern,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In fact, the Hebrew view of the afterlife had much in common with their neighbors’ views (excluding, once again, the ancient Egyptians). Let’s compare Enkidu’s description of the underworld to Job’s expectation of Sheol.
The creature touched me
and suddenly feathers covered my arms,
he bound them behind me and forced me down
to the underworld, the house of darkness,
the home of the dead, where all who enter
never return to the sweet earth again.
Those who dwell there squat in the darkness,
dirt is their food, their drink is clay,
they are dressed in feathered garments like birds,
they never see light, and on door and bolt
the dust lies thick.
(p. 143, Gilgamesh: A New English Version, Stephen Mitchell, 2006)
21 Before I go whence I shall not return, even to the land of darkness and the shadow of death;
22 A land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness.
(Job 10:21-22, KJV)
Job calls Sheol “the house appointed for all living.” Utnapishtim would agree. No one gets out alive.
But Rendsburg argues that the ancient Hebrews were exceptional, that they held a quite different worldview from their Mesopotamian neighbors, metaphorically disregarding the Tree of Life and instead focusing on the Tree of Knowledge. In other words, they treasured learning and wisdom over the vain hope of eternal life. It is an appealing argument for someone who wants the Hebrews to be special and different in all ways. However, the evidence here simply cannot support Rendsburg’s view.
We depend on scholars for basic research and in-depth analysis. We expect that as professionals they will know what they’re talking about. But they sometimes fail us. Unfortunately, I can offer no easy solution for the interested amateur, other than to read as much as you can — everything you can get your hands on — and then come to your own conclusions.
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