Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book Review of John Currid's Against the Gods

Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament by John D. Currid. Published by Crossway, 2013.

I recently finished reading this book as one of a number of books I picked up looking at Ancient Near East Literature and Old Testament studies. I had been spurred to look more closely at these issues by some online discussions around the question of Ancient Israelite religion. My interlocutors were arguing for a evolutionary model of religion, that Yahwehism in Judaism evolved out of Canaanite polytheism, and making claims that this was the consensus of scholarship. Consensus doesn't impress me much, but I wanted to delve deeper into this area.

Currid's book examines the interaction between ANE literature and OT literature at one precise point: polemical usage. In his prologue he states that his book is both introductory, and exemplary rather than exhaustive. Unlike, say, Walton's book (which I will write about in due time), Currid does not survey all of ANE literature (thankfully!), but picks out 9 specific episodes or areas in the OT, and examines ANE parallels and how they might be read.

The arrangement of the book is 2 introductory chapters which give a brief history of ANE studies, followed by an introduction to the idea of polemical theology, and then nine 'case studies'. Currid defines polemical theology thus:

"Polemical Theology is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning." (Kindle loc. 391)

In thinking about the OT and ANE lit, we are called to examine and notice the similarities and the differences. The great danger of only noticing similarities is that we assume the essentials are the same, so the OT is just a very odd version of polytheism. The mistake of only noticing the differences is that we miss understanding how Biblical authors are using contemporary materials to make their points, and we also fall into a trap, the trap of thinking "different, therefore unique, therefore superior, which when people do end up doing their own comparative reading, leads to the equally false conclusion, "similar, therefore the same, therefore negligible".

Currid's nine case studies are drawn three from Genesis, five from Exodus, and one that looks at Canaanite literature with reference to the Psalms. While one might have sought a little more variety, it is really the case that much of the material up for discussion is found in these two books, so I don't think we can hold that against Currid.

The strength of Currid's book is that he doesn't merely present the ANE parallel and leave it there, he makes a comparison and provides a reading, suggesting that simple 'influence', or 'borrowing' is not the only, and probably not the best, way to understand those parallels. However at times I felt like the concluding section of each chapter, in which he seeks to highlight how the OT account polemically uses the parallel, was too brief. Also, Currid's own background seems to be Egypt, so he favours dealing with Egyptian parallels, whereas in a larger work one might want more engagement with other ANE cultures and their literatures.

Each chapter comes with its own endnotes and references, which works find in this volume (although I can't speak to the arrangement in the print edition; normally I loath chapter end-notes, but in this case it was excusable).

Overall, Currid's book achieves his purposes, and may help conservatives who haven't thought much about ANE literature to more critically engage in this area.

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