I started Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) today. Here are two points that stood out to me:
1. On page 33, Fishbane cites an article by Morton Smith entitled “The Common Theology of the Ancient Near East,” which appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952) 135-147. You can read it here.
Citing sources from the ancient Near East (e.g., Egypt, Mesopotamia, areas that produced Ugaritic literature, etc.), Smith contends that people in the ANE worshipped gods who had compassion for the poor, executed justice on their patron nation and other countries, healed the sick, forgave sins, received sacrifices for atonement, heard the prayers of the righteous rather than the wicked, and exhorted people to return good for evil. Even when a god was low in the pantheon, Smith claims, people who worshipped him would flatter him as the supreme god, the god who created the other gods, even the only true god. And there are statements in ancient Near Eastern literature that predict a righteous king who will arise to set things right.
This sounds a lot like the God of Israel, who has compassion for the poor and the oppressed, executes justice against Israel and other nations (e.g., Egypt, Assyria, etc.), heals the sick, forgives sin, receives sacrifices, and honors the righteous. My assumption is that the Israelites actually did regard their God as the supreme God and creator, not that they merely said that stuff to flatter him. But I’m not sure if I can prove my assumption. Lying to a god out of flattery doesn’t make much sense to me, to tell you the truth!
In an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the religion that God gave to Israel, people have noted differences between Israelite religion and that of the surrounding nations. The Bible itself does that, for it asserts that the other nations practice child sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31), worship idols, and tolerate abominable sexual acts (Leviticus 18). Scholars have contrasted the Torah with the Code of Hammurapi: whereas the Torah largely treats Israelites as equal (except perhaps in Exodus 21:31-32), the Code of Hammurapi honors the upper classes over the lower ones.
I believe that God revealed himself to many nations, but does that mean that all the gods are interchangeable, meaning I can worship any god and regard him as a manifestation of the true one? Although the Letter of Aristeas (second century B.C.E.) claims that the Jews worship Zeus under a different name (see Greco-Roman Monotheism, Biblical Intolerance), the Bible doesn’t exactly go that route, for it criticizes the Israelites’ worship of gods whom they did not know (Deuteronomy 29:26; Jeremiah 44:3), holds that the God of Israel is the only true God (Deuteronomy, Second Isaiah), or regards the gods of the other nations as demons (I Corinthians 10:20-21). Throughout the Hebrew God, God’s aim is to demonstrate to the nations that he is the LORD, that the God of Israel is the most powerful god. Why would he try to do this, if he were interchangeable with the gods of the other nations?
Can one say that God did reveal himself to the other nations, but more fully to Israel?
2. On page 33, Fishbane discusses the earliest evidence for the ancient Near Eastern motif of a god fighting a sea dragon or serpent. A Mesopotamian cylinder seal from the Akkad dynasty (c. 2400 B.C.E.) presents two gods fighting a seven-headed monster, four of whose heads are slain, while three remain aggressive. A Ugaritic myth refers to Baal slaying the mighty Lotan of the seven heads.
Revelation 12, 13, and 17 likewise refer to a monster with seven heads. Revelation 12 is about Satan (the dragon), whereas chapters 13 and 17 concern the Beast. Revelation 17:10 applies the seven heads to specific kings, but Revelation may still be drawing from an ancient legend, in which a good guy god defeats an evil seven-headed monster. Or maybe God clued people in early on about the ultimate battle between good and evil. As C.S. Lewis liked to say, the good thing about being a Christian is that we get to believe the myths are real!