My latest blog post for The Jerusalem Post:
Were the Jews the first people to think of monotheism? And would it matter if we weren’t?
Such questions tend to worry Biblical scholars when they start comparing our Torah with other religious literature of the Ancient Near East. Let’s be honest: There are many parallels. That’s a fact. But the meaning of the fact depends on something you might not, at first, think is related: the nature of revelation.
There are numerous parallels between the Torah and pagan literature of the Ancient Near East. For example:
- The Genesis flood story corresponds point-by-point to the flood story in the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, which was known to the Biblical writers.1
- The covenant in Exodus corresponds closely in structure to Hittite Empire vassal treaties.2
- Some of the commandments correspond to earlier legal codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi.3
- Even monotheism was vaguely anticipated by pagan religions.4
A superficial look might make it seem that our Torah is just another religious document like those of other religions, and that it is entirely a human product. But that would be wrong for three reasons:
- Because of what revelation is
- Because of what we add to revelation
- Because of what revelation adds to us
What Revelation Is
Revelation usually means information that God gives to a person via prophetic insight. Revelation is the truth you get, prophetic insight is how you get it.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) caused outrage when he argued that non-Jewish nations had also received prophetic revelation from God: “that all nations have had prophets, and that the prophetic gift was not peculiar to the Jews.”5
People were shocked by a lot of things Spinoza said, but that statement shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Spinoza was only applying how other Jewish thinkers had explained prophecy and revelation.
The Medieval Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE) argued that all knowledge could be justified by four kinds of evidence: sense perception, reason, inference, and reliable tradition. But where does revelation fit into that picture?
According to Saadia, revelation doesn’t tell us anything that we couldn’t eventually discover on our own. But the key word is “eventually.” It might take us a long time. Therefore, God gives revelation to us as a kind of shortcut:
“God knew that the final propositions from the work of speculation can only be attained in a certain measure of time. Had he made us depend on speculation for religious knowledge, we should have existed without religion until the work of speculation was completed … From all these troubles God (be He exalted and glorified) saved us quickly by sending us His messenger, announcing through him the Tradition …”6
However, if revelation provides the same information as we could acquire through reason, then it is in principle available to all peoples — not just to us.
Two centuries later, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) argued that revelation requires no supernatural process. It requires that the prophet study and think about the subject of the revelation:
“That individual would obtain knowledge and wisdom … [and] all his desires will be directed to acquiring the science of the secrets of what exists and knowledge of its causes.”7
It’s worth comparing Maimonides’s description of prophecy with a statement by Bertrand Russell, the 20th-century philosopher, Nobel laureate, and atheist. Russell gave an eerily similar account of his intellectual process for writing books:
“After first contemplating a book on some subject, and after giving serious preliminary attention to it, I needed a period of subconscious incubation … Having, by a time of very intense concentration, planted the problem in my subconsciousness, it would germinate underground until, suddenly, the solution emerged with blinding clarity, so that it only remained to write down what had appeared as if in a revelation.”8
Russell would have denied that he was engaging in prophecy or getting revelation. However, he was clearly doing the same kind of thing that Maimonides described. If revelation is intellectual insight into reality, as Saadia and Maimonides said, then other peoples could have true revelations about God and the universe. Moses Mendelssohn, the 19th-century philosopher and leader of the Jewish Enlightenment, agreed:
“I recognize no eternal truths other than those that are not merely comprehensible to human reason but can also be demonstrated and verified by human powers.”9
Whether acquired by reason or revelation, eternal truths are available in principle to everyone. It was left to the Jews to transmit some of those truths more completely and accurately.
What We Add to Revelation
But why do non-eternal truths in the Torah sometimes resemble corresponding accounts from pagan sources?
For example, the Genesis flood is not something you could deduce by reason. It’s an event that occurred in the world. If the truth about the flood was revealed to us by God, then why does our story about it resemble the story in the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic?
The answer is that when we perceive anything — even revelation — there’s a part that is given to us, and a part that we add to it.
Whether our experience is ordinary (a book on the table) or transcendent (God speaking to us), we interpret it in terms of the ideas and beliefs we already have. For example, suppose someone said this in rather clumsy French:
Pas de lieu Rhône que nous.
A French speaker who knew no English would think it was nonsense (a rough translation is “No place that we Rhône”). But an English speaker who knew no French might hear:
Paddle your own canoe.
The French speaker’s memory contains French words, phrases, and grammar. The English speaker’s memory contains English words, phrases, and grammar. They hear the same sounds, but each person interprets the sounds in terms of what he or she knows.10
The same principle applies to how we interpret other realities. From the archaeological record, it seems clear that one or more catastrophic floods occurred in the Ancient Near East, giving rise to several different flood legends. The Gilgamesh epic was widely known, including by those of our ancestors who received and wrote down the Torah. It is therefore unsurprising that they perceived the revelation in terms of the story they already knew.
The same applies to similarities between our covenant at Sinai and Hittite vassal treaties, and our commandments and earlier legal codes. The earlier archetypes were known to Biblical writers, so they unconsciously perceived the new information in terms of the old, and that’s how they wrote it. Even if it’s God talking to us, the human mind has specific limitations, and that’s one of them.
What Revelation Adds to Us
If revelation is available to all peoples, and prophets interpret revelation in terms of ideas they already have, then what is unique about God’s revelation to our ancestors?
People have different levels of ability in different areas. Some have perfect pitch. Some have sharp vision. Others recognize mathematical patterns easily. What applies to individual people applies, with adjustments, to populations. Most distinct groups are stronger in some areas than in others.
When God gave us His revelation, He tailored it to match our particular ability to perceive it. That specific element is what God added to our ancestors’ consciousness as a people, an element for which no other nation in the Ancient Near East was prepared. What was it?
What do we find in Jewish revelation that is not in pagan documents of the era? First and foremost is the moral element. Our ancestors were the first to perceive God as morally good instead of as a relatively amoral being with supernatural powers.11
Our ancestors also understood that God cared about human moral conduct. The Genesis flood story is unique in that God brings the flood because of the sins of humanity, saving Noah and his family.
By contrast, the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic has the gods wipe out humanity for no particular reason. In another Mesopotamian flood story, Atrahasis, the gods wipe out humanity for making too much noise.
Pagan stories of the flood lack the moral teaching that was the central theme of the Torah account. The same applies to covenants and commandments. Pagan documents are mainly about power and submission; Jewish documents are about morals, sin, and redemption. They emphasize that God does care, God is involved, and that it does matter how we live.
What Our Revelation Adds to Humanity
Our Torah describes some of the same events as pagan stories, but reveals their moral aspects. The influence of pagan stories often provides a background or structure, but the revealed truths in the Torah versions are clearly contributed by God through our ancestors. Other ancient nations did sometimes get intimations of transcendent realities such as the oneness of God, but their insights were fragmentary, confused, and corrupt.
What the Torah brought, and what we must always bring to the rest of the world, is the truth of God’s existence, His love, and His wish that we all be good people. As Rabbi Hillel said, “the rest is commentary.”12
Blanshard, B. (1939), The Nature of Thought. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Gottlieb, M., editor (2011), Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible. Waltham: Brandeis University Press.
Hays, C. (2014), Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle edition.
Israel, J., editor (2007), Spinoza: Theological-Political Treatise. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kugel, J. (2007), How to Read the Bible. New York: Free Press.
Lewy, H. (2006), 3 Jewish Philosophers. London: Toby Press. Kindle edition.
Matthews, W., (2006), Old Testament Parallels. Mahwah: Paulist Press. Kindle edition.
Pines, S., translator (1963), The Guide of the Perplexed, Volume 2. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Russell, Bertrand (1961), Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. George Allen & Unwin, London, UK.
Walton, J. (2013), Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. Kindle edition.
- Hays, C. (2014), loc. 2775. ↩
- Kugel, J. (2007), p. 243; Matthews, W., loc. 777. ↩
- Matthews, W. (2006), loc. 859. ↩
- Walton, J. (2013), loc. 1569. ↩
- Israel, J. (2007), p. 49. ↩
- Lewy, H. (2006), loc. 3205. ↩
- Pines, S. (1963), Volume 2, p. 371. ↩
- Russell, B. (1961), p. 64. ↩
- Gottlieb, M. (2011), p. 80. ↩
- Blanshard. B. (1939), Vol. 1, p. 118: “Can we draw any line within perception between what is given and what is thought? … Any line we actually draw proves arbitrary and inconstant.” ↩
- Walton, J. (2013), loc. 1857. ↩
- In “Making Sense of the Revelation at Sinai,” Prof. Samuel Fleischacker gives a very thoughtful and scholarly analysis of some of these issues. He would disagree with some of the things I’ve said here, but I urge anyone who’s interested to read his article. ↩