Against the Gods, The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament,by John D. Currid, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 153 pp., paper $17.99
One of the strongest criticisms facing biblical Christianity today is that much of Scripture, especially Old Testament stories, is borrowed from ancient accounts found in pagan mythologies. Since there are numerous narratives within ancient Near East studies that are very similar to biblical stories (e.g. creation, the flood, the exodus), it is now accepted by secular and liberal scholarship that the authors of Scripture merely borrowed these myths and invented a Jewish monotheistic storyline (pp. 22-23). In other words, biblical accounts of those stories are just as mythical as pagan accounts. Many evangelical scholars are drifting in this general direction as well, claiming that the Old Testament stories are “firmly rooted in the worldview of its time” (p. 23 – Peter Enns). As a result John Walton states, “The early accounts of Genesis are ‘culturally descriptive rather than revealed truth.’” This leads Currid to conclude, “Many evangelical Old Testament scholars emphasize the similarities and parallels between ancient Near Eastern literature and biblical writings, and they do not recognize, to any great degree, the foundational difference between the two” (p. 23).
Currid disagrees with these scholars. He explores the precise relationship of the Old Testament to Near Eastern literature and concludes that the Old Testament authors did not borrow from ancient Near East legends but actually challenged these myths by revealing the true account and the truth about God. He calls this “polemical theology” which “takes well-known expressions and motifs from the ancient Near Eastern milieu and applies them to the person and work of Yahweh,” (p. 25). Further, “The primary purpose of polemical theology is to demonstrate emphatically and graphically the distinctions between the worldview of the Hebrews and the beliefs and practices of the rest of the ancient Near East” (p. 25). And, “The biblical authors refuted the pagan myths by identifying the holy Lord as the true Creator and Ruler of the cosmos and of history.” (p. 31).
Currid applies this approach to some of the best known accounts in the Old Testament: creation (chapter 3), the flood (chapter 4), Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (chapter 5), the birth of Moses (chapter 7) and the exodus stories (chapters 8-10). His conclusion concerning the birth of Moses is representative: “The writer [of the biblical story] takes the famous pagan myth and turns it on its head in order to ridicule Egypt and to highlight the truth of the Hebrew world-and–life view. At the heart of the polemic is a taunt of the Egyptian Pharaoh” (p. 86). Later he writes, “The biblical writer’s radical monotheism shines forth brightly through this polemic that taunts the false gods of Canaan” (p. 137).
In the process of presenting his case for polemical theology, Currid provides a wealth of information about the culture, worldview and mythologies of the ancient Near Eastern societies. This information alone is highly valuable in helping the reader understand the times in which Scripture was written and ancient Israel lived. Obviously in a mere 149 pages, including seven pages of index, the author has only scratched the surface of this fascinating subject. But in this readable and extremely interesting book Currid has accomplished much. He has given the reader important context for better interpreting the Old Testament and he has successfully challenged the modern scholarship that strips, or at least diminishes, the truthfulness of the Old Testament narratives. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor, Southern View Chapel.