Foreign Influences on the Hebrew Bible?
In my exegesis class we recently had a lively discussion, sparked by some of the material in Bernhard Anderson’s book Out of the Depths, on the subject of Canaanite and Egyptian influence on the biblical Psalms. This strain of comparative study was begun in earnest by Frank Cross in his book Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, the basic thesis being that Canaanite mythology (and the poetic expressions thereof) is the borrowed conceptual basis for the cosmology of the Hebrew Bible. This vein of scholarship, which includes Anderson’s book, will often make positive comparisons between Canaanite or Egyptian hymns and Hebrew Psalms. The following example, a comparison between the Egyptian “Hymn to the Aton” and Psalm 104, comes from Out of the Depths (pg. 31):
How manifold it is, what thou hast made. They are hidden from the face of man. O sole god, like whom there is no other! Thou didst create the world according to thy desire, whilst thou wert alone. All men, cattle and wild beasts, whatever is on earth, going upon its feet. And what is on high, flying with wings.
This, we are told, is to be compared with Psalm 104:24
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your possessions, this great and wide sea, in which are innumerable teeming things, living things both great and small.
Other comparisons are regularly made but the one above is a typical example.
First, it should be observed that different people are bound to speak of their respective gods with superlative language, which will at points sound similar. I’m sure that similar statements can be found, if one is determined to find them, in any two examples of the world’s religious literature. This does not prove interdependence.
Secondly, even if we can find undisputable connections it does not follow that there is a positive relationship. The Hebrew Bible may well be accessing other religious literature in a polemic way, making a parody of the competition while proclaiming the God of Israel to be the one, true God.
Thirdly, such connections are maximized by being selective with the evidence. Even in the short sample above the differences are at least as numerous as the similarities. If one were to conduct a thorough comparison between the complete texts of the Hymn to the Aton and Psalm 104 the ratio between similarities and differences would certainly increase.
Fourthly, it is difficult to believe that the same Bible which powerfully inveighs against borrowing anything from foreign cults would itself borrow the literature of those cults so conspicuously.
Finally, there is surely some prejudice at work in translation, at least the translation Anderson uses. The King James style language that is draped over this Egyptian hymn is about as natural as a three dollar bill, and can only be for the purpose of giving it a biblical tone.
So, color me skeptical. I remain convinced that the Hebrew Bible is uniquely the Word of the true and living God and not a patchwork of borrowed ideas.