In the preceding post, I noted an overlap between the religion of Israel and that of Mesopotamia: God/the gods wish humanity well, with caveats. To be sure, the overlap is not particularly obvious in Atrahasis, in which Enki and Mami, the birth-goddess and Queen of the gods, are the only decent gods on display. I also suggested that the overlap gives rise, among the unprepared, to inopportune questions (the following are made-up examples designed to illustrate typical errors):
(1) Do ANE divinities, insofar as they are benevolent, furnish a parallel to the God of Israel?
(2) Who borrowed the idea of divine benevolence from whom?
(1) and (2) are not well-formulated questions.
Question (1) requires restatement: Do divinities the world over (and/or ultimate reality however defined), insofar as they are benevolent, furnish a parallel to the God of Israel? Of course, but that only implies that human beings, for whatever reason, share a common set of hopes and fears, and a common set of strategies of dealing with them. Cultural universals form an interesting field of research, but a very diifficult one to make headway in, without falling into the trap of parallelomania.
Question (2) misunderstands how cultures interact with each other.
A culture is a self-organizing system that adapts to reality without the need to borrow everything from a sister culture. Cultures are not to be compared to the content of Petri dishes laying beside one another, with critters jumping from one dish to the next. Rather, there is a sense in which culture has always been a global, seamless garment. At the same time, there is a sense in which culture has always been non-uniform over space and time. Question (2) is about as well-formulated as the question of who borrowed the idea of sex-for-sale from whom.
A contrastive approach seeks to read ancient texts on their own terms. It eschews a premature subordination or assimilation of any text to another.
Clearly, this is not the only way to read texts. It is possible to read the Hebrew Bible, for example, on the principle that it is promise and what we find in (1) the New Testament or (2) the Talmud is its continuation and fulfillment. I myself read the Hebrew Bible in those ways, from a purely historical point of view, and from a theological point of view.
But it is also possible to read the books of the Hebrew Bible on their own terms, and, taken together, as an unfinished symphony in its own right.
To be sure, even with respect to the more limited corpus of reference constituted by the Hebrew Bible, it is possible for one’s approach to be infected with parallelomania, the tendency to overestimate commonalities, underestimate differences, and build a teetery house of cards thereon.
The contrastive approach to texts is historical in terms of methodology. Historical thinking is both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, the more you know historically, the more it hurts. The more things change, the more they do not stay the same. On the other hand, that there is so much history-writing in the Bible (and apocalypse, a style of historical reflection for the super-cool only, on a par with modern-day science fiction) suggests that historical reflection, from a biblical point of view, is a serviceable means by which we are instructed to our profit.