As Daniel Bodi put it, “if one can show how insights gained from the study of newly discovered ancient Near Eastern texts have been anticipated by medieval rabbis who did not have access to these buried ancient Semitic documents, then the probability that one’s interpretation is plausible may be increased.”1 The principle goes back to Moshe Held, a scholar and teacher who was a competent reader of a wide range of texts spanning millennia in numerous languages including Akkadian and Hebrew.
The premier example of the Moshe Held principle involves the interpretation of the grammar of Gen 1:1-3: following the discovery of Enuma Elish (“When on high …”) and the Atrahasis Epic (“When the gods were like men …”), the interpretation of Gen 1:1-2 (“When God began to create”) as stage-setting for the first mainline event of Gen 1, “God said, ‘Let there be light’” (Gen 1:3), a view already advanced by Rashi, became more plausible.
A host of modern interpreters, with or without knowledge or dependence on the discoveries, and with or without knowledge of Rashi’s interpretation, construe likewise: among others, Heinrich Ewald, Max Geiger, Karl Budde, William Foxwell Albright, Otto Eissfeldt, Siegfried Herrmann, Harry M. Orlinsky, Ephraim A. Speiser, and Francis I. Andersen. I describe the “new-old” understanding of Gen 1:1-3, with which I concur, in a “Technical Note” here. Robert Holmstedt offers an analysis in terms of a type of relative clause: go here and here for online discussion.
For a discussion of rabbinic interpretations of the passage in question, see Peter Schäfer, “Berēšit bārā ‘Elōhīm. Zur Interpretation von Gen 1:1 in der rabbinischen Literatur,” JSJ 2 (1971) 161–66. On this view, Gen 1:1-3 finds its closest analogues in Gen 2:4b-7 and Hos 1:4. For variations on this understanding which however miss the fact that the wayyiqtol marks the matrix clause or mainline event, see Ibn Ezra and, among moderns, Paul Humbert, "Trois Notes sur Genèse I," Interpretationes ad Vetus Testamentum Pertinentes Sigmundo Mowinckel Septuagenario Missae ( = NTT 56 ; Nils A. Dahl and Arvid S. Kapelrud, eds.; Olso: Forlaget Land og Kirche, 1955) 85-96 (ET here), repr. in idem, Opuscules d'un hébraïsant (Mémoires de l'université de Neuchâtel 26; Neuchâtel: Secrétariat de l'université; 1958) 193-203; idem, “Encore le premier mot de la Bible: à propos d'un article de M Walther Eichrodt,” ZAW 76 (1964) 121–31; and Walter Gross, “Syntaktische Erscheinungen am Anfang althebräischer Erzählungen: Hintergrund und Vordergrund,“ in Congress Volume: Vienna (John A. Emerton, ed.; VTSup 32; Leiden: Brill, 1981) 131-145. For the alternative view that Gen 1:1 represents an independent clause, see John H. Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011) 123-127, and bibliography cited. I thank James Spinti for sending me a PDF of Walton’s important volume. If blog readers show interest in a review of Walton’s volume, I may very well oblige.
1 Daniel Bodi, The Demise of the Warlord: A New Look at the David Story (Hebrew Bible Monographs 26; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2010) 4, cited by Jeremy Hutton in a review.