Sunday, December 30, 2007

the Bible, pagan myths, and classical literature

From my lesson in Numbers 21-22 this morning, a small but interesting observation from what has to be one of the most obscure passages in the Bible: in the book of Numbers (a compelling and historically vital but often overlooked book itself), Moses refers to an Amorite victory song in praising God for Israel's victory over the Amorites (21:27-30).

First, this is the equivalent of biblical smack-talk-- using a defeated foe's own victory song against them. One sees this sort of polemic off-and-on throughout the Old Testament, especially early in Genesis-- as the Bible redeems (and corrects) the largely incoherent pagan myths about the Creation and the Flood, and takes pokes at the Babylonian deities at Babel. Other interesting examples: the "competition" between God and Dagon in I Samuel 5 and the famous passage in I Kings 18-- where Elijah whips up on the prophets of Baal (as God whips up on Baal).

Second, its use points to a proverbs-like irony about the short-lived victory of evil (Job 24:24)-- a key Biblical theme-- if not temporally, then in the divine economy.

Third, it is one of a handful of examples where extra-biblical passages are brought into the Bible-- saved (in some cases) and redeemed for eternity (in all cases). Likewise, Paul uses pagan poets on three different occasions to make his points. It's a much longer subject-- the relationship between Christianity and culture-- but this reality implies that complete separation from the culture is not an ideal option for Christians.

Along those lines, in Touchstone (November 2005), Patrick Henry Reardon argues that the inclusion of this is “remarkable” since it is a poem about a war that “had nothing directly to do with Israel” and asks rhetorically why God/Moses included it.

I can think of only one reason: It was a good poem about a real war…These pagan verses, much like the secular aphorisms inserted into the book of Proverbs, thus served to broaden the Bible’s own vista. Israel took care to preserve this Amorite poem for the same reason that Irish monks, as they copied the sagas of Greece and Rome, perceived that the epic quality of that literature raised it to a level of universal interest and sympathy. That is to say, the impulse prompting the assumption of this little poem into Holy Scripture was what we may call classical, and it reveals a bit of God’s own take on the matter.

Good stuff!


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home