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Home » Book Reviews


Submitted by on March 14, 2010 – 1:43 pmNo Comment

This volume is the first complete English translation of Hermann Gunkel’s groundbreaking Schpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit, originally published in German in 1895  a classic work that has had a profound influence on modern biblical scholarship. It was one of the defining studies in the ‘history of religions’ school, which revolutionized biblical scholarship at the end of the nineteenth century. Whitney’s helpful preface explains to a new generation why this book is so important in the history of scholarship. He has also filled out and enriched the original indexes and bibliography, making the book easier to consult.

Gunkel employs the Babylonian myth of cosmic and human creation, represented most completely in the Enuma Elish to maintain that Gen 1 and Rev 12 form a single biblical tradition he famously labeled Chaoskampf or “chaos battle.” With this combat motif as his case study, Gunkel demonstrates the importance of myth as a fundamental category in the religions of the ancient Near East and how these impacted biblical Israel. Gunkel called his approach “tradition history” or berlieferungsgeschichte. The heart of this approach is the matrixing of biblical with non-biblical texts. It is not enough, he maintains, to focus on an individual text alone, as though it was a completely independent, free creation of its author. The text must rather be seen as one link in a complex chain of tradition and interpretation, therefore, the interpreter must try to discover how its author worked within the tradition, what conditions in his community he was responding to, and why he adapted the tradition as he did in order to produce the text that he did.

The work is divided into two major units. The first deals with the manifestation of the creation myth in the Old Testament. Beginning with the creation account of Gen 1, Gunkel traces out the similarities and differences between that account and the Enuma Elish which is a narrative of the battle between the young warrior-god of Babylon Marduk and the olden goddess Ti’amat. Despite the pristine and methodical picture given of creation in Gen 1, Gunkel finds traces of this Babylonian narrative and its far more tumultuous and violent myth of creation (e.g., Gen 1:2 “Now the earth was formless and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep”). He notes these motifs in other Old Testament texts and divides them into two large groups: those dealing with the dragon (“Die Drachentraditionen”) and those dealing with the primal sea (“die Traditionen vom Urmeer”).

In the second part of the book Gunkel examines Rev 12. Here he argues that the Babylonian creation myth took on an eschatological form. In the remainder of the study he looks first at the general presence of Babylonian mythic materials in later Judaism and then he turns to Rev 13 and 17.

When Gunkel’s book was first published, Julius Wellhausen said: “Heir ist mehr Chaos als Sch??pfung!” (‘Here is more chaos than creation!’). Scholars today admiringly reverse that phrase: “Hier ist mehr Sch??pfung als Chaos!” (‘Here is more creation than chaos!’). But the work is not without its shortcomings. Most prominent is his too exclusive focus on the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish. Discoveries made after the appearance of Creation and Chaos, which Gunkel could not have anticipated, demonstrate that the myth of cosmic combat had, in various forms, a wide distribution throughout the ancient Near East. Attestations from the West Semitic, namely the Ba’al and Anat cycle excavated from the city of Ugarit in the 1930s and a more recent publication (1993) of a cuneiform letter from the city of Mari were later brought into the conversation.

Another problem is that readers may draw the conclusion from Gunkel’s work that Old Testament creation texts are no different from their Babylonian counterparts to the degree that the Old Testament appears to be just one more set of texts from another ancient people, this one called ‘Israel.’However, it is more faithful to maintain that Yahweh did not leave Israel in a mythic world, but rather transformed the ancient myths to proclaim himself as the one and only God. To put it this way is not to concede ground to liberalism, but to understand that the Old Testament had a context within which it was first understood.

Of course in a book on biblical studies published in 1895 will require revision. But still fundamental and challenging are the questions Gunkel asked of his texts, and the method he formulated for answering them, with its rigorous and integrated balance between close analysis of the primary biblical sources and comparative assessment of analogues to them.

Reed Lessing

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