Reissued with a new afterword twenty years after its initial publication, this little volume places in the reader’s hands a reliable and thought-provoking survey of how Israelite faith reinterpreted the mythical elements that lay strewn about its terrain. American Jews and American Christians look, speak, and think like Americans, so Belgium Jews and Christians do the same in that country. Even so, Israel-as it worked out the often radical commitments of Yahwistic faith-would have looked, lived, written and prayed in a manner well accented by the Canaanite milieu in which it developed. It is the religio-mythical elements of that environment to which Anderson so helpfully directs his scrutiny.
Anderson’s approach is user-friendly, grouping his comments into five medium-length chapters. Each links the topic of creation to a second biblical theme: ‘Creation and History’, ‘Creation and Covenant’, ‘Creation and Worship’, ‘Creation and Consummation’, and ‘Creation and Conflict’.
There is nothing so frightening as chaos. The second half of the twentieth century arguably has cushioned Western readers from the threat of chaos, if not from intense violence in far-off places. Yet events in the Balkans and the appalling power of Caribbean storms might well seem the kind of wake-up call of the kind-if not the scale-of Europe’s first world war. Anderson’s first chapter reminds us that the fear of chaos is not a modern anxiety (‘Creation and History’, pp. 11-42). Repaying his intellectual debt to Gunkel and the more recent Biblical Theology Movement, the author shows the influence of Ancient Near Eastern mythology upon the Bible’s contemplation of chaos and order, even as he insists that `the uniqueness of the Bible is that it takes history seriously as the sphere of God’s self-disclosure and of man’s authentic existence’. For example, the recitation of the Babylonian myth enuma elish is both like and unlike Israel’s creedal repetition of the Exodus events. What is different in this annual re-reading is that Israel anchors the struggle between chaos and order in her own history, rather than in the inaccessible milieu of myth.
Indeed, Anderson is sure that Israel’s history is central to the Old Testament to such an extreme that ‘the creation accounts at the beginning of the Bible are written from the standpoint of the meaning disclosed in the event of the Exodus. The history that is now recorded forwards must be read backwards, so to speak, through the faith of the believing community. And the fulcrum of Israel’s faith, as it is expressed in the Hexateuch, is the event of the Exodus.’ Anderson credits the Exodus with a formative influence of such strength that the event and the people’s reflection upon it serve as a kind of entrance way into the rest of the people’s faith. From another angle, all things—the creation of the universe included among them—can be understood only as the work of the God who redeemed his people when he brought them out of Egypt.
Not all of Israel’s neighbors considered the powers of nature to be capricious (‘Creation and Covenant’, 43-77). Egypt, for example, practiced the fundamental conviction that endowed Egyptian culture with extraordinary tranquility and stability, namely, that social order exists within a cosmic order that is eternally permanent. Egypt’s sun-god did not battle chaos, but rather day after day conquered the power of darkness. Israel, with her acute sense for history, tended more towards the chaos-and-order preoccupation of Canaanite culture.
Anderson argues that creation is a motif that came lately to Israelite culture, which for similar reasons fixed upon the historical creation of a nation rather than the extra-historical making of an entire universe. He accounts for Israel’s ‘reticence about creation’ by boldly asserting that Israel gave creation a secondary place as a polemical, or at least prophylactic, measure aimed at the sacralization of nature and the creation drama. When Israelites gathered for worship on the inherited Canaanite calendar, they met primarily to celebrate Yahweh’s acts in history. Reticence about creation is thus transformed into an assertion about the ongoing historical worth of creation faith. History takes priority. With occasional caveats, Anderson moves with von Rad towards the suspicion that it was the Yahwist who performed the ‘revolutionary’ act of ‘secularizing culture’ in the ‘Yahwistic epic’ that is his handiwork. Both P and J-for Anderson it is no irrelevance that these are the Pentateuch’s ‘southern’ traditions-write up creation as the appropriate opening act for Exodus, the main show.
Anderson sketches a conventional critical view of two formative covenants. In the north (Israel), a Mosaic, conditional covenant echoed the ancient Hittite suzerainty treaties. In the south (Judah), an oath-based, unconditional covenant takes its cues from the Abrahamic linkages of clan and god that circulated in the Hebron area. The two distinctive types were blended via the Jerusalemite cult, that is to say, in the practice and persistence of Yahweh-worship. It is the latter class of covenant, with its insistence upon Davidic permanence, which cultivated a less reticent view of creation. Monarchy of a Davidide sort came to be anchored in creation itself. Anderson also wants to see pre-Davidic, Jebusite, creation-friendly ideology exercising its influence upon the Jerusalem cult of monarchical times.
‘Creation and Worship’ (pp. 78-109) asserts the priority of praise over creation. That is, worship is the context in which the Lord is seen as the king of all the earth. The creation stories grow out of this doxological conviction, not the reverse. Moreover, it is in worship that the creation motif finds permanence. Creation imagery is then further appropriated by the literature of praise in order to make theological affirmations about the Lord’s work in history. For this kind of ancient Israelite thinking, the experience of redemption is not so unlike the notion of creation, for in both instances the Lord beats back death-dealing chaos. Anderson believes that this transformation of the mythical to the historical occurred precisely in the Jerusalem cult. Worship thus becomes a fully protean context for theological innovation.
In ‘Creation and Consummation’ (ch. four, pp. 110-143), Anderson makes the counterintuitive claim that creation is inherently eschatological. From the beginning—he interprets the troublesome grammar of Genesis 1.1 as an absolute beginning in keeping with his understanding of the Priestly ideology—one anticipates the end. According to the famous dictum, Urzeit gleich Endzeit. Anderson is equally certain that the doctrine of creation is primarily historical rather than cosmological, that is ‘a category of history, not of nature’. His chief evidence for this provocative assertion is that `new creation’ is all about redemption of a people in time and space.
Anderson complements this horizontal typology with recognition of a vertical equivalent: creation as the Creator’s temple. Still, this one was not as ‘serviceable’ to Israel, owing to her prior commitment to history over spaciality. Though it is not as easy to swallow this whole after critiques of the history-over-creation approach even from such committed biblical theologians as W. Brueggemann, Anderson’s argument is rich and thought-provoking and—one wishes—not running too far out in front of his texts.
Anderson is particularly evocative in his elucidation of Second Isaiah’s use of creation materials from P to speak both of Israel’s First Exodus from Egypt and of the coming Second Exodus from Babylon. Because biblical creation language oscillates between the poles of chaos and creation—not, as commonly assumed, nothingness and creation—‚Anderson can properly read Second Isaiah’s employment of creation vocabulary and imagery as a casting of a people’s liberation in just those same terms: the creation of fruitful order over against the forces of chaos. The implications for biblical theology and one’s understanding of community are plentiful and rich.
When Anderson walks the path from Second Isaiah’s transformation—one might well say historicization—of Canaanite and/or Babylonian chaos imagery to the rather different approach of apocalyptic literature, he manages to spot an advance in the dawn of apocalyptic, as P. Hanson has memorably put it. Readers familiar with the influential Wellhausian view that apocalyptic represents for Judaism the gray wall at the extremity of a dead-end alley and with Hanson’s more respectful and equally paradigmatic argument that apocalyptic springs out of Israelite prophetism but loses its grip on history, Anderson’s story will read as something strange. Or perhaps refreshing.
Anderson believes that the writers of apocalyptic-or indeed those visionaries who stood behind them-achieve the recognition that there is evil in the world that cannot be exhaustively explained by human behavior or by its contractualization in covenant. They perceive that the nations’ enmity against Israel is at a deeper level one part of a cosmic animosity directed against Yahweh, his world, and his intentions with regard to it. For Anderson, that is to say, the apocalyptics glimpse an edge of reality that the prophets did not. By his lights, Messiah then becomes the conqueror of Leviathan (call the beast Satan, that ancient serpent) in all his chaos-making writhings.
What are we to make of the Bible’s apocalyptic imagery and its ‘satan myth’, as Anderson call sit in his final full chapter (Chapter five, ‘Creation and Conflict’, pp. 144-170)? First writing in 1967, Anderson can address the issue in a rather more sanguine mood than is possible just a few years into the twenty-first century when evil seem rather more pulsating, visceral, and dangerous than some years ago. Still, in spite of his conviction that ‘belief in a literal devil … has faded away under the influence of modern rationalism and secularism’, Anderson struggles with the matter in a manner that is both authentic and illuminating.
To begin, ‘it can hardly be doubted that the Christian interpretation of human existence, as rooted in the Scriptures’, is a theology of conflict, a conflict which will be resolved finally in the coming of God’s kingdom, of which the victorious life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the foretaste, promise, and beginning.’ So there is both tooth and fang in the current cosmic struggle? Yes, answers, Anderson, and one must wonder whether it is a function of human freedom—an ‘Adamic myth’—or rather rooted in cosmogony itself and therefore rooted in the divine.
Many modern thinkers have wanted to locate evil in human choice and, thus, to demythologize the Bible’s myth of serpent, fall, and judgment East of Eden as a parable that substantivizes an essentially human and internal drama. Starting from the New Testament with its overt demonologies, Anderson conjectures that Yahwistic drama has been a rather severe editor of Israelite faith and that behind the Old Testament there must lay more belief in demons and other external agents of evil than we are able to read about on the service until ‘theological sensitivity had become sharper’ by the time of the Chronicler, with his famous incitement of David by an evil spirit to take a census of able-bodied Israelites.
The author understands the Bible’s limited dualism as ‘a historical dualism’ rather than ‘a metaphysical or ontological dualism (as in Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Manichaeanism, etc.) … a conflict which occurs between the beginning and the consummation of the historical drama.’ Biblical monotheism would not tolerate a more entrenched division of powers between the Creator and any satanic opposition, an observation that leads one to suppose in a time when people badly want to know that Anderson thinks there is none. The New Testament limits Satan’s dominance to history and Anderson ends his book with Pauline doxology, so this appears indeed to be the case.
An ‘Epilogue’ and `Postcript’ conclude the book.
Creation versus Chaos is vintage Princeton Seminary Old Testament work. A lifetime of erudition stands behind what is an extremely accessible little book, suitable for college-level readers who want to think seriously about what the biblical creation traditions have to say about the Bible itself and the life of those who in the course of normal lives encounter chaos as-to paraphrase von Rad-an enduring possibility.
In addition, anyone interested or involved in debates about ‘creation’ in the public arena will benefit from Anderson’s ‘new-is-old’ reframing of what creation is all about in the Bible’s own terms. The author himself would doubtless wish that the shepherds and participants of Christian community might appropriate the profound relevance of the ‘doctrine’ of creation for the purpose that brings them together, a desire whose accomplishment this reviewer heartily commends.