Relationships and Near Eastern Law
The stories of Genesis are so much a part of our own culture, and so vivid in and of themselves, that we tend to treat them as timeless, almost universal, pieces of literature. Whether or not we regard them as sacred Scripture, we analyze them for their literary structure, their moral import, and their psychological truths. In this there is a danger that we will forget that even though the very durability of the Bible proves its ability to transcend cultural and temporal boundaries, nevertheless it comes out of a specific cultural milieu and manifests many of the features of the culture from which it sprang.
This has been made abundantly clear during the last one hundred years, during which time we have witnessed the discovery of the cuneiform culture, the dominant culture of the ancient Near East, and the mother-culture—if you will—of Israel. There were published in short order such documents as the Gilgamesh epic, which contains a flood story exceedingly similar to the biblical account, paralleling it in such detail as the sending forth of birds to determine the emergence of dry land. The discovery of the Laws of Hammurabi, with their close affinity to the Covenant Code of Exodus, must have seemed even more threatening to the traditional biblicists of the time. The emergence of these documents at the beginning of Assyriological research effected a radical transformation in our perception of the Bible. There was an initial period of shock during which the similarities to Babylonian material seemed so vast as to be explainable only in terms of gross plagiarism. Now, however, the intimate relationship of Israelite culture to earlier and contemporary traditions is taken as axiomatic. Attention is increasingly focused on the nature of that relationship and on the ways in which Israel adapted, utilized, and transformed the cultural materials at hand.