What not to expect from the sermons in your church

Q. I’ve been looking for a church in my area for some time now and I’m starting to get discouraged. The pastors of the churches I’ve visited haven’t gone very deep in their preaching.  I haven’t yet heard anyone preach exegetically through a passage, for example, and they often get sidetracked talking about superficial matters. Some of them actually seem to get their sermons off the Internet and then just adapt them with personal anecdotes. I’ve talked with some of them about my concerns and they’ve told me they’re “trying to keep it basic” for the sake of new believers. But it seems to me that this is just keeping everybody in perpetual immaturity.

My main point of frustration is that pastors either don’t seem to take their roles very seriously and seem to be just providing entertainment, or they teach really basic stuff super dogmatically but don’t really challenge their congregations. My understanding of what a pastor should be is someone who is there to equip and guide the congregation in terms of what the Bible really teaches, how to apply it to one’s life, and then how to understand our culture in order to engage it. As it is, half the time I stay home and listen to podcasts by people whose vision and style I appreciate such as Tim Keller. I know Christianity is about community and about giving back and being part of the change, but I don’t know where to begin.

In my first post in response to this question, I described what I thought was reasonable and fair for a person to expect from the sermons in their local church: that they be original (not pulled off the Internet and dressed up with a bit of local color), biblical (based on a passage carefully worked through), coherent, and challenging.  Now let me share some thoughts about what a person shouldn’t necessarily expect from the sermons in their church, in the hopes that this will help you be more open to some particular churches near you than you might be otherwise.

Let me begin with a story.  When I was no more than a few months into my first solo pastorate after seminary and graduate school, a longtime member asked to meet with me.  She took a few minutes to describe how she listened to Charles Stanley on television on Sunday mornings before coming to our service, and then she got right to the point:  “I wish you would preach more like Charles Stanley.”  (I thought to myself, “I wish I could preach more like Charles Stanley!”)

But an interesting thing happened after that.  Several months later, I was speaking with this same woman again, and she admitted, “For some reason, I now enjoy listening to your sermons just as much as to Charles Stanley’s, and I get just as much out of them.”  I knew that the reason wasn’t that in those few months I had somehow caught up in preaching ability with this naturally gifted speaker who has years of experience before a national television audience.  There was a different reason, which I’d like to explain by way of an analogy.

The classic definition of a sacrament is that it’s “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”  But there’s another definition that I find just as meaningful:  “A sacrament is the community bearing witness to God’s work in an individual life.”

When you commit yourself to following Christ, for example, you don’t baptize yourself.  You share your testimony of faith with the leaders and members of your local church, and when they are convinced that your commitment is genuine, they will baptize you.  If you feel called to the ministry, you don’t ordain yourself.  You make the case that you are called before the leaders of your church and of the other churches it is in fellowship with, and likely after a period of testing and training, they will ordain you.  Similarly you don’t perform your own wedding, or eat the Lord’s Supper all by yourself.  In all these sacramental instances the community of Jesus’ followers is bearing witness to God’s work in individual lives.

A sermon can be thought of as a “counter-clockwise sacrament,” that is, an instance when things flow in the other direction:  A sermon is an individual bearing witness to God’s work in the life of a community.  When preparing a sermon, or a series of sermons, the pastor considers carefully what God has been doing in the life of the community (discerned by walking as a shepherd among the people and sharing their journeys of faith), and then chooses a biblical passage or book that will speak to that activity, encouraging the people in the progress that has already been made and challenging them to press on further.

I think the woman who was such a big fan of Charles Stanley came to appreciate my sermons just as much as his not because they were delivered with equal polish and eloquence, but because she sensed that they were speaking to and about the life of faith we were all living together in our church.  She saw her own journey depicted and addressed in my sermons, and she felt right at home in them.

I think this is what you can and should reasonably expect from the sermons in your local church.  But you will need to become part of its ongoing shared life before you will hear your own story being told in the sermons.  Perhaps there’s a church you’ve visited whose people and programs you really like, but you’re just not so sure about the sermons.  Well, an awful lot of local church sermons will suffer by comparison with the Tim Keller podcasts you’ve been listening to at home.  Let’s face it, there aren’t too many Tim Kellers or Charles Stanleys out there, and it’s not fair or reasonable to expect any given local church pastor to preach and teach at that same level.  The purpose of preaching is not to give the parishioners a Bible school education from the pulpit—there are other times and places to get that kind of instruction.

So I’d encourage you to give such a church a fair try, particularly if the sermons seem to have the potential to meet the basic expectations I outlined at the beginning of this post.  You may find before long that a “counter-clockwise sacrament” is bearing witness, every time you hear a sermon in this church, to the life you’ve come to share with those people, and you’ll feel right at home.

Help! I can’t find a church in my area where the sermons have any depth!

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Q. I’ve been looking for a church in my area for some time now and I’m starting to get discouraged. The pastors of the churches I’ve visited don’t go very deep in their preaching.  I haven’t yet heard anyone preach exegetically through a passage, for example, and they often get sidetracked talking about superficial matters. Some of them actually seem to get their sermons off the Internet and then just adapt them with personal anecdotes. I’ve talked with some of them about my concerns and they’ve told me they’re “trying to keep it basic” for the sake of new believers. But it seems to me that this is just keeping everybody in perpetual immaturity.

My main point of frustration is that pastors either don’t seem to take their roles very seriously and seem to be just providing entertainment, or they teach really basic stuff super dogmatically but don’t really challenge their congregations. My understanding of what a pastor should be is someone who is there to equip and guide the congregation in terms of what the Bible really teaches, how to apply it to one’s life, and then how to understand our culture in order to engage it. As it is, half the time I stay home and listen to podcasts by people whose vision and style I appreciate such as Tim Keller. I know Christianity is about community and about giving back and being part of the change, but I don’t know where to begin.

I think I can address your concerns from the “other side of the table,” so to speak, because I was a pastor myself for over twenty years.  In this post I’d like to affirm some of the things I think you can legitimately expect from the preaching at any church you attend.  In my next post I’ll describe some things that may not quite be realistic expectations, which I hope will help you recognize where you may indeed find a good church home in your new community.

•  First, I think you can and should realistically expect that the sermon will be the fruit of the pastor’s own personal engagement (in many cases wrestling!) with a biblical text that God has led them to preach on.  In other words, the sermon should be an original effort, based on diligent study, prayer, and reflection—not something pulled off the Internet and dressed up with a bit of local color.  Pastors need to heed Paul’s admonition to Timothy:  “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

•  Next, I think you can also realistically expect that the sermon will have some real depth to it, both in its approach—working exegetically through a passage, explaining its natural parts sequentially in light of their original language, culture, context, and audience, and noting present-day implications—and in its content:  it will fulfill the admonition in Hebrews, “Let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity.”

•  I think it’s also fair for you to expect that the sermon will stick to the point and communicate a clear and consistent message.  Yes, individual observations can and should be elucidated with pertinent illustrations.  But pastors are not fulfilling their callings if their sermons are typically rambling and incoherent, frequently straying from the main point (assuming there is one) into irrelevant and superficial topics.

•  Finally, as you say, I think you can reasonably expect that the primary effect of the sermon on you will be to challenge you—to greater godliness, to more devoted service, to more effective engagement with the culture, or something along those lines.  It will give you a “growing edge” to live out in the days ahead.  The essential purpose of the sermon should not be to entertain or to indoctrinate.

I’ll follow up on these thoughts in my next post with some reflections on what we might not realize we should actually not expect from the sermons in our home church.

Why do preachers and worship leaders talk so much about sports these days?

 

“Property of Jesus” baseball cap by CafePress

Q.  I’ve heard you relate how you once went to church and when the first words out of the worship leader’s mouth were something like “How ‘bout them Yankees?” you felt like shouting back, “How ‘bout that Jesus?”  I have the same frustration.  My pastor often gets sidetracked into talking about sports during his sermons.  Why do preachers and worship leaders talk so much about sports these days?

I can think of at least two good reasons to talk about sports during a worship gathering of Jesus’ followers.

For one thing, sports provides many illustrations of the perseverance and dedication that are required to live as followers of Jesus.  The Bible itself models using sports as a metaphor in this way.  In writing to the Corinthians, for example, Paul said, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”  Paul wrote similarly to Timothy, “Anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.”  And Psalm 19 even celebrates God’s creation by comparing the sun to “an athlete eager to run a race.”

A second legitimate use of sports, as I see it, is to “contextualize” the gospel by situating the message of worship and preaching within the milieu in which the hearers live.  When I came to pastor a church in the city where Michigan State University is located, at first I didn’t know any better than to wear my favorite yellow fleece jacket with blue jeans to informal gatherings, thus inadvertently donning the maize-and-blue colors of its arch-rival, the University of Michigan. Some people had such a hard time with this that I had to swap the yellow fleece for a green-and-white MSU sweatshirt, signaling that I was identifying with the community and its popular culture. This set people at ease, creating receptivity and an openness to my ministry.  I believe that carefully chosen verbal references to sports in worship and preaching can signal the same kind of intentional identification.

But this can easily be taken too far. We have to be careful not to use the spiritual authority behind worship and preaching to suggest, even implicitly, that God is on the side of one team and its fans and against other teams and their fans.  I like the answer a priest from Notre Dame gave when asked what God would do when Notre Dame played another Catholic school like Boston College, with the priests at both schools praying that their team would win.  “In that case,” he said, “I think the Lord would just sit back and enjoy a great football game.”  We need to convey this same sense of divine neutrality (and divine interest in a great game, as both teams strive to do their best) when we talk about sports.

I think the greatest danger is to imply that being a fan of a certain team is somehow a legitimate defining aspect of a person’s identity.  The spiritual authority behind worship and preaching can convey this message as well, if the local sports team is absorbed as part of the faith community’s identity.  Sometimes I’ll watch a game show on which the players are asked to say three or four defining things about themselves.  Very often they’ll say what kind of work they do, mention their spouses and children, and then say, “I’m also a big fan of such-and-such a team.”  I believe that unless a person is actively involved in promoting a team’s efforts in some practical manner, it’s a dangerous illusion for them to allow their fandom to become a defining aspect of their identity, when they really have nothing to do with how the team (or their favorite NASCAR driver, etc.) performs.  It’s perhaps even more dangerous for a community of Jesus’ followers to let this happen, because then they’re allowing an idol to share the place of honor that belongs to Jesus alone.

This is what I felt happened in the worship service you heard me describe attending.  It was actually Palm Sunday, when we would expect the worship leader to call out something like “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” and have the people respond, “Hosanna in the highest!” to Jesus.  Instead, the worship leader extolled the recent success of a favorite sports team.  I really was tempted to shout back, “How ‘bout that Jesus?”  But that would have been disruptive and disrespectful of the spiritual authority of the worship leader, so I didn’t shout anything back.  But I thank you for your question, which has given me the opportunity to share these reflections.  Sports is one of the greatest idols of contemporary American culture and we need to be very discerning about its presence and influence.

Does the “sovereignty of God” mean that God is responsible for everything that happens?

Q.  I recently heard it said that the “sovereignty of God” means that nothing ever really happens by chance; rather, God is responsible for everything that happens.  What do you think of that?

The notion of “sovereignty” has to do with freedom to act.  We speak of a nation as being “sovereign” if it can conduct its own affairs without being restricted by outside powers.

Consequently in the Bible the “sovereignty of God” usually refers to God’s rule over all the kingdoms of the world, as expressed, for example, in the statement repeated several times in the book of Daniel, “The Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

In Christian theology, this idea is applied more broadly to God’s unrestricted freedom to act to accomplish His purposes.  For example, in his book The Attributes of God, A.W. Pink explains, “Subject to none, influenced by none, absolutely independent; God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases.”

Personally I have no problem with this.  (In fact, I find it very reassuring!)  I would be careful, however, of extending the idea, as you heard done, to claim that because God can do anything He wishes, then God is responsible for everything that happens.

One website I came across in writing this post claims, for example, that “the sovereignty of God is the biblical teaching that all things are under God’s rule and control, and that nothing happens without His direction or permission.”  I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second, which I don’t feel follows necessarily from the first.

Why not? For one thing, there would be a serious moral problem with God being responsible for the many evil and tragic things that happen all around us.  It would be very difficult to reconcile that with the Bible’s portrayal of God as good, loving, and just.

But there’s also a logical problem.  Just because God is an agent with unlimited freedom and power to act, that doesn’t mean that God is the only free moral agent in existence.  Humans and other spiritual beings, I believe, also have at least some freedom to act, so that what we encounter in our lives may be the result of their activity.  I think that God is able to work through the free choices, both good and bad, of moral agents to accomplish His purposes—that’s one important way I see God exercising His sovereignty to bring about His desired ends.  This gives us hope that even in the troubles and tragedies of this life, God can be at work for our good and for the ultimate advancement of His kingdom.

Beyond this, some of what we encounter in life may be simple chance.  I think God has built enough freedom into the world that this can be the case.  The Bible seems to talk about this at times.  There’s this famous statement in Ecclesiastes:

The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

And Jesus himself invoked the concept of chance in his parable of the Good Samaritan:  “Now by chance a priest was going down that road . . .”

However, the way to make the case that the sovereignty of God doesn’t mean that nothing happens by chance isn’t by collecting individual statements like this from throughout the Bible.  Rather, as I said before, we may simply observe that just because God acts with unrestricted freedom, that doesn’t mean that God is the only moral actor in existence, and that God may have built so much freedom into the creation (as a reflection of His own attribute?) that things really can now happen “by chance.”

I picture God out there saying, “Let’s see what happens next.  I’m sure I can do something great with it.”

Is it realistic for James to expect us to consider our trials “pure joy”?

Q.  The book of James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Isn’t that an unrealistically high standard to expect us to meet?  I mean, does anybody really feel nothing but joy when they go through trials?

Let me say first that I think you’ve correctly understood James’s meaning when he says we should consider it pasan charan when we encounter trials.  I think that “pure joy” or “all joy,” as many versions translate the phrase, should be taken in the sense of “nothing but joy,” as in the NRSV and NET Bibles.  (Mounce’s translation has “sheer joy,” with the same meaning.)   Some other translations say things like “consider it a great joy” or “an occasion for joy,” but as I see it, that’s taking something off a statement that’s pretty unqualified.

So is it also unrealistic, and not true to the experience of even the most mature and committed followers of Jesus, for James to expect this?  No, because he isn’t saying that we should feel or experience “nothing but joy” simply on account of our trials.   He gives an explanation of what we should be so joyful about:  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

In other words, we can be joyful in an unqualified and unrestricted way, even in our trials, because we recognize that God is going to be at work in our lives through them to bring us to maturity—to “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” as Paul puts it in Ephesians.  We can rejoice because our trials are not thwarting God’s purposes, but actually advancing them, if we respond to them in faith with perseverance.

I might also add that the “joy” envisioned here is not so much a feeling as a reckoning, a decision to look at things in a certain way so that we concentrate on their value rather than on their cost.

And so I think it is realistic for James to ask us to choose to view our trials in this way and consequently to cultivate the qualities of faith and perseverance that will allow these trials to be avenues for God’s continuing work in bringing us to maturity.  And when we see Christ’s character taking deep root in our lives—well, that does bring nothing but joy!

Would the original recipients of the book of James have read it through out loud?

Q.  In our small group we’re using your guide to biblical wisdom literature to PEJstudy the book of James.  We have a question about the first session for the book [Session 21 in the guide], in which you have us read all the way through James out loud.  Is this really what the early communities of Jesus’ followers who were sent the book would have done when they received it?  As you say, “it’s not really a letter at all” and “it doesn’t develop like one.”  So would these communities have treated it like the other actual letters they received, which we know they read out loud in their gatherings?

Of course I can’t say for certain what these early communities would have done, but I believe that they would have read the book of James out loud in one of their worship gatherings, just as they would have done for a normal letter, even though, as I explain, James is actually “a collection of sayings and observations about life, written in the same stream of wisdom teaching that flows through Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.”

I suspect these communities would have done this in order to give everyone an overview of what was in the letter, so that they could later return to particular parts of it when questions or issues arose that specific teachings addressed.

I try to highlight the character of the book as a collection of wisdom sayings and teachings (which I say are probably “summaries of, or excerpts from, messages that James gave in the synagogues of Palestine”) by instructing groups like yours, when they do this read-through, to “have people take turns reading the individual teachings that make up the book.” (I explain how to recognize them.)  By hearing these various sections read by different voices, group members are enabled and encouraged to see them as distinct teachings that nevertheless, when taken as a whole, present a coherent view of what it means in practical terms to live as a person of “faith” (James’s equivalent of the “fear of the Lord” in Proverbs).

It sounds as if your group is off to a great start, and I’m sure you’ll be getting a lot out of the rich and profound wisdom of the book of James!

Why was Ruth told to stay with the other women in the field?

Q. Why was Ruth told to stay with the other women in the field? and the workers were told by Boaz to leave her be? Were women not safe from rape in those days? Hard to understand.

Unfortunately, women were still in danger of rape even within the ancient Israelite theocracy, and particularly at the time when the book of Ruth is set, “in the days when the judges ruled,” when, according to the book of Judges, “Israel had no king” and “everyone did as they saw fit.”

That is why Boaz, who is introduced from the start as a godly man, takes special measures to protect Ruth, who would otherwise be at great risk as a defenseless foreigner.  He tells Ruth not to glean in anyone else’s field (where the owner or foreman might not be godly) and even to stay in the part of his own field where his female servants are working.  He also says, for everyone to hear, that he has warned all the men not to lay a hand on her.  As a “man of standing,” Boaz has the power to enforce this order of protection.

Similarly, when Ruth returns home and tells the story of her day, Naomi observes ominously, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with the women who work for him, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.”  (The Hebrew is more explicit: “and they will not molest you in another field.”)

We see here the great courage and faith of Ruth, who was willing to do the only thing she could to support herself and her mother-in-law:  go out and ask if she could glean in someone’s field, even though this meant exposing herself to the danger of potential rape.

We also see that the godly character of Boaz led him to take active measures to protect women like Ruth from sexual abuse and exploitation.  In this way Boaz provides a biblical model for all men today who aspire to lead a godly life:  they, too, should protect women from sexual abuse and exploitation, and not participate in anything that degrades or exploits them, such as on-line pornography, actual prostitution, or anything similar.

“Ruth Gleaning,” James Tissot, 1896

Why do some scholars say that Peter didn’t write Second Peter?

Q.  The authorship of 1st and 2nd Peter has been a long debated question.  Who do you think was the author? More importantly, the bigger question is, why do these conundrums exist? I would like to think I can trust every jot and tittle in God’s Holy Word, but many people, much smarter than me, have debated over inconsistencies in the Bible ad nauseam. My faith rests on Jesus Christ and the Word of God! Why isn’t it crystal clear?

To answer the authorship question first, my personal belief is that the apostle Peter wrote both of the New Testament epistles that bear his name.

Some people dispute that he wrote Second Peter because, in marked contrast with the simpler Greek of First Peter, the Greek language in that epistle is highly refined and complex.  (For that reason, Second Peter is a favorite text for seminary courses in intermediate Greek.)  The argument goes that Peter, whose first language was Aramaic, would have been capable of writing only simpler Greek at best (as First Peter supposedly demonstrates), and so someone else must have written Second Peter.

I believe that the solution to this problem, however, can be found within Peter’s letters themselves.  Near the end of his first letter, he acknowledges that “with the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you.”  In the ancient world, someone who wanted to “write” a letter would typically speak it out loud and engage someone else to write it down.  (The person who served in this role for Paul’s letter to the Romans actually includes his own greetings at the end of that epistle:  “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.”)

We need to appreciate that the services these scribes performed could range from simply writing down the words that were actually spoken aloud to “putting into words” what the sender wanted to say—something like the “ghostwriter” of a speech or article today.  Peter acknowledges that Silas helped him write his first letter, likely by putting his thoughts into words in simple but articulate Greek, which was probably even better Greek than he was capable of composing himself.  While Peter doesn’t similarly name or acknowledge the person who helped him write his second letter (perhaps because this person would not be known to the recipients the way Silas was), we can deduce that this was an accomplished writer with an even stronger command of the language.

We should not see this as “plagiarism” or the use of a “paper mill,” as we might think of it today.  Rather, it was an established and assumed practice in the ancient world where only limited numbers of people were capable of reading and writing, and even fewer had a stylistic command of the language suitable for composing letters with as wide an intended audience as Second Peter.

As for why these conundrums exist in the Bible in the first place, I believe it’s because the biblical books were composed within the flux of human history and culture, not dropped out of heaven inscribed on golden tablets.  Because cultural practices, such as the use of scribes, change over time, people in later cultures like ours can become confused by them—as when we see letters written at two very different levels of a language attributed to the same author.

But this just provides an occasion for us to dig deeper into the background of the Bible.  When we do, not only do we resolve the so-called “inconsistencies,” we get a better window into the biblical world and appreciate more about how the Bible was created for us.  We can even admire, in a way we could not before, the contributions of unnamed people like the scribe behind Second Peter who also used their gifts to help bring us the word of God.

Second Peter in the Bodmer Papyrus (Vatican Library), the oldest known manuscript of the letter. Its elegant Greek has raised questions about whether the apostle Peter could have written it, but a scribe likely helped to compose it, in keeping with ancient practices.

Does the author of Hebrews quote Scripture out of context?

Q. The book of Hebrews says that Jesus is not ashamed to call his followers his brothers and sisters.  To support this, it quotes from Psalm 22 (“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters . . .”) and from Isaiah:  “I will put my trust in him” and “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”  I’ll grant that Psalm 22 is a Messianic psalm that Jesus applied to himself.  But at that place in Isaiah, the prophet is clearly talking about himself.  So it seems that the writer of Hebrews has quoted those Scriptures out of their original context, no?

Deuteronomy-Hebrews

Deuteronomy-Hebrews

Actually not. As I explain in my study guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews, the authorof Hebrews follows “a Christological and typological method . . . in which statements from the First Testament that were originally made by, to, or about other figures are attributed to Christ.”  The author sees Christ as culmination of the story of God’s covenant dealings with humanity, and so earlier figures, events, institutions, and objects are seen as prefiguring his life and work.  But there is always a close and appropriate thematic connection between the earlier context in the First Testament and the situation in the life of Christ.

As I also explain in the guide, those two quotations from Isaiah come closely together “at the point where the prophet resolves to commit himself and his family to trusting in God in the face of hostility and an uncertain future. This attitude of trust is the same one Jesus had when he came to earth and faced similar hostility and uncertainty.  And so the people he commits to God with himself are similarly his ‘children.’ Brothers, sisters, children—Jesus relates to all of us as a fellow member of the human family.”  The author of Hebrews can appropriately draw this connection.

Finally, because we are used to quoting “Bible verses” a little differently today, it’s important to recognize that while the author of Hebrews often quotes only brief phrases from First Testament passages, this is done to appeal to the entire context in which they appear. The assumption is that the audience will be familiar with these larger contexts and consider the argument in light of them.  These are not “proof texts,” but more like “arrows” pointing to broader passages.

I hope this information is helpful in addressing your concerns.

Why is the Genesis creation account so similar to Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation myths?

Q.  Why is the Genesis creation account so similar to Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation myths?  Some argue that the Israelites were influenced by surrounding cultures and so they told similar creation stories when forming their own national and religious identity.  One can take the similarities between Israelite creation stories and those of the nations around them to argue that they were simply a product of human culture. Alternatively, one can say that the differences between the Israelite stories and those of other nations show where they drew the line in defense of revealed transcendent truths (about God as sole creator and so forth). There are a myriad of other positions in between, of course.  What do you think?

To the extent that there may have been borrowing, I think this is actually another case of the phenomenon of appropriation that we find throughout the Bible.  The community of faith takes objects, practices, institutions, etc. that are being used in the worship of false gods and reclaims them for the praise and honor of the true God.

For example, Israel made regular use  of the bull in its sacrificial system, even though this animal was also a prominent symbol of Baal.  The tabernacle in Israel consisted of an outer court, main hall, and inner shrine, even though this threefold architectural division also typified Canaanite temples.   The Israelites offered some of the same kinds of sacrifices as their neighbors; they sometimes even called them by the same names.  For example, both Israelites and Canaanites had a fellowship offering or “peace offering” that they described by a shared Semitic root, sh-l-m.

This process of appropriation is also seen in the case of literary archetypes.  Many interpreters believe that Psalm 29, for example, which the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) calls a “hymn to the God of the storm,” has been appropriated from a song that was originally sung in worship of the storm-god Baal.  But it has been judiciously altered to make sure that the true God is honored as the master of such powerful natural phenomena.

And so, if a creation story was in circulation among ancient Israel’s neighbors that depicted the realms of sky and land being separated out from the watery chaos—for example, as in the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, in which Tiamat, goddess of the oceanic waters, is slain and the land and the sky are fashioned from the two halves of her divided body—then I think the similarities between such a story and the Genesis creation account are best understood as another case of appropriation.

Even so, the differences are significant.  As you say, the Genesis version maintains crucial theological distinctives such as the unique status of Yahweh as the only true God and the position of humans as divine image-bearers and vice regents over creation—not slaves of the gods, as in the Enuma Elish.  In fact, what strikes us most about the Genesis account, when we compare it with similar ancient creation stories, is its thoroughgoing monotheism.  Creation and humanity are not by-products of a battle between the gods for supremacy.  Rather, everything in Genesis proceeds with stately grandeur as a single all-ruling God speaks and is obeyed.

However, I’m not sure that we actually have to posit borrowing or appropriation to account for the similarities.  It seems to me that all of these accounts can be understood as a response to the same observed phenomenon—the three-fold division of creation into land, sea, and sky (even as we today observe matter existing in three states: solid, liquid, and gas).  This common object of observation is interpreted within the framework of an ancient world view, but in the Israelite case, the interpretation is informed by a relational understanding of the true God.  That may be all we need to say.

Below is a sketch of the Genesis cosmology from the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange. The designer of the sketch notes, “This is remarkably similar to the cosmology of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures contemporary to the biblical authors.”

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