Reviews - What do customers think about When Man Becomes God: Humanism and Hybris in the Old Testament (Pittsburgh Theological Monograph Series)?
almost to heaven May 8, 2006
Though the Pittsburgh Theological Monograph Series does not exemplify cachet among biblical scholars, this little gem gives its parent reasons for pride. It is one of those studies in biblical theology that challenge biblical piety to reexamine its literary sources. In particular, Gowan finds that the Old Testament takes very seriously the modern-sounding fear of man becoming a god. The biblical version of such an apotheosis is spelled out with special reference to pagan nations and developed by way of the mythological imagery that associates itself with them (Prologue: When man becomes God', pp. 1-6).
In his first full chapter, the author surveys the pertinent literature from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Ugarit, and Greece, finding that those peoples sensed no real possibility and no real risk in any breaching of the impenetrable distance between humanity and the gods (`Man versus God in Antiquity', pp. 7-18). This is true even if one admits of the possibility that a given ruler-a Pharaoh, say-could be considered as a god.
Against this backdrop, Gowan ventures the remarkable theory that Israel's problem with hubris is caused by its monotheism and its extraordinarily high view of humankind. These twin convictions place man in a role of challenging the deity that among Israel's pagan neighbors would have been enacted only by a rebellious god rather than by any human pretender to heavenly prerogatives.
Gowan's argument finds its pace in chapter two, where he explains that hubris is usually approached in the biblical literature by way of metaphors of height and altitude (`Pride Goeth Before Destruction', pp. 19-43). The author suspects that the narratives he surveys here disclose a divine preoccupation with human welfare and how this can be damaged by the concentration of power. This would be a rather different divine response than the prima facie appearance that the deity is concerned with the real possibility of competition from the human side.
In Isaiah, Gowan tells us, the Rab-Shekah's famous taunt as well as the oracular responses to raw Assyrian power seem to betray knowledge of the Assyrian annals. Again, it is the harm that such power does to human beings rather than to Israel's God that motivates the harsh and belittling prophetic condemnation.
Next Gowan examines the satirical dirge sung over the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14 (chapter three, `Rebellion and Fall', pp. 45-67). His theory provides concrete exegetical payoff in the assertion that the text somewhat eclectically gathers elements of divine usurpation from known Ancient Near Eastern antecedents and applies them to a man as only an Israelite writer can be supposed to have done. `So an Israelite has exalted man almost to heaven ...', Gowan writes, `... (a)nd this means that he dares to make man the kind of danger to God that divine rebels are to the high god elsewhere.' But can such a writer have supposed the king's arrogant pretensions to have been worth taking seriously? Or is it merely the spouting off of a royal idiot?
This first is a question that Gowan answers in the affirmative, principally by finding a similarity of texture and tone between Isaiah 14 and the similar taunt-song of Ezekiel 28 (chapter four, `The Garden of God', pp. 69-92). The Ezekiel song, in turn, is found to depict an Urmensch along the lines of the exalted human beings-mother and father of the race-who appear in Genesis 1-3. The latter connection is facilitated by the ANE tendency to link the (semi-) divine ruler to the typical and archetypal man.
In pulling together these diverse threads of his argument, the author states that `(t)he Hebrew view of man is thus profoundly humanistic; tremendously enthusiastic about the man God made and the gifts God made him. But it is also profoundly theological, for the ancient Israelite was convinced there is one thing man cannot do, and that is to replace the God who made him. Further, he is convinced that all the ills of human life are to be traced to the attempt to do just that ...' Gowan will go on to insist that this phenomenon is most evident not in those private reaches of human arrogance that are the concern of much moral instruction, but rather in the behavior of nations and empires.
Gowan next takes up the image of the cosmic tree, as this is found in Ezekiel 31 and Daniel 4 (chapter five, `The Cosmic Tree', pp. 93-116), explaining it as `a way of imagining the entire cosmos'. It is a motif perfectly suited to depicting the power of the king-`capable of so much'-and in its felling his downfall and judgment.
An epilogue allows the author to revisit the glory and scandal of man and to view death as the blessing and penultimate cure for the kind of hubris that crushes nations (`Epilogue: the kingdom of man', pp. 117-128). A competent essay on myth concludes the book (`Excursus: the problem of myth', pp. 129-145).
For those who take the seriously the Old Testament's realism about humanity and the power that it assembles in service of its ambitions, Gowan's book will provide a thought-provoking read.