A few thoughts from reading Gunkel’s two classic works, his Legends of Genesis (which I guess served originally as the introduction to his Genesis commentary) and his Creation and Chaos:
- Gunkel wears his churchmanship much more obviously than Wellhausen (or Alt). In fact, in his introductory remarks, he very much has a churchly readership in view, some of whom need convincing that what he’s doing is not corrosive to piety. Thus, to take a longer quote from this material, he writes
The conclusion, then, that one of these narratives is legend is by no means intended to detract from the value of the narrative…Only ignorance can regard such a conclusion as irreverent, for it is the judgment of reverence and love….A child, indeed, unable to distinguish between reality and poetry, loses something when it is told that its dearest stories are “not true.” But the modern theologian should be further developed. The evangelical churches and their chosen representatives would do well not to dispute the fact that Genesis contains legends – as has been done too frequently – but to recognize that the knowledge of this fact is the indispensable condition to an historical understanding of Genesis. This knowledge is already too widely diffused among those trained in historical study ever again to be suppressed. It will surely spread among the masses of our people, for the process is irresistible. Shall not we Evangelicals take care that it be presented to them in the right spirit? (12)
- Relatedly, Gunkel shows a far more developed aesthetic sense than Wellhausen (or Alt, or many others). He is, of course, very condescending towards the simplicity of “primitive peoples,” who, bereft of science, summon up naive etiologies to explain the way the world is. But at the same time, he waxes eloquent throughout about the legends’ “poetic charm” and such, and in fact, much of his enterprise seeks to restore the earthy luster of the Genesis stories that had since been buried. He writes that the narratives are not “aimless, rude stories, tossed off without reflexion, but…a mature, perfected, and very forcible art” (78). He shares Wellhausen’s antipathy towards the Priestly materials, which are “prosaic pedentry,” dry and monotonous: “this order-loving man has ensnared the gay legends of the olden time in his gray outlines, and they have lost all their poetic freshness” (148).
- At the same time, I had the continual thought while reading Gunkel that he lived in a pre-Robert Alter world. He makes many close observations about biblical narrative: their staging of one character in bolder relief while others constitute background; their reticence regarding the “inner life” of the characters; their concentration on action; their general laconicism and economy of details, and their unwillingness (overtly) to express the narrator’s opinion. But Gunkel imagines that many of these features mark the stories as early: before the kinds of heavy-handed propagandizing of later materials “worked over under the influence of the prophets” (78). By contrast, these same data are taken more often today after Alter’s (and others’) exposition as indices of their lateness. In these narratives we see a very sophisticated and quintessentially literary art, such as would not have been possible before writing had been around for a long while in ancient Israel.
- Similarly, I found Gunkel dated in his willingness to draw direct lineal connections between portions of Israel’s narratives and other cognate cultures: thus he thinks (in C&C) that the Chaoskampf myth upon which Genesis 1 plays was borrowed from the Babylonians, either during the exile or before. The flood story was taken over from them also during the period of the Assyrian domination (c 730-690 BCE), not to mention the world tree idea, Nimrod, paradise, and the tower of Babel (in various Phoenician and Aramaic mediations). The cultic founding stories of Genesis were absorbed from the Canaanites. To be fair, Gunkel was pioneering in drawing together the newfound wealth of comparative data with the Bible. But my impression is that scholars are now a bit charier to assert strong lines of influence, given the huge literary and material gaps in our evidence from the ancient Near East. Ras Shamra shook everybody up. Better to say that Israel took up and transformed traditions common to the region.
- I also couldn’t help but read Gunkel from post-Rendtorff perspective – not that I’ve yet read Rendtorff, but I know what he says in general. The basic methodological question that drives Gunkel’s approach is, “what is the smallest chunk of story that I can whittle down from the present form of the biblical narrative that still makes sense as an independent unit?” Thus, Gunkel aims at the pre-literary oral form of the tradition. He takes a complex of tales like that of Abraham or Jacob and he sees that one story stands on its own, structurally: you can take the story of Jacob multiplying sheep by sympathetic magic or wrestling the angel as units unto themselves, quite apart from their situation in the larger plotline of Jacob’s flight and restoration. Gunkel thinks that these smaller independent stories have been integrated into the whole Genesis storyline at a later time. The basic lines of this method continue to work in contemporary German scholarship, which, after Rendtorff, attempts not to isolate individual stories but larger complexes that stand as units with their own integrity, i.e., Genesis and the Moses Story (the title of Konrad Schmid’s book). All of this departs immensely from Wellhausen’s essentially documentary practice, and though Gunkel affirms the sources, they do almost no “work” for his proposal and are, more or less, theoretical deadweight. Gunkel also assumes an incredibly passive set of final editors.
- One of Gunkel’s remarks has stayed with me: he said in C&C that “[t]he theologian would do well to treat even the Marduk myth with piety. One does not honor one’s elders unless one gives thought to one’s ancestors.” He goes on to qualify or even undermine his own statement by saying that in Genesis 1, “we are able to discover again the God in whom we believe! All other cosmogonies are, to us, only interesting antiquities ” (80). These words touch on but do not resolve the tricky problem that religion-historical enquiry brings about: what do me make of the fact that YHWH, like any other god of antiquity, has a specific history of development and diffusion, and existed in a constellation of forebears and analogues? In the irreverent but pithy words of one of my professors, “the creator of the universe was somewhat late on the job.”