Rabbi Gil Student writes: In R. Chaim Navon’s recent book Genesis and Jewish Thought (pp. 59-63), he notes that there are striking similarities and differences between the Torah’s creation story and that found in various ancient Near Eastern texts. His resolution is as follows: The Torah spoke to the heresies of that era and intentionally negated them by using terminology and narrative tools. In effect, the Torah’s creation story is, at least in part, a polemic against the religious myths of the Ancient Near East.
This is not a novel approach. I initially thought that it could be found in R. Joseph Hertz’s commentary to the Torah but he only notes the differences. He does not suggest that the Torah intentionally polemicized against ancient religions. However, Prof. Umberto Cassutto discusses this at various points in his 1944 commentary to the Creation passage.
His brother-in-law, Prof. A. S. Hartom has a delightfully concise description of this approach in his 1955 commentary to the Torah (p. 13):
As for specific details, we can speculate that the Torah intended to negate the legends and mythological stories that were prevalent among the nations of the Ancient Near East
S. COMMENTS: I believe this approach is (at least mostly) Shadal’s innovation. His commentary on the Torah is full of it, and (excepting the issue of Mosaic authorship) Cassuto was a follower of his approach and school.
Basically Shadal’s approach was that people in that time and place believed things, and God saw the things they believed and did in one of two ways, either it worked against his teachings, or it worked with or at least didn’t work against them. The former beliefs and behaviors are what the Torah protested against and rooted out, the other kinds are allowed and maintained by the Torah, being compatible with God’s goals for man, whether or not they are true (classic example: God doesn’t enjoy the smell of your burning sacrifices, but it seems to us like he does, and evidently isn’t incompatible with his teachings, so it stayed. Tattoos were incompatible, so away it went).