Major Background Issues from the Ancient Near East
To think about the ancient world, we can use the metaphor of a cultural river that flowed through the societies and thoughts of the peoples and nations of the ancient Near East. Israel was immersed in that cultural river; it was embedded in that conceptual world. Sometimes God gave revelation that drew them out, as Moses from the Nile, and distinguished them; but we should generally think of them in this cultural river. Sometimes they were simply floating on its currents; sometimes they veered out of the currents and stood apart. At other times they swam resolutely upstream against those currents.
The twelve issues identified below describe major currents in this metaphorical ancient cultural river. Israel’s relationship to those currents varies case by case. Importantly, however, as modern readers, we have no familiarity with that river at all. Our cultural river is very different. Whether Israel was floating or swimming, as we read through the Old Testament we must recognize that they were in a different river than we are. To interpret the Old Testament well, we must try to dip into their cultural river.
- The “Great Symbiosis.” People in the ancient world believed that the gods had made people as slave laborers because they were tired of growing their own food and taking care of their own needs. People cared for the gods (who lived an opulent, pampered lifestyle including food, drink, clothing, housing, etc.) and in turn, the gods took care of the people (because they had vested interests in doing so). Thus there was a codependent relationship of mutual need. This provides the context for understanding temples, rituals, worship, and religious obligation in the ancient world. Israel is called to a far different way of thinking, as Yahweh has no needs.
- Presence of God in Sacred Space. This is an extension of the previous item. People in the ancient world highly desired that their god to take up residence among them. It was important for the god so they could be pampered, and important for the people so that they could receive blessing. The presence of the god created sacred space that had to be respected and honored. Limited access and purity requirements were taken very seriously. Combined with the Great Symbiosis, this shows why all religion in the ancient world was local. Only those who lived in the vicinity of the temple could be engaged in caring for the gods. And the gods would only be interested in providing for and protecting those who could take care of him/her. It is not that the gods were powerless beyond their local area; rather, they were disinterested in other places. Their needs were all that mattered. Israel took its sacred space very seriously, but Yahweh was a very different sort of God.
- Gods in Community. The polytheism of the ancient world was not just a matter of numbers. In the ancient world identity was found in one’s community rather than in one’s individuality. Like people, gods found their identity in relationship to the group to which they belonged. Each god had a constellation of attributes, just as people have different skills and abilities. As in human communities, the community of the gods called for hierarchy. So the pantheon of the gods was characterized by a hierarchy (cosmic gods, national gods, city patrons, clan deities, ancestral deities) and by differentiation (according to their jurisdiction, manifestations and attributes). Given this cultural reality, we can surmise that it was very difficult for the Israelites to adjust to a single God spanning all levels of hierarchy and all categories of jurisdiction.
- Revelation and Manifestation of Deities. The gods in the ancient word were generally believed to not be forthcoming—that is, they were not believed to reveal themselves broadly (with exceptions in responding to divinatory inquiries). Consequently, one could never be sure exactly what the god expected from people (except to be pampered). Whenever something went wrong, people in the ancient world would assume that they had somehow offended a petty deity. Even though the gods did not reveal themselves or their expectation, they did manifest themselves in diverse ways. The sun, moon, planets and stars, for example, were all considered manifestations of various gods. The most important manifestation of the deity was in the image, which was commissioned by the god, manufactured from the finest of materials with the help of the god, and then ritually energized so that the essence of the god took up residence in the image. The image was not the god, but a manifestation of the god, and therefore it was capable of serving as mediator for the presence of the deity, for the care of the deity and for the worship given the deity. The Israelites were to have no such mediators—no man-made image could accomplish such things and Yahweh had no needs to be met through the image.
- Spirit world. In the ancient world the reality of spiritual beings extended beyond the gods themselves. Other classes of spirit beings included chaos creatures, demons, servants of the gods, and spirits of deceased humans. These beings were generally not considered to be morally flawed or evil. Sometimes their intrinsic nature just wreaked havoc. Some could serve apotropaic functions whereas others were more inclined to devour. None of this fits in to how we think about demons today as evil fallen angels. The Old Testament lacks demons almost entirely and considers chaos creatures less free of Yahweh’s control.
- Natural versus Supernatural. Today we are inclined to separate our understanding of events and phenomena into the categories of “natural” or “supernatural,” the former of these two being the result of natural laws and explainable as natural cause and effect; the latter being acts of God beyond scientific explanation. In the ancient world there was no such classification system. Nothing would have been considered purely natural with God/the gods uninvolved. They would not speak of miracles (i.e., supernatural occurrences), but rather of signs and wonders that were manifestations of God’s power. Israel was very much like the rest of the ancient world in this regard.
- Deep Reality. Corresponding to the previous point, in the ancient world people did not circumscribe reality within the category of historical events. Today it is not uncommon for us to think that reality is defined by events: we ask ourselves, “Did it really happen?” In the ancient world people considered events as a small slice of a reality that transcended events of history. What we call their mythology was more real to them than their history. When ancient people talked about events, they often found the most significant reality in what God/the gods had done, not in what people had done. We misunderstand when we think of mythology as made-up stories about gods that did not exist and therefore treat them as fairy tales. Ancient Israel’s thinking was very similar to the ancient world in this regard.
- Creation and Order. Since we modern readers tend to be materially focused, when we think of creation and origins we think in material terms. In the ancient world people were much more inclined to think of creation not so much as manufacturing the material cosmos, but of establishing order in the cosmos and making it function with a particular purpose in mind. Gods were the source of order; wisdom was the pursuit of order; creation was the establishment of order. Israelites would have thought about the cosmos and God’s creative work in similar terms, but, of course, Yahweh was the Creator.
- Religion and Magic. Religion and magic were not different categories in the ancient world and it is not possible to separate them from one another. Magic entailed the exercise of power (in spells, hexes, exorcisms, sorcery, necromancy, etc.) but operated primarily on the power associated with the name of a person and the name of a deity. A god’s name could be invoked either for effective exercise of power over another person, or for summoning or commanding the god himself. Divination was understood to provide access to information about what the gods were doing (signaled in the stars, terrestrial occurrences, dreams, entrails of sacrificed animals, and in many other indicators). Israelites were forbidden to practice most forms of divination and were not to use God’s name to attempt to control him.
- Death and Memory. In the ancient world people viewed community as extending beyond the world of the living. When someone died, the deceased joined the group of ancestors in the netherworld, yet also remained in the community of those still alive—remembered by them and in most instances, receiving care from them (in the form meals to the dead). Burial customs reflected these beliefs: people believed that improper burial (or no burial) would make it impossible for the dead to join the community of ancestors and would therefore leave them homeless, uncared for, and very unhappy (as well as prone to haunt the living). As to the concern to be remembered, people would strive throughout their lives to make a name for themselves (defined as doing anything that would cause them to be remembered). Having children was the most important way of doing this. To die childless was to die with little hope of being remembered, which in turn would have a severely negative impact on their existence in the netherworld. Israel thought in very similar ways.
- Identity in Community. In stark contrast to Westerners who find their main identity in themselves as individuals, in the ancient world people found their identity in their community. It was in this sort of context that arranged marriages made sense and levirate marriage would be important. In such a community context, religion was a family choice, not an individual choice. Families worshiped gods within their family circle, so that a woman who married into another clan naturally adopted the gods of that clan. Legal cases related to clan identities and judgment could target the whole communal group rather than just one individual. Guilt and blessing both operated on a communal level. Israel’s perspectives were very much the same.
- Retribution Principle. People believed that the righteous would prosper and the wicked would suffer. This led to the belief that if one pleased the gods (took care of them well), one would receive their blessing; if one didn’t, the gods would be angry and lash out. Such a belief led people to conclude that if someone was prospering, they must be doing well by the gods; if they were suffering, they must have done something to anger the gods and as such should be shunned. In the ancient world this was applied not only to the level of the individual but also to the level of the community, clan or family. This particular belief can be problematic for the modern Bible reader because some of the psalms and proverbs seem to affirm this principle. A full reading of the Bible, however, especially from the book of Job, nuances this principle. ◆
NIV cultural background study bible.