History of Methods
The rediscovery of Egypt took place in the eighteenth century, while Mesopotamia was rediscovered in the mid of nineteenth century. This involved the discovery of the ancient languages, various texts that were used in those early times, and many other artifacts. Scholars have engaged in detailed work of translating the discovered languages, and studied these facts in order to relate them to some of the historical information that was available in various forms.
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Those who engaged in this study had different intentions. A section of the scholars was just interested in adventure, while others were trying to defend the information in the Bible. They were convinced that by digging into these artifacts, they would be able to gather enough evidence to support the information in the Bible.
Several scholars tried to analyze the content of the Old Testament of the Bible in order to trace its origin and understand its authenticity. Kaiser Wilhelm was one of the scholars who engaged actively in this rediscovery. Another prominent scholar was Friedrich Delitzsch, son of a former prominent commentator.
Views of Friedrich rose many controversies, especially his claim that the content of the Old Testament was based on the cultural practices of people who stayed in Tigris and Euphrates regions. He argued that upon careful analysis of the culture of people of Mesopotamia, there was a close similarity of what was practiced in this region at this time, and what is written in the Old Testament. From this Study, Friedrich concluded that Old Testament was written based on human experience other than divine intervention.
This earned him a lot of criticism from Assyriologists who had believed in the Word. In analyzing the mythologies of ancient Near East, it comes out clearly that there is a close attachment between what is in the Old Testament, and what was practiced in this society. However, his work, and the works of other early scholars, has enabled the current scholars do develop an understanding of this issue on a strong foundation.
Comparative Studies, Scholarship, and Theology
It is a fact that all Europeans have different cultures based on various environmental factors they experience. Similarly, Babylonians, Egyptians, Hittites, Sumerians, and Israelites also have different cultural practices based on their environmental and social contexts. It is important to note that there was a difference between the first millennium Babylonians during the era of Nebuchadnezzar, and Babylonians of the second millennium during the era of Hammurabi.
However, both share some elements of cultural practices of the ancient New East1. In this regard, the comparative studies focus on examining the literatures and archeology of the ancient Near East with the aim of rebuilding their cultural values, their beliefs, and behavior. Comparative studies involve drawing of data from different sources and segments of a given cultural group in order to enhance understanding of what is under investigation.
Both critics and defenders of the Bible have been using comparative studies to understand the culture presented in the Bible and what was practiced in the regions mentioned in the Bible. Ancient Near East studies have played a pivotal role to these two groups in understanding some truths beyond what is presented in the Bible. Bible students need comparative studies in order to broaden their understanding of what is presented in the Bible.
These students must be able to go beyond the information presented in the Bible. Comparative studies offer them an opportunity to understand biblical information from both sides of the defenders and critics of the Bible. Studying these comparative literatures enables the learners to understand similarities and differences that exist between the ancient Near East and biblical genre. This way, it would be easy to understand some of the historical facts that the two genres share, and any possible differences that could exist.
For instance, the Mesopotamian literature talks of a man named Job who was considered righteous. This closely compares to the biblical story of Job. However, the way the story is presented in the Bible is very different from the way it is presented in the Mesopotamian literature. As Bible students, you would be interested in relating these two stories. It would be important to determine the possibility that the biblical story could have been borrowed from the Mesopotamian literature. It is important to understand the cultural dimension of theology. Finally, it is important for a Bible student to understand the ten guiding principles that should be observed when conducting comparative studies. It is unfortunate that a section of critical scholars have considered the use comparative studies as irrelevant.
Literature of the Ancient Near East
Summary of the Literature of the Ancient Near East
Different people understand myths in different contexts, but it is a generally accepted fact that myths entails stories that have minimal or no truth in them because there is no way of proving that they really happened the way it is told in the story. Stories from ancient Near East have been considered as mere myths, especially the story of Baal or Marduk. However, the Old Testament has raised a lot of controversy because many people believe in it.
A given story will be considered as a myth if many doubt its originality and just consider it as a mere story meant to entertain. However, it raises concerns when a given story is considered by many as a true account of what took place in the ancient times. The Old Testament has had approval of many people. However, some still consider it a myth due to lack of information that can be used to substantiate what is written in the Bible.
The Babylonians, Sumerians, and the people of Mesopotamia would have different views on the historical counts in the Old Testament. To the current readers, it would be necessary to observe that there would be two different points of view. One section believes that God of the Israelites existed.
However, another section believes that Yahweh was just as other gods found among other societies in the ancient Near East. For those who believe in the Israelites’ God, it would be taken that Old Testament could not be classified as any other myths in the ancient Near East. However, to the non believes, there might be no significant distinction between the Old Testament and the ancient Near East myths because just as gods of Egypt, Syria or Mesopotamia, God of Israel remains imaginary.
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Letters and other documents
Letters were very important in these ancient kingdoms because they were used to pass international correspondence or international memos. They reveal a lot about a given kingdom on such facts as the power of that nation, relationship with other nations, and the values cherished within the society. Over 349 letters were retrieved from Tell el-Amarna the city used by one of the Egyptian Pharaohs as the capital of the kingdom.
The letters were from other kingdoms such as Hatti, Babylonia, Mitanni, Arzawa, Alashiya, and Assyria. These letters demonstrates the power that the Egyptian forces had over these other regions. These collections also showed some treaties that were made between kingdoms, as presented in the Old Testament.
Some of the hymns and prayers that were collected from the literatures of the ancient Near East have a very close connection with what is written in the Bible. The wisdom literatures also relates closely to what is found in the Proverbs and other philosophical writings in the Old Testament.
The ancient Near East literatures brings out the image of God from different perspectives. Each kingdom or society had its own gods that were unique based on environmental factors. The Egyptians had their own gods that they would perform rituals to in order to receive specific favors. The Assyrians, Sumerians, and Babylonians also had their different gods. The ancient Near East accounts of these gods share many similarities accept the case of the Israelites.
In these other kingdoms, there were many gods, each with specific role over the universe. There were gods of love, gods of vengeance, or of peace. From Egypt to Babylon, and Syria, this was a common phenomenon. However, the God of Israel was unique. He was the one and only God who was responsible for various issues in the lives of His people. He was a powerful God who could see the activities of His people without being seen.
He would judge actions of His people and decide to issue blessings or curse depending on the morality of these actions. Above all, He comes out as a democratic God, who has all the powers to control activities of human being, yet lets everyone make independent decision on whether to sin or be faithful to Him. The fairness of Yahweh is presented as unique compared to that of the Babylonian or Egyptian gods.
What is also unique was the omnipresent nature of the Israelites’ God. He was always aware of the activities of His people, and He would watch their actions without revealing Himself. This was very different from gods of other ancient Near East kingdoms. These other gods could even fall asleep, and it would take the intervention of people, through rituals and other noisy ceremonies to make them wake up and offer help to people.
Temples and Rituals
The ancient Near East presents the temples as special places of worship. The historical accounts of other kingdoms and the biblical perspectives of the temples present some form of similarity. The temple was a place of worship and people would gather in it to conduct spiritual rituals. While other ancient Near East groups used the temple to offer rituals to their gods, the Israelites used the temple to worship Yahweh and offer sacrifices to Him.
The historical account of the ancient Near East religious practices compares closely to the biblical accounts in the Old Testament. As demonstrated in the Old Testament, the ancient Near East accounts also confirms that there would be some fusion of cultures in those early days.
This means that some of the religious practices of the people Mesopotamia and other neighboring regions affected the Israelites. However, they would draw away from worshiping other gods from time to time whenever they stayed away, to come and worship Yahweh.
State and Family Religion
Religion is brought out in the ancient Near East historical accounts in different ways. The people of Israel are once again coming out as a unique society in their religious practices. In Israel, state and family religion were intertwined. Although the historical accounts show that as the society progressed, the state became separate from spiritual leadership, at one point the spiritual leader and the political head was one person.
Moses was both a symbol of the state and a spiritual leader of the Israelites until he died. However, when they developed kingship, there became a difference between the state leadership and spiritual leaders. The state and family religion though, remained the same. Yahweh remained the only God to be worshiped.
The geographic analysis of the ancient Near East literatures demonstrates that the accounts given in the Bible about the genesis of the earth is different from other stories. According to the biblical account of creation, God worked out of cosmos. That is why it is believed that he existed even before creation of the universe. This account is very different from other accounts of creation in the ancient Near East.
In other accounts, their gods existed in some specific parts on the universe, especially on the mountaintops or other secluded areas. The geographic existence of the Israelites’ God is unique, especially as presented in the creation account.
The geographic locations of the kingdoms in the ancient Near East explains why there was a marked similarity in some of their cultural practices and accounts of their origin. It is strange, therefore, that Israelites who were in the midst of these other kingdoms, came out as a unique lot with practices that were not similar to others in this region.
Cosmology and Cosmogony
Creation can generally be considered as a cosmogony to cosmology2. The account of creation in the Old Testament has some marked difference from that of the entire region of Mesopotamia. The geography of Mesopotamian is very different from what is described in the biblical account. Some scholars would argue on the real cosmological location of God before and after creation. This is because in the biblical account, it is stated that God created Heaven and Earth.
This means that He was neither in heaven nor on earth during the time of creation. Then there is a biblical account that God resides in Heaven, and that Heaven is high above the Earth. This is closely related to cosmological locations of the Egyptian and Babylonian gods. They also resided in high places like the sky or mountaintops. However, in the other ancient Near East accounts, there is no direct mention of heaven other than the Israelites’ account.
It is necessary to understand that ontology in the ancient Near East is not about matter as is the case in the modern scientific understanding. It was more of the ability to believe that a given incident took place as presented in the accounts. In the cosmos, humanity remains the central focus, and everything seems to revolve around him. Some occurrences that happen in one’s life are beyond human understanding, especially the divine power of God.
The biblical creation account lacks theomachy, and for this reason, it has been considered an Akkadian phenomenon. When trying to understand genesis of the world therefore, it would be of great help if one makes a clear decision based on his or her analysis. When believing in the divine powers of God, it would be relevant if one considers the Akkadian phenomenon as mere myths, just like any other Egyptian or Babylonian accounts. This would help eliminate the conflicts that may be present in both accounts.
Underpinning the Past: Human Origins and Role
Several accounts have been given in an effort to explain the origin of human being. The two major accounts of creation are the scientific account and the biblical account of creation. The scientific account of creation has generally been considered to contradict the biblical account. However, it would be important to note that this contradiction comes out because of the failure of the scientists to understand that the world presented in the biblical creation accounts is different from the world we live in today.
Some of these scientists would try to ignore the ancient cosmology and only focus on what they believe is scientifically relevant in the current world. Genesis provides a simple but divine explanation of the origin of people. As presented in the Genesis, human being was created by God and placed in the Garden of Eden.
The book of Genesis gives a clear chronology of the accounts of creation, and the manner in which God gave human being power over other creations. The scientific perspective of creation differs from this by claiming that the true origin of human being was through evolution.
The scientists have ignored a number of cosmological facts, by taking a biased approach in their analysis. In Genesis, the audience is very different from what we have in the modern day society. The book of Genesis states that man was created by God, and put in charge of all other creations in the Garden of Eden.
Underpinning the Past: Historiography
The Bible provides a rich historic account of the people of Israel and the way they related with the other people of the ancient Near East. The biblical account provides life history of the people of Israel, their movement in other regions, especially to Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, and many other regions.
The historic discussion of the people of Israel starts from the book of Genesis when they moved to Egypt. There is a close connection between the biblical account of the life in Egypt and the ancient Near East account of the Egyptian empire. Although some cosmological differences exist, the two accounts closely relate, especially the cultural practices of the people of ancient Egypt. In the book of Exodus, the Old Testament presents the journey taken by the Israelites from the land of Egypt to the Promised Land.
The historical accounts of the ancient Egypt differ a little with what is found in the Bible, especially on the issue of the divine intervention in the release of the Israelites. However, the recordings about the journey in the wilderness and their final settlement in the land of Canaan are closely related to the historical facts of the ancient Near East.
The relationship between the Israelites and its neighbors and the cultural practices as presented in the Old Testament has a close resemblance with the ancient Near East historical recording. In fact, this resemblance has made some scholars believe that Old Testament was written out of human experiences other than divine intervention.
Encountering the Present: Guidance for Life-Divination and Omens
It is a fact that the lifestyle of the Israelites was very different from that of other ancient Near East communities. Analysis of the historical accounts of the life of the people of the ancient Near East points at a strong belief in life divination. Both the Israelites and the people of other communities in the ancient Near East such as the Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians believed in the supreme beings that had power beyond human capacity. Just like the Israelites.
They believed that human life had to be guided by divine intervention. The people of Israel would sway quite often from the worship of Yahweh, especially when they faced challenges. This would earn them bad omen because of ignoring the supreme God they believed in all their lifetime. The traditional accounts of the practices of people of Egypt also has a close account of omens sent by the gods to constantly remind people of the need to keep focus in worshiping.
One difference that comes out in life-divination between the biblical accounts as stated in the Old Testament, and that of the ancient Egyptians is once again the number of gods the ancient Egyptians had. While the people of Egypt had a special god of vengeance that would pronounce curse or bad omen to people whenever he was annoyed, the Israelites Yahweh was responsible for all types of omens.
He would bless His people whenever He felt that they were doing what was right, and would issue punishment in various forms whenever he felt that they had gone astray and were no longer worshiping him.
Encountering the Present: Context of Life-Cities and Kingship
The biblical accounts in the Old Testament have close connections with the historical accounts of the ancient Near East. The Bible talks about life in the context of cities. The city of Jerusalem is the focal point of the life history of the people of Israel. Accounts of the ancient Near East shows that people lived in the context of cities. Most of the kingdoms were in the cities.
These accounts show that the Egyptian empire, the Babylonian empire, and other strong empires during the ancient times were in the context of cities. Although strong empires such as the Egyptian and Babylonian empires controlled other regions beyond their borders, most of the people of that empire, especially the residence of the king, would be in a setting of a city. This account closely compares with the biblical accounts in the Old Testament.
The biblical account of kingdoms would depict various large cities with well-established administrations and all the amenities that would be found in many cities. In the Old Testament, life within the cities would revolve around kingship. The king, being the supreme authority in the kingdom, would determine actions that would be taken to ensure that these cities are protected. One city that is reflected in both the biblical accounts in the Old Testament and in the ancient Near East historical artifacts is the City of Jericho.
Although the accounts would differ- especially concerning divinity- it would be easy to draw some similarities in these accounts. The leadership structure and the succession of kingship that is presented in the Bible closely compare to that given in the ancient Near East accounts. For instance, the Old Testament shows that kingship was hereditary. This account is shared by the versions of the ancient Near East, especially in the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian kingdoms where kingship would be handed down from father to son.
Encountering the Present: Guidelines for Life-Law and Wisdom
The Old Testament has been considered a book full of life-law and wisdom. The book of Proverbs if full of wise teachings from the wisest man in the Bible who is King Solomon. The Old Testament gives accounts of the law that was given to the leaders of the Israelites to guide their relationship with one another, and other practices they engaged in within the society.
The study of the ancient Near East societal structure points at some of the laws that were developed by those in power to help guide the normal life of people within the kingdom. In Egypt, there was an elaborate law that would define how members of the society were expected to behave in order to create harmony.
Those who contravened the set code of conduct would be subjected to some form of punishment based on the magnitude of their deviation from the law. The biblical account also demonstrates the role of law in guiding life of humanity, and the importance of wisdom in guiding an individual’s way of life.
Pondering the Future on Earth and after Death
The historical counts of the ancient Near East shows that even at those ancient days, people were concerned of life after death. One such kingdom that believed in afterlife was the Egyptian empire. The Pharaohs were buried with all their slaves and some pleasantries that a living human being would need.
The slaves would be buried alive with the dead king. This is a strong indication that these people believed in life after death. In the Old Testament, the prophetic books show some prophesies of life after death. These prophesies tell of great leaders such as Moses coming back to life at some point in time.
It is important to understand that generalization can be misleading, especially when one intends to comprehend a given social issue in the society. However, generalization has been helpful when trying to figure out an issue that lacks clear independent facts. It is understandable that some scholars who will use this book may find it misleading or premature, but the intention of writing the book was not to mislead, but to provide an insight into the studies of ancient Near East.
It is true that some differences may emerge due to physical differences of the geographic locations of the area under investigation. Egypt, Israel, and Mesopotamia have different geographic and socio-political environment that may bring different understandings of the issues under investigation. It is also important to appreciate the fact that the current societies have been influenced by other cultures to the level where it is difficult to trace some of the original cultural practices.
For instance, the current Japan has almost lost the traditional cultural practices having been influenced by the Western cultures. From the analysis, it was realized that the Israelites’ ontology was a little different from the other ancient Near East ontology. The main difference came out from the fact that while the rest of the ancient Near East had many gods, the Israelites only worshiped Yahweh.
This was a little unique because in other societies, there were several gods that would serve different purposes. Epistemological analysis of the Israelites shows that these people had close communication with God, and this was demonstrated in the covenants God made through leaders such as Abraham, Moses, and David. The Israelites also believed in divinity. Their practices clearly demonstrate that they believed that human dignity could only be held when people respected God the Almighty.
It is also clear from their practices, that although God had power to control human activities, he was democratic enough to let the Israelites make their own decisions, even in cases where the decisions displeased him. Unlike the historiography of other regions in the ancient Near East, covenant was the main driving force among the Israelites, not kingship.
The theological analysis of Israelites demonstrates that God worked from outside the cosmos, and that He had no personal needs that a normal human being would. However, most of their other activities were similar to what other societies in these ancient times practiced. Understanding these facts as a scholar helps in developing a basis of analyzing the ancient world’s literature.
Walton, John. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishers Group, 2006.
1 Walton, John. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishers Group, 2006, p. 69
2 Walton, John. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishers Group, 2006, p. 71