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Probe Ministries > Newest Articles


The Old Testament and Other Ancient Religious Literature Print E-mail


Written by Rick Wade

The Challenge

In the 1870s a scholar named George Smith revealed the discovery of both creation and flood stories in ancient Babylonian literature.{1} Bible scholars were soon claiming that the writer of Genesis was merely borrowing from Babylonian mythology. Although competent scholars have since shown that the similarities between these accounts are largely superficial, the idea remains today in certain areas of academia and pop culture that the Bible is just another work of ancient mythology.

Download the PodcastAlthough there are good reasons to see the Bible as very different from other religious literature, the problem for conservative Christians is in how similar it is to other ancient literature; it’s because there are significant affinities that scholars made that leap in the first place. On the one hand, liberal scholars and a lot of ordinary lay people take the similarities to indicate that the Old Testament isn’t any more divine than other ancient literature. On the other hand, conservatives, fearful of seeing the Bible lose its status, tend to shy away from the similarities. Most of us wouldn’t say it, but we don’t like to think there’s much overlap between the worldview of the ancient Israelites and that of their neighbors. Where we run into problems is when we assume that God revealed Himself in ways that are always satisfactory to modern people, especially with regard to scientific and historical accuracy. Neither the giving-away-the-store approach nor the approach of turning a blind eye to genuine similarities will do. We must let the Bible be what it is and determine for us how we should understand and use it.

For all the similarities, there are fundamental differences that set the Bible apart. In this article I will spend more time on the differences. Before turning to those, however, it would be good to mention a few similarities.

For one thing, there is similarity in the form that religious practice took. Temples, priests, prophets, and sacrifices were a part of the practices of other religions as they were of the Israelites’. Old Testament scholar John Oswalt notes, for example, that “the layout of the tabernacle and of the temple following it is essentially the same as the layout of contemporary Canaanite sanctuaries. Furthermore, the decoration of the temple seems to have been similar to that of Canaanite sanctuaries.”{2}

There were similarities in law as well. For example, the “eye for an eye” injunctions in Exodus 21:23-25 are similar to some found in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Both include punishments for striking a pregnant woman and causing her to miscarry.{3}

Even here, though, there are differences, specifically in the purposes of these two. Old Testament scholar John Walton points out that the ancient codes, or treatises as he calls them, were not rules legislated by authorities. Rather, they were collections of principles, learned over time, assembled to show the worthiness and wisdom of the king in his role of maintaining order in society.{4} “This,” Walton writes, “was the most fundamental expectation of the gods.”{5}

By contrast, the Old Testament law was an important part of the covenant between God and His people; the laws were, as Walton says, the “stipulations of the covenant.”{6}

More could be said about similarities, but we’ll turn now to the differences between the Old Testament and other literature of the ancient Near East.

The One True God

Two fundamental differences between the Old Testament and ancient myths are the biblical claims that there is only one true God and that this God is not to be worshipped by means of idols.{7}

Israel’s neighbors were polytheists or henotheists, meaning they believed there were multiple gods but they worshipped only one, or one primarily. This is why the steward of Joseph’s house could speak to Joseph’s brothers of “your God and the God of your father” (Gen. 43:23) and why Pharaoh could say to Moses and Aaron, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land” (Ex. 8:25). The Egyptians had their gods, the Hebrews had theirs. The cultural “atmosphere” of belief in many gods was as normal in that day as the modern secular mentality is in ours.

By contrast, Yahweh declared that there was only one God and it was Him. “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God,” Yahweh said. “Who is like me? Let him proclaim it” (Isa. 44:6b-7a; see also 45:5,6).

Further, the true God was not to be worshipped through idols. That was a new idea. Idols were very important to the ancients. They were the actualized presence of deities. The idol received worship on behalf of the god. An example of that worship was providing food for the god by presenting it to the idol. John Walton says that through such expressions, “in this way the image mediated the worship from the people to the deity.”{8}

This entire understanding was declared false by Yahweh. Through Isaiah and Jeremiah God declared that idols were wood or stone, silver or gold, and nothing more (Isa. 44; Jer. 10). “Every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols,” God said through Jeremiah, “for his images are false, and there is no breath in them. They are worthless, a work of delusion” (Jer. 10:14-15a). Through the Psalmist, God asked rhetorically, “Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (Ps. 50:12-13).

Transcendence vs. Continuity

One of the ways we distinguish the Old Testament from other literature of the ancient Near East is to note the difference between actual history and myth. The stories of the gods in other literature we call mythological. The word myth is often used today to mean false, but it has a much richer meaning than that.

In his book The Bible Among the Myths, John Oswalt gives several definitions of myth which have to do with such things as the definition of the word and sociological and theological factors and more.{9} A central feature of all of them is what Oswalt calls “continuity.” By continuity he means an actual metaphysical connection between all things. A simple illustration of this principle is the claim, “I am one with the tree, not merely symbolically or spiritually, but actually. The tree is me; I am the tree.”{10} In the ancient world, this continuity included the gods. The differences between nature and the gods were more of degree than of kind.

This connection is more than a matter of mere resemblance. Because the pagan gods were understood to be continuous with nature, what happened in nature was thought to be a direct result of the activities of the gods. If the crops didn’t grow or the animals didn’t reproduce, it must have had something to do with the gods. Moving in the other direction, people hoped to manipulate the gods by engaging in some ritualistic act on the level of nature. So, by retelling and acting out the mythical stories of the divine, ideal world, a connection was made between humanity and the gods. It was hoped that the outcomes of the mythical accounts would apply to the natural world.{11} This direct continuity between earth and “heaven” sheds light on such things as temple prostitution and fertility rituals. Through re-enactments of the mythological origins of the world, which involved the sexual activities of the gods, people hoped they could inspire the gods to make their crops grow and their animals fertile.

By contrast, the God of the Old Testament is not continuous with the created world. Yahweh is transcendent, above and separated in His very nature from the created order. This distinction marks a fundamental difference between the teachings of the Old Testament and those of the ancient myths.

This has several very important implications. I’ll run through a few.

Being transcendent meant God could not be manipulated through rituals the way pagan gods could. Fertility rituals, for example, were meaningless because they had no relation whatsoever to how God created or governed the world. The Israelites engaged in certain ritualistic acts, but they were not for the purpose of making God do what they wanted. In fact, when they became substitutes for godly living, God told them to stop doing them. We read in Isaiah chapter 1 about how abhorrent the sacrifices and the rituals of the Israelites had become to God.

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood (Isa. 1:11-17).

The pagan gods demanded the appeasement of sacrifices. Yahweh looked for a change of heart and behavior.

Here’s another difference. Because the various acts of the pagan deities recounted in myths were thought to be eternally recurring, time and space lost their significance. The acts of the gods were timeless. They couldn’t be connected to particular moments in history.{12} Thus, the mythological view reduced the significance of the historical.

By contrast, in Scripture we see the transcendent God acting in history through specific events and persons. The people of Israel were called not to re-enact but to remember particular events in history, for it was in these things that the transcendent God of the Bible revealed Himself.

The transcendence/continuity distinction helps explain why idol worship was so strongly condemned in Scripture. It was more than just a matter of worshipping the wrong God. It showed a basic misunderstanding of the nature of God. To engage in idol worship was to give in to the idea of continuity between nature and the divine. This mentality was likely behind the creation of the golden calf by Aaron when Moses was on the mountain. The people had lived in a world where gods could be seen through physical idols. It was natural for them, when wondering where Moses and Yahweh were, to find reassurance in a physical representation of deity. But it was condemned by God.

A Few More Differences

Here are three more differences between the worldview and religion prescribed in the Old Testament and that seen in other ancient Near Eastern literature.

First, the biblical worldview regards humanity highly. In the Old Testament, we read that man and woman were created in God’s image. They were the pinnacle of God’s creative work. In the pagan myths, mankind was created merely to serve the needs of the lazy and conceited gods. Humans were only good for “food and adulation,” as John Oswalt says.{13}

Second, Yahweh was concerned with people’s moral lives. Among other ancient Near Eastern peoples, Oswalt writes, religion was “about sacrifice, ritual, ritual purity, prayer, offerings, and the like.” Things like this were part of the covenant between Israel and Yahweh, but not the only things, and not even the most important, as we saw in the Isaiah 1 passage quoted earlier. Ethical obedience was and is an important part of our response to God. His people are to tell the truth, to respect other people and their possessions, to keep the marriage bed pure, etc. Similar laws can be found in some other religious codes, but for Israel they weren’t just the laws of the land; they were aspects of a relationship with God that were grounded in the character of God.{14}

Third, the people of Israel could know if they were pleasing or displeasing Yahweh and why. They knew what they were required to do and not do, and they got feedback, typically through the prophets.

By contrast, other gods didn’t seem so concerned to communicate their thoughts or motives to people. When hardships came for no apparent reason, people thought they must have offended the gods, but they couldn’t know for sure what they had done or not done. Walton writes that “the minds of the gods were not easily penetrated.”{15} By contrast, he says, “nothing in the ancient Near East compares to the extent of revelation that Yahweh gives to his people and the depth of relationship that he desires with them.”{16}

By countering the idea that the Bible is just another example of ancient literature, I have not proved that the Bible’s message is true. The point is to clear away an objection that gets in the way of understanding. It provides a space for people to give more thought to the teachings of the Bible. The Bible is then able to speak for itself.

Notes

1. Gerhard F. Hasel, "The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology," Evangelical Quarterly, 46 (1974) 81-102; accessed online at www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/1974-2_081.pdf.
2. John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2009), 91-92.
3. Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 31-32.
4. John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 290-91.
5. Ibid., 295.
6. Ibid., 299.
7. Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 57-58.
8. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought, 114-115.
9. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, chaps. 3 and 4.
10. Ibid., 43.
11. Ibid., 42.
12. Ibid., 43.
13. Ibid., 70.
14. Ibid., 77.
15. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought, 307.
16. Ibid., 298.

© 2013 Probe Ministries

See Also:
The World of Animism by Patrick Zukeran


About the Author

Rick WadeRick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at rwade@pobox.com.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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