Note: Over the next several weeks, our very own Steve Ring will be giving us a window into his world by sharing insights about the Old Testament that he has gleaned from his studies. Thanks Steve!
If you’ve ever taken a class on literary interpretation, one of the first things you learn is that your environment shapes how you understand what you read and even what you say. So, for instance, today the word “church” calls to mind a group of people who meet in a cathedral, or a building with a steeple, or a megachurch. Nineteen hundred years ago the same word would have meant something like “city council” or “the small group of people in my apartment building I meet secretly with to worship Jesus as God.”
This effect becomes especially relevant in the area of biblical interpretation. Most of us read the Bible in light of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Great Awakenings, world wars, space travel, the internet, social media, etc. The New Testament authors and the church fathers had a completely different take. They struggled to present Christianity in light of Greco-Roman philosophy and culture as an ancient religion – the legitimate fulfillment of the Old Testament promises.
The Old Testament became a source of archetypes and prophecies about Jesus and the church. And while this proved to be a very meaningful way to avoid feeding the lions (for the most part), it also had the effect of obscuring the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultural influences which the Old Testament authors had written to address hundreds of years earlier.
So what exactly were those Old Testament guys trying to counteract? Well, you know … Baal, idolatry, coveting … stuff. If this sounds like your answer to the question, then you know why I aim to provide a little background to the Old Testament. I would venture a guess that most Christians are somewhat out of touch with the Old Testament because 1) they think it’s really old and outdated, and 2) they’re afraid of having to pronounce the names (can you say Mahershalalhashbaz backwards?). Further, because of the tendency to see the Old Testament as one large prophecy about Jesus, most of us never try to learn about the ANE.
And yet, reading the Old Testament without a knowledge of ANE history and culture is similar to us studying American literature without knowing anything about England. While the Old Testament does point to Jesus, God was also speaking to specific situations in the lives of the Old Testament authors, and he did this in terms of the ANE culture in which they lived. Over the next few weeks, I plan to use this space to make fun of people’s pronunciation … that is, I mean, encourage everyone to explore the ANE so we can get a better grasp of God’s presence in the Old Testament.
The Amarna Letters: A Good Place to Start
What are they?
- part of the royal archive from ancient Egypt.
- official correspondence between the pharaohs and other ANE empires and vassal states.
- they cover a thirty year period (ca. 1360-1330) during the reigns of Amenhotep III, Amenhotep IV (also known as Akhenaten and husband of Nefertiti), and Tutankhamun (yes, that Tutankhamun).
Why are they important?
- provide a picture of the ANE (and especially Canaan, Lebanon, and Syria) just before the Exodus and the period of the judges.
- demonstrate how widespread and pervasive different religious beliefs were in the ANE.
- a window into ANE diplomatic practices.
What the websites won’t tell you
- in addition to the letters, there were also tablets on the art of cuneiform, lists of the gods for each empire or city-state, dictionaries, pronunciation guides, and several of the well-known Mesopotamian religious myths.
- the tablets were written in Akkadian (Babylonian) which was the common language for official correspondence, but foreign to everyone outside of Assyria and Babylon.
- only highly-trained scribes could read and write Akkadian. This means that there was a network of scribes across the entire ANE (including the land of Canaan) familiar with Mesopotamian culture and literature. The land of Canaan received a heavy dose of Mesopotamian and Egyptian ideas.
ANE Politics and Religion
- in the ANE (and for most of human history) politics and religion were tightly knit together. Patriotism and loyalty were demonstrated through which gods a person chose to worship. Kings ruled by the decree of the gods and in most cases were understood to have a divine nature.
- from Letter 328: Lachisch to Pharaoh
To the King, my lord, my sun, my god, the breath of my life… your slave and dust under your feet. At the feet of the King my lord, my sun, my god, the breath of my life, I bowed down seven times seven times. I heard the words of the tablets of the King my lord, my sun, my god, the breath of my life, and the heat of your slave and the dust under the feet of the King, my lord, my sun, my god, the breath of my life, is exceeding glad that the breath of the King my lord, my sun, my god has gone out to his slave and to the dust under his feet. Who is your servant but a dog? And they prostrate themselves before the Pharaoh seven times and seven times on both back and belly …
- if you can’t tell, Lachisch is a town in southern Canaan, relatively close to Egypt.
That’s all I have time for this week. Please ask questions because this helps me know what people are wondering about and interested in. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll look it up.