Archives For ancient near east

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In the previous posts, I noted two key points in relation to Old Testament law. First, the laws cannot be understood apart from their context and purpose. Second, many of the laws that seem unusually restrictive served an important purpose: God wanted a people who understood what it meant for something to be “holy” – separate, undefiled, and distinct.  God used laws governing seemingly insignificant things to help the Israelites understand what it meant for them to be distinct from the cultures around them.

Even with these caveats, it’s hard to read the Law without cringing at more morally significant mandates, such as those concerning slavery or the treatment of women.

It is important to note that while the Israelite Law was a solid move toward a better world, the laws were usually incremental instead of complete.  The laws were intended to show a redemptive movement in the broader context of the world.  In Christian terms, this means God at times used progressive revelation to reveal truth.  The cultural climate of world was at a particular place; God used the Law to begin a redemptive movement away from injustice and toward justice.  It was a cultural shift that can only be appreciated by understanding what God was pulling people from and what he was pulling them toward.  The Old Testament shows the beginning of a restorative work in a very broken world through a particular group of people. This was the start of that process, not the finished product.  Continue Reading…

Christians have long struggled to fully understand the Old Testament. The narratives contain many stories of hope and grace, but there are also plenty of stories of violence and despair.  To complicate matters, Christians claim that the Old Testament reveals  truth about not only about world, but also the character and nature of the God who made it.  Since our understanding of God is on the line,  I believe it is important that we seek to understand the Old Testament to the best of our ability.

In a previous series, we looked at the issue of war in the Old Testament.  In this series, we are going to delve into Old Testament laws. The Apostle Paul was adamant that all of Scripture is inspired and is useful (2 Timothy 3:16), and the “all Scripture” he referred to was the Old Testament.  The “inspired” part caused little controversy among the Jewish population; the “useful” part, however, created immediate tension.  In fact, the first church council at Jerusalem convened because of this issues involving the Law (Acts 15:24-29).

Over the next few centuries many Christians began either to reject the Old Testament completely or to make it allegorical as a way to find something meaningful without the uncomfortable task of wrestling with the literal meaning. One early writer, for example, interpreted the food laws of Deuteronomy 14:7 in the following way. “The clean animal symbolizes a true Christian who is able to both chew the cud (=meditate on the Word) of God, the Bible) and be cloven-footed (=walk in the world while not being corrupted by it and in the Spirit at the same time).”

Can we all agree on something? God’s Law as revealed in the Old Testament is daunting, uncomfortable, and confusing at best. But if the Bible is God’s revelation to the world, then something about that revelation should give us a picture of who God is and what He calls us to be. Laws reflect the giver of the law; it is important that we understand God’s laws so that we do not misunderstand God.

As with all forms of communication, there are at least three crucial aspects of the laws that we must remember. Continue Reading…

If you have been patient enough to read the previous series, you have read several key insights that help us understand God as he is revealed in the Old Testament:

So why does all of this matter to us today? Continue Reading…

“God is a moral monster with no objection to the massacre of women and children” – or so the charge goes. But is this really the case? My previous post noted that language in the war texts is predominantly hyperbolic language of dispossession, not annihilation. However, even this reading does not excuse unwarranted brutality and destruction among those who were involved in the battles.  In this post, I want to cover what happened to those who remained behind.

If historians are correct, approximately 70% to  90% of the population in Canaan lived away from the cities.  As I noted earlier, God’s plan was to displace people ahead of time.  Many ran away in response to the foreshadowing, so the civilians were largely gone from the land by the time the Israelites arrived. Those who did battle with the Israelites were the hardcore defenders of cowardice, oppression of others, perverse sexual temple fertility rituals, and the torturous sacrifice of children. It was in the cities or on the battlefield that they made their stand.

We read that when the Israelite spies returned from Jericho, they  said to Joshua, “Surely the Lord. has given all the land into our hands, and all the inhabitants of the land, moreover, have melted away before us.” (Joshua 2:24). “All” is certainly hyperbole (they still fought a battle at Jericho) but the general tenor is unmistakable. As  historians have noted:

 “We have strong archaeological evidence that the targeted Canaanite cities, such as Jericho and Ai, were not population centers with women and children but military forts or garrisons… “all” who were killed therein were warriors – Rahab and her family being an exception. The same applies throughout the book of Joshua.… This is further suggested by the fact that the Amalekites were not all annihilated: within the very same book (1 Samuel 27:8; 30:1) we encounter an abundance of Amalekites. The command allows, and hopes for, exceptions (e.g., Rahab and her relatives).” Continue Reading…

In the previous post, “God of War(ning) and Waiting,” I offered four important points we need to remember while reading through the accounts of the battles between the Israelites and the various people groups in Canaan:

  • God waited and warned the people groups involved;
  • He commanded the Israelites to accept and assimilate any immigrants from these nations, clearly showing God was not interested in genocide;
  • He sought not to destroy individual people, but to destroy the religious and cultural centers that promoted their particular evil;
  • He exercised lex talionis (a principle which says that punishment cannot exceed the crime).

As the first two points have been addressed, we are ready for  the third point – the question of the war itself.

The “obliteration language” is certainly daunting. If God is truly a bloodthirsty tyrant who orders the killing of women and children, he would have a hard time explaining how he is different from the gods of the Amalekites. I believe an understanding of the language of hyperbolic semitic “war texts” offers a plausible context from which we see a very different image of God emerge.  Read carefully, the historical accounts show that God’s intent was to get rid of destructive cultural influences and world views, but not necessarily the people in them.

The hyperbolic exaggeration of war texts is recorded in many documents of other Ancient Near East cultures of the time (all examples cited from Historical Backgrounds of Biblical History, by Jack P. Lewis).

  • An Egyptian monument commemorating Merneptah’s conquest of Canaan noted, “Plundered is the Canaan with every evil…Israel is laid waste; his seed is not.”
  • The Babylonian Chronicle makes this claim of Nebuchadnezzar: “…the Egyptian army withdrew before him. He accomplished their defeat and to non-existence beat them” – and then goes on to talk about what they did to all the soldiers in the army who escaped.
  • Esarhaddon once claimed that he led Sidon’s people into exile, “teeming subjects which could not be counted.”
  • When Mesha secured a Moabite victory of Israel, he claimed, “Israel has perished forever.”
  • When Shalmaneser defeated Ahab, he penned this commentary: “I spread their corpses everywhere, filling the entire plain with their widely scattered soldiers…I made their blood flow down…the district. The plain was too small to let all their souls descend into the nether world, the vast field gave out when it came to bury them. With their corpses I spanned the Orontes before their was a bridge.”  

This is a specific type of genre, one understood by the audience then in a very particular way. Continue Reading…