wordy and poorly-edited thoughts from me

Disclaimer on these Thoughts from Me: they’re poorly edited to say the least and I’m not sure my claims about the Bible or Ancient Near East are actually true.
Christians and culture: Professors of Biblical studies or Ancient Near Eastern studies seem fond of pointing out parallels between the Bible and other ancient texts. In the Psalms scholars read allusions to the Mesopotamian creation myth and to the Canaanite pantheon. In the story of the birth and upbringing of Moses, they see another example of the common Ancient Near Eastern “hero exposed at birth” motif. The ANE concept of the king as “good shepherd” and the role of the king as defender of the powerless foreshadows Biblical ideas about God and the imperative to care for “widows and orphans.” And the law codes contain clear parallels to other ancient Near Eastern codes: for example, Exodus 21:29 contains a law concerning the “habitually goring ox,” a very similar law appears in the Code of Hammurabi (and possibly other law codes), written several hundred years before the law of Moses. Such professors often take this evidence to indicate that the Bible is of a piece with Ancient Near Eastern literature in general–nothing special or especially divine about it.
It disturbs me that the faith of many students is shaken or modified by such assertions. And it surprises me that it should come as a surprise to anyone that the Bible is in keeping with its cultural context. How could the ancient Israelites have understood God’s message in any way but through their own cultural lens? God transcends any particular human culture and is beyond human understanding; but he graciously presents Himself in ways that we as humans can understand, and the way we can understand is shaped (though not completely determined) by our cultural environment. I believe, then, that in the Bible He reveals Himself (1) in a way that was culturally relevant to the Israelites, so that they could understand; and (2) in a way that is relevant to all of us through the ages, regardless of our particular culture.
God’s covenant with the Israelites uses the concept and form of covenant that was current in the Ancient Near East, givng the Israelites a way to understand the nature of their relationship with God. The form and often the content of the Mosaic law would have been familiar to the Israelites–would it have made any sense for God to have given the law to the Israelites in 21st century U.S. legalese? They wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Or should He have given them the ultimate, transcendant mind of God in its entirety? The limited and fallen human mind couldn’t comprehend or handle it.
Insofar as the Bible was written by humans, those humans used the terminology for the divine that they knew. Insofar as it was written by God, He used terms and forms that the Israelites could understand. This cultural relevance allowed the Israelites to establish a base understanding of God by relating His revelations of Himself to their cultural context; and in doing so created a basis for comparison by which God could show how He is different from what the Israelites might expect based on their cultural presumptions.

For one thing, those in society who were at the mercy of others–women, orphans, slaves, etc.–are allotted what we in our 21st century cultural outlook would call “rights” that are rathern unusual in the Ancient Near Eastern context. Women are clearly under the authority of the men in their life, their fathers and then their husbands, which is right in keeping with the ANE attitude toward women. But within this cultural context, the word “authority” could perhaps be replaced with the word “protection” with no significant alteration in meaning.
In the ANE, to be an “independent” woman was not a good thing. The ANE economy differed from today’s in that no independent person, man or woman, had much of a chance of making their way in the world. One couldn’t just go out and get a job and work one’s way up through the ranks; one was either a male landowner or the member of a male landowner’s family, or was utterly destitute. The independent person was not, in fact, independent, but rather was completely dependent on anyone who was willing to give him/her a handout, buy him/her as a slave, or later in ANE history hire him/her as a day laborer. As one might suspect, the “independent” woman had even less of a chance than a man; hence the laws demanding that the father or husband in a woman’s life not only provide for her, but accord her respect and dignity, is quite different from other ANE law codes. Other law codes granted the woman certain rights, but these pretty much never equal the rights of men. One particularly charming example of a law regarding women comes from another ancient Mesopotamian code; the mouth of a woman who nags her husband is to be crushed with a brick, and the brick is to be displayed at the city gate. Contrast this with the attitude towards women displayed in the Mosaic code.
The OT’s treatment of two other classes of people, slaves and foreigners, is also in contrast to the general ANE attitude. While the ANE at various times and places could be rather cosmopolitan, with people of different ethnic and “national” origin living at close quarters; by and large it was rather insular. Most peoples who saw themselves as of a distinct ethnicity/national origin belived themselves to be the best ones and everybody else to be so much rubbish, even while carrying on necessary diplomatic and commercial relationships with the rubbish. The Bible, however, repeatedly commands that the Israelites not take advantage of foreigners under their power, but rather to treat them as one of themselves “for you were a foreigner in Egypt.” Slaves are by nature at the mercy of the owners; but both Israelite and foreign slaves were not to be in subjugation forever, but had to be released at the end of a given number of years.
Ideas about God as well as about people were also different from other ANE ideas. The gods of other nations were like people: they loved, hated, intimidated, feared, played favorites, took vengeance, went to war, established peace, created, destroyed, raised up kings, abandoned their people, were impulsive and subject to petty family squabbles.
Israel’s God too was a person: He loved, hated, got angry, and appeared to and talked with His people. But there were some important differences which have irrevocably impacted the vast majority of people since then, not just Jews and Christians, have thought about God. Most notably, the the Lord is one, YHWH is not one god among a larger pantheon. God is not subject to rivalries and squabbles among many gods. Although God remains a person, He is also transcendent: he can’t be intimidated or wheedled, he is the source of an ultimate goodness and justice which can’t be found in a pure form in this world, or in the pagan pantheons modeled on this world.
A Christian who reads the OT without regard to the specific cultural context from which it came might be perplexed by the Old Testament. On the other hand, a nonbeliever reads the OT in terms of his or her own cultural preconceptions can be completely flummoxed. Nonreligious people and especially athiests often don’t seem to be aware that their own cultural preconceptions are deeply influenced by traditions arising from the Bible itself: that the “God” that they might or might not believe exists is an ultimate, transcendent, otherworldly, abstract (in the sense that it doesn’t and can’t appear in pure form in this world) Good; that women should be accorded equal rights, respect, and worth as men; that no ethnicity is better or worse than any other; that Justice is abstract and absolute, not dependent on one’s standing in society and should not be subject to bribery or other such influences; that the imperative of compassion and care for the poor should override even just claims to personal property. These ideas did not arise from an athiest or a humanist society: even the idea of such a thing simply did not exist until a mere 200 years ago (an actual society based on atheism didn’t appear until less than 100 years ago, and promptly created societies in which the exact opposite of the above-mentioned principles received official sanction to run rampant).
I believe that most if not all of these principles, which were more or less unheard of before the events of the Bible happened, arise from the Bible itself. We share these basic principles with the ancient Israelites, but cultural context and thus the cultural “lens” through which we view the world are vastly different. At the most basic level, our society has an entirely different economic basis and type of government than the Israelites. Our thinking has been influenced by millennia of interaction between worldviews from around the globe.
In our cultural outlook, we consider that if there is a God at all, He is represents ultimate, abstract Goodness and Justice who can be accessed by humans and used to as a model for good behavior, but can never be perfectly be emulated by humans. Few if any people who share in modern western culture believe in a god or gods who is kind of an immortal, powerful though not omnipotent human, which is what everyone believed before the monotheistic revolution. When reading the Bible, however, we might wonder why such an abstraction might care whether someone wears a garment made of mixed linen and flax however

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