Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Ancient Near Eastern Literature (Ninth Post)

Books, Christ in the Old Testament, Christian Education, Church History, Culture, Scripture, Theology, Worship

My last two posts are increasingly so vast in scope that it is in some ways pointless to even attempt what I’m going to do here. Nevertheless, I want to try.

For as long as biblical studies have been done (dating back to at least Philo in the first century), Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature has been used to illumine the Bible. Indeed, it is beyond question that the OT authors themselves read and employed ANE literature for their own polemical purposes (usually to prove that Yahweh, rather than some usurping deity, is God). For example, Daniel 7 has so many parallels with the Baal Cycle that it is impossible that it is coincidental. What Daniel is doing is simultaneously mocking Baal while glorifying the True God and his only begotten son (see chart). Understanding this backdrop adds multiple rich layers to our understanding of the passage, layers that profoundly enrich our knowledge of Jesus Christ (in the chart, note how the “son of man” parallels “Baal” in the polemic), who is the focus and point of all the Scripture.

Daniel 7 and Baal

Chart by Douglas Van Dorn

In modern times, the 19th and 20th centuries saw several amazing discoveries of ANE literature that brought to the table texts not available to the Fathers, the Medievals, or the Reformers (we have already seen the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library). Two other incredible discoveries of the last 200 years must be included in this post. The first discovery was made late in 1849 in ancient Nineveh in the Royal Palace of king Sennacherib (705–681 BC), with whom Hezekiah had dealings (cf. Isa 36:1ff). Three years later, a vast collection–thousands of clay tablets and fragments—were unearthed just a few yards away. This became known as the now famous Library of Ashurbanipal (he is called “the great and honorable Osnappar” or “Asenappar” in Ezra 4:10). The find contained myriads of texts and genres collected by the great king in the 7th century B.C., but telling about history for more than a thousand years before that. The find included the Babylonian creation story the Enuma Elish and their Flood story the Epic of Gilgamesh, both of which share much in common with the biblical stories (as well as much that is not in common).

Mt Aqraa (ancient Mt. Saphon) towering over the ruins of Ugarit.

Mt Aqraa (ancient Mt. Saphon) towering over the ruins of Ugarit.

The other discovery took place in 1929 in a dig in the beautiful Syrian port city on the Mediterranean call Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), some 26 miles south of the astounding Mt. Zaphon (Isa 14:13 NRS), which rises over a mile straight out of the Great Sea. Zaphon was Baal’s mountain, and the tablets at Ugarit provided for the first time in over 3,000 years ancient stories of Baal, El, and other religious deities that are so intimately tied to the OT. In fact, the Scripture calls God “El” many times. As cited in the first post of this series, Dr. Michael Heiser has written an excellent article showing why Ugarit is so important to biblical studies.

ANE Literature is basically divided into five geographical categories:

Ugarit (see above).

Hittite. The Hittites empire was established in Anatolia around 1600 BC. It reached its height during the mid-14th century B.C., when it included most of Asia Minor as well as parts of the northern Levant (today’s western Syria, Jordan, and Israel). These people are mentioned often in the early parts of the Old Testament.

Akkadian (see above). The Akkadian Empire reached father east and much longer back in time than the Hittites, reaching its peak in the 24th and 22nd centuries B.C.

Sumerian. Sumer is one of the most ancient civilizations known, reaching much of modern-day southern Iraq, as far as 3,500, 4,000, perhaps even 5,000 B.C. The Dynastic period begins c. 2900 B.C. and includes such legendary figures as Gilgamesh—who is supposed to have reigned shortly before the historic record opens c. 2700 BCE.

Egyptian. Egypt is well known to most people. Its empire is world famous, especially because of its colossus pyramids and sphinx that still stand to this day.

The kinds of literature we have from these places include Canonical Texts (including myths, prayers, rituals, incantations, epics, historiography, biography, oracles, proverbs, wisdom, and instructions), Monumental Inscriptions (royal inscriptions, mortuary inscriptions, building and dedication inscriptions, temple hymns), and Archival Documents (letters, contracts, accounts, court cases, wills). As you can see from this list, the literature is vast. There is much here to learn for the eager person that is interested.

Again, because there is a certain hostility that conservative Christians have towards ANE literature, a final word should be said. If the reader keeps in mind that Scripture is God’s word, then it is quite easy to read the other writings of the ANE without feeling like you are compromising something essential. Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and even Moses didn’t feel like they were. So why should I? Rather, they understood that the nations’ beliefs about anything from the gods to morality were rooted in truth, but had become badly distorted to the point of spiritual darkness and enslavment. Holy Scripture sometimes uses their own material against the nations, subverting their narratives, and replacing them with truth that reveals the glory and goodness of the God of gods and his only begotten Son.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

5 thoughts on “Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Ancient Near Eastern Literature (Ninth Post)

  1. Really enjoyed this blog! Like you said, it is important for the church to understand and appreciate, like the writers of the OT, that God speaks in culturally relevant and applicable ways, and that does not imply that it is any less inspired or relevant because of it. The more I learn about the socio-political and religious context of the ANE the more ‘literally’ I feel like I am reading the scriptures.

    Looking forward to reading more of your blogs!

    Stephen

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