Revolutionary Revelation in a Cultural Package
The Old Testament (OT) is a strange and foreign world to many, including many Christians. The reason for this is simple: The writings which compose the OT ( or Hebrew Bible) were written in a cultural milieu much different from ours. Yet in spite of its many similarities with the culture of the ancient Near East (ANE), the OT has many unique features and beliefs not found in any other neighboring country or region of that era. OT scholar John Walton refers to this phenomenon as, “revolutionary revelation in a cultural package” (Old Testament Theology for Christians: From Ancient Context to Enduring Belief, p. 12–see link below).
This post is about some of the unique features of the OT. Such uniqueness causes one to ask, “How did writers in ancient Israel, come up with beliefs and ideas that were so counter-cultural?” Were they a race of geniuses? Or could it be that their claim of Divine Revelation is actually true? The context in which Walton uses the expression, “revolutionary revelation in a cultural package,” explains his answer to this question and is worth quoting at length. (The bold type and italics in the quote below are Walton’s and serve as one of the subheadings in his introductory chapter):
“Theology is to be understood within the framework of the ancient world, yet as the result of revelation that draws the people out of those ways of thinking. The Israelites were thoroughly immersed in the world and cultural framework of the ancient Near East, just as all of us are immersed in our own native cultures. However, God’s revelation of himself, though grounded in a specific culture, is capable of transcending culture. As a result, we can be transformed by that revelation, regardless of the time and space that separate us from the original revelation. The situation with ancient Israel was no different—God’s revelation called them away from the ways in which their culture inclined them to think and to be transformed in their minds. We have, then, a revolutionary revelation in a cultural package. But it is important to note that the Old Testament’s theology is situated against the backdrop of the ancient world’s customary ways of thinking.” (Walton, OT Theology, p. 12).
John Walton is not only an OT scholar, but is a scholar of the ancient Near East. As such, he is eminently qualified to address this topic. His writings include other works on the ancient Near East such as, “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament,” and “Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context.” The rest of this article will focus on 9 aspects of this “revolutionary revelation” in the OT as revealed in Walton’s Old Testament Theology. These are not the only unique features of Israel’s religion, there are others. These are enough, however, to substantiate that Israel’s outlook and practices were qualitatively different in many aspects, in spite of sharing a common culture with its ancient Near Eastern neighbors.
Revolutionary Revelation in the Old Testament
- One Supreme God–this is probably the most obvious difference between Israel and its neighbors. It’s difficult to underscore just how revolutionary this belief is. All the nations of the ANE believed in a pantheon of gods. While one god might be considered the head of the pantheon, this could change. For example, the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish recounts how the god Marduk is elevated to the head of the pantheon. The OT reveals that God has a council of divine beings (e.g., Ps. 82:1, 1 Kgs 22:19-22). However, none of these beings are equal to God. In fact, all were created by God. God allows these beings to participate with Him, just as God allows humans to participate in His plans. Walton explains how foreign this concept was to the other peoples of the ANE. He points out that people functioned and found their identity within community. They believed the gods did likewise. Walton then states, “With this brief discussion as a backdrop, we can understand the challenge of the theology revealed to the Israelites. How could one God do it all? Why would one God do it all? It would have been difficult for them to think of Yahweh as a cosmic deity, a phenomenon deity, a national deity, and a clan deity all at the same time. It just would not have made sense” (OT Theology, p. 38). The fact is, many Israelites had a hard time accepting this belief themselves. The OT is full of examples of Israel worshipping other gods. Given the mindset of the ANE, the idea of one supreme God overall only makes sense if it was received by divine revelation. No one in that culture would come up with such an idea!
- A God who communicates and reveals Himself–I was honestly shocked to learn this one. In the ANE although gods did, at times, reveal answers to oracular questions through divination (Should we go to war?, Will this famine end soon?), they didn’t offer an account of their plans or their attributes the way we are accustomed to seeing the God of Israel do in the OT. Walton states, “In the ancient Near East it was more common for the gods to manifest themselves rather than to reveal themselves. Gods “manifested” themselves in objects, images, names, celestial bodies, or other things that comprised the divine constellation” (OT Theology, pp. 43-44). Revelation of the kind we are used to speaking of, simply was not a thought that occurred to an ancient person. The gods were about having their needs met (see below), not about revealing themselves.
- A God of relationship–Of course, one of the reasons for self-revelation is for the purpose of relationship. It appears the gods of the ANE were little concerned with developing a relationship with their worshippers. One of the aspects of the God of Israel is his desire to dwell in their midst (e.g., the tabernacle and temple). Walton states, “Other gods dwelled among people, but they were not prone to claim a people group as their own” (OT Theology, p. 65). No other ANE deity ever said anything like, “I will be your God and you will be My people” (Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 7:23; etc.). While the OT is full of expressions of God’s love for His people, and people’s love for God (Deut. 6:4; 7:7-8; 23:5; etc.), such an expression from the ANE gods is rare. Walton writes, “The gods in general are considered to love (e.g., in Akkadian râmu) people, and people likewise love the gods, though it has been demonstrated that terms such as these in the ancient world are sometimes used to express the presence of political relationships rather than emotions. But such expressions from the gods are rare and are more often directed to the king than to the people at large. Even considering the myriads of royal inscriptions wherein the kings speak at length about the relationship between themselves and a god, clear expressions of emotion in either direction are little attested” (OT Theology, p. 57).
- Exclusive worship–If God is the one true God then it makes sense that He would require exclusive worship. While other nations had patron deities, for example, the Moabites’ god Chemosh, or the Babylonians’ god Marduk, no one expected them to be worshipped exclusively. After all, exclusive worship would offend the other gods! When one ancient Pharaoh by the name of Akhenaten attempted to force the worship of only one god (the sun god Aten), he was considered a heretic (see wikipedia article here). Walton says that Israel’s practice was, “an idea unmatched in its particularity in the rest of the ancient world” (OT Theology, p. 66). Even today the insistence on worshipping only one God as the true God causes offense to many. Why would Israel go against the grain of ancient society, unless, as they claim, such action had been revealed to them?
- The reason for creation–Perhaps the most revolutionary revelation (besides one supreme God), is in regards to creation. In the accounts of the creation of the world and humanity, there is a significant difference between Israel and the nations of the ANE. Most people who read this blog are probably aware that other nations of the ANE had creation stories (as well as Flood stories!). Scholars have noted some similarities between these accounts with the account in Genesis 1-3. One similarity relates to the creation of humanity. Genesis states that Adam was created from the dust of the ground. The Atrahasis epic states that 7 male and 7 female embryos were fashioned from clay. However, the major difference between the ancient creation accounts and Genesis is why God/the gods created human beings. Walton refers to the ANE ideas contained in the various creation accounts as “The Great Symbiosis.” Several quotes from Walton flesh out what is meant by the Great Symbiosis, and how this contrasts with the biblical account. “According to the theology of the Old Testament, God created the world for humans. This theology, however, stands in contrast to the ancient Near Eastern idea that the gods created the cosmos for themselves. In this view, humans, as afterthoughts, were to function as slaves of the gods to ensure the cosmos would continue to serve the deities’ needs” (OT Theology, p. 71). A few pages later, Walton writes, “The other gods order the cosmos to function for themselves, and people merely function as cogs in the machinery…. But in the Old Testament, Yahweh orders the cosmos to serve people, not himself, and it is ordered to be sacred space (by virtue of his presence there) (OT Theology, pp. 83-84). One final quote from Walton emphasizes the ANE perspective on the creation of humanity: “Conventional wisdom was that the gods wanted to be pampered, and if the people succeeded in meeting their every whim, the gods might just treat them well. After all, if the gods desired all of this pampering, they had to protect and provide for those who were diligent and conscientious in their ministrations. Experience, as the people interpreted it, had taught them that the gods were fickle, demanding, capricious, and disinterested in the cares of humans; the gods were interested only in their own comforts and were concerned primarily with their own needs” (OT Theology, p. 112). I have spent extra space on this point and provided extra quotes from Walton because it is such a significant difference. The idea that humans were created as the slaves for the gods to do the work they didn’t want to do was ubiquitous throughout the ANE. The biblical depiction is clearly superior and certainly more attractive. The question once again arises, “How did Israel come up with such a radically different concept?” As a side note, I find it interesting that many people today have a more ANE view of God than they do a biblical view. The picture of a god who only wants to use people for his own purposes aligns perfectly with the ANE, but is diametrically opposed to the God of the Hebrew Bible.
- Cosmic Conflict vs. No Conflict in Creation–We can keep this one short. The Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish speaks of conflict between the gods resulting in the creation of the world. Genesis evidences no such conflict. The Creator God is in complete control and all of the cosmos is created by his sovereign word.
- The image of God–The biblical creation story states that all human beings (male and female) are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). The image is not a characteristic or quality; it is a status. Humans are to rule the earth as God’s representatives. We have already noted that, in the ANE, humans were created to be slaves to the gods. The only one mentioned as being in the gods’ image is the king. Only the king is granted the status of rulership. Walton states, “…in the Old Testament, the image of God provides the primary description of human purpose and meaning. Human dignity in the Old Testament is found in the status and function people have as God’s image” (OT Theology, p. 97). Because humanity is created in God’s image, this also means that Israel was not to permit any other likeness or image of God. This, of course, is stated clearly in the 10 commandments (Exod. 20:4). Walton writes, “Aniconism is observable in various ways in other times and places in the ancient Near East….However, total aniconism in the ancient Near East outside Israel is unknown. The significance of this is far-reaching and cannot be overstated” (OT Theology, p. 150).
- Sin and separation from God’s presence–Walton writes, “There is nothing like the fall in ancient Near Eastern literature because there is no idealized primeval scenario (OT Theology, p. 102). Furthermore, “Even the discussion of sin is problematic in an ancient Near Eastern context” (OT Theology, p. 102). People in the ANE certainly knew what it was like to offend a deity and to suffer for it, but the concept of sacrificing for atonement to restore a relationship was foreign to them (Remember, the gods were not interested in a relationship as such. Their interest was in how they could benefit from human existence). In the biblical understanding, sin separates a person from God. An unrepentant sinner can be driven from the presence of God (Gen. 4:14), or God can remove his presence from a sinful nation (Ezek. 11:22-23). The gods of the ANE would be considered foolish for removing humanity from their presence–they needed them! Humans were created to do the work and to offer the sacrifices that fed the gods. To remove humanity would be devastating! In the Atrahasis epic the gods actually find this out when they attempt to destroy humanity with a flood. They soon realize their mistake as there is no one left to offer them sacrifices to feed them or to do their work. Fortunately, one of the gods, Enki, has saved Atrahasis in a boat (sound familiar?). When Atrahasis leaves the boat, he offers sacrifices to the gods. The story humorously states that the gods gathered around the sacrifice like flies! Although one can see a few similarities with the Genesis story of the Flood, the qualitative differences in the biblical story are undeniable.
- A God who makes covenants with people–We have already noted that one of the distinctive features of the Bible is that God is a God of relationship, while the gods of the ANE are not much interested in partnering with people. One of the ways this is expressed in Scripture is the making of covenants between God and people. Once again we have a unique feature that is not found in the ANE. Walton states, “In the ancient Near East, the idea of a god who made a covenant with a group of people was unique to Israel—a circumstance for which we have little precedent. Gods did, however, make covenants with kings… (OT Theology, p. 105). We noted above that the image of God can apply to kings in the ANE, but not with the general public. The same is true of making covenants. But we have no record of gods making a covenant with a group of people. In the OT we read of God making a covenant with Noah and the whole earth, promising not to flood it again (Gen. 9:8-17). Beginning with Abram, God makes a covenant with an individual who will grow into a family, which will, in turn, grow into a nation. Along these lines Walton writes, “The transition from an agreement with a family to an agreement with an ethnic group/nation is paralleled by the transition of Yahweh from a family God (“personal god”) to a national God. No other examples exist in the ancient world of such a relational transition by a god” (OT Theology, p. 120). In other words, once a family god, always a family god. Once a national deity, always a national deity, etc. In the ANE, there was no need for one god to fill many roles, after all, there were plenty of gods to go around. Not so in biblical teaching. Only one God was supreme (see #1 above), and he fulfilled all necessary roles.
Conclusions Regarding Revolutionary Revelation
Very few people go against the values and beliefs that are prevalent in their culture. To do so leads to ridicule, rejection, and in severe cases, persecution and death. In fact, most of us assimilate our cultural values and beliefs without giving it much thought. Throughout this post we have noticed that Ancient Israel, while having many similarities with its neighbors, differed in significant ways. These beliefs and practices were enough to make them “stand out in the crowd.” According to Scripture, this was the purpose. Israel was to be a nation of priests to draw others to the true God (Gen. 12:3; Exod. 19:5-6; 1 Kgs. 8:43, 60). These differences, however, did come with a price (e.g., Daniel 3:8-18).
The OT testifies to the fact that not all Israelites were willing to swim against the current of ANE culture. We read of much compromise in its pages. This leads to the question of why a group within Israel proclaimed and clung to these radically different beliefs and practices–a question I have noted a few times above. Again, we must ask, “Where did these beliefs and practices come from?” Why Israel and no other nation? How is it that every other nation of the ANE had similar beliefs and practices, but Israel was unique? Not only that, but Israel also produced a unique literature we call the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. This characteristic is not only true of Israel in the Old Testament era, the same can be said for a group of Jewish believers in the New Testament era. Many of the beliefs and practices of early Christianity were also counter-cultural. I have noted some of these counter-cultural beliefs in an article entitled, “Evidences for the Cross and Resurrection.” Did Israelites just have a thing about being counter-cultural? Did they enjoy the ridicule and persecution of others? Why not another nation or group of people? Why always Israel? I believe Walton’s explanation is the best and most logical. Israel was gifted by God with a revolutionary revelation.
Walton’s Old Testament Theology is available at Amazon USA / UK. A digital version is also available at Logos/Faithlife.