Ridiculous title huh? Maybe not. This post is for people who are seeking to study the scripture with a per-cursor of historical background. I’ve recently read an amazing couple of books and listened to a few of the online lectures done by Professor John H. Walton. He is currently professor of Old Testament at Wheaten College in Chicago.
I have taught the book of Genesis 3 times for our Chronological Bible School in YWAM Mexico. I have taught on Genesis numerous times in churches, small groups, and our Discipleship Training School in YWAM as well. But until this past September I had made a crucial mistake. As I always attempt to relay a good understanding of “Background” Ive often failed to communicate just how the entire Ancient Near Eastern World “Thinks”. You can get caught up in religious practices, politics, geography but nearly miss this important step. And that is to take the risk of grasping how the ancient people thought about life around them.
One major error has been to outright dismiss the ancient Egyptian mythology. That its utterly nonsense to think of the sky as a god, the earth as a god, and so on. You have strange pictures taken from archaeology that depict the Egyptians cosmology (Their understanding of everything around them). I typically would mock a few aspects of it and then going on to discribe the biblical narratives of Genesis 1-2 as so far advanced truth about the world we live in. Though I still believe it to be truth I dont have the same sharp contrast in my mind from Egyptian cosmology to the Israelite cosmology we have in scripture. Instead what exists is a wonderful comparison from which contrast can be drawn out. But it first begins with similarities. On the surface you will see far more similarities then differences.
That is not something to be afraid of. Similarities from Ancient Mythology and scripture does not need to dampen our inspirational view of scripture. It may illuminate it and help us understand better how God communicates to man.
The primary similarity that has effected my thinking is in that area of how the ancients view ‘existence’. For something to exist it needed to have a function. For something to have a function their must be a power behind it causing it always to function in the way that it functions. For the ancients there was no natural cause, no natural world, and everything was infused with deity. That’s what made it all work. Just as today it has become more common to say, “there is no God, no supernatural, no miraculous, because we understand the world around us in terms of natural cause everything happens naturally, or anonymously of a higher power or powers. But for the ancients this was not so, everything worked the way it did because their was something, someone, some powers behind it all. Their myths were not nonsense just to be dismissed but a valid way of thinking about the world they lived in.
God validated this way of thinking by communicating not in terms of the natural world but in the terms they were familiar with -terms of function. Genesis 1 then is not just a story of how the natural world came into being. This is how we modern readers interpret as we read. But how did the ancients read Genesis 1?
Ancient readers were able to see simply that not only did God create the physical world but the physical world truly has a specific order given to all things. Only in the Hebrew story there is not a dysfunctional family of gods behind all elements of the universe but One God. Genesis one does not merely capture the creation but that God was planning, structuring, and developing a function for each and all things to exist and have meaning. The Ancient audience would be thrilled to hear that purpose is clearly laid out for all creatures.
And that brings us to a sharp contrast that can be drawn. The ancient audience gets drawn in because Genesis one communicates perfectly to ancient minds and the climax of chapter one is this. That of all things created and given a purpose, the greatest purpose and responsibility is laid upon mankind. This is radically different from their view as former slaves to Egypt, and slaves to the Egyptian worldview. Humanity has been given a job to care for and have dominion over all creation. Man is to steward all God made. Previously man was trapped by his surroundings, a slave to his circumstances. Circumstances that have been brought on by the gods, they are in control and nothing escapes their control not even mans choice. Man is clearly given a choice by God in Genesis one. So man has a choice not controlled by God, and man has purpose given by God. Man can reject Gods purposes and this begins the downward fall into meaningless existence. The ancient Egyptians are on track to find meaning behind everything, they are seeking meaning for their own existence. This is good. This is why God wants to communicate to the ancient audience that what man is missing, a true existence. One that holds meaning, purpose, responsibility, and brings order to the world around them. A world that has fallen into chaos.
Modern Scientist have come back to belief in ultimate chaos. Unlike the ancients there understanding of chaos lead them to seek order. Modern despair leads to scientists who no longer seek order but observe chaos. There is no fight to find an order for human purpose and existence. They seek to better observe the human experience as chaotic and without meaning. Both since the fall have always been a reality for the human situation. But science is not the only approach to finding meaning for our lives. Science on its own is anonymous of God, which makes it anonymous of meaning. To seek what power is behind the natural world may not be scientific but it is still a valid way of understanding the world we live in.
Scripture is the wonderful avenue through which man is privileged to engage with the power behind everything.