Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Learning From the Past

Picture: the carving above is a representation of the god Baal defeating the 7-headed leviathan sea monster (a.k.a., Yom, the chaotic sea god).

My favorite course this semester is the Old Testament elective I’m taking. It’s called “Israel Religion in Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) Context.” I know... I know... to call this my favorite course is to admit to being a bit nerdy and geeky, but given the topic I’ll gladly admit to that. Allow me to explain a little about this course and about what makes it so interesting to me.

To best understand what the Bible is teaching you must understand the culture in which it is written. Since we are not in 10th century BC Israel it is impossible to observe the culture first hand, which means we need to immerse ourselves within that culture in different ways. One of the ways to do that is to study the literature from cultures that are temporally, linguistically and geographically proximate to Israel. These cultures include Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Ugarit, to name a few. For the course I’m taking we’ve been studying the literature of these cultures and applying that knowledge to our understanding of the biblical texts. The sources of literature have included pyramid and coffin texts from Egypt, including the Book of the Dead, the Enuma Elish, which is the Mesopotamian creation account, the Baal Cycle from Ugarit, and other mythical and poetic writings from cultures with which Israel would have interacted.

In class today, Dr. Hilber’s lecture provided a tremendous example of why this is so interesting to me and why it is a valuable area of study for the church today. Consider Psalm 29. Without thinking of anything other than the english text we read this passage seems to be a simple declaration of God’s power and strength. While the strength and power of Yahweh is definitely in view there is so much more working “behind the scenes” that we miss if we aren’t familiar with other ANE cultures and writings. What we learned today and what the study of ANE literature helps to unveil is that this psalm is not a simple declaration that God is strong, but is in fact an argument, or polemic, against Baal worship and a declaration that Yahweh God is the God whom the Israelites should esteem and not Baal, one of the gods of the neighboring regions.

Perhaps a comparison will help. By pointing out these similarities I am not implying that these specific phrases are in some way direct parallels or quotations, but rather trying to illustrate the point that the psalmist of Psalm 29 very likely had the Baal myth in mind when composing the Psalm and chose language that would help the reader realize the overall point that Yahweh God is powerful and the only deity worthy of worship. The Baal Cycle is from Ugarit, which is a society that lived north of Israel and is contemporaneous with the Israel we read about in the Old Testament. The Baal Cycle itself is the story of Baal, the storm God, conquering Yom, the chaotic sea god, and his resultant claim of kingship over the other deities in the Ugarit pantheon. I’m taking these Baal passages from the book: Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, edited by Simon B. Parker and part of the SBL Writings form the Ancient World Series (published by the Society of Biblical Literature in 1997).

Ps 29:5 - the voice of Yahweh breaks the cedars; Yahweh breaks the cedars of Lebanon
Baal Cycle: He sends to Lebanon for its wood, to Siryon for its choicest cedar

Ps 29:6 - the voice of Yahweh is powerful; the voice of Yahweh is full of majesty
Baal Cycle: Baal recites the issue of his lips, his holy voice the earth shakes

Ps 29:7a - the voice of Yahweh flashes forth flames of fire
Baal Cycle: May he (Baal) flash to the earth lightning

Ps 29:7b- the voice of Yahweh shakes the wilderness
Baal Cycle: Baal gives vent to his holy voice... the high places of the earth shake

Ps 29:10 - Yahweh sits enthroned over the flood; Yahweh sits enthroned as king forever
Baal Cycle: Let Baal be enthroned on his royal throne, on the resting place the throne of his dominion

This is just one small example of what you can find throughout the Old Testament and is by no means exhaustive. There are other outstanding examples of this in the account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, in the creation account in Genesis, throughout the book of Job, and in the prophetic books.

So here’s my point, when the Old Testament was written there was a specific culture to which it was written. Specific metaphors were used to portray concepts that would impact the reader so they could better remember and be influenced by the writing. In the comparison above the writer doesn’t simply say “hey, Yahweh is strong and mighty,” instead he provides a strong polemic against Baal and for the worship of Yahweh and says “anything the surrounding nations claim Baal can do, Yahweh can do, and can do better.” To fully understand the Old Testament we must immerse ourselves in the culture of the Old Testament as best we can.

We serve an amazing God; a God whom is more powerful than any other perception of deity that mankind can develop.

May Yahweh be honored through our lives!

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