How Does the Hebrew Bible Relate to the Ancient Near Eastern World? by Alan Lenzi

Just as knowing something about the 18th century Enlightenment, Colonial American history, and the men who attended the Constitutional Convention will inform your historical understanding of the U.S. Constitution, knowing something about ancient Near Eastern history and culture will deepen your historical understanding of the documents that compose the Hebrew Bible.

Three brief discussions, on ancient Near Eastern scribalism, covenants, and concepts of deity, illustrate how acquiring a deeper historical understanding is the first step in seeing how the Hebrew Bible is both similar to and distinct from other documents from the ancient Near East.

Scribalism: Who wrote texts and what does this tell us?

The texts that became the Hebrew Bible were composed by scribes. This is one of the most fundamental issues about the Hebrew Bible. Without scribes, there would be no Bible! Very few people in the ancient world were literate enough to compose the texts we have from the ancient Near East, including the Bible. Scribes were part of the educated elite, and many of them served the great institutions of society, the palaces and temples. Although some scribes wrote everyday documents such as letters and contracts, learned scribes often occupied themselves with more important issues, such as cosmology, rituals, prayers, laws, and revelations. These scribes rarely claimed authorship of their work, although they sometimes attributed their work to ancient luminaries.

Of course, scribes did not simply compose new texts; they also copied old ones. We know from multiple versions of a composition that when scribes copied old texts, they took liberties. They might add new material, delete something unwanted, or rearrange the text entirely. Also, scribes made mistakes. Try writing out a few printed pages longhand and see how many errors you make!

Understanding ancient Near Eastern scribalism explains much about the Hebrew Bible. For example, it is no accident that the Bible focuses on kings and priests and treats topics such as cosmology (Gen 1, Job 38), ritual (Leviticus, Numbers), prayer (Psalms), law (Exod 21-23, Deut 12-26), and revelation (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel)—all concerns of the scribes. As expected, many biblical texts are anonymous (see, for example, Judges) or attributed to important traditional figures (as Deuteronomy is to Moses and many psalms are to David). When biblical texts show evidence of additions (for example, Isaiah begins twice, once in Isa 1:1 and again in Isa 2:1), we should not be surprised. And when we find parallel texts that differ in their wording (compare Jer 52, Jer 39:1-10, Jer 40:7-9, and Jer 41:1-3 with 2Kgs 24:18-25:30) or find mistakes in the oldest Hebrew manuscripts available to us (see 1Sam 13:1 [compare English translations here]), an understanding of ancient Near Eastern scribalism tells us that this is normal.

The biblical materials survived long after the demise of ancient Israel, of course. In fact, threats to the survival of the ancient Israelites likely motivated scribes to preserve their cherished traditions. Ancient Near Eastern scribes transmitted some texts for many, many centuries. But none other has had an uninterrupted chain of transmission to the present day as has the Hebrew Bible.

Covenants: What are they and how is Deuteronomy’s use distinctive?

Throughout ancient Near Eastern history, people used formal agreements to broker power and to assign obligations between two parties, usually kings. Scholars calls these agreements treaties or, more often in biblical studies, covenants. Sometimes the kings were equals, and sometimes one member, the suzerain, was superior to the other, the vassal. The most famous ancient Near Eastern treaties derive from the Hittites of the early to mid-second millennium B.C.E. and the Neo-Assyrians, whose kingdom flourished from about the early ninth to the late seventh centuries B.C.E. The Neo-Assyrian kings also imposed treaty-like agreements on entire populations; scholars call these loyalty oaths.

These documents generally treat issues important to kings. Thus, we read in the Hittite treaties, for example, about loyalty to the king, the establishment of frontiers, and military cooperation, among other things. Loyalty to the crown prince and protection of royal succession dominates the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, an Assyrian king who ruled from 680 to 669 B.C.E. The sworn parties are even commanded to love the crown prince (see line 266), which clearly means they are to be loyal and obey him.

Although the broad form and general content of ancient Near Eastern treaties were similar over time, there are also intercultural differences and local variations, especially in the content and order of typical elements. The Hittite treaties usually begin with a historical introduction and contain a list of both blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. The Neo-Assyrian treaties do not have the historical introduction, contain no list of blessings, and have an especially lengthy curse section.

Treaties invoked divine powers to witness the stipulations and the oaths parties took to abide by them. And the physical documents were usually deposited in a temple, where they served as reminders to the gods to enforce them. The Hittite documents also required the vassal to read its text.

Understanding ancient Near Eastern treaties illuminates many passages in the Bible. The most striking example is the book of Deuteronomy, which shows features of both the Hittite and Neo-Assyrian texts. Like those treaties, the heart of Deuteronomy is the stipulations (laws) in chapters 12-26. A historical prologue precedes the stipulations (Deut 1-11), and a section of blessings follows them (Deut 28:1-14), as in the Hittite treaties. The curses, as in the Neo-Assyrian texts, are very extensive (Deut 28:15-68) and in some cases remarkably close to curses in the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon (compare lines 419–430 with Deut 28:26-35). Deuteronomy requires the document to be deposited with Yahweh’s priests and, as in the Hittite treaties, read periodically (see Deut 31:9-13, Deut 31:24-26, and Deut 17:18-19). Like the Neo-Assyrian loyalty oaths, Yahweh, the suzerain, makes his covenant with the entire vassal population, Israel (see Deut 29:14-15, which includes future generations). Finally, when Moses exhorts the Israelites to love Yahweh with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deut 6:5), historically we know this covenantal love is an act of loyalty and obedience rather than a subjective, tender emotion.

What stands out as remarkably distinctive in the Hebrew Bible is the fact that a god rather than a king makes a treaty/covenant with his people. This unique adaptation was probably quite subversive. If, as most scholars think, Deuteronomy (or some version of it) was published during the Neo-Assyrian period when Judah was an Assyrian vassal, then Deuteronomy’s recognition of Yahweh as its divine suzerain intends to reject Assyrian lordship.

Concepts of deity: Is the god of the Hebrew Bible unlike the other ancient Near Eastern gods?

Yes and no. The Bible generally conceives of Yahweh in anthropomorphic terms—that is, with human form (see Exod 24:9-11, Exod 33:20-23) and characteristics (for example, he has human emotions and the ability to see, hear, smell, and walk). Also, Yahweh lived in a big house (a temple), with servants (priests) to care for his needs (sacrifices). This is all very much in line with the rest of the ancient Near East.

However, unlike other ancient Near Eastern peoples, who crafted images of their gods, the Hebrew Bible generally denigrates divine images (see Exod 32:4-6, Isa 44:9-20) and in places strongly opposes giving Yahweh any material form (see Exod 20:4-6).

Also, in contrast to the unabashed polytheism of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, the biblical texts focus on only one god. Of course, the Hebrew Bible was written over a long period of time, and it reflects changing ideas, even about Yahweh. Thus, many biblical texts are henotheistic, that is, they see Yahweh as the most important god among various other gods that existed (see Deut 4:7, Josh 24:15). Just as Chemosh was the god of Moab, for example, Yahweh was the god of Israel (Num 21:29; see also Judg 11:12, Judg 11:24, where Chemosh is a god of the Ammonites). Only a few biblical texts are explicitly monotheistic (Isa 45:5-6), and they date to the sixth century B.C.E. or later.

People are very similar in all cultures by virtue of their shared humanity. But each culture develops some distinctive features that make it unique. Because of the Bible’s status as contemporary Scripture, the tendency is to overemphasize its very real distinctiveness among other ancient Near Eastern documents. From a historical perspective, a more balanced approach that recognizes both its similarities to and its differences from neighboring cultures is the best recipe for understanding the Hebrew Bible.

Alan Lenzi, "How Does the Hebrew Bible Relate to the Ancient Near Eastern World?", n.p. [cited 24 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/tools/bible-basics/how-does-the-hebrew-bible-relate-to-the-ancient-near-eastern-world

Contributors

Alan Lenzi

Alan Lenzi
Associate Professor, University of the Pacific

Alan Lenzi is associate professor of religious and classical studies at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He specializes in the study of first-millennium ancient Near Eastern religious traditions, including the Mesopotamian imperial context of the Hebrew Bible. A number of his publications are accessible at the following URL: http://pacific.academia.edu/AlanLenzi.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Having the attributes of henotheism, the recognition of the existence of multiple deities while worshipping only one, often a tribal or family deity.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

Of or related to a religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

The belief in multiple deities.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Having a qualitative basis or being influenced by point of view rather than objective.

A line of officials holding a certain position over time.

Ruler or overlord.

The foundational document of the United States, which outlines the structure and powers of the government as well as the rights of US citizens.

A subordinate, often a king who is subject to a more powerful king or emperor.

Gen 1

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

Job 38

The Lord Answers Job
1Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:2“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?3Gird up your loins like a m ... View more

Exod 21-23

The Law concerning Slaves
1These are the ordinances that you shall set before them:2When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seven ... View more

Deut 12-26

Pagan Shrines to Be Destroyed
1These are the statutes and ordinances that you must diligently observe in the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has ... View more

Isa 1:1

1The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Isa 2:1

The Future House of God
1The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

Jer 52

The Destruction of Jerusalem Reviewed
1Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he began to reign; he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Ham ... View more

Jer 39:1-10

The Fall of Jerusalem
1In the ninth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, in the tenth month, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and all his army came against Jerusalem a ... View more

Jer 40:7-9

7When all the leaders of the forces in the open country and their troops heard that the king of Babylon had appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam governor in the lan ... View more

Jer 41:1-3

Insurrection against Gedaliah
1In the seventh month, Ishmael son of Nethaniah son of Elishama, of the royal family, one of the chief officers of the king, came ... View more

2Kgs 24:18-25:30

Zedekiah Reigns over Judah
18Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he began to reign; he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Hamutal daugh ... View more

1Sam 13:1

Saul's Unlawful Sacrifice
1Saul was . . . years old when he began to reign; and he reigned . . . and two years over Israel.

Deut 1-11

Events at Horeb Recalled
1These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan—in the wilderness, on the plain opposite Suph, between Paran and ... View more

Deut 28:1-14

Blessings for Obedience
1If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God ... View more

Deut 28:15-68

Warnings against Disobedience
15But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you t ... View more

Deut 28:26-35

26Your corpses shall be food for every bird of the air and animal of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away.27The Lord will afflict you with ... View more

Deut 31:9-13

The Law to Be Read Every Seventh Year
9Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the ... View more

Deut 31:24-26

24When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end,25Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the ... View more

Deut 17:18-19

18When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests.19It shall remain with ... View more

Deut 29:14-15

14I am making this covenant, sworn by an oath, not only with you who stand here with us today before the Lord our God,15but also with those who are not here wit ... View more

Deut 6:5

5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Exod 24:9-11

On the Mountain with God
9Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up,10and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet t ... View more

Exod 33:20-23

20But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”21And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the ... View more

Exod 32:4-6

4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land ... View more

Isa 44:9-20

The Absurdity of Idol Worship
9All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they w ... View more

Exod 20:4-6

4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water unde ... View more

Deut 4:7

7For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him?

Josh 24:15

15Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the ... View more

Num 21:29

29Woe to you, O Moab!
You are undone, O people of Chemosh!
He has made his sons fugitives,
and his daughters captives,
to an Amorite king, Sihon.

Judg 11:12

12Then Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites and said, “What is there between you and me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?”

Judg 11:24

24Should you not possess what your god Chemosh gives you to possess? And should we not be the ones to possess everything that the Lord our God has conquered for ... View more

Isa 45:5-6

5I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,6so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and f ... View more

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