Volume 35 - Issue 2

A Member of the Family or a Stranger? A Review Article of Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern

By Stephen Dempster


We cannot overstate how important knowing the context is for understanding the significance of any communication, whether that is a simple word, sentence, paragraph, larger text, sign, photograph, or cultural cue. This is axiomatic for interpreting an ancient document like the Bible. Yet it is not so easy since context can mean many things.

We cannot overstate how important knowing the context is for understanding the significance of any communication, whether that is a simple word, sentence, paragraph, larger text, sign, photograph, or cultural cue. This is axiomatic for interpreting an ancient document like the Bible. Yet it is not so easy since context can mean many things. What context? The social context? The psychological context? The cultural context? The economic and political context? The historical context? The literary context? The full range of possible answers is staggering, which indicates how difficult it is to answer the question. The state of the problem in biblical studies is well known, as the increased knowledge in many areas has created many specialists in various fields in the ancient world as well as the Bible. Frequently, a perceptual iron curtain hangs between the world of evangelical biblical scholars and scholars of the ancient near east. The former world sees Israel as a stranger to the family of the ancient world; the latter sees Israel as simply one member of that family, and to view it any differently would be to violate a core principle of the scientific historical method.2 Thus there can be in one world parallelophobia and in the other parallelomania.3 Part of the Christian’s commitment to Scripture is to maintain simultaneously both views in tension: Israel is a member of the same family; Israel has become a stranger. God has spoken into a specific world and communicates to that world. Therefore, the study of context is indispensable for understanding the resulting message.4

The recent spate of books by evangelical scholars that address this tension shows not only the importance of context for understanding the Bible but also illustrates some of the dangers fraught in the hermeneutical enterprise.5 When the tension is resolved in favor of either the ancient near east or the biblical text, a critical dimension of meaning is lost. This can be compared to either overemphasizing the humanity or the deity of Christ, which led respectively to either the Ebionite or Docetic heresies. To take just one example of interpretation, sometimes scholars can overemphasize the ancient near eastern background of a biblical text and obscure its foreground. In the story of the theophany to Elijah in 1 Kgs 19, Frank Cross and Leah Bronner observe a polemic against Baal and the language of storm theophany,6 while Brevard Childs sees a polemic against Elijah,7 who is decidedly not like Moses and has no business being up on the sacred mountain. The background of Canaanite mythology colors the former analysis while the more comprehensive biblical literary context informs Childs’s understanding. Childs makes an important point that the burgeoning information about the historical context needs to be carefully evaluated before it is automatically appropriated since uncritical acceptance can lead to hermeneutical distortion.8 This frequently happens in the renditions of biblical stories in popular culture. For example in the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the message of the biblical story becomes lost in all the special effects. It is transformed from a message of covenant faithfulness into a can-do philosophy of positive thinking expressed in one of its theme songs, “Any Dream will Do.”9

Knowledge of these concerns—the importance of context and also its dangers, the tension between context and text—makes a recent book by Jeffrey Niehaus a work that will capture the interest of many in the evangelical world. This book claims essentially that a thorough awareness of the context of the ancient world can virtually revolutionize our understanding of the Bible by shedding light on not only rare biblical words and strange cultural cues but also the basic theological framework of the biblical message. This book is appropriately titled Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology.

That the ancient near east abounds with parallels that help clarify the meaning of the biblical text is one of the main arguments of Niehaus’s thesis. His book is a rich treasure trove of these parallels that he has mined from ancient near eastern sources. This is old news, of course, since many scholars have found and explained such parallels. But Niehaus seeks to probe beneath the surface of these parallels and find their deep structure. To switch the metaphor, Niehaus intends to discover the grammar of ancient near eastern thought. What he discovers is that it is fundamentally the same as that found in the Bible. This ancient theological grammar provides an independent corroboration for the biblical-theological structure of the Bible. This theological grammar demands a theological explanation.

Niehaus begins by stressing his Christian bias. Thus his interest is truth as found in biblical revelation, but also in other forms such as mythology and science (14–33). As for scientific method, he focuses on the comparative method in contrast to the experimental. This method compares the facts discovered with other known facts in order to better understand them. He proceeds to describe two ways the comparative method functions in biblical studies: (1) to classify biblical material into categories of myth and legend and (2) to understand pagan myths and legends according to biblical truth. He rejects the first option since it rejects the Bible’s claims about its own authority. But having accepted the biblical claims, he believes that there is much that can be found useful if one travels down the second road.

Before starting his journey, however, Niehaus briefly describes the method of those who venture down the first road. They fall into two categories: Universalists and Cultural Derivationists. The first group proposes some universal aspect of human nature to account for the similarities with myths and legends and the biblical material. Scholars in this camp include the eminent folklorist Sir James Frazer among others. They assume universal processes in the human mind that therefore produce similar results in widely different cultures. The second group believes that the Bible derives its similar material from its proximate surrounding cultures. Scholars from this perspective include Hermann Gunkel and others who have sought to demonstrate the influence of distinctive ancient near eastern mythologies and legends on the biblical record.

Niehaus then forges ahead on his own road (28–33). He sets up three categories of similarities: (1) ancient near eastern and biblical parallels derived from major events affecting everyone such as creation and the flood (accurately preserved in the Bible but distorted in the ancient world); (2) common literary and linguistic conventions such as poetic word pairs and international treaty forms; and (3) specifically religious acts and events that are virtually mirror images of each other in the Bible and the ancient world. It is particularly the third group of parallels that capture the attention of the author. It is here where the theological grammar is discovered. These parallels are not a

random selection . . . found in Sumer, Egypt, Hatti, Babylon and Assyria. Rather we propose that a shared theological structure of ideas existed in the ancient near East, a structure that finds its most complete and true form in the Old and New Testaments. (30)

This structure was not only prevalent in the ANE. It applies in one sense or another to the whole concept of biblical revelation, from the first Adam to the second. It is the theological backbone of the whole Bible—truth in the Bible but darkened forms in paganism—somewhat blurred as we move from the ancient near east whereas modern western cultures have abandoned it altogether in favor of alternate, secular worldviews. (32–33)

Niehaus concludes,

God allowed concepts that are true of him and his ways to appear in the realm of common grace . . . the purpose was to make such ideas somewhat familiar to God’s people so that, when he actually broke into the historical plane and acted, his acts would be recognizable against their cultural background (30).10

Thus common grace laid the theological foundation preveniently among the cultures of the ancient world, preparing them for when God’s truth arrives. If this view is true, it corroborates the structure that Niehaus determines to be the basic biblical-theological substructure of the Bible, an extremely valuable insight. He makes another case at the same time, more strongly at the end of the book, that the dim recollection of this structure in the ancient world is due to demonic deception. Personally I think this stands in somewhat of a tension with his view of common grace, but before evaluating the thesis of this book, the evidence should be summarized.

2. Tracing the Argument

The theological structure of ancient religion can be reduced to the following scheme: God chooses a king or a prophet to represent him and to bring about his kingdom in the world through warfare. A covenant is made with the king’s people, and a city is built in which a temple is erected so that God or the gods can dwell with the people. In its most complete form, the conceptual sequence contains another idea: “the royal kingdom work is understood to be an act of divine creation or re-creation” (33, 172–76).

Niehaus proceeds to present the evidence, usually considering the ancient near east evidence first. There are chapters on each of the main elements in the theological grammar along with some additional ones. An initial chapter is devoted to the motif of the divine and royal shepherd throughout the ancient world, followed by respective chapters on covenant and conquest, city, temple, and image, and two chapters expanding on the covenantal consequences of disobedience and obedience. Subsequent chapters deal with recreation and restoration of creation and also summarize the conceptual substructure and its implications.

The first chapter traces throughout the ancient near east the theme of the god as shepherd and his king as representative. Literary and iconic evidence abounds to make this point, and its prominence in the Bible needs no repeating. Common grace accounts for the similarity in the ancient world. God the great ruler appointed human beings to rule the earth and this is refracted through the ubiquity of human kingship representing the divine (34–55).

A second chapter dealing with covenant and conquest describes the relationship that existed between the god/gods and the king in a particular land, which was expressed in laws given for the people to obey: “a god makes a covenant with a monarch and for a people . . . the covenant includes two major features: the god commands or imparts laws that the monarch must implement for his people and the god commands wars of conquest that will bring foreign peoples under the god’s dominion” (56). The laws function as Torah indicating that the “people of the gods should live as the gods would have them do” (82).

A third chapter on city, temple, and image describes the significance of this important triad in the ancient near east: “The city . . . because it imaged a heavenly city. The temple . . . because it reflected a heavenly temple. The image . . . because it embodied the gods in the earthly temple and city” (83). Niehaus marshals evidence from throughout the ancient world to show the import of these concepts. The reverse side of this situation is that major defeats of ancient near eastern armies require a theological explanation. The gods of the defeated nations had abandoned their temples and cities (116–37).

A final chapter describes the destruction and salvation of covenantal households and shows parallels between the biblical and ancient near eastern ideas (138–65). It is not immediately apparent why this chapter is here, but I assume it is to show that the divine abandonment leads to the breakdown of human solidarity at the macro-level (war) and at the micro-level (the family). This is because of a strong belief in covenantal justice in the ancient world. Thus, nation rises up against nation, and family members fight among each other. Consequently, in Egypt rebellion at the political and domestic family level leads to internecine strife. Niehaus concludes,

These ideas articulated in a fallen and darkened form in annals and other accounts, appear in a revealed and purer form in the OT. The same truths appear more fully revealed in the NT. There the antipathy between Satan’s house and the household of God is most evident. Those who belong to Christ are the household of faith. They are children of a second Adam, whose blood speaks better things than the blood of Abel. They are vassals of a new and better covenant. And their Great King and Father is God. (165)

The next chapter briefly summarizes the previous evidence indicating that “all of these themes were essential parts of covenantal relationships between gods and humans in the ancient world and find their true counterparts in biblical revelation.”11 A concluding chapter recaps the three possible sources of parallels between the ancient world and the Bible—the mutual recollection of major events, the mutual use of linguistic and literary forms current in the ancient world, and “finally the activity of deceiving, demonic spirits (producing parallels between supposed acts of pagan gods and the acts as they appear in the Bible)” (177).

He then anticipates another possible way of considering the data, namely, the biblical authors are simply borrowing common cultural forms and idioms that would be familiar to their audiences. Niehaus rejects this accommodation since it implies that the parallels are not real but are simply adapted to make relevant points. Niehaus prefers his view “because it is consistent with the claims” made by the biblical writers and the speakers themselves and it is rooted in the revealed truth of Scripture and the “distorted truth in the ancient Near East” (178). As a final “parade” example he juxtaposes the divine inspiration for the Davidic temple for Yahweh and the temple of Thutmosis III for Amon. The execution of the plans is detailed and contains remarkable parallels. Any accommodative understanding that denies the essential reality of both parallels does not do justice to the data. David either got guidance from God by the hand of the Lord upon him or he did not. But what about Thutmosis III? It would be most bizarre if by coincidence an Egyptian who predated David by centuries made essentially the same claim for divine guidance to build and furnish a temple. The claim of Thutmosis III is the result of demonic influence. Here Niehaus relies on passages from the NT that indicate demonic influence in false religion. Thus, demonic inspiration should be considered as the cause for the sort of parallels considered, including the major paradigm in its pagan articulations (178–81).

3. Evaluation

3.1. Strengths

I deeply appreciate many of the parallels, which show clearly that the Bible is part of the world in which it was born. Niehaus has gone through many sources throughout the ancient near east in many different settings to show the similarities that exist between the biblical texts and their ancient near eastern setting. Israel was definitely a member of the ancient near eastern family. I think this is very helpful. I remember the time when I first realized that Gen 1 spoke into a context that presumed an ancient near eastern cosmology, and it helped me understand for the first time why the waters were separated from the waters (Gen 1:6–8), why the sun and moon were called respectively the “the great light” and “the lesser light” (Gen 1:16). Perhaps such knowledge would have prevented Galileo’s inquisition.12 Knowledge of ancient culture can solve many interpretive problems.

I also appreciate the spiritual dimension in the book, a willingness to go where some of the evidence led. How else does one explain some of this data? It insists on a spiritual interpretation. Sometimes I have pointed out to my students that if the biblical view of reality is true there is necessarily a dark spiritual dimension to life that works under the radar of postmodern western culture but nevertheless has practical relevance for biblical interpretation. For example, the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel were not fools (1 Kgs 18:19–46). They had engaged in their rituals of self-mutilation before, and they had seen a supernatural power act in response. Neither was Elijah a fool, and neither did he avail himself of gasoline and flint to make his point. One supernatural power acted that day because it was in control. But the text seems to assume that there were other supernatural forces.

The vast majority of historical-critical scholars are reductionist in discounting the world of the demonic. Some of Rudolf Bultmann’s famous “electric light bulb speech” at the Society for Protestant Theology (June 1, 1941) is worth citing again: “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”13 It was during one of those most ironic moments in history when one month later (July 1941) the order was delivered to Reinhard Heydrich to implement a final—and dare I say, demonic—solution for the Jewish “problem.” A country that produced some of the most demonic acts in history also produced a theology that discounted the world of the demonic.14

Another commendable quality of the book is its willingness to see the Bible as a coherent unity. It is an assumption, of course, but Niehaus’s structure accounts for a remarkably vast section of scripture, providing it with a coherent and logical outline, a logic that clearly has extra-biblical relevance.

3.2. Weaknesses

But a few lingering concerns make me cautious about this book. First, this may be my own intellectual difficulty, but I was left wondering how common grace and demonic inspiration work together. A number of times the author describes the ancient world parallels as being due to God’s common grace and yet also due to the influence of evil spirits. As the book proceeds, the reader finds much more of the latter and less of the former. Is it the case that the parallels are part of the common grace of natural revelation that comes through to everyone and yet is distorted because of demonic spirits operating within the culture so that only darkened parallels remain? The basic ideas then of divine representative, conquest, covenant, city, temple, and image would then be distorted in the various cultures by specific demonic beings. I would just like to see this clarified. And if this natural revelation is common grace, then why is it limited to the ancient near east because it is not really found anywhere else?

Second, I wonder if it is so easy to demarcate the parallels into three categories: common events, literary and linguistic parallels, and spiritual activity of the gods. I think that spiritual activity governed all these parallels to some degrees. Thus, the account of the flood in the ancient world would have to be concluded as the work of demonic spirits since it gives a different divine interpretation of what happened, and the legal and treaty forms resonate with the guidance of the gods as well. Similarly there is mention that the biblical writers would not have just “couched things in terms familiar to them from their contemporary thought world” (177). I can think of a number of examples that involve spiritual activity where precisely these things happened. The psalms sometimes use clear mythological imagery to attribute to Yahweh the conquest of creation (Pss 29:10; 65:6–7; 74:13–14; 89:9–11; 93:1–5; cf. Hab 3). This imagery assumes a shared understanding, and it polemically makes the point that it is Yahweh—not the gods of order—who conquers the forces of chaos. It is no less rooted in truth even if it is couched in “contemporary” terms.

Third, there are problems with some of the parallels. The author could have been more methodologically rigorous in his comparisons. The idea of a covenant between the kings and their gods is a case in point. It is presupposed in his discussion, but there is precious little explicit evidence of “extant covenant documents between a god and his people” as the author admits (57). But it is a stretch to move from explicit divine commands to covenants, which are quite different. Many times commands can exist without assuming a prior covenantal context. Similarly his discussion of the king as shepherd could be much more nuanced. There are different periods in Egyptian history where this metaphor is more relevant than others. The ruler in the Old Kingdom is more of a distant, elusive figure than the more human shepherd kings from other periods.15 A more systematic account of the religious beliefs of antiquity would be necessary to prove some points. A lot of generalizations are made based on evidence gathered from various periods. It would be also worth interacting with recent scholarship on ancient near eastern religion.16

Similarly in his discussion of the biblical evidence there is sometimes an indiscriminate movement back and forth from the NT to the OT and vice-versa depending on the parallel. Thus, a leap of the imagination is required to move from 2000 BC to the time of Christ and from wars of conquest to the spread of the gospel:

Ra commands the monarch to build his “great house,” Pharaoh does build the god’s temple but Atum also builds it and its magnitude shows the extent of the kingdom the god has caused Pharaoh to conquer. The latest and final form of this theology sees God working through Jesus, and building his temple, the church. God has caused Jesus to conquer broadly by the spread of the gospel so that his kingdom (also the church) is broad—indeed global—in scope. (90)

There are connections here, but frequently in his haste to make comparisons the author skips immense temporal gaps.

Some of Niehaus’s examples are also due to “covenantal overkill”: the trembling Philippian jailer asking for salvation is compared to a rebellious vassal in the ancient near east (140); the comparison of the Hittite ritual in which the blood of a slain goat is smeared on an altar to the covenant of Moses (61); Samson’s destruction of the lion like a goat as possible evidence of his status as a royal shepherd (52); the linguistic parallel of nîr in the biblical and Assyrian texts and the conclusion that the Hebrew meaning probably means “yoke” like its Assyrian cognate because it occurs in a political context (79–80).17

Finally, as concerns the main point of the similar theological substructure—the grammar—it is striking that it never produced in the ancient near east a narrative similar to that of the Bible. To be sure there are parts and fragments but no sense of the whole. There are pieces of the puzzle, but no attempt has been made to put it all together. Perhaps this is a significant point. Israel was a member of the ancient near eastern family but also a stranger. Gerhard von Rad thought that this observation was striking:

This ability to deal with extensive complexes of connected history and not just episodes must be regarded as one of the most momentous advances in man’s understanding of himself, since its effects upon the development of the whole of the west are incalculable.18

But caution at the same time must be exercised. Perhaps the only reason that at least some of the pieces of the ancient near eastern puzzle match up in the sequence that Niehaus desires is that he has the picture on the “box cover” of the Bible.

Why did no ancient near eastern worldview develop the resources to produce such a sequence? That is an interesting question, and it might be something that Niehaus wants to consider in his forthcoming biblical theology. If this substructure truly existed, it may be that the worldviews of the ancient near east were so plagued by what John Oswalt calls “continuity” that they could not transcend the cycle of nature and develop an interest in history. Moreover, since there was not one divine will but a plethora, the intellectual and spiritual resources for producing an overarching coherent sequence just did not exist. It is interesting that N. T. Wright had to modify his standard worldview paradigm to be able to capture accurately the Jewish worldview in his study of NT origins. He had to add an eschatological and historical component.19

In this book Niehaus has done some important programmatic work, which requires more systematic and rigorous analysis of the evidence. I look forward to reading his forthcoming biblical theology where he will address these concerns. Despite my criticisms, it is clear that Niehaus is on to something. At the least, he has shown the choice is not between Israel as a member of the ancient near eastern family versus Israel as total stranger. Both are true. When Abram embarked down that dusty Mesopotamian road toward that destination whose location only God knew, he was leaving the family.20 But by leaving the family he was going to show the rest of the family how to go truly home.21

  1. ^Jeffrey Jay Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008). This essay updates a paper presented at the Biblical Theology section of the Evangelical Theological Society, New Orleans, 2009. Page references that occur parenthetically in the body of this essay are to Niehaus’s book. I would like to thank Charles Halton, Ted Newell, and Peter Gentry for their helpful criticisms.
  2. ^Both points of view can be seen in Frank Cross’s remark about the project of Yehezkel Kaufmann in his magisterial work on the religion of Israel (Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel: From its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile [trans. Moshe Greenberg; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960], 2): “More serious the religion of Israel has been conceived as a unique and isolated phenomenon, radically or wholly discontinuous with its environment. . . . Kaufmann’s insistence that Israelite religion was ‘absolutely different from anything the pagan world ever knew violates fundamental postulates of scientific historical method’” (Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997], viii).
  3. ^John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 18.
  4. ^This, of course, does not eliminate the need for the role of the Holy Spirit, the history of interpretation, and other crucial factors necessary for understanding the ancient text.
  5. ^See, e.g., these significant books: Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005); Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the OT; Kenton L. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008); Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology; John N. Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).
  6. ^Cross, Canaanite Myth, 194; Leila Leah Bronner, The Stories of Elijah and Elisha as Polemics against Baal Worship (Leiden: Brill, 1968).
  7. ^Brevard S. Childs, “On Reading the Elijah Narratives,” Int 34 (1980): 135.
  8. ^John Sailhamer (The Meaning of the Pentateuch [Downers Grove: IVP, 2009], 19–20) makes a similar point in his recent monograph on the Pentateuch. He states that the meaning of the Pentateuch can be compared to a Rembrandt painting. We understand the painting by studying the painting itself, not other matter.
  9. ^I owe this example to systematic theologian Stan Fowler. Childs makes the same point about the movie version of the Ten Commandments (“On Reading,” 129–30).
  10. ^See also Niehaus’s comments toward the end of the book: “God in his providential care for humanity has allowed such theological parallels to become manifest over centuries so that truth would appear even in darkened and polytheistic forms. Truth in such forms could have no saving power. But it did prepare a matrix of thought, a background of theological understanding, so that even when God truly appeared and did such things as the pagans had claimed for their gods—instituting covenant, giving laws, commanding conquest, and extending his kingdom, even by signs and wonders—his revelation would come to a people who had some theological preparation for it. In this way God was glorified by even the distortions of pagan religions, for even in the darkness the pagans retained or obtained common grace reflections of his truth” (181).
  11. ^Niehaus then explores one final theme that appears most clearly only in Egypt: restoration, both of the individual and the cosmos. He presents evidence of the resurrection of the Pharaoh, which is not true for individual Egyptians. Similarly, it is the Pharaoh’s job on earth to restore all things so that the rule of Maat would be completely established. The Pharaoh is the incarnate son of Ra and thus has been entrusted with this task of restoration. Then Niehaus proceeds to sketch out complete paradigms in Egypt and the New Testament to show their correlation. “As Ra worked through Pharaoh, so God works through his incarnate son to advance his kingdom by warfare, establish a covenant with his former enemies and establish a temple, which is both the church and the individual believers in it, for divine service. So what the Egyptians claimed for Pharaoh and what the Bible says of the Son now also can be true for all believers” (174–75).
  12. ^See, e.g., Gerhard F. Hasel, “The Polemical Nature of the Genesis Cosmology,” EQ 46 (1974): 81–102.
  13. ^A fuller quotation is as follows (Rudolf Bultmann, “The New Testament and Mythology,” in Kergyma and Myth [ed. H. W. Bartsch; trans. R. H. Fuller; New York: Harper, 1961], 5): “Now that the forces and the laws of nature have been discovered, we can no longer believe in spirits, whether good or evil. We know that the stars are physical bodies whose motions are controlled by the laws of the universe, and not demonic beings which enslave mankind to their service. Any influence they may have over human life must be explicable in terms of the ordinary laws of nature; it cannot in any way be attributed to their malevolence. Sickness and the cure of disease are likewise attributable to natural causation; they are not the result of demonic activity or of evil spells. (It may of course be argued that there are people alive today whose confidence in the traditional scientific view of the world has been shaken, and others who are primitive enough to qualify for an age of mythical thought. And there are also many varieties of superstition. But when belief in spirits and miracles has degenerated into superstition, it has become something entirely different from what it was when it was genuine faith. The various impressions and speculations which influence credulous people here and there are of little importance, nor does it matter to what extent cheap slogans have spread an atmosphere inimical to science. What matters is the world view which men imbibe from their environment, and it is science which determines that view of the world through the school, the press, the wireless, the cinema, and all the other fruits of technical progress.) The miracles of the New Testament have ceased to be miraculous, and to defend their historicity by recourse to nervous disorders or hypnotic effects only serves to underline the fact. And if we are still left with certain physiological and psychological phenomena which we can only assign to mysterious and enigmatic causes, we are still assigning them to causes, and thus far are trying to make them scientifically intelligible. Even occultism pretends to be a science. . . . It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”
  14. ^Note Justice Robert H. Jackson’s comments at the beginning of the Nuremburg War Trials: “What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust” (“International Military Tribunal: Opening Address for the United States of America,” Department of State Bulletin 13:335 [1945]: 850–51). See also Robert E. Conot, Justice at Nuremberg (New York: Basic Books, 1993), xii.
  15. ^W. Stiebing, Jr., Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture (New York: Longman, 2003), 149.
  16. ^Jan Assmann, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt (trans. David Lorton; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001); Jean Bottero, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Daniel C. Snell, ed., A Companion to the Ancient Near East (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007). It would also be worth interacting with an important older article that addresses many of the same religious concerns of the ancient world but with more of a reductionist approach: Morton Smith, “The Common Theology of the Ancient Near East,” JBL 71 (1952): 135–47.
  17. ^In the Assyrian texts the word nîr means “yoke,” and in the biblical text it is usually translated “lamp” or “light.” A number of texts state that despite divine judgment the Lord leaves David with a “lamp” in Jerusalem, stressing the continuity of the Davidic dynasty (1 Kgs 11:36; 15:4; 2 Kgs 8:19; 2 Chr 21:7). I find it problematic to translate “yoke” here, which is symbolic of royal rule, simply based on the Assyrian. Although it is plausible in some texts to read nîr this way in the biblical text, when all the contexts are considered in which the word occurs in the Bible, it is perfectly natural to read the word as “light.” For example, in the Messianic context in 2 Sam 21:17, David is called “the lamp of Israel which should not be extinguished” (cf. 1 Sam 3:3). In the other passages dealing with the Davidic dynasty, nîr should be read from this perspective and not another “foreign” context.
  18. ^G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology (trans. D. Stalker; New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 1:50; cited in Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths, 143.
  19. ^N. T. Wright adds a fifth worldview question to account for the distinctive ideas of Judaism: What time is it? (Jesus and the Victory of God [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996], 138n41, 443–74).he will address these concerns. Despite my criticisms, it is clear that Niehaus is on to something. At the least, he has shown the choice is not between Israel as a member of the ancient near eastern family versus Israel as total stranger. Both are true. When Abram embarked down that dusty Mesopotamian road toward that destination whose location only God knew, he was leaving the family.20 But by leaving the family he was going to show the rest of the family how to go truly home.21
  20. ^See, e.g., Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books/Nan A Talese, 1999), 63. In my judgment, Martin Noth correctly assessed one of the main goals of an OT history: “Making this clear [the difference between Israel and its neighbors] must be one of the main tasks of a presentation of the history of Israel” [A History of Israel (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 2], cited in Hans Walter Wolff, “The Hermeneutics of the Old Testament,” in Essays in Old Testament Hermeneutics (ed. C. Westermann; trans. James Luther Mays; Atlanta: John Knox, 1963), 167n19.
  21. ^Note the comment by Hans Walter Wolff: “As a community from among the Jews and the Gentiles, the church is a stranger among the peoples just as the old Israel was in its environment, and only as the stranger who is called does it become a blessing to the world” (“The Hermeneutics of the Old Testament,” 173).

Stephen Dempster

Stephen Dempster is professor of religious studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.

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