Ancient Near Eastern Religion and the Old Testament (Part 2)

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Morality, Forgiveness, and the Afterlife

Though ancient Near Eastern religions carefully defined cultic requirements, they did not always give the same attention and emphasis to moral requirements. Both the Mesopotamians and also the Egyptians believed in the concepts of justice and truth. But tradition rather than revelation largely defined these concepts, and they were usually defined more in terms of social virtue than in terms of personal holiness.24 Indeed, the gods themselves were often guilty of gross vice and immorality.25 Consequently, people’s view of morality was distorted, and they would determine their standing with the gods primarily on the basis of cultic performance,26 divination,27 or enlightenment.28 In light of their inadequate view of the nature and necessity of holiness, their confessions of sin never rose to the level of contrition found in King David’s fifty-first psalm.29

Belief in some kind of existence after death was widespread in the ancient Near East. The Mesopotamians viewed the life to come less enthusiastically than the Egyptians.30 Even so, the elaborate burial practices,31 the letters written to and for the deceased,32 and the belief in the existence of departed spirits confirm a common conviction that life continues beyond the grave.33 But Israel’s ANE neighbors had no defined eschatology, that is, no clear idea of a resurrection, a day of judgment and a final separation of the just and unjust. They viewed death and the afterlife, rather, as just another phase in the never-ending rhythm of nature.34

Comparison and Contrast

Like Mesopotamian and Egyptian literature, the Old Testament contains an account of creation and the flood. It also speaks of a temple, priesthood, and cultic ritual. And it too contains ethical standards and the hope of immortality.35 These similarities may be accounted for by means of a common Sitz im Leben (“setting in life”), a common moral conscience,36 a common religious-ethical tradition, and a faint yet lingering remembrance of the original state of affairs before and after the fall.37 Therefore, it is unnecessary and unwarranted to accuse the biblical writers of literary dependence upon their ancient Near Eastern neighbors.38

On the other hand, the differences between Israel’s religion and that of her ancient Near Eastern neighbors are far more substantial than the similarities. Israel’s monotheism is unique.39 In contrast with sinfully human-like character of the pagan gods,40 Yahweh is perfectly holy and absolutely sovereign.41 The worship he demands from his people is essentially distinct from their pagan neighbors.42 Moreover, he provides his people with a clear revelation of gospel truth and moral law,43 so that the redeemed Israelite might know how to receive forgiveness and live godly in this present age.44 Finally, the Old Testament furnishes the Israelite with a sure hope in a complete reversal of the curse, a resurrected body, a renewed earth, and joy in the presence of God for all eternity.45 These weighty differences between the religion of Israel and that of her ancient Near Eastern neighbors remind us of the Apostle Paul’s perspective: all religion outside the scope of Scripture is but a suppression of the truth in unrighteousness.46 

Notes

24 Ringgren, 44. Nevertheless, there were a few exceptions, as seen in an Akkadian wisdom text, which enjoins generosity, discretion, and a non-retaliatory disposition (ANET, p. 426-27).

25 Hooke writes, “In the ancient myths the gods behave like men; they eat and drink, quarrel and deceive, are jealous of one another, and cannot be said to possess any moral standards” (p. 95).

26 According to one Babylonian proverb, “Sacrifice prolongs life, and prayer atones for sin” (ANET, p. 427). By contrast, the Old Testament places more weight upon the moral virtues of justice, mercy, and humility (Micah 6:8).

27 The practice of reading “omens” was very common. Cf. Hooke, pp. 80-94; Ringgren, 93-99.

28 Frankfort observes, “It is especially significant that the Egyptians never showed any trace of feeling unworthy of the divine mercy. For he who errs is not a sinner but a fool, and his conversion to a better way of life does not require repentance but a better understanding (p. 73).

29 Once again, Frankfort notes, “We do not find in Egypt the violent conflict which is characteristic of biblical religion. Man is not seen in rebellion against the command of God nor does he experience the intensity and range of feelings from contrition to grace which characterize the main personages of the Old and New Testaments” (p. 77). Millard cites the prayer of a Hittite king who resorts to blame-shifting: “Weather god of Hatti, my lord, and you gods, my lords: It is the case that (men) are sinful. My father too has sinned …. But I have sinned in nothing. Not it is (true) that the father’s sin falls on the son. So the sin of my father has also fallen upon me …. Now because I have confessed my father’s sin, may the mind of the weather god, my lord, and the gods, my lords again be pacified!” (p. 69).

30 They pessimistically referred to it as, “the land of no return” (Ringgren, p. 46). When Gilgamesh asks Enkidu to describe the netherworld from which his spirit has just returned, the latter replies, “I shall not tell thee, I shall not tell thee!  (But) if I tell thee the order of the nether world which I have seen, sit thou down (and) weep!” (ANET, p. 98). So Cohn argues, “Even to the most fortunate of the dead the afterlife offered no consolation at all for the hardships endured on earth. True, there were gods in the netherworld—not only Nergal and his consort Ereshkigal but a whole host of lesser gods. But they were a severe and morose company, dwelling in their own well-defended palace, and they showed no favour to any of the dead. The prospect of a blissful afterlife, so real for the Egyptians, did not exist for Mesopotamians” (p. 56).

31 The deceased was buried with food, weapons, wealth, and in some cases, servants. Egyptians attempted to preserve the body through mummification. Regarding the burial practices in the ancient world, Hultkranz writes, “[M]an was interred in the ground like the grain, to arise again in another world.” “Religion Before History,” Eerdmans’ Handbook to the World’s Religions (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1982), p. 27.

32 Not only did the Egyptians address letters to dead relatives, but they sometimes included with the body of the deceased a letter to the gods, called a “declaration of innocence” (Frankfort, pp. 89, 118).

33 “Belief in an afterlife was a leading feature of Egyp[tian] religion at all periods” (Kitchen, p. 254); “[T]otal annihilation was as unthinkable to the Mesopotamians as it was to the Egyptians” (Cohn, p. 56).

34 Regarding the Egyptians, Cohn remarks, “That time was moving towards a universal consummation, when all things would be well for evermore and chaos would no longer threaten—that notion had no place at all in Egyptian thinking” (p. 30). Later he writes, “Nor were Mesopotamians any more capable than Egyptians of imagining that the world could ever be made perfect, and immutable in its perfection.  Fantasies of cosmos without chaos were not for them” (p. 56). Cf. Frankfort, pp. 106-07.

35 Some modern scholars deny that Israel had any hope of a blissful afterlife. To accomplish this they must date the explicit references to immortality (i.e., Job 19:25, 26; Daniel 12:2, 3) after the exile and ascribe later Babylonian or Zoroastrian influence (e.g., Cohn, pp. 129-30). But Israel clearly did express hope in a happy afterlife long before the exile (e.g., Psalm 16:8-11). Cf. Elmer Smick, “Ugarit and the Theology of the Psalms,” New Perspectives on the Old Testament, ed. J. Barton Payne (Waco: Word Books, 1970).

36 Romans 1:32; 2:14-15.

37 Regarding the pagan’s tendencies to associate theophany with thunderstorm, Jeffrey Niehaus writes, “It harks back to our first parents’ encounter with God after the Fall. It also shows the persistence of memory of primordial theophany, in the realm of common grace.” God At Sinai: Covenant and Theophany in the Bible and Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 15). This assumes the correctness of Niehaus’ exegesis of Genesis 3:8, namely, that after the fall God appeared to Adam and Eve not in “the cool of the day” but in “the wind of the storm” (pp. 155-59).

38 After an extensive comparison of the parallels between biblical and ancient Near Eastern texts, Walton concludes, “Israel had significant contributions to make to the literary creativeness of the ancient world. In its role, Israel often drew from the contemporary milieu and motifs to shape its unique theological perspective. Partaking from the common heritage is a far different matter than adapting specific pieces of literature. The former is evident and to be expected. So far, however, the latter is undemonstrated” (p. 236).

39 Akhenaten’s so-called “solar-monotheism” was more likely a kind of henotheism (Niehaus, p. 82).

40 Describing El, the main god of the Canaanite pantheon, Millard writes, “He was the father of gods and of men. His wife was Asherah, the mother-goddess. El appears in some myths as an old man, too old to act effectively, bullied by his wife and his children. In one story he is shown in a drunken stupor; in another he marries two girls who bear him two sons, Dawn and Dusk” (p. 66). Cohn also notes the human-like characteristics of the Egyptian gods: “Egyptian gods had much in common with human beings …. More importantly, the gods had some of the limitations of human beings. Except for the demiurge they were neither omniscient nor omnipotent: events could take them by surprise, and they were not always able to influence them. Nor did the gods even enjoy eternal life … they could grow old and die …” (p. 8).

41 E.g., Leviticus 11:44, 45; Psalm 77:13; Isaiah 6:3; 44:6-9; 46:10, 11; Daniel 4:35.

42 See Leviticus 2:11; 20:2, 3; Deut 22:5; 23:18.

43 The gospel was first revealed immediately after the fall (Genesis 3:15). The moral law came to mature expression in the Decalogue revealed at Sinai (Exodus 20). That the revelation of gospel and law were clear in the Old Testament may be established from texts like Deuteronomy 30:11-14 and Psalm 19:7-8.

44 “The great boon granted to Israel by YHWH was the privilege of having revelation, the Torah from Sinai, as well as the admonitions of the prophets, concerning precisely what their God expected of them. These demands included, not only cultic acts, but also ethical and moral responses” (Walton, p. 242).

45 See Genesis 3:15; 12:1-3; Job 19:25, 26; Psalm 16:8-11; 25:6; Isaiah 11; 65; Daniel 12:2, 3.

46 See Romans 1:18–32.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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