WELL, WHAT ABOUT THAT! (Part 5)
By Dr. Robert R. Seyda
FINDING OUT WHAT THEY MEANT
The use of comparative study proves very useful in the comparison of religions existing during the time when Abram left Ur and later on during the period in which Moses received his divine instructions on the construction of the Tabernacle and everything that went inside in order for the people to properly worship the God of Israel. We find clear evidence within the Hebrew text concerning the distinctiveness of the Israelite religion. To their credit, the writers do not try to hide the fact that what they accepted in theory they did not always carry out in practice. Therefore a comparative study of other religions flourishing in the Near East becomes helpful in finding those religious beliefs and practices with which the religion of Israel contrasted sharply, and those with which they shared a syncretistic relationship. We also find that the religion of Israel differed in many ways for those around them, yet we cannot escape the similarities that often arose alongside that considered to be in line with the divine revelation given to Moses. For instance, the religion of Israel forbid the making and worship of idols designed to represent gods worshiped by other religions, nevertheless they treated objects like the Ark of the Covenant and the altars of incense and sacrifice as sacred and holy objects not to be touched by unclean hands. There also existed a law against so-called “high places,” which the prophets decried with vigor, yet such high places played a role in the legitimate worship of the Israelites during certain periods.
We know that one general theme that persists among Christian theologians involves the continuity between the religion practiced by Israel in preexilic times and those of Christianity in post Apostolic times. However, a comparative study shows less common ground between Christianity than that between the religious ideas of Israel and the religious ideas of Babylon. Therefore, when we compare the Old Testament concepts of rites, rituals, regulations, the priesthood, the story of creation, the nature of sin and communication with deity with that of the Babylonians, we find that the Babylonians would have perceived the practices of the Israelites much more comprehensible than we do today.
One of the thorns in the side of Israel’s religious loyalty to God proved to be their tendency to turn to the god called Baal. Baal is identified as the supreme god worshiped in ancient Canaan and Phoenicia. The practice of Baal worship infiltrated Jewish religious life during the time of the Judges (see Judges 3:7), and became widespread in Israel during the reign of Ahab (see 1Ki 15:31-33), as well as affecting Judah (2Chr 28:1-2). The word baal means “lord”; the plural is baalim. In general, they worshiped Baal as a fertility god who enable the earth to produce crops and people to produce children, much like the attributes of Yahweh. Different religions worshiped Baal in assorted ways, and Baal proved to be a highly adaptable god. Various locales emphasized one or another of his attributes and developed special “denominations” of Baalism. Baal of Peor (Num 25:3); Baal-Berith (Judges 8:33; 9:4, 46); and Baal Zebub (2Ki 1:2) present three examples of such localized deities.
This confirms that although the Israelites did not understand or comprehend all the aspects of the Canaanite and Babylonian religious practices, especially those behind certain rituals, they did become very familiar with the religious practices of their neighbors. The appeal appears to be that in the traditional religion of Israel there existed a maze through which worshipers must go in order to reach the deity YHWH they worshiped, while these idols provided them immediate access and so they adapted their traditional practices of worship to appeal to the local gods for help and assurances.
The next step involves examining the theology underpinning the religion of Israel and those around them. To do so requires that we go beyond identifying the similarities, and concentrate on the functional aspects of these religions. One of the corresponding functions of Israelite religion and that of the Babylonians involved the rituals that transferred the punishment for offenses from the human being to an animal. However, to make sense of such rituals we need to look at the role they played in the whole context of their theology. Similarities and differences between the theology of Israel and that of other religions that affected the rituals they practice, came from a possible sifting process in which those concepts existing in the Near East thought process that represented core beliefs coming down from prior generations after Noah, allowed them to reject those which offended the revelation they received from Moses and absorb those considered non-offensive in worship of Yahweh.
When it comes to deciphering our modern theology’s reliance on Biblical texts, backgrounds studies must be done in order to avoid developing misinterpretations of those texts at certain points. We must view Biblical texts as a cloth woven together with threads of ideas. Therefore, each word and phrase trigger thoughts and ideas in the minds of the reader in a form of silent communication. When we take these words and phrases in an attempt to communicate them to an audience, we find ourselves burdened with the test of filling in the gaps between the potential meaning of these words as written then and their relevance to what we experience and face here and now. Therefore, the audience expects the speaker to fill that space in light of the common language and worldview he or she shares with them, as well as being true to the intentions and ideas of the writer of the text.
The challenge presented here to any speaker remains anchored in the need to understand the culture in which these words, phrases and ideas took place and try to make them understandable in today’s culture and religious environment. For instance, in Genesis, Chapter 11 we find the story of the Tower of Babel. The text tells us that they people living on the plains of Shinar said, “Let us build us a city and a tower, whose top reaches up to heavens.” Without the benefit of Near Eastern ideas as found in their manuscripts, earlier commentators and theologians concluded that these descendants of Noah wanted to build a tower high enough to make an attack on heaven and thereby gain superiority over any higher power existing there. In other words they wanted to be gods and duplicate the rebellion brought on by Satan before God threw him and his followers down to earth. But a background study of Near East culture reveals that the builders intended such high structures to be used by the gods as a bridge or portal between heaven and earth. As such, comparative studies allow for interpreters to find alternative explanations of the text, rather the feeling tied to those interpretations passed down before Near East documents became available.
Therefore, this allows for scholars to pursue interpretations of Biblical texts using all known evidence available that sheds light on why the people of that era told the story and what they wanted to communicate to any future readers in order to be better understood. So for speakers today, the filling in of the gaps becomes mandatory if they desire to give any audience the benefit of the doubt as to what the Bible writers intended to say. As such, it becomes imperative that those gaps be filled with evidence from understanding derived from cultural studies before applying any theological significance to the text that comes solely from our own experience or understanding.
NOTE: This ends this series on What About That! The inspiration and main resource for these articles came from the works done by John H. Walton in his Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, and John N. Oswalt’s The Bible Among the Myths.