The Bible is an ancient book that is separated with hundreds of years from the modern reader. As ancient literature, it touches on stories and concepts that seem strange or unbelievable to many people because the stories it presents are far removed from modern cultures and daily experiences. It is reasonable then, to assume that Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) history is of paramount importance to the student of Scripture. In the next paragraphs, the writer will discuss his eight ideas on the value of ancient near east history.
Historical backgrounds – The Bible is a fascinating book in the religious world today since it predates most of the religious books that are found in the world today. As one comes to its pages, strange cultures and country names appear in its early pages e.g. the Garden of Eden, Mesopotamia, Babel, etc. These countries still exists today with new names, but without a proper understanding of ancient near eastern history, one is forced to look at the Bible as a mythological book with names of places that have no historical back-up. Thus, ANE history helps to affirm and inform the historical places and peoples that are found in the Bible since ancient Israel was not secluded from other cultures and peoples.
Bible manners and custom – The other value of ANE history lies in helping the reader understand certain practices and customs that prevailed in ancient times of which are included in the Bible. While the Bible does not seem to condemn or adorn some of the practices, they help the Bible scholar to get an amazing insight into the ancient world of the Old Testament. Some Bible verses which seem to be unfair from a student’s perspective can be easily understood in light of ancient customs. This has been confirmed by modern day archaeological discoveries too.
Oriental perspectives versus Occidental perspectives – The way a person understands the world is largely influenced by a person’s environment. The occidental world looks at the oriental world with keen interest, howbeit oblivious of its cultures, customs, and practices. Most of what can be gleaned from the Bible shows that OT history took place in Africa, Middle East, and Europe. While most of the history transpired in the Orient, it is imperative for a Bible scholar to be on guard against Occidental prejudices and worldviews in trying to understand biblical perspectives of the Old Testament.
Clarity of the text – The Old Testament books can easily be misunderstood by a person who ignores their contextual elements. The context of the Old Testament ANE background helps to shed more light to the reader and will help foster clarity. Obscure passages can easily be re-examined and understood by comparing and contrasting certain biblical cultures. For instance, a proper understanding of the covenant concept requires ANE background authenticate for the Bible student to grasp the significance and importance of each covenant.
Grasp of history – At times, biblical history appears to be very unfair when we consider that Israel’s occupation and possession of Canaan were ushered in through a religious holy war. But who were the Canaanites and the early occupants of such a land? Why would God think evil of such people? What had they done to receive such great amount of divine displeasure? With a lack of ANE background, one is tempted to conceive of God as a blood-thirsty God who desires to annihilate his creatures and prefers one nation above others. However, a study of the peoples and cultures of the times will justify God’s actions against a sinful and wicked generation.
Understanding OT literature, covenants, and laws – ANE history sheds more light on OT literature, its covenant, and laws. The first writing we have in the Bible came from this period and it is important to understand how ancients conveyed their ideas and thoughts in written form. By comparing other literature of the time, it becomes important to discern what is the truly inspired record of origins and what is a distorted view. For example, various accounts of creation origins exist that have reached down to us from Babel and other areas in the ANE. Surprisingly, they do not tally with the biblical record and are thus to be treated cautiously. However, a study of ancient covenants and laws have helped greatly to understand the nature of OT covenants and laws.
Understanding of OT peoples – Another value of ANE history is its great contribution in helping us to understand OT peoples such as the Hittites, the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Canaanites among others and how they related to God’s people. Who were they? How did they live? What did they do? Such questions help us to interpret the biblical text so well especially when we approach certain biblical characters, e.g. Abraham and Isaac, who traded their wives for fear of the Philistines.
Authenticating the biblical text as an external witness to its inspiration and inerrancy – this last point assumes that a clear understanding of the ANE history will help authenticate the biblical text against modern-day critics who disavow its historicity and testimony. By comparing certain stories, e.g. the Flood and the Tower of Babel, other ancient peoples recorded these events in different words and ways, and this proves that though storytellers differed, the events really happened.
While a short essay on this subject cannot be sufficient to explore the suggested values for studying ancient near eastern histories, suffice it to say that it helps in providing ample backgrounds to the study of the Bible which will aid a careful scholar into taking account certain insights that ANE history provides by bringing clarity to some once-seemingly obscure texts. However, a reader of the biblical text should use discretion in the way he uses the extra-biblical material in trying to justify certain biblical passages. The theological redemptive plan of God should always be sought in understanding God’s salvation history. There is great value in studying near east history; it helps Bible scholars and teachers to rightly divide the word of God.