Where the world comes to study the Bible

8. Ancient Middle Eastern Culture And The Bible

Related Media

God’s revelation did not come into a vacuum. He spoke to a people who were a part of the contemporary culture and called them to become followers of His true way. In the process, God did not ignore the culture surrounding His called ones.1 There are many points of contact with the cultures of the Mesopotamians, Canaanites, Egyptians, Hittites and others. The large question is, how much of the revelation of God is couched in terms and concepts familiar to all people in that region and how much is unique. Cross is critical of Yehezkel Kaufmann for his insistence that Israelite religion “was absolutely different from anything the pagan world ever knew.” Cross insists that this approach violates fundamental postulates of scientific historical method.2 The Evangelical will find himself in more sympathy with Kaufmann than with Cross.

Nevertheless, it is mistaken to assume that there is no connection between the Bible and its cultural milieu. Cross uses the term “epic” to describe the genre of Israel’s religious expression (in contrast to mythic). He believes that the word “historical” is a valid description of what goes on in this religious expression, but he says, “At the same time confusion often enters at this point. The epic form, designed to recreate and give meaning to the historical experiences of a people or nation, is not merely or simply historical. In epic narrative, a people and their god or gods interact in the temporal course of events. In historical narrative only human actors have parts. Appeal to divine agency is illegitimate. Thus the composer of epic and the historian are very different in their methods of approach to the materials of history. Yet both are moved by a common impulse in view of their concern with the human and the temporal process. By contrast myth in its purest form is concerned with ‘primordial events’ and seeks static structures of meaning behind or beyond the historical flux.”3

Mesopotamian culture and the Patriarchs.

Abraham and His Milieu

God called Abraham from Ur and made a unique covenant with him. The record also indicates that the main center of Patriarchal activity before coming to Palestine was Haran (Aram-Nahariam, Gen. 24:10. Padan-Aram, Deut. 26:5). Many of the place names in the region of Haran are tied in with Abrahamic history: Serug, Nahor, Terah.4

Culture at Nuzu

“Nuzi [sometimes Nuzu], modern Yorghan Tepe, about 9 miles south-west of Arrapha, modern Kirkuk, in the eastern hill-country of ancient Assyria, was excavated (1925-31) by the American Schools of Oriental Research in Baghdad, first with the Iraq Museum and later with Harvard University, under the direction of E. Chiera, R. H. Pfeiffer, and R. F. S. Starr. The settlement, originating before 3000 B.C., had, c. 2200 B.C., an Akkadian population and was called Gasur, but by 1500 B.C. its name was Nuzi and its population mainly Hurrian. The ruins, including a temple in seven levels, a palace, with some painted rooms, and many private houses, contained pottery, and other small objects. Most important, however, were some 4,000 cuneiform tablets dating c. 1500-1400 B.C. and written in Akkadian influenced by Hurrian vocabulary and idioms.”5 While the dates of these tablets are considerably later than the date for Abraham (c. 2000 B.C., though critical scholars would date the patriarchs, if they even existed, in the middle of the second millennium), the fact that the patriarchal narratives have more in common with these data than with those later in Israelite history, makes their discussion pertinent to patriarchal studies. Kitchen’s excellent little work defends the patriarchal authenticity and deals with the parallels. He also argues that the Hurrian influence has been exaggerated. Many of these parallels are found in Mesopotamia in general.6

Filial adoption

The purpose of this adoption was to provide a childless couple with care in their old age and the performance of religious rites in exchange for an inheritance. This seems to fit the action of Abraham in connection with Eliezer as a “son of his house” who would inherit from Abraham (Gen. 15:2-4).7 Weir also includes the adoption of someone into a family without sons. He believes the Jacob and Laban situation fits this description.8


The Teraphim stolen by Rachel were once assumed to represent property ownership.9 Kitchen believes this is a fallacious identification. He believes she took them for her own protection and blessing.10


The importance of the birthright is stressed at Nuzi. “A double share by the principal son, normally the eldest natural son, as is definitely prescribed in Deut. xxi. 15ff.”11 At Nuzi, an eldest son might be demoted as was Reuben.


Kitchen downplays the significance of blessing-oaths at Nuzi and of the idea of selling a birthright.12 In other words, he does not believe the Nuzi material is parallel.13


Weir concludes his discussion by saying, “The Nuzi documents do not mention any Old Testament incident or personage, nor do they indicate with certainty that any of Israel’s ancestors ever lived in or visited Mesopotamia. Their fifteenth-century provenance cannot accurately date patriarchal traditions since the customs they portray may have originated much earlier and may have persisted in Palestine until the monarchial period. They reveal, however, that the social customs, much of the terminology, and many of the personal names in the Pentateuch and elsewhere in the Old Testament were those current in parts of the Near East during the second millennium B.C., and to that extent they validate Israelite tradition.”14

Van Seters has led the way in trying to destroy the edifice built up in the Albright era supporting the historicity of the patriarchs. Kitchen has shown that Van Seters’ attempts to tie the patriarchal stories into the first millennium are unsuccessful.15

Culture and the Mosaic Era

Albright16 defends the general historicity of the Book of Exodus, though he believes the patriarchs were polytheistic. In so far as Moses is concerned, he makes the following observations:

“It is absurd to deny that Moses founded the Israelite religious system. He was a Hebrew born in Egypt, raised under Egyptian influence. Egyptian slave labor, Rameses, topography of eastern delta, Sinai peninsula fits, etc.”

“The Name YHWH was revealed only to Moses--Exodus 6:1; 3:14. ‘He causes to be.” Yahweh asher yihweh. Beside this fuller form there was also a normally abbreviated form Yahu (the jussive form of the imperfect causative which appears as Yahweh), which is found in all early personal names (shortened in northern Israel to -yau- and after the Exile to -yah). There is no non-Israelite name which has been put forth as an antecedent to this name which can be adequately defended. Elephantine = yaho.” Pettinato tentatively believes he has found a “ya” ending on names.17 [However, the biblical account in Exodus 3 seems to indicate a qal, the simple form].18

“An original characteristic of the Israelite God was that he stood alone, no family connections. The Sons of God (Angels and Israelites) were so by creation.”

He was not restricted to any abode. No exact spot.

Anthropomorphic--but the body was always clothed in the Kabod.

Aniconic aspect--nothing to prove Israel ever depicted God. He argues that even the calves of the northern Israel were pedestals for Jehovah.

A sacrificial system was a part of the practice of all Asiatics and particularly imbedded in Semitic thought (cf. Genesis 4).

Law codes were common to Semites (cf. Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi). The striking peculiarity of Israel is that they were commanded not to sin because Yahweh so wills it. There is a moral-ethical element present here that is not present in the other law codes of antiquity.

Was Moses a monotheist? “If by that we mean one who teaches the existence of only one God, the creator of everything, the source of justice, who is equally powerful in Egypt, Palestine and in the desert, who has no sexuality, and no mythology, who is human in form, but cannot be seen by human eye, and cannot be represented in any human form--then the founder of Yahwehism was certainly a monotheist.”19

The Bible, of course, does not begin monotheism with Moses. The majestic opening of the Bible with Bereshit Elohim, “In the beginning God . . .” is not simply a Mosaic or later religious thought which has developed through the intellectual process of man, but is a statement of fact. Whether we speak of the time of Abraham (2000 B.C.) or of Moses (1500 B.C.) there is nothing in the surrounding situation which is conducive to monotheism. Crass polytheism has had a long history in the Mesopotamian valley when God calls Abraham out of it. The Canaanite religion as graphically depicted in the Ugaritic literature as well as in the archaeological finds is virulently hostile to monotheism. The only logical conclusion at which one can arrive is that monotheism comes only through divine revelation in a miraculous manner. If this could have happened in the time of Moses, it could have happened in the time of Abraham and, of course, did happen in the time of Adam. Historical study simply will not support the evolutionary hypothesis as an explanation of the development of monotheism.20

Ancient law codes and the Mosaic law

Ur-Nammu. Sumerian (212-2095)ANET, Supplement p. 523.

Laws of Eshnunna--ANE, p. 133 (c. 2000 B.C.) Discovered at Susa around A.D. 1900. It is Amorite and was apparently carried there.

Code of Hammurabi--ANE, p. 138ff (c. 1700 B.C.) Laws found at Ebla antedate Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi by centuries.

Compare the following:




Law #


Exod. 23:103; Deut. 5:20; 19:16-21



Lev. 19:11, 13; Exod. 20:15; Deut. 5:19; 22:1-4



Exod. 21:16; Deut. 24:7



Exod. 22:2-3



Deut. 21:1ff



Lev. 19:23-25



Exod. 21:2-11; Deut. 15:12-18



Exod. 22:7-9



Deut. 22:22



Deut. 22:23-27



Lev. 18:6-18; 20:10-21; Deut. 27:20-23



Exod. 21:15



Exod. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:19-20; Deut. 19:21



Exod. 21:22-25



Exod. 21:28-36



Exod. 22:10ff

Note that only 16 out of 282 of Hammurabi’s laws bear resemblance to the biblical laws and these are usually quite general. Why are there similarities? Common institutions: marriage, government, private ownership, etc. Common problems: death, murder, theft, slavery, etc. It should be extremely unusual if there were not many points of similarity. Why are there differences? There is no need here even to discuss a common heritage as in the case of the flood. The Mosaic Law was divinely instituted. It was theocratic government as opposed to civil government in the other nations. There was no doubt utilization of many things already practiced by the people, but there is no borrowing from Mesopotamia here.21

The Sacrificial System

The origin and explanation of the sacrificial system in the Bible are very vague. Animal sacrifice appears to be taken for granted in Chapter 4 of Genesis, but its origin and significance are simply assumed. Animal sacrifice is part of all the ancient religious systems. (At Ugarit the Shelem [peace] and Asham [guilt] offerings have been identified)22 We can assume from Genesis 4 that God instituted animal sacrifices and explained to Adam their significance. This information was preserved by Noah but perverted and misunderstood by his descendants. The instruction to Moses, then, is taking at least some things which are familiar to the people and placing them in their true perspective.

The Sanctuary

Many have argued and some still do, that the tabernacle is nothing but the later temple anachronistically placed in the time of Moses. Few would hold that today even though the antiquity of the details would be denied.23

Some link the ark with a portable shrine as used by the Arabs.24 This illustrates the attempt by many to find every possible link with identifiable objects in history, however tenuous, based on a philosophy of no supernatural revelations.25

The Canaanites and Israel26

The term Canaanite is historically, geographically and culturally synonymous with the Phoenicians. Canaanite refers to a northwest Semitic people and culture of western Syria and Palestine before the 12th century B.C., and the term Phoenician refers to the same people and culture after that.

The Canaanites played an important part in history of civilization. In 3-2 millennium, they bridged the gap between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and to them we no doubt owe much of the slow, but constant transfusion of culture which we find in the ancient near east.

Forced out of Palestine and most of Syria in the 13th and 12th centuries, the Phoenicians turned their energies seaward and became the great mariners and traders of all time.

The Greeks attribute their achievements in the arts of peace to them (cf. also writing).

Inscription and Grammar Work--chiefly Gesenius

Renan--1860-61 cf. Pritchard.

Byblos--Montet--Dunand (1921- )

Ugarit--Schaeffer (1929- )

Khadattu (Arslan Tash) Thureau Dangin (1928)

Hamath (Orontes) Ingholt (1931-38)

Plains of Antioch (McEwan) (1932-37) (Around Orontes)

Mari--Parrot (1933- )

Alalakh-Wooley (1936-39)


Schaeffer, Excavation; C. H. Gordon--Texts.27 There were at least two consonantal alphabetic scripts which had been devised by the Canaanites. The cuneiform alphabet was used at Ugarit. The other was a direct progenitor of later Phoenician. They were also familiar with Akkadian, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Byblian syllabic characters (this is a hieroglyphic form syllabary in use toward the end of the third millennium B.C.--used to write a very early form of Canaanite).

Canaanite Culture

Among other reasons it did not reach a greater height was that it had a low religious level. The Canaanites had a primitive mythology. Their religion contained the most demoralizing cultic practices then existing in the near east. Human sacrifice, sacred prostitution, eunuch priests, serpent worship, brutal mythology.


The relation of Ugaritic to the Old Testament has been demonstrated but over-extended by Dahood especially. For a more conservative treatment, see Craige in Word Biblical Commentary Psalms.


They spread the Canaanite culture, religion, language and alphabet all over the Mediterranean area.28 They established colonies as far as Spain.29 They founded Carthage (Qart-hadasht—new town, hence, several names like this). Tarshish—Smelting plant (several), Moloch--idol. Child sacrifice. For example, a stele (55 x 12 cm.) was found in a field of stelae and Urns with offering remains mostly of children in Carthage. Donner & Rollig #79. “To the Lady, to Tanat the face of Baal and to the Lords to Baal Hamon; This is what Canami slave of Eshmunamas son of Baalyatan vowed--his flesh . . .” (My translation, 3rd century, B.C.). The rest concerns warnings to those who would disturb the stone.30 Albright agrees with O. Eissfeldt that “molek was a sacrificial term and not the name of a Canaanite divinity. Punic molk and Heb. molek (vocalized correctly by MT) are in fact the same word, and both refer to a sacrifice which was, for Phoenicians and Hebrews alike, the most awe-inspiring of all possible sacred acts--whether it was considered as holy or as an abomination.”31

The Contacts with Paganism during the Time of the Judges

In the Canaanite religion El is the head of the pantheon. He has been displaced by Baal as Chronos was by Zeus. He probably declined in relative prominence during the period 2500-1500 B.C. He was still worshipped, however, at local shrines and his name is retained in El Elyon and El Olam. His wife seems to be Asherah (Ashirat in Ugaritic literature). Her longer name is “the Lady who treads on the Sea (dragon).” She is the foe of Baal and his wife/sister Anath. The word Asherah is usually translated grove (Judges 3:7) in KJV since the symbol of her presence was a sacred tree or pole.32 Mot killed Baal and took him to the underworld. Anath freed him after a violent struggle with Mot. Anath was also called the Queen of Heaven. These gods were sadistic and sexual.33 Amos and Hosea inveigh against this religious system which had completely permeated the northern kingdom.

The most important offspring of this “couple” is Baal. Baal is really a title. The names of Baal include Zabul (the exalted), Lord of Earth, Rider of the Clouds, Lord of Heaven. Baal-zebul (not zebub) in Ekron. Beelzebub is a title for Satan in the New Testament. He is also called Hadad (cf. Ben-Hadad in Scripture). The idea of Yahweh being Baal was once accepted and people named their children thusly. However, this is later looked on with disfavor because of Baal worship and these names are changed, e.g., Ishbaal = Ishbosheth (bosheth--shame).34

Ashtoreth (Astarte) is mentioned quite frequently in the Old Testament. It is not clear whether she is the wife of Baal. In any event she is the goddess of love and the Egyptians called her and Anath, goddesses who conceive but do not bear (cf. Deut. 28:4 where ashtaroth means fruit of flocks). In Phoenician Palestine Astarte grew in importance while Anath became hidden under various appellations. Her name was later fused in Aramaic as Atargatis. The Queen of Heaven, Venus, Diana, Aphrodite and Mary are all part of the virgin cult originating in the earliest days of man’s apostasy.

Dagon is a grain god who is the son of El and father of Baal in Ugaritic literature. References in Judges: Baalim, 2:11; Baal, 2:13; 10:6; Ashtoreth, 2:13; 10:6; Groves, 3:7; Altar of Baal and Grove by it, 6:25; Ephod, 8:27; Baal-berith, 8:33; house of Baal-berith, 9:4; Men of Hamor? 9:28; house of their god, 9:27; Gods of Syria, Sidon, Moab, Ammon, Philistines, 10:6; Chemosh, 11:24; Dagon, 16:23; ephod, teraphim, graven image, molten image, 18:14.

The Baal cycle portrayed in ANET, pp. 129-142 is the seasonal cycle in which Baal breeds, dies and is later revived. The sexual activity pictured in the literature was carried out in practice by the people. Small wonder God condemned the religion of the Canaanites and the later prophets inveighed against it. This kind of culture can only degrade.35

1As indicated above, an important work on this subject is John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.

2F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel, p. viii.

3Ibid., is it possible that this discussion has bearing on the current debate about contextualization of the Gospel in the missions? Does one not need to be able to distinguish between culture as a neutral issue and culture that is antithetical to the biblical revelation?

4J. Kelso, Archaeology and Our Old Testament Contemporaries, p. 19.

5C. J. Mullo Weir, Nuzi in AOTS, p. 73. The following discussion is based primarily on this essay.

6K. Kitchen, The Bible in Its World. See Provan, et al., A Biblical History of Israel, p. 115 for a recent discussion of Nuzi and the Patriarchs.

7Ibid., p. 70 and Weir, Nuzi, p. 73.


9C. H. Gordon, Biblical Customs and the Nuzu Tablets,” Biblical Archaeologist 3.1 (1940): 1-12.

10K. Kitchen, The Bible in Its World, p. 70.

11Weir, Nuzi, p. 76.

12Ibid., pp. 76-77.

13Kitchen, The Bible in Its World, p. 76.

14Weir, Nuzi, p. 83.

15Ibid., see J. Van Seters, The Problem of Childlessness in Near Eastern Law and the Patriarchs of Israel, JBL 87 (1968): 401-8 (See f.n. 2 for a list of Nuzi text publications); Abraham in History and Tradition, 1975.

16W. F. Albright, SATC.

17K. Kitchen, The Bible in Its World, p.47.

18Cf. Segal, Pentateuch, only the meaning is revealed, not the name at this time. Cf. also John Day Religion of Canaan in Anchor Bible Dictionary 1:834, who agrees with me on the Qal form.

19Albright, SATC, p. 272. Albright’s point of view, of course, has been completely rejected by modern secular writers. The data has not changed; only the interpretation.

20Cf. Albrights own views on the evolution of religion, Ibid., pp. 170ff. He quotes with favor anthropologist Fr. Schmidt (Ursprung der Gottsidee) who argues that the existence of high gods among present primitive peoples points to monotheism. At least, he says, Schmidt has disproved the fetishism-polytheism-monotheism approach.

21See Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, p. 293 for a comparison.

22W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, p. 59.

23See Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel.

24See Wright, BA, chapter 7.

25For further reading from a critical point of view see Eissfeldt, The Old Testament an Introduction, Wright, Biblical Archaeology, Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, and SATC, DeVaux, History of Israel. From an evangelical point of view, see Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.

26See W. F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan. Also The Role of the Canaanites in the History of Civilization in BANE. See also F. M Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. More recently J. Van Seters, In Search of History and Jonathan N. Tubb, Canaanites in Peoples of the Past.

27See ANET.

28For a further discussion, see A. Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, pp. 356-57.

29See J. G. Scheuer, Searching for the Phoenicians in Sardinia, BAR 16:1 (1990) 53-60.

30Carthage was traditionally founded in 814 B.C., although nothing prior to 750 B.C. has been found archaeologically (time of Uzziah). The Carthaginians became famous in history through the Punic (corruption of Phoenician) Wars (264-241, 218-201, 149-146). Carthage was destroyed during the final war.

31W. F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, p. 236. But see also Diana Edelman, Biblical Molek Reassessed, JAOS 107 (1987) 727-31. For child sacrifice at Carthage see Stager and Wolf, “Child Sacrifice at Carthage, BAR 10/1 (1984) 37-51 and Patricia Smith, “Infants Sacrificed? The Tale Teeth Tell,” BAR 40/4 (2014) 54-56, 68.

32See “Queries & Comments,” BAR 40:3 (2014) 8 for the debate on this meaning between Dever and Lipinski.

33ANET, p. 139, h.I AB.

34Cf. Hosea 2:16, “You will call me Ishi (my man) and you will no longer call me Baali (my husband).

35Source for this discussion: Ernest. R Lacheman, Studies on the Civilization and Culture of Nuzi and the Hurrians.

Related Topics: Archaeology, History