A. The Ancient Orient

1. The Third Millennium

ASSIGNMENT- Read Genesis 1-11; Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, pages 1-33.

Every historical document (and every document is historical in the sense that it is written at some specific time and in some specific place) must be understood in light of that historical situation. For instance, if we were to see a newspaper headline that said "WAR DECLARED" it would mean one thing if the dateline was 1941 and another thing if it said 1991. In short, to understand any piece of writing we must have some glimmer of the context in which it was written.

The same is true of the documents that have been collected in what we call the Old Testament. To grasp the meaning of these documents it is essential that the serious student of the Bible have some grasp on the historical events which gave them birth and shaped their development. Recent studies in the fields of OT History and Archaeology now suggest that it is quite possible, and even likely, that many of the documents contained in the OT were in fact written during the Hasmonean period of Israelís history! Scholars like Niels Peter Lemche of Copenhagen University and Philip Davies of Sheffield University have been maintaining for years that the texts we find in the OT were produced during this late age and that the historical material in the OT is therefore quite minimal. To Davies and Lemche (as well as many others) the OT texts we now have are simply retrojecting Israel into the past in order to justify its presence in the land in the (Hasmonean) present.

The Archaeological work of Helga Weippart of Wuppertal University has supported this late dating of the OT materials because, as she shows, there is simply no archaeological evidence for a distinct group called Israelites in the pre-hasmonean period. Jericho was destroyed, sure enough; but 400 years before the Biblical text has it destroyed. Jerusalem was little more than a hamlet until the Hasmonean period. There is no evidence of a United Kingdom. These archaeological discoveries lend credence to the theories of Davies and Lemche. But until further material is forthcoming and further study can be done their views remain provisional (though possible).

To gain an overview (for that is all we can accomplish in the course of one year) of the events and personalities which are the background of the Old Testament, we will simply follow the outline above. We will necessarily be brief on some topics and more detailed in others. But by the time the student has completed all three sections of the course, he or she should have a fairly good view of the Old Testament world.

Our study begins with the 3rd millennium BC. This was a very important time in the history of the Ancient Near East and thus for the Old Testament peoples as well. This era saw the birth of the great powers which would swap control of the area for the next 2000 years. Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria, all began to walk into the light of history in this period. The peoples of the steppes and plains of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley began to migrate to the west, north, and east. Some of these peoples were called by their settled neighbors the "habiru" -- the nomads.

The deities which would be worshipped in these territories for millennium were being served by priests and chiefs; the world of the Near East was experiencing growth and relative prosperity. The Egyptians were building temples and cataracts while the Babylonians developed irrigation and a pantheon of great significance. Cities were being born and nomads were becoming city dwellers. The chiefs of great cities were conquering lesser cities and the citizens of those cities were made into the servant of the conqueror. The priestly caste was developing writing; and the kings were becoming more and more powerful. Sumerians and Babylonians and Mesopotamians and a hundred small tribes long lost in the dust of history were active and alive. Technology was being developed and life was becoming easier for the wealthy elite.

In short, life in the Ancient Near East was improving and there was no significant turmoil on the horizon to spoil the hopeful outlook held by many.

The following chart will help to put in perspective the significant events of the 3rd millennium BC:

Egypt Palestine Babylon
before 3000 till 2850 3100-2900 3000-2700
Pre-Dynastic Period Early Bronze 1 Uruk
2850-2650 2900--2600 2700-2300
1 and 2 Dynasties Early Bronze 2 Sumerian city-states
2650- 2350 2600- 2300
3- 5 Dynasties Early Bronze 3
Pyramids begun
2350- 2190 2300-2100 2276- 2095
6- 8 Dynasties Early Bronze 4 Semitic Dynasty of Akkad and Sargon 1

As this chart shows, there was a great deal of activity around Palestine during this period of history. The Egyptians and the Sumerians were building empires while the inhabitants of Palestine were building small city states. From one of the cities of the Chaldean empire, Ur, the people of Israel were to spring from their ancestor Abraham. Those who would later be known as Israelites began their history in the mists of ancient Chaldea. They would come to be known as Hebrews because they were nomads, "habiru," who wandered from their ancestral home to the land of the Canaanites.

It is to their ancestor, Abraham, that we now turn. He lived at the dawn of the second millennium and became the ancestor of a people who have outlived all of their Ancient Near Eastern contemporaries. There are Jews, but there are no more Edomites or Assyrians, or Babylonians or Hittites or Sumerians. Who was Abraham and how did he live? These are the questions on which we now must focus our attention as we move from the 3rd millennium to the second.

B. The Birth and Childhood of Israel

1. Abraham

ASSIGNMENT: Read Genesis 12- 25; Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 1., pages 34-48.

The story of Abraham brings us, in our progress through the history of the Old Testament, for the first time onto the stage of Biblical history. (Though, quite frankly, there is no archaeological evidence or extra-biblical evidence of any kind to corroborate this material). The first eleven chapters of Genesis have to do with the incursion and spread of sin; while the story of Abraham begins the historical account of God's solution to the problem of sin. Abraham is to be the father of many nations who will be blessed by him. He will, eventually, be the ancestor of the one who solved the sin problem ultimately and completely -- Jesus the Christ.

Who was this Abraham (whose name was Abram when we first meet him)?

Abraham began life in one of the more significant city states of the Sumerian empire. Ur (Tell el-Muqayyar), in south-Babylon, was the political and religious center of Sumeria and Akkadia. He migrated from there to Haran and eventually to Canaan. The archaeologist W.F. Albright believed that Abraham was one of the many "Donkey-caravaners" who traveled and traded along the route from the south of Sumeria to the borders of Egypt during the end of the 2nd millennium BC

Abram, or Abraham most likely means "the father is exalted." The situations which the Old Testament describe Abraham being involved in, were typical of the nomadic lifestyle. He lived in tents and not houses; he struggled for position in the territory he inhabited as a "stranger;" he conducted battles for possession of wells to supply his caravan with water; and he traveled a great deal.

His travels took him to places like Bethel, Shechem, Hebron, Beersheba, Gerar, Gilead, Penuel, and Succoth, among others in the land of Canaan. He worshipped at the sanctuaries of the Cannanites at Beersheba (where El-Olam was worshipped); and at Beerlacharoi (where El-Roi was worshipped) and at Shechem (where Ba'al Berith was worshipped). Abraham's life was thus a migratory one; wherein he was constantly moving from place to place. Beyond these facts, there is little that can be said about the historical Abraham,. Or indeed, that there was a historical Abraham at all (for, according to Lemche, the name is simply an eponym), so we will move on to the next segment of Israel's history. as described in the OT

2. The Patriarchal Period

ASSIGNMENT: Read Genesis 26-50.

The period of the Patriarchs is perhaps the most difficult to describe historically. The reason is simple -- there is a dearth of evidence for this period. In fact, what has been said of Abraham can also be said of the patriarchs as well. They were "donkey-nomads" who traveled from trade post to trade post. Though this too is highly questionable. The story of Joseph's sale to the Midianites is excellent attestation of this kind of existence. After all, how did the brothers know who to sell Joseph to if they did not have some experience in the matter.

The patriarchs all evidently died in Egypt where they eventually wound up after the Joseph episode concluded in a happy manner. Thus, the period of Israel's sojourn in Egypt is a long period of silence in the history of Ancient Israel.

3. The Egyptian Period

Egypt was, in the period of Israel's sojourn there, an empire to reckon with. The 18th Dynasty saw Pharaohs of the most incredible brilliance and intellectual power. Amenhotep IV ( 1353-1336 BC) known to many as Akhenaton was the Pharaoh who introduced monotheism to the Egyptian people. For this act of kindness the people of Egypt (led by the many priests!) eradicated, to the best of their ability, any memory of him after his death. He was succeeded by a series of lesser rulers because the empire was in turmoil. The period of tumult was ended by the founding of a new dynasty -- the 19th, which saw the erruption of the Ramessides onto the scene of Egyptian politics.

Ramses I (1292-1290 BC) transferred the capital to the delta region.

Seti I (1290-1279 BC) was a brilliant military leader who kept Egypt's fragile empire together. But it is Ramses II whom most students of the Bible know. He ruled Egypt with an iron fist from 1279- 1213 BC and was the pharaoh (so many think) who ruled during the Exodus from Egypt of the descendants of Abraham.

The pharaohs (from, interestingly enough, a word in Egyptian that means "Bull") were, for the most part, at the mercy of the priests. They were essentially figureheads who were expected to make the lives of the priests enjoyable -- or the priests would invoke the gods on their behalf. Upon death (when they were well out of sight), the priests would deify the Pharaoh -- and thus they came to be known as divine.

This was the world of the Exodus. The event which will now be the focus of our attention is, therefore, the Exodus itself.

4. Moses

ASSIGNMENT: Read Exodus - Deuteronomy; Mays, Oxford Bible Atlas, pages 1 -59.

The figure of Moses is so powerful and towering in the history of Israel that it is virtually impossible to see Israel without him. From the plagues to the Exodus to the mountain to the wandering to the border of the land.

The material which serves as a source for the history of Moses are the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy. There are no external sources which speak of Moses. Thus, the history of Moses, set in the period of Ramses II, can be gleaned only from there.

Yet the figure of Moses has, over the years, been interpreted in a vast variety of ways. He has been seen as:

  • a mythical figure
  • a religious guru
  • a reformer
  • the founder of a People (the father of his country, like George Washington)
  • the founder of a sect
  • a theologian
  • a magician
  • a lawgiver (like Hammurabi)
  • a prophet
  • a priest
  • a charismatic leader

Thus Moses has served as a mirror to the imagination of the writer attempting to describe him. Perhaps, indeed, he was most of these things. What is certain is the fact that Moses hold s a central position in the history and religion of Israel. It is Moses as the leader of the Exodus which will be our interest, however, from this point.

The Exodus began, formally, when Israel left Egypt on the night of the death of Pharaoh's son. This event must have taken place early in the reign of Ramses II for a number of reasons: first -- it would have taken several years for a Pharaoh to consolidate his power, and thus he was relatively weak in the earliest years of his reign. Second, his son Merneptah erected a stele in Canaan which specifically mentions Israel. Thus Israel must have been in the land for some period of time. If Merneptah (who ruled till 1204 BC) erected the stele towards the end of his reign (as seems reasonable) and Israel left Egypt early in the Reign of Ramses II (remembering that he ruled from 1279- 1213 BC), then this would allow time for the 40 years of wandering and for the tribes to take up bas ic positions in the land. The following chronology seems likely. The exodus took place around 1277; the people wandered 40 years and arrived in the land around 1237. They dispersed and settled for the next several years becoming established in the land -- so that when Merneptah erects his memorial stone in 1205 the people have dwelt in the land for some 30 odd years.

The various stories which are found in the Old Testament concerning the route of the exodus and the events of the period of wandering are neither verifiable nor unverifiable from external historical sources.