The following is an excerpt from The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament, by Eugene Merrill, Mark Rooker, and Michael Grisanti. In his chapter on the historical setting of the OT, Merrill discusses one of the most distinctive features of the Judeo-Christian faith, namely, its orientation toward history.
One of the most distinctive features of the Judeo-Christian faith—and one noted by virtually all students of comparative religion—is its orientation to history.1 The religion of the Bible cannot be reduced to an abstraction of principles or a collection of doctrinal tenets alone; rather, it is rooted and grounded in space and time, deriving much of its meaning from its environmental contexts. “But when the completion of the time came,” Paul wrote, “God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law” (Gal 4:4–5). The incarnation of Jesus Christ thus took place at a predetermined point in human history, a paradigm typical of all the mighty acts of God who works out His creating and saving purposes against the backdrop of places and events.
Understanding those purposes therefore demands attention to the world that lies behind them, a world in the case of the Old Testament that is commonly called the ancient Near East. This rather arbitrary term refers to an area from the Caspian Sea in the northeast to the Persian Gulf in the southeast and from northern and central Egypt in the southwest to Anatolia (north-central Turkey) in the northwest. Altogether this region covers approximately 1.5 million square miles (including water), an area half the size of the continental United States. On this limited stage virtually the entire drama of OT history was played out.
Even more arbitrary is the selection of chronological parameters within which to recount the OT story. This is primarily a problem for the beginning point because the completion of the latest of the OT writings no later than 400 BC provides a suitable terminus ad quem. The Bible’s own story commences with creation, an event impossible to date with precision because of the absence of indisputable biblical, archaeological, and historical benchmarks. The brief and oblique remarks about the world of prepatriarchal times (before 2000 BC) prove historically reliable when testable, but the biblical record makes no attempt to provide a sustained account of human history on even a limited scale. It is necessary, therefore, to turn to extrabiblical sources to secure the data with which to attempt a comprehensive reconstruction.
Scholars commonly refer to ancient eras by terms such as Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Chalcolithic, thus describing preliterary times known exclusively through archaeological, anthropological, and other nonliterary evidences. Using such means, they posit the rise of primitive urbanism in the ancient Near East as early as 7000 BC in such sites as Jericho, Jarmo, Hassuna, Tepe Siyalk, Çatal Hüyük, and others. While the dates and cultures of these sites may be accepted with caution, they cannot properly contribute to an understanding of intellectual, conceptual history in the absence of texts, that is, of written documentation. To try to understand the Old Testament against the inconclusive evidence yielded by nonliterary sources is clearly unproductive.
This limitation demands that we begin our account with the beginning of Sumerian written records at approximately 3100 BC. Such dates precede Abraham by a millennium, but that millennium is so crucial to providing the patriarchal setting that at least brief attention must be paid to it. The time frame within which the OT narrative occurs is thus from 3000 to 400 BC. The following survey sketches the historical and cultural context within which the story of Israel and her ancestors takes place, and it attempts to relate that story to its background in ways that show the significance of an understanding of that world to an adequate interpretation of the Old Testament message.
1 E. Breisach “Historiography,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 6:374–75; R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon, 1946), 17, 48–49.
About the Authors:
Eugene Merrill is distinguished professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and distinguished professor of Old Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. With degrees from Bob Jones University (Old Testament studies), New York University (Jewish studies), and Columbia University (Middle Eastern studies), Merrill is considered among the most outstanding Old Testament scholars in the United States today.
Mark Rooker is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He holds degrees from Rice University (B.A.), Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M.), and Brandeis University (M.A., Ph.D.) and did additional studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Michael A. Grisanti is professor of Old Testament at The Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley, California.
Download a sample chapter here.