The following is an excerpt from the second edition of Old Testament Survey by Paul House and Eric Mitchell. In their Introduction the authors discuss, amongst other introductory issues, the “world of the Old Testament.”
As far as we know, the writing of historical texts began c. 3100 BC in Egypt and Sumeria. Both the Bible and scientific research indicate people existed, used tools, hunted, raised animals, and farmed before 3100 BC. But we have no prior written evidence before that time. Biblical history includes accounts of the events, actions, and speech of the Bible’s people. Moses wrote the first books of the Bible as early as c. 1446 BC. He included materials relating human origins as well as the origins and early history of Israel. Subsequent writers continued the biblical account for another thousand years. These writings are some of the oldest and most organized treatments of human events that we possess.
The Bible is not technically a history book. However, when it speaks of events, actions, and words of the past, it relates facts accurately. Some readers may wonder if the Bible can be truly accurate and believable if its authors are precommitted to expressing their belief in God as they relate what occurred in human history. In response, no purely objective historian exists or ever has existed. All historical writing is based on the author’s foundational methodological principles. No writer begins with a blank moral or interpretational slate when writing. This is generally a good thing. After all, most of us do not wish to debate the merits of a Nazi view of history! We have already made up our minds on this matter.
Sometimes scholars are careful not to present their foundational principles of interpretation. However, the authors of this text want to make clear they affirm the inerrancy and infallibility of God’s Word. Therefore, they also believe that the Bible’s historical writing is based on solid historical principles. They believe there are good reasons to affirm what the Bible says on historical matters and that there are good reasons for using sound historical research when studying the Bible.
Many people groups populated the lands of the Old Testament. Each of these groups had a culture, religion, and language with its own morals and customs. Because of common language ancestry and proximity of neighbors and trading partners, similarities between these groups abound. Whether in language, religion, or cultural and legal customs, these similarities help us reconstruct to some extent the historical setting of the biblical text. Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Nehemiah lived alongside these peoples and interacted with them.
However, the differences between the Hebrews and the surrounding people groups are most telling. Israelite religion, culture, and legal codes dramatically set them apart from their neighbors. The Old Testament’s authors used these similarities and divergences between the Hebrew people and their contemporaries when describing the struggle of God’s relationship with the Hebrews. The ties between the Hebrews and their neighbors can help the Bible student in two ways. First, correspondences shed light on the language, culture, and customs of the Bible. Second, divergences highlight the Hebrews as a distinctive people called out and set apart for God. Both help bring the people and message of the Old Testament into focus—not as two-dimensional literary features but as real, three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood people with a vital message for today.
Six major people groups most impacted the biblical history of the Hebrew people: Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, the Canaanites, Persia, and Aram (Syria). These groups were spread geographically across the Fertile Crescent. This term refers to the crescent-shaped swath of agriculturally abundant land which stretches from Egypt north to Syria and south through Mesopotamia.
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