Published: 15 December 2020

Reading Genesis Like An Ancient Israelite

The Bible is much harder to understand than we think it is. By no means is it impossible to comprehend, but to have more than a surface level knowledge requires time and commitment. The Bible is not like modern literature and failing to recognize this fact can lead to distortions of its real message.

An Ancient Text

The Bible was written by ancient authors, to an ancient audience who shared the same geography, language, idioms, culture and traditions. Modern Westerners have little in common with the original readers which typically results in us interpreting ancient events in terms of modern values and concepts. The most basic rule of Bible interpretation is that we must read it without projecting modern ideas into the text.

Our job is to sit alongside the ancient readers and hear the message as they heard it. We must determine what the Bible’s message meant to them before we can understand what it means to us. As much as we might want to think the Bible was written to 21st century AD readers, it was in fact written to an ancient audience. Nevertheless, it was written for us and to get the most out of it we must be diligent in “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 NASB).

To do this we need two things: (1) a translation of the Bible into our language and (2) a translation of the culture of the ancient peoples. We have the first in abundance. Thankfully the latter is becoming more available in the form of books and commentaries focusing on the cultures of the ancient Near East.

There is perhaps no better example of the need for understanding the ancient context than the first book of the Bible. This is the first in a series of articles I’ll be writing about the book of Genesis. Our challenge will be to lay aside modern ideas and sensibilities and do our best to understand Genesis as Moses’s original readers would have understood it.

Reading like an ancient Israelite

How Moses’s readers understood his writings is not at all obvious to modern readers. As a matter of fact, some concepts in the opening chapters of Genesis are invisible to modern readers due our ignorance of the ancient context in which they were written. What might these invisible concepts be? There are two main concepts in Genesis 1-2 that aren’t on modern Westerner’s radars:

  1. Genesis describes the functional origins of the Universe, not necessarily the material origins.
  2. Genesis portrays creation as a cosmic temple.

Say what? Where do you see that in Genesis? This is exactly my point, we don’t see this; it’s not on our radar. Because we tend to tie the existence of a thing to its material properties, it never occurs to us that existence could be viewed any other way. Likewise, because we are far removed from the temples of the ancient world, we miss the temple connotation of Genesis. John H. Walton explains:

“In the traditional view that Genesis 1 is an account of material origins, day seven is mystifying. It appears to be nothing more than an afterthought with theological concerns about Israelites observing the sabbath—an appendix, a postscript, a tack on.

In contrast, a reader from the ancient world would know immediately what was going on and recognize the role of day seven. Without hesitation the ancient reader would conclude that this is a temple text and that day seven is the most important of the seven days.”[1]Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 72). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

It’s important that we don’t jump to conclusions here. Walton is not suggesting that God didn’t create the material Universe. As a matter of fact, Walton teaches that God created the Universe and that there was a real Adam and Eve. However, Walton has written several books which make a compelling case that Genesis 1-2 is not an account of the material creation of the universe. Instead, it is a record of bringing order out of chaos and assigning roles and functions. He draws upon sources of ANE literature from the same time period to understand how the people of that place and time (including the Israelites) thought about the world around them. We’ll consider much of this in upcoming articles.

By inadvertently ignoring the difficult portions of the Bible, we may begin to overestimate our mastery of it. We think we know much more than we really do all the while being totally ignorant of the ancient context in which it was written.

The video below is a tad lengthy (56m), but is well worth your time. It is a high level overview of Walton’s ideas about the Genesis creation account. If you are like me, it will require watching more than once. The ANE concepts he communicates are so foreign to my way of thinking that I couldn’t get my head wrapped around it at first. After a lot of study and thought, I was finally able to pick up what he was laying down. His ideas have merit and are worth the time investment if one wants to understand the creation as an ancient Israelite would have. I’ll also link to the relevant books at the end of this article.

The ancient context matters

The Bible is much more complicated than it appears. Much of the Bible is really easy to understand, other parts almost seem incomprehensible. We tend to put the hard passages on our mental back burners intending to circle back to them later. This leads to focusing on the parts we understand while ignoring the parts that elude us. By inadvertently ignoring the difficult portions of the Bible, we may begin to overestimate our mastery of it. We think we know much more than we really do all the while being totally ignorant of the ancient context in which it was written.

God inspired human authors to write His message to us. In so doing He tailored the message to the people whom it was written to. The ancient Israelites had a culture very different from ours. While God’s Word transcends culture, the actual writing is culture bound. The Bible cannot mean now what it never meant! It is our task to learn what God’s message meant to the original audience. Only then will we be in a position to know what it means to us.


Recommended reading:

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate

References

References
1 Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 72). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.