Considering Historical Background And Setting

By Daniel H. King 

The Bible And History

The Bible is a literature which is filled with written depictions of occurrences which are said to have happened along a time line from the very beginning of the universe through the first century A.D. Those events which are re- corded in the Old and New Testaments may be reckoned as being either truly historic happenings, or imagined and mythical in their essential nature. While some moderns consider a few of the incidents which we read about in the Book of Books to be imaginary, most will admit that almost all that we find therein is historical. And even those parts which they question are suspicious only because they may not be otherwise established to have occurred other than the fact that they are found in this particular literature. (Moreover, this particular literature is always more suspect than any other.) The same may be said of many ancient documents which have not been, and may never be, validated by external proof. The interesting fact is that many historical incidents which are claimed to have happened in biblical time, and are recorded in the Bible, have now been externally attested by the study of ancient Near Eastern documents uncovered through the activities of modern archaeologists. They are attested as genuine history by contemporary documents, most often from non- Israelite sources.

So, the material which we discover between the covers of this Book claims to be thoroughly historical in nature. This basic fact of the biblical writings is extremely well recognized, as the following quotations show: “For what is the OT from the Christian point of view — and from no other point of view can it be rightly understood — but the record of God’s gradual revelation of himself to Israel in his purpose of redeeming love with a view to the establishment of his universal kingdom? The Incarnation was to be the culminating point of that revelation and that purpose” (A.F. Kirkpatrick). “The Bible is through and through of historical nature and spirit” (G.H.A. Ewald). 

The book of Hebrews commences with the following “history-centered” words: “God, who at sundry times, and in divers manners, spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son.” The revelation of God happened in time, that is, in real history. And because the sum and substance of this literature claims to be the revelation of God, the nature of this history is particularly important. As one writer put it: “Unless the Bible is infallible, there can be no moral obligation to accept the facts which it records; and though there may be intellectual error in denying them, there can be no moral sin” (Froude, Theological Difficulties). Taking the opposite angle from Froude, since he denies the infallibility of Scripture, but accepting his line of reasoning, we would suggest the following: Since the Bible is infallible (cf. John 10:35), there is a moral obligation to accept the facts which it records, and there is moral sin associated with denying them. So, the Scripture rather naturally makes demands upon its readers, and such demands as may not easily be ignored! The historical element of the Bible is both quintessential proof of its infallibility and often its greatest liability, to some the reason for questioning its infallibility, for like any other ancient document it provides a record of many events which may not otherwise be capable of external validation.

Encounter With God

There is one more important element present in this idea of the revelation of God in history. It is that the Bible does not represent mere history, or “naked” history. Scripture portrays the meeting of man with God in time. Men like Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah and Paul, meet God in the biblical narrative as it were “face to face.” Emil Brunner compared God in the act of revelation to “a tall man, (who) stoops down to a little child and lowers Himself upon His knee, so that the child may look into His face” (Offenbarung und Vernunft, 413). Ultimately, of course, this is illustrated in the appearance among the sons of Adam, of God in the person of his Son Jesus Christ: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:8, 9; cf. 2 Cor. 4:6; Col. 2:9). The Bible is the ultimate historical meeting between man and God, not just of Abraham and God, or of David and God, but of you and God, and me and God. We meet with God in our own historical setting and cultural milieu, through the retelling of our spiritual ancestors’ experience as it is recorded in the Book.

Some modern scholars have attempted to study the biblical materials as pure history, and subtract from it the spiritual dimension. This is so because they view them- selves as secular historians and the Bible as part of that history which they wish to study and to comment about. But what they seek to do is impossible. The Bible is not secular history. The remarks of Floyd Filson are helpful in this regard: “The commonly accepted procedure in writing history is to describe the human situation in the light of the natural world. This method recognizes that man is more than an animal; he is gifted with intellectual and spiritual capacities that make him truly human. But history on this view is the story of human experience, and religion is described as man’s experience in the observable world of nature. All of this is undoubtedly an integral part of history, but it is a question whether this is the whole of it. Our story deals mainly with Biblical material, and for the Biblical writers, God is the chief actor in history; his will and action are decisive. Can we do justice to the Bible history if we reject or ignore or are neutral toward its central faith and outlook? Can we adequately describe Biblical history in a way that excludes God’s role?” (A New Testament History: The Story of the Emerging Church xi).

These things being true, it is most important indeed to appreciate both the nature of the Bible as essentially religious and historical, and the nature of the history itself as real and understandable. As we suggested earlier, part of it is even verifiable by means of external sources. The Bible is no more entirely religion than it is entirely history. It is tragic, therefore, when we do not value this historical element in the Bible and see how indispensable to the rev- elation it is, and how inescapable a study of it is to the fullest comprehension of the message of the Word of God. It truly brings to life the ancient writings and makes them seem “contemporary.” It makes of the biblical world a real place peopled by flesh-and-blood individuals like ourselves, with their hopes and dreams, anxieties and fears. The stories come alive on the page and teach us lessons that are eternal in both their application and their importance.

A word of caution must, however, be always in the mind of the student of the historical aspect of the Scripture. As a discipline it should not be pursued in its own interest or for its own sake. It needs to be remembered that the definitive purpose of the Bible is not to recount history but to bring man into an encounter with God. That is what the Book is about. So long as history and the historical in Scripture is studied as an adjunct and aid to the most complete appreciation and discernment of the principal message, then it is kept in its proper place and is valuable. The study of Greek is precisely parallel. The student of Greek who specializes in the Koine language of Scripture, but who in the course of his concentration upon the linguistic nuances of the NT literature — misses the opportunity to know Jesus of Nazareth — he has failed entirely. This is true of every other academic pursuit which deals with what is in the Bible. The principal purpose and the principal Person of this Book is so crucial to one’s own soul and the very reason for his being that a purely scholastic or pedagogic approach to it is a relative waste of time.

A Few Historical Illustrations From the Old Testament

The people of Israel constituted a covenant community based on God’s acts in history. The tie that bound this people together had deep roots in history and specially as God had dealt with certain personages of her historic past. It was not merely a history of great ancestors in whom they could take pride. Rather, it was a history of God’s relations with these men and women. God had chosen, redeemed, judged, disciplined, forgiven, taught, and trained them. All this was done in history, with all the events connected therewith occurring in real historic circumstances, and set in a cultural and historical “background.”

Most of such things may not be “essential to salvation,” that is, the things which it brings out or sheds light upon may not be matters upon which our souls depend, but they are certainly important for deeper appreciation of what is going on in the text and what may be described in the text. That said, we reiterate our belief that an appreciation for the historic implications of what we read in the Bible, and an understanding of antiquity, particularly Near Eastern antiquity, is essential to the fullest enjoyment of Scripture. How could it be otherwise? 

A few brief illustrations of how history and the general background and setting of Scripture may illuminate the Word of God, will prove helpful for those who may not otherwise understand. We shall enlist the aid of several cases which have proven helpful and interesting to this author in his own study of the book of Genesis. 

The period of the patriarchs, described in the book of Genesis, has always proven challenging to the modern Bible student. During that period the characters did a number of things which have left us shaking our heads and wondering, “Why?” Archaeological work in one of the cities of the ancient kingdom of Arrapkha, called Nuzu, between the years 1925-41, yielded large numbers of literary texts which bore directly upon many of the interesting customs of the patriarchal age. The people of Nuzu were Hurrians, the Horites of the Bible. Several parallels came immediately to the attention of the researchers.

First, there was the biblical story of Abraham’s adoption of his slave Eliezer as his heir (Gen. 15:2-3). At Nuzu it was a custom for a childless couple to adopt a son to serve them as long as they lived and bury and mourn over them when they died. In exchange for these services, he was designated as heir of all their possessions and lands. The Lord says in Genesis that Abraham and Sarah are to have a legal heir instead of the slave (15:4). This also coincides with Hurrian law, which states that if the adopter should beget a son after the adoption, the adopted must yield to the real son the right of being the chief heir.

Second, there is Sarah’s strange act of providing her husband with Hagar in her barrenness (Gen. 16:2), as well as Rachel’s giving of Bilhah to Jacob for the same reason (Gen. 30:3). Hurrian marriage contracts found at Nuzu actually require that the wife who fails to bear children, provide her husband with a handmaid who will bear them. When Sarah wanted to cast out Hagar from Abraham’s household, the Bible says that the patriarch himself hesitated to do so (Gen. 21:10-12). In fact, this was expressly forbidden under Hurrian marriage law.

Third, Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob (Gen. 25:30-34) has always appeared to be a very strange idea when considered from a modern standpoint. At Nuzu, however, there are several examples of contracts involving the sale of birthrights to others. On one tablet, an individual named Tupkitilla exchanges his inheritance share for three of Kurpazah’s sheep. He got a much better price than Esau!

Fourth, in Genesis 31, Laban insists that Jacob take no wife in addition to his daughters (v. 50). This prohibition against a bridegroom taking another wife was often found in the marriage contracts discovered at Nuzu. Evidently many fathers-in-law had precisely the same concern for the welfare of their daughters as did Laban. Laban’s gift of a handmaid to each of his daughters at the time of their marriage (Gen. 29:24, 29) is also paralleled in the Nuzu texts. Apparently this was done in the event that the daughter could not provide children for her husband. Jacob’s servitude to Laban in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage is also paralleled in Hurrian society. One contract at Nuzu shows a man who sells himself into slavery to the master if he will provide him with a wife. In his instance, Laban had to be satisfied with a mere seven years for each of his daughters. Rachel’s theft of her father’s gods was never fully understood until the Nuzu material was interpreted. Under Hurrian law, the possession of the family gods carried with it more than a mere religious significance. It also signified leadership of the family with respect to the ancestral estate. In essence, it was comparable to a modern deed of ownership to the family property! This is what Rachel had stolen when she took the household gods, and this explains Laban’s relentless pursuit and eager search for his most treasured possessions.

These four examples are indicative of the nature and importance of the thousands of other comparably illumined texts from Genesis and the rest of Scripture. Old Testament study has been enriched greatly by the historical studies which have arisen out of discoveries from the Egyptian Execration Texts, the Mari Texts, Tell el-Amarna, Ras Shamra (Ugarit), and numerous cities in Palestine. Entire books have been written on each of these areas of investigation, along with many more like them, which have shed enormous amounts of light upon incidents which are related in the course of telling the story of the Hebrew people. With our space limitations we cannot go on relating them, even though it is our inclination to do so. This field is so rich in resources that no student can ever take in all there is to learn!

What is the importance of all this? Does it actually have application for the understanding of the text of Holy Scripture, or is it simply academic exercise? G. Ernest Wright, biblical archaeologist and Old Testament scholar, made the following observation: “It is very likely that the exposition of the Bible by a person widely trained in the literatures of the ancient Near East will differ in perspective rather mark- edly from the exposition by one who knows nothing of the biblical environment. . . . The type of literature, its author- ship, its historical setting, its personality interaction within history, and above all a sensitivity for the biblical world which produced the literature all these are necessary if we would really understand the Bible” (“Historical Knowl- edge and Revelation,” in Translating and Understanding the OT, ed. by H.T. Frank and W.L. Reed, 292, 300). This being true, it is important that we have a grasp of this field and do sufficient study in the area to understand at least the more significant instances of historical illustration of the biblical text.

New Testament History

As to the New Testament, we are confronted with the identical challenge. Because we want to know what Scrip- ture meant to those to whom it was first given, we make a great effort to learn all that we may about those to whom it was first given. This way we may make the proper applica- tion of the principles and teachings of the text of Scripture to our own daily lives and our contemporary situation. As Dr. Alan Johnson has written, “Historical/Cultural matters take us into a wide variety of areas and details. In the NT alone matters of political, economic, social, geographical, religious, and philosophical background, and a great many details of culture, such as clothing, homes, and food, clamor for attention as we assess the precise intent of the biblical materials. No one person could possibly master all the background materials now available; and even if one could, he would have to admit that there are gaps which perhaps never will be filled in” (“History and Culture in NT Interpretation” in Interpreting the Word of God 129). We must make some time for general reading in the introductory works of this field, or else we and our hearers will be the poorer for it!

What A Wonderful Time To Be Alive!

There is so much to learn! Never has there been, in the history of Bible investigation, such riches of knowledge at the behest of the eager Bible scholar! Let us enjoy the fullest appreciation of Holy Scripture and the fullest possible understanding of its message, by the thoughtful study of the historical and cultural aspects of biblical backgrounds. But, let us ever keep in mind that the purpose of this rev- elation is not the mere collecting and admiring of what is ancient, even if it has a direct bearing upon the Bible. It is rather to learn of “Him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth . . .” (John 1:45). Let us never fail of this purpose!