The Gods of the Ancient Near East

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Friday, August 11, 2017 0 comments

by Charlie Wolcott

One of the common arguments I hear against the “young earth creation” account is the comparison to the myths and legends of the ancient near east (ANE). They will say we need to read the Bible with an understanding of how the people of the ANE understood life, because that is how the Hebrews would have thought. That’s the argument. There is one problem. The Bible does not carry an ancient near east worldview, nor reveal one. The God of the Bible is not like the gods of the ancient near east, nor was the mindset of the Israelites like that of the ANE. Take some time to read 1 Kings 20 for the full context of the story I am going to describe here. I am going to emphasize verses 23-30.

The most wicked king of all the kings listed in the Bible, Ahab, was at war with Syria, and yet God still sought to show himself to Ahab that he may believe. God promised Ahab victory over Syria and Ben-Hadad and he delivered. But the Syrians said something very interesting: “Their gods are the gods of the hills. Therefore they were stronger than we; but if we fight them in the plain, surely we shall be stronger than they.”

Let me dig into that. In the ancient near east, people were polytheistic. They had gods for all aspects of life, from rivers to the sun to plants to fertility and even hills and valleys. Israel had the only monotheistic deity (only one God) in the entire region. Also back then, the cultures believed all the battles they fought were truly a test of strength of the gods they followed. Again, Israel did not think that way. They gave honor to God for giving them victory, however, when a nation was defeated, Israel did not confess the other god was stronger; they went back to their God to find out why they lost. Again, this is a very different mentality than the ANE cultures.

Back to the story. God does something very interesting here. He gives Ahab another victory. Remember, Ahab is the most wicked king in the Bible. He did more evil than any of the others. Here is what God said: “Because the Syrians have said, ‘The Lord is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys,’ therefore I will deliver all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (verse 28).

God heard the boasts of Syria who had an ANE worldview. They thought that God was just the god of the hills because they lost on the hills. They did not see that he was the One True God, so they thought he did not have power down in the valleys. Ahab did not hear Syria’s thinking, yet God promised to give him yet another victory and he delivered.

God wanted to demonstrate not only to Ahab but also to the Syrians that he was the true God over all creation, not just in a few areas. He was not like Baal, Asheroth, Molech, or any of the other deities worshiped by the peoples. To try to compare God to these gods does not work because he does not compare with them. Yet many try.

When I mentioned God in apologetic debates, it is only a matter of time before someone says, “Which god? Zeus?” What are they doing? They are viewing the God of the Bible in the same way the Syrians did, as just another of the deities. They think the God of the Bible is a myth because the Greek gods and Roman gods were mythical. The skeptics do not see them as any different.

What makes our God different? Each of the polytheistic gods of the ANE were limited in power and rule and reach. The gods of the rivers were only in charge of the rivers. The god of fertility was in charge of reproduction, and often many forms of sexual deviancy. The gods of the hills were responsible for what goes on in the hills, and the gods of the valleys were responsible for that. But notice how there is no overlap. This is what the Syrians based their battle plan on: that the God of Israel did not have charge over the valleys because he had won in the hills. It would never have occurred to them that any god might have rule over both.

Our God is not just ruler over the hills and the valleys, but ruler over the entire universe. He made it. Few if any of the other gods even make a claim about creating the universe, and even in those cases, none of those gods claim full dominion over the creation. None of the gods of the ANE remotely compare to the capabilities, the nature, and the character of the God of the Bible.

What is also very interesting is when you examine the origins of the myths, gods, and legends of the ANE, you do see a number of similarities to the Bible, not as though the Bible got them from the legends, but almost as though it is the other way around. Now, to be clear, the Bible was not formally around when these legends were starting to come out, however, the history was. The Greek gods are an interesting study because they never had any real deistic characteristic with them. They were more superhumans, than deities and most of them are actually based on the pre-Flood and immediate post-Flood generations that lived for 900+, 600+, 400+, and 200+ years. Shem outlived the nine generations that followed him. He certainly would have been seen in a different light. This table gives a comparison of Biblical names to Greek gods. It’s not the ANE that gave the Bible their ideas, rather the Bible faithfully records the history of where the ANE got their ideas from.

So when skeptics try to dismiss the Biblical account because the ANE cultures did not think that way and try to interpret the Bible to fit ANE understanding, they have not fully researched the case. The Bible does not teach nor support the way of thinking of any of the ANE cultures. That is part of why the Law was written, so Israel would be separated from these ANE cultures. That is another reason why they were told to fully drive out the inhabitants of other nations, so the ANE cultures would not influence them. God was mad at Israel when they asked for a king, because they wanted to have a ruler that was not God, and they wanted to be like the other ANE cultures. Our God is not like the ANE gods. The culture he established was not like the ANE cultures. The history is not like the ANE myths. It all stands out to be separated from the rest so with any honest investigation, no confusion could be made between our God and his Word and with any of the other legends.

Who is our God? He is one who is unique and stands out above all other gods. He is ruler over all areas of the universe, not just a select few. He will intercede and interfere in the affairs of all men, not just those who believe him, or those who are supposed to believe him. He is sovereign and in charge. What he says goes, whether we agree with him or not and he will receive the glory and worship he is due, by our willing choice or by the justice delivered upon us in our rejection. Let us not treat him as one of the gods of the ANE, because he is not one of them.

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