The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East

Of the origins of monotheistic religion and ethics.

Jerusalem: The Temple Mount from the time of the Second Temple

When I was in college, the first class I took was World Religions. Though I graduated with an English Literature major, I also had enough credits to be a Religion major. I didn’t need the dual major. I only took the religion classes because they interested me.

I also became a believing Christian during my college years. It was a transition that took place between that World Religion class and the summer between Sophomore and Junior years. It’s a long story that I might tell in detail some time, but the point for now is that I did a lot of reading and thinking about these things in those years and in the decades since. It doesn’t make me a theologian, but I have more than a passing interest.

Early on I learned that the creation story and flood story in Genesis, among other things, have counterparts in other religions, including other religions in the same area of the world – the Ancient Near East. Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, and other people groups had similar myths that have been uncovered from that general time period.

Zoroastrianism, in particular, was said to share many attributes similar to the ancient Hebraic view of the world, including the idea a singular creator God, a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, the ultimate destruction of evil, judgment after death, etc. The conjecture when I was in college was that Zoroastrianism may have predated Hebraic thought and influenced it.

It occurred to me at the time, not having any reason to doubt that speculation, that Abraham may have been particularly open to his encounter with God if, indeed, he had lived in an area of the world and in a time in which there was this kind of influence. It made some sense. He was the right guy in the right place with the right influences setting the table for an encounter with God, the Creator of the world.

Recently I did a research on Zoroastrianism. Wikipedia acknowledges that Zoroastrianism has “possible roots dating back to the second millennium BC”, though “recorded history” of Zoroastrianism only dates back to the 5th Century BC. (Wikipedia). Obviously, dating the roots of Zoroastrianism back to the second millennium BC is only conjecture if records of Zoroastrianism only date to the 5th Century BC.

If we date the accounts of Abraham and his descendants according the biblical chronology and references, that history goes far back into the second millennium BC, but a loose consensus of modern archaeologists and theologians reject that dating in favor of first millennium BC dating. (See Wikipedia, for example) Modern scholars don’t take the Bible at face value. In fact, they presumptively dismiss it for its face value.

This aren’t the end of the scholarly views of course. Not by a long shot. Some notable evidence and analysis exists that the modern consensus is wrong about the timeline for the life of Moses, the Exodus and other things. (See for instance Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy) The Patterns of Evidence conjecture is that historians and archaeologists who assume a particular timeline for certain events are not apt to see the evidence for those events if they occurred in a different timeline.

The Patterns of Evidence thesis is that evidence for the events described in the biblical narrative is there if we peer through the lens of the right timeline and look for them in the right time periods. Specifically, the biblical accounts of Moses, the Exodus and entry into the land of Canaan are apparent in the archaeological record and historical data on the biblical timeline (second millennium BC), not in the first millennium timeline applied by modern, skeptical scholars.

Certain archaeological finds, like the Ebla Tablets, also raise questions about the modern scholarly consensus. The importance of “looking” in the right places according to the right timelines is explored in Timing the Walls of Jericho.

Back to Abraham, though, he was reportedly from the area of Ur (southeast Iraq), which is quite a distance from the area of Canaan (later Judea) where he ended up – about 1600 miles in fact. In Ur, he may have come in contact with Zoroastrians and other influences. That intrigued me in college, and so I revisit that thought journey again today.

Continue reading “The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East”

Authority from Above in Politics

Do we trust in the authority from above?


As I was listening through the last four chapters of the Gospel of John this morning, these words impressed me:

He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” John 19:9-11 ESV

This was part of the interchange between Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of the province of Judea, and Jesus. Pilate exercised the authority given him over the province of Judea in the Roman empire given him by the Roman authorities, but Jesus said, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”

I am reminded of God’s sovereignty. Jesus came to die. That was his plan. Pilate was just part of the plan. We tend to think of Pilate in negative terms as we look back at the story, but he was just part of God’s plan, like Judas.

These things remind, also, of President Trump. Though I voted for him, I have been hyper critical of him. Though Christians supported him in large numbers, Trump has not displayed the kind of fruit we should expect from a God lover; he might even be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Though Christians have also been divided over Trump the zealot, he prevailed and is our president.

Of course, Barack Obama was also our president. So was Bill Clinton. If we really believe the words that Jesus spoke to Pontius Pilate, these men would not have authority as presidents of the United States unless it was given from above.

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Righteousness By Faith

Depositphotos Image ID: 69889075 Copyright: AlexBrylov

Abraham believed God, and God “reckoned” that faith to Abraham as righteousness.[1] When God told Abraham to look at the stars and said to Abraham that he would bear offspring and have descendants like the stars in the sky, Abraham believed God.  What does that really mean?

We get a bit of a clue by looking at the Hebrew word translated “believe” is ̓āman. It means to confirm (support), as when putting confidence in something that is supported (trustworthy).[2] The Hebrew suggests that Abraham confirmed, affirmed, supported, or had confidence in what God was telling him.

But there is more to it than that. The word, āman, as used in this passage, is in the hiphil form. The hiphil form suggests an act of intentional interaction with a subject. Abraham didn’t just star at the stars in wonder, he consciously and intentionally engaged God and what Goad was saying to him, and he affirmatively confirmed, supported and put his confidence in  what God was saying to him. In effect, Abraham said, “Amen”, in his heart, and he meant it!

Faith/belief is a key concept and critical characteristic of the follower of Christ. Abraham is held up as the prime example of faith. Abraham is the father of all us all.[3] Paul says that Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”[4] And this faith, trust and confidence in God that Abraham had is what God “counted to him as righteousness”.[5]

This same faith, Paul says, will be counted to us as righteousness who “believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”[6]

Abraham didn’t do anything, but believe God, and God gave him counted him righteousness in return. Such a simple thing! And that is all we must do to be counted as righteous in God’s sight today – to believe in the one God sent to us, Jesus Christ, who suffered, died and was buried for us, and who has risen from the dead establishing the promise of God to us that we will be risen too in newness of life.

This seems so very simple that we are tempted to want more. We are tempted to think we must do more to be counted as righteous.

Continue reading “Righteousness By Faith”

The World is Passing Away

We live in a world in which our greatest desires can never be realized

Depositphotos Image ID: 10691293 Copyright: udra

“For the present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:31)

Perspective makes all the difference in how we see the world and live our lives. The perspective of faith is wholly different than the perspective of skepticism. The person who has been born again, born from above, born of the spirit[1], is a new creature; the new has come and the old has passed away.[2] We are no longer of this world, though we continue to live in it.[3]

Do we really grasp the meaning of these things? Sometimes I wonder. I wonder about myself as I look back at the things that have captured my attention at times, the anxiety and worries I have had about temporal things, and all the time I have wasted doing trivial things.

Continue reading “The World is Passing Away”

The Ultimate Sacrifice

depositphotos Image ID: 31619821 Copyright: DesignPicsInc
depositphotos Image ID: 31619821
Copyright: DesignPicsInc

Sacrifice began with Cain and Abel. Able gave an acceptable sacrifice, giving to God from the best of what he had. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and Cain became jealous of Abel’s favor with God and took his life.

The sacrifices offered by Cain and Abel were outward expressions of their hearts toward God. Abel offered to God a sacrifice from among the best that he had; Can did not. Cain’s reaction of taking Abel’s life was also an expression of his heart, being self-absorbed and jealous and unable to countenance the favor Abel obtained from God. This only shows, however, there is more to the offering of a sacrifice than meets the eye.

Christians read the OT through the lens of the interpretation of Jesus. Jesus told the Pharisees, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”[1] On the road to Emmaus, Jesus came along side two disciples after He had risen from the dead and interpreted the Scriptures for them, showing them “all the things concerning himself”.[2]

Jesus tells us that the OT is a precursor to the NT. The OT laid the groundwork for the NT and prepared the way for the revelation of Jesus. A Christian can’t read the OT divorced from the NT. It makes little sense by itself.

When it comes to sacrifice, the entirety of the OT points to the ultimate sacrifice that was to come – the sacrifice of God who became man and gave Himself up for us. God turned everything on its head in that culminating moment, and we learn (looking back) that this was the plan all along. God intended from the beginning to do this, and He prepared the stage for it through His working with Abraham and Abraham’s descendants, stubborn and rebellious though they were.

They were exactly like us. But that means there is hope for us!

And that is the problem. God can be nothing other than who He is. He is (in Himself) the standard to which all things are compared. If we want to have a relationship with God, it must be on God’s own terms because God is who is He is.[3]

God did create us in His own image[4], but that doesn’t mean that we are exactly like Him. He gave us agency, the ability to choose, including the ability to choose to reject Him and go our own ways.

If God is the standard of goodness, a choice to embrace anything other than the goodness of God is evil. Evil doesn’t exist without good. Good is the benchmark against which anything other than good is measured, and anything other than good is evil.

In giving us this choice, God gave us the gift of love, because love can’t exist without choice. If we have no choice but to reflect God’s character, we would not be able to know and reciprocate love, because love is a choice. Hold that thought.

When we think of the sacrifices in the OT, we think of the animal sacrifices that became the central activity in the Temple. Why did God require them? What was the purpose of the system of ritual sacrifices that God instructed?

The surrounding nations and religious activity from time immemorial to the present day included sacrifices to appease angry gods and gain favor with them. Was this simply more of the same?

Actually, no. This was a paradigm shift. For one thing the surrounding nations engaged in child sacrifice, but God forbid the practice by the Israelites.[5] When the Israelites engaged in the practice anyway, God judged them for it.[6] Instead, God instructed them to sacrifice animals.

In doing this, God began to condition His people for something other than what the rest of their known world did. God began to lead them in a different direction. The switch from child sacrifice to sacrifice of animals was only one step in the process, and it wasn’t the destination, but only part of the journey.

The sacrificial system God gave His people pointed beyond it to something else. When God gave the instruction to Moses in regard to the sacrificial system, He explained, “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”[7]

The sacrifices were intended to provide the atonement for the sins of the people. God provided an “out” – a way for a sinful people to be restored to relationship with God. It is a necessary corollary to the ability to choose evil instead of God, but the animal sacrifices weren’t mean to be a permanent fix.

After many generations of failure to walk in the ways that God established for His people, continually returning to the gods of their neighbors and the evils that God warned them to leave behind, God began to send them prophets. At the height of their failings and continual wandering after the evils God warned them against, God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah:

11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.

12 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
13 Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.

Likewise, God spoke through the prophet Hosea:

For I desire steadfast love[8] and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

It wasn’t the sacrifices that God wanted; it was relationship. The sacrifices God instructed His people to make were not the permanent fix, as stated above. It was only a temporal means to a more permanent end. The permanent fix was not to come from man, but from God.

As stated in Hebrews, the sacrificial system was only an illustration.[9] The sacrificial system was merely a temporal, external regulation pointing to an eternal, internal reality that was to be revealed in Christ.

“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”[10]

This is why, when Jesus was dying on the cross, as His death approached, He said, “It is finished!”[11] In that moment Jesus fulfilled the law and all that the law demanded. Just as Jesus told His followers when He was alive, He became the ransom for us all.[12] His sacrifice was once for all; it was the perfect sacrifice; it was the sacrifice that bought us eternal life. It was the ultimate sacrifice that God planned from the beginning.

When God made us in His image, giving us agency, He allowed us the gift of love, which we could not have obtained any other way. But it came with a huge risk – the risk that we could and would reject God. In fact, God knew we would reject Him and go our own way. But he provided a way out.

Just as God provided a way out for Abraham when Abraham dutifully went to sacrifice his so, Isaac, in the tradition all the surrounding nations, God provided a way out for all of us. For Abraham, God provided a goat to be sacrificed instead of his son. For Israel, God provided for animals to be sacrificed instead of their children.

But all of this was only a stop gap, a bridge to a different, new and ultimate reality in which God intended to provide the ultimate sacrifice, one for all. This is was a sacrifice to be made by God Himself, taking on the form of a man, and being found in human form, He proceeded to be obedient to the plan, even to the point of sacrificing Himself in death for our sake.

In doing this, God also showed us the way we should reflect His love:

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,[c] being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name….”[13]

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[1] John 5:39-47 (“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”)

[2] Luke 24:27 (“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”)

[3] God told Moses, “I am who I am”. (Exodus 3:14)

[4] Genesis 1:27

[5] Leviticus 20:2-5

[6] Jeremiah 32:35-36 (“They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom,  to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. ‘Now therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning this city of which you say, ‘It is given into the hand of the king of Babylon by sword, by famine, and by pestilence.’’”)

[7] Leviticus 17:11

[8]The Hebrew word, ese (etymology unknown), means covenant-loyalty. This term is used generally of loyalty to a friendship or agreement. Preeminently, it conveys the idea of God’s perfect loyalty to His own covenant. God desires His covenant to be reflected back by us; He desires His love for us to be reflected back by our love for Him.

[9] Hebrews 9:9

[10] Hebrews 9:11-15

[11] John 19:30

[12] Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 (“the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,and to give his life as a ransom for many.”)

[13] Philippians 2:1-9

Isaac

We all know someone who has struggled in life stemming from a poor or nonexistent relationship with his father.


This may not be what you thought it was. The song, Isaac, by Bear’s Den is the subject. It is about the story of Isaac, tangentially. But that really isn’t the point so much, as far as I understand it.

Isaac is a tender, haunting song, a thoughtful piece, but not a biblical exposition. Still, it is one of my favorite songs (currently), and I think it is worth breaking down a little bit.  Continue reading “Isaac”

The Wrath of God in History

 (c) Can Stock Photo

(c) Can Stock Photo

This is part 2 of the series, Putting God’s Wrath in Perspective. In part 1, we focused on the necessary fact that, if God exists, God is God; so who can question or judge Him if He is wrathful? We are in no position to change God or judge Him. But we are told, if God is wrathful, that is not all He is because we are told that God is love. (1 John 1:14)

With that in mind, I continue this series on the wrath of God by focusing on God in the history revealed in the Bible. I want to pick that history up from the point when God found a man in (Abraham) who was inclined to hear his voice.

Whether you believe that men have evolved from neanderthals to modern intellectuals or believe in Adam and Eve, we have a natural disconnect between us and the divine. This is to be expected based on the fact that we are the stuff of time, space and matter, and God necessarily is not. In that relationship, we need God to reveal Himself to us because we don’t have the tools in our toolbox to understand a timeless, spaceless immaterial God on our own accord.

The biblical story is the story of God reaching out to mankind through people inclined to hear his voice. Abraham was such a man, and God used Abraham to reveal His self in history to mankind. God chose this man, Abraham, to be the vehicle by which he would bless all people because Abraham was inclined to hear God and respond to him.

Through Abraham and one miraculously born son, Isaac, God promised to create a people that would be as many as the stars in the sky. The Old Testament is the story of God establishing these people, though these people were difficult to manage. They grumbled and complained a lot. They didn’t understand what God was doing. They were more inclined to go in a different direction and live differently than God wanted them to live, but God made his promise to Abraham, and He would keep it.

Continue reading “The Wrath of God in History”