Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Biblical View of History

A truly biblical theology of persecution requires an understanding of a biblical view of history and of suffering. The study of how history was viewed by the peoples of the ancient world is a fascinating one. While time and space do not permit us the luxury of a thorough investigation, it is accurate to say that the Jews were rather unique in their view of history.

Speiser makes the keen observation that the Bible is not so much a chronicle of events and thoughts worth recording as it is an interpretation of significant happenings (Speiser 1976: 2). The Bible is, thus, "essentially a philosophy of history" (Speiser 1976: 2). The way that Israel viewed history was startling, particularly in comparison to the two dominant cultures with which it interacted: Egypt and Mesopotamia.

By way of introduction, let me propose, by means of illustration, the Mesopotamian, the Egyptian, and the Biblical views of history. An explanation will follow.


The Mesopotamian cultures[1] saw history as a chaotic meandering, subject to the whims of capricious, untrustworthy gods who might turn on them at any moment. No one, not even the gods, knew where history was going. No one god was the ultimate source of power and authority. Indeed, none were truly omnipotent (Speiser 1976: 3) Nothing in the universe was, therefore, permanent and absolute; nothing could be taken for granted. History was dynamic but unpredictable. The only hope of averting disaster or misfortune was by seeking to propitiate the gods somehow. Perhaps, it was hoped, some sort of favourable decision might be rendered on behalf of the one making the offering. Since the gods were capricious, this was never a certain thing. It was important, therefore, to find out what had apparently "worked" in the past. If it could be shown that a certain offering or ritual had proved effective before, this provided a possible key to pleasing their deities in the present.

The past then became very important as a check against the reoccurrence of past disasters (Speiser 1976: 4).[2] The past, it was hoped, might provide keys to knowing how to propitiate the gods. There was, therefore, a need for constant watchfulness and an increasingly elaborate ritual. "The cosmos, in short, lacked a true basis for an ethical approach to life. Form rather than content promised the best protection against the whims of heaven" (Speiser 1976: 4)[3]

The ziggurats are a prime example of the hopes of the Mesopotamians to forge a link between heaven and earth, between immortals and mortals in their pursuit of survival. The ziggurats also reflect the other tenet of the Mesopotamian worldview; the belief that human society was an exact replica of the society of the gods with the ziggurats serving a link between the two. Just as no god could claim absolute divine authority, it was impossible for any human ruler to claim such rights. The concept of a divine ruler was foreign to Mesopotamian thought (Speiser 1976: 3; Hallo and Simpson 1971: 175). The authority of the king was thus doubly restricted. As Speiser (1976: 3) points out:

On the one hand, his mandate stemmed from the gods, to whom he was accountable for his every action. And on the other hand, the king was subject to the will of the assembly of his elders, just as the head of the pantheon was bound by the wishes of his celestial assembly.

These twin checks on the power of the mortal ruler – one cosmic and the other societal – had a direct effect on the Mesopotamian concept of state. In these circumstances, the state could evolve into nothing but a kind of democracy. For government by assembly and the circumscribed authority of the king could scarcely add up to anything else. The main beneficiary was the individual, whose rights were protected by the law – more specifically the cosmic, unalterable, and impersonal law called kittum, an approximate synonym of Hebrew ’emeth. The ruler was ever the humble servant of the kittum, never its master. The presence of writing was a further safeguard against abuses or distortions on the part of the king.

These laws, which protected the rights of the individual, can be found in the vast numbers of documents that have been found in Mesopotamian archeological digs. While this dynamic view of history resulted in societies run, for the most part, by the rule of law, the lack of an absolute authority made it impossible to determine whether the laws were ultimately right or moral. No values were ultimately enduring. The collapse of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires was ultimately due not so much to the superiority of their enemies than to the crushing weight of their internal structure as they sought to find form and security within the chaos of their worldview. The Mesopotamians were an expansionist, progressive people who, because of their worldview, had to keep looking over their shoulder in fear. Lacking absolute standards, they sought security in form and ritual that increasingly became too taxing to maintain. Trying to find a way to live securely in a chaotic universe, tragically, led eventually to their collapse.

The Egyptians, on the other hand, held to a static view of history. The cosmos of the Egyptians was the outcome of a single creative process, unlike the progression of events in the Mesopotamian (and Biblical) creation story. There was no kittum concept among the Egyptians either. In its place was a personal absolute law in the person of the Pharaoh, the incarnation of the creator. The king was a god whose world was as stable and unchanging as the rhythm of the Nile and the constant shining of the sun (Speiser 1976: 5; Livingston 1987: 123). History was wrapped in the reign of the divine king. There was no codification of law as in Mesopotamia. The word of the Pharaoh became law as soon as the words were spoken. In the Pharaoh there was stability and order. As Livingston (1987: 123) points out:

When the Pharaoh was crowned, he did not become a god; he was simply unveiled as a god. In the cult, the Pharaoh was high priest; in the government, his rule was the absolute; in war, he was the army; in art, he symbolized Egypt. The Pharaoh could delegate his power to others, and at times his underlings may have seemed more powerful than he; but his power was repeatedly reemphasized. There is no clear evidence that a real revolt of the people was ever mounted against him. Even invaders were absorbed into the concept of the Pharaoh’s supremacy and ejected as soon as possible.

Since the kingship was supremely important, the Egyptians gave very little heed in their records to events not directly related to the throne (Livingstone 1987: 100).[4] The records make no reference to the predecessors of the Pharaoh or to his successors; history is the reign of the Pharaoh. The calendar begins with his coming to the throne and ends with his death. The linear concept of time with a continuous era was completely foreign to the Egyptian worldview. Frankfort (1958: 20-21) notes:

The Egyptians had very little sense of history or of past and future. For they conceived their world as essentially static and unchanging. It had gone forth complete from the hands of the Creator. Historical incidents were, consequently, no more than superficial disturbances of the established order, or recurring events of never-changing significance. The past and the future – far from being a matter of concern – were wholly implicit in the present…the divinity of animals and kings, the pyramids, mummifications – as well as several other and seemingly unrelated features of Egyptian civilization – its moral maxims, the forms peculiar to poetry and prose – can all be understood as a result of a basic conviction that only the changeless is truly significant.[5]

To reconstruct a history of Egypt is notoriously difficult. Often private and business documents prove to be more reliable than royal ones. Records from western Asia that date from the same period - diplomatic treaties, trade, wars and other contacts with Egypt by other civilizations - often prove more enlightening than actual Egyptian documentation.

It is difficult to conceive how two cultures could have existed in such close proximity to each other, with frequent interaction between the two over thousands of years, yet socially and religiously they differed fundamentally.

With Israel in close relationship both historically and geographically, does the Bible reflect a similarity with either the Mesopotamian or Egyptian view of history? The answer is both yes and no.

Speiser (1976: 9) argues:

It is abundantly clear today that, of the two major centres of civilization in the area, it was the distant Mesopotamia and not neighboring Egypt that left the deeper cultural impression upon Israel. This was to be expected. For in the first place, the patriarchs had their roots in the land across the Euphrates and in the second place, the Egyptian way was static and isolationist, whereas the Mesopotamian was dynamic and expansive – naturally suited to reach out to other lands, Israel included….

The independent evidence of the law, moreover, serves to emphasize the fact that in the wide area of cultural correspondence between Mesopotamia and Israel, we are likely to be confronted with cases of actual kinship as opposed to mere coincidence. In both societies the law was impersonal and supreme; the king was its servant and not its source and master. Furthermore, the respective legal disciplines are closely linked in spirit and in content, not withstanding numerous differences in details. And because many of the features that are common to both lands can now be traced back to the very beginning of Mesopotamian civilization, Israel has to be regarded in this respect as the cultural descendant of Mesopotamia.

Despite their similarities, however, there are profound differences in the Mesopotamian and Israelite views of history. For example, I would disagree with Speiser that the law in Israel’s case was impersonal. This is a critical area of difference. Israel’s law was from a personal, covenant-making God whose character and will was reflected in the law. This is far cry from the Mesopotamian kittum. Because of the covenant, Israel saw history as being under the control of a single, omnipotent master who created all things, sustains all things and controls the course of history.[6] Unlike the gods of the surrounding nations, Yahweh’s is distinct from all the other gods in that He cares for a people while all the other gods are concerned only for their lands. Unlike the gods of the nations, Yahweh’s interests embrace all peoples in all places, not only those who worship Him.

History was, thus, seen as purposeful, not liable to the whims of capricious deities as in the Mesopotamian view, or the totalitarian authority of rulers with divine pretensions, as in the Egyptian view. History has meaning, for it is under the sovereign control of Almighty God (Trites 1977: 40). From the biblical point of view, man is bestowed with responsibility, dignity, and hope (Speiser 1976: 15).[7] In a very real sense, the biblical view is a direct rejection of both the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian views of history (Speiser 1976: 10-11). History does matter (contra Egypt) but it is not out of control (contra Mesopotamia). Hence the believer has both hope and security as we see history moving towards a climax, which the biblical authors call the "Day of the Lord."

In later times, the Jews would encounter the view of the Greeks who tended to see history as moving forwards and downwards. The golden age was past, and time was marching towards death, darkness and suffering. The Jews knew that the best was yet to come.

They looked ahead to a day when affliction and suffering would end and when justice would prevail. They knew that the present state of the world was abnormal. They recognized that this world is not all that there is. Hence, they avoided the stagnation that inevitably contributed to the collapse of the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Greek civilizations.

In their history, Israel saw the hand of God at work, moving them and the rest of the world towards a final goal. Suffering and affliction was part of that plan; most often depicted as a punishment for sins, a means by which God sought to restore His people to fellowship with Himself, or, on the other hand, as a means of developing and revealing spiritual maturity in the lives of His people.

Sometimes, however, suffering has a value in the mind of God that is known only to Him and was not necessarily to be understood as a means of divine punishment or discipline.[8] In such cases, it is enough for the child of God to know that God watches over even the dark and obscure ways (Gerstenberger and Schrage 1977: 115). As we see in Genesis 3:14, God’s plans for restoration require conflict, suffering and bruising of His people. It is true, as we shall see in the history of Israel, that sometimes God chose to use suffering to punish and restore the people to fellowship. Sometimes He used it for the spiritual training of His people. At other times, however, God’s people suffer for reasons known only to Himself but which serve to effectively accomplish His purposes in history (Gerstenberger and Schrage 1977: 116).  As mentioned earlier, a study of the biblical view of history is essential in developing a biblical theology of persecution. An understanding that history has meaning and under divine control helps us to see persecution as not being outside of God’s plan but even essential to His method of reconciling the world to Himself.

Gerstenberger and Schrage (1977: 116) rightfully point out that there is no unitary meaning of suffering to be drawn from the Old Testament. Attempts to find such inevitably come to a point where they fail because the attempt, itself, exhibits a lack of a basic attitude of trust in God. The call to the sufferer is to entrust the distress to One who is mightier and who understands all things.


[1] Babylonian, Chaldean, Assyrian, Elam, Anatolia, Hurrian, Hittite, Ugarit, Alalakh

[2] This emphasis is clearly seen in Mesopotamian war records where the perceived need for continued divine favour in battle seems to be strongly emphasized. cf. J.B. Pritchard 1958: 188-208.

[3] cf. William W. Halo and William Kelly Simpson, The Ancient Near East: A History. Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1971: 171-172.

[4] cf. Pritchard 1958: 173-187. As Livingston notes, one wonders at times how much of these accounts are actually factual and how much is royal bragging.

[5] cf. Hallo and Simpson 1971: 191; Bull 1955: 1-33.

[6] A particular unique aspect of the biblical view is the assertion that Yahweh is that He controls not only the fortunes of Israel but of all nations, even those who do not worship Him and without the direct agency of His people. cf. Wright 2006: 84-85.

[7] cf. Waltke 1980: 371

[8] cf. Psalm 23:4; Gerstenberger and Schrage 1977: 115.


Ludlow Bull, 1955. Ancient Egypt. The Idea of History in the Ancient Near East. edited by Robert C. Dentan. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Henri Frankfort, 1951. The Birth of Civilization in the Near East. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

E.S. Gerstenberger and W. Schrage, 1977. Suffering. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

William W. Halo and William Kelly Simpson, 1971. The Ancient Near East: A History. New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich

G. Herbert Livingston, 1974, 1987. The Pentateuch in Its Cultural Environment. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

J.B. Pritchard, 1958. The Ancient Near East, Vol.1. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

E.A. Speiser, 1976. The Biblical Idea of History in Its Common Near Eastern Setting, The Jewish Expression. edited by Judah Goldin. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Allison A. Trites, 1977. The New Testament Concept of Witness. London: Cambridge University Press.

Christopher J.H. Wright, 2006. The Mission of God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Bruce K. Waltke, 1980. yôm. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol.1. edited by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke. Chcago: Moody Press


Matthew said...

This is a very interesting article, and you rightfully point out that it's important to consider the historical and cultural viewpoints of the ANE when we look at the Biblical understanding of suffering. I would add that it is also important to understand the cultural and philosophical perspective that the Hebrews were not binary rationalists like the Greeks and us (I am at a loss for the proper term here, but hopefully my point is clear)-- that is, they did not consider propositional truth as a binary set of true/false statements, but rather a system in which propositional truths are weighed against one another. (The idea of weight in Scripture is pretty cool in general.) So in this way, I think we can also understand the scope of suffering and redemption in the Bible more appropriately-- there is a certain weight to the idea that God actively punishes sin with suffering, but there is also a certain weight to the idea that there are simply natural consequences to sin. Suffering is God's chastening, part of His mysterious purposes (e.g. Joseph) and many more, but I think the greatest weight is given (in the NT, at least) to God's redemption through suffering. This is perhaps most mysterious of all the different aspects. I have always been curious (and maybe this could be a future blog post) about how much God "had" to suffer-- since we are told in Hebrews that Jesus "learned obedience from what he suffered."

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