Yahweh and the Ancient Near Eastern gods

In his book, entitled Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts, John Walton gives several similarities and differences between Yahweh and other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) gods.  As for the similarities, Walton explains that wisdom was one of the most common attributes of the ANE gods. This was primarily related to their decision-making as opposed to their morality or ethics. The ANE gods were more looked to for wisdom divination and for a source of information. Likewise, wisdom is an attribute of Yahweh, and his wisdom is also related to his ability to make decisions and judge, but unlike the ANE gods, Yahweh is considered wise morally and ethically.[1]

Closely related to wisdom is the attribute of justice. The ANE gods were considered responsible for maintaining and carrying out justice within the world. The ANE people believed that for the most part the ANE gods acted justly and that they were consistent in their justice administration.[2] In the Gilgamesh Epic the god Shamash is described as showing “no favoritism” and as “a circumspect judge.”[3] However, there are times where the ANE gods appear to falter in their judgements, and so while they may strive to administer perfect justice, they are at times imperfect. Yahweh is also a just judge and responsible for administering justice. Yahweh’s justice was questioned by Job (40:8), but at the end of the story Yahweh is exonerated as administering perfect justice.[4]

A final similar attribute for this discussion is holiness, but for the ANE gods this had more to do with being “cultically pure” or as a “cultic status,” rather than moral status or character.[5] Yahweh is perfectly pure and holy in every aspect of his being, and he commands his people to “be holy because I am holy” (Lev 11:45).

One of the differences between the ANE gods and Yahweh is the concept of ontology. The ANE gods are believed to have come into existence by some means. Walton explains that typically in the ANE it was believed that the first god came into existence from the primeval waters and then separated into other gods.[6] Moreover, he states, “in the Egyptian literature it is most common to think of the earliest gods coming into being through bodily fluids (the creator god spitting, sneezing, sweating…), while the later deities are simply born to a previous generation of deity.”[7] Yahweh exists as a necessary being without a cause. He never came into existence; he has existed for all eternity past, and he is the creator of all things. He is the one, true, eternal, creator God, and he does not separate into many gods. This a clear monotheistic versus polytheistic distinction between Yahweh and the ANE gods.

Another difference is that Yahweh entered into a formal covenant relationship with his people, and he was always faithful in his covenant relationship. Walton writes, “Faithfulness is one of the most frequently affirmed attributes of Yahweh because of his covenant relationship with Israel. In contrast, it is difficult to find any such affirmation for the gods of the ancient Near East. Words that convey loyalty are never used of the gods in that way.”[8]

That Yahweh is relational is not only a compelling difference in ANE times, but it is also a major difference in the religious pluralistic context of the present day. God is love and is by nature relational, and so he desires to enter into loving relationship with humans. He loves us and wants a relationship with us. No other religion or god has the same posture. Thus, studying ANE history should encourage our faith as Christians because in the midst of religious pluralism in the ANE context, Yahweh’s love is the distinguishing attribute, just as it is in the present religious pluralistic context.

In view of these similarities and differences, I think the similarities are due to a shared ANE cultural background, and the difference are due to Yahweh’s redemptive love for humanity and his desire to be in relationship. However, this raises significant questions: how much did the interaction between the Yahweh community and the other ANE communities contribute to each community’s understanding and experience of their particular gods? And more specifically, to what extent did this carry over into their written documents?

[1] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 108-109. [2] Walton, Ancient, 107. [3] Gilgamesh Epic, xi:181-95 cited in Walton, Ancient, 107. [4] Walton, Ancient, 108. [5] Walton, Ancient, 111. [6] Walton, Ancient, 88. [7] Walton, Ancient, 88. [8] Walton, Ancient, 88.

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