Ancient man sought meaning to life. The search distinguishes man from other forms of life. Growth of faith in God
answering this search is complex and varied. This paper shows that the true God revealed Himself in successive
stages. He allowed time for developing man to build faith in ways acceptable to his culture and experience. It shows that
faith is supported by archeological discoveries. The revelations of the true God were specifically different to those of idolatrous
cultures that developed simultaneously.
What is faith? It is defined evangelically
as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” To understand faith you need to understand how hope develops
and what is hoped for. You also need to understand how certainty in the presence of God is gained.
Faith was developing in different places and ways throughout
the Ancient Near East. Neolithic cultures of Mesopotamia may have had some type of fertility cult as evidenced by the clay
figurines and statues of clay on reed frames that Bright points out could have been an indication of worship of a divine
family; father, mother and son. This seemed to continue into the Chalcolithic period where similar types of figurines suggested
that mother goddess cults were practiced. Then in Palestine, during the Gassulian period it has been noted that some type
of cultic practice involving elephantine masks occurred. Also, the dead were buried with food and utensils indicating some
type of belief in an afterlife.
By the third millennium B.C. the Sumerian civilization
had developed city-state theocracy in which the king represented the city god. Temples were built. Around them were lands
and gardens organized by the people of the area who served the god. The religion was polytheistic, with the key god being
Enlil which meant “god of the open field” or “god of the Wind” and who was the
god separating the earth and heavens. Nippur was a central city in this cult. Peace depended on appeasing the multiple gods.
The Akkadians adopted the Sumarian gods while adding some of their own and changing some of god’s names. However for
the Akkadians the seat of political control moved from the temple to the palace, and the king controlled the state on behalf
of the gods.
By about 2900 B.C. Egypt consolidated power of the upper and lower
kingdoms and pyramids were built. Later pyramids of about 2600 B.C. included Pyramid texts that depicted magic ensuring the
Pharaoh would be able to safely go to the gods upon dying. This showed that belief in the afterlife had matured. The Egyptian
population considered their Pharaoh a “god” among many gods. While some of these gods took the form of animals,
this was not animism but polytheistic gods with power being represented by the animal form.
While searching for hope early man built his concept of the gods. Initially it is probable that
this meaning developed by interaction with environmental stimuli. These interactions consolidated and early creation stories
probably summarized how early cultures perceived their relationship to the gods. There are three major groupings of creation
stories from ancient Mesopotamian regions which are revealed in Genesis, the Enuma Elish myth, and the Ugaritic “Baal
versus Yam” myths.
The biblical Genesis contains two creation stories. The
first has a central point that is clearly bracketed by the poetry form, or chiasmus of the writing.
“So God created man in his own image, in the
image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
This core concept states that the purpose
of man was to be in the image of God. Around this concept are subordinate instructions for early man to
subdue and rule the earth. Since early believers would have found the earth difficult to rule, the reason why was explained
in the second Genesis account. It showed how mankind rebelled against God. Man aligned with Satan, who is revealed in the
book of Isaiah to have been cast from heaven for trying to usurp God’s authority, and mankind
was cursed. The curse was mankind being relegated to expending effort and work in order to tame the earth.
In the region where ancient cities started
to develop, another creation story the Enuma Elish creation myth evolved as has been interpolated from later writings. The Enuma
Elish story was part of the archeological discovery of information from the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. It is recorded in Akkadian on seven clay tablets, a story initially written about
1500B.C. It differs from the Genesis creation story in that there are multiple primal god’s not one. The first of these
are named Apsu and Tiamut(or chaos) and they are water based god’s that then create many other gods.
This story is important because it provides concepts against which early clans of believers in Yahweh
needed to work to substantiate their own beliefs. The god Marduk that kills Taimut later in the epic becomes an important
Babylonian god of which Mordecai in the Old Testament takes his name. Marduk creates heavens and earth by halving Taimut,
and then creates mankind from blood and bone of another god, Kingu, that is killed together with Taimut. The gods in this
myth are violent, aggressive gods, feuding and disagreeing among themselves.
The Ugaritic texts
describe Cananite creation. They were writing using a Cuneiform alphabet around 1400 to 1500B.C. These texts describe the
gods El and Athirat(or Hadad). El is the most important of a pantheon of gods throughout a large portion of the Ancient Near
East. In this account the god Yam is killed by Hadad, and yet returns to rule the seas. Baal Hadad also undergoes a resurrection
and the seasons are thought to reflect this cycle. Creation is not well described in this myth but these gods are also depicted
as violent, aggressive and disagreeing with each other.
A creation story if true should have some
semblance of similarity to modern understanding of the Earth’s creation. Only the biblical account has any resemblance
to what is currently determined to be the sequence of events of creation. The others lack substance. In them gods are created
and have progeny, whereas with Elohim or Yahweh, the earth, sea and other components of creation are not given metaphysical
properties. It was understood from an early time that one God was the creator of the earth and everything in it. The Hebrew
bible explains how man starts out worshiping primarily a single God and then falls into sin (doing things against God’s
will) which separates man from the pure holy presence of the true God. The biblical story continually relates the struggle
for faith in the one true God versus faith in many false gods. Gen 1:1 makes it very clear there is one God by stating “In
the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, compared to multiple god’s in the Enuma Elish story, which
in the height heaven was not named,And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name, And the primeval Apsu, who begat them, And
chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both”
The Baal versus Yam story also has many initial gods.
In some academic
circles there is a difference in opinion about whether the bible actually refers to a single God since the texts such as:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image…’”,
has questioned if there was one or multiple gods reflected in the early Hebrew scripts.
If the Christian perspective is taken into context then there is a belief that God comprises of three
entities in one: the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The gospel of John shows Jesus was at the beginning of creation with
the Father God. Yet one of the mysteries of the Christian faith is that these three are in fact one God. The use of Elohim
instead of Yahweh in this first creation account can be seen to reflect and emphasis this fact. It is highly
likely that this reference refers to God communicating with a creative aspect of Himself. Perhaps this is best understood
as the Father communicating with Jesus the son.
It is very clear from texts within the same context that there is only one God.
“So God created man in his own image…” and “Then God said, “I give you…”, as well as “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Faith in the true God was therefore shown to be faith in
one God. This differed from the polytheistic approaches taken by the idolatrous cults developing at the same time.
Cities are first mentioned in the bible around the time of Cain’s son Enoch. God had cursed the
ground because of Cain’s evil. Cain seemed to have established cities to attempt to ward off the effect of the curse:
“When you work
the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth”.
Archeology supports the fact that the ancient
cities such as Sumer, Uruk, Ur, Nippur and Eridu are all are located in the approximate area that faith in God developed.
All seamed to have pagan cults early times, many linked to farming and agricultural success.
As time passed, the bible indicates that men became more evil. God finally brings in a flood to literally wash away
the sin. This flood is attested to not only in the bible but also in the Sumerian myth of Ziusudra, the Gilgamesh flood myth,
and the Akkadian Atra-Hasis myth. There are considerable differences but also many similarities between them.
All accounts however
agree that the flood occurred! Archeologically there is evidence of a flood story in many cultures, but evidence for a world
wide deluge by God is still elusive. There are numerous extensive localized floods that could have appeared to have been worldwide
to the inhabitants at that time. Unfortunately a single flood horizon on all archeological digs has not yet been substantiated.
The biblical account however does not need to be interpreted as a worldwide flood. It could simply have been a flood of the
known region. For example, some archeological evidence of the flood can be found in the Mediterranean Sea sapropel layers
which suggest that between 15 to 20 meters of unsalted water covered the Mediterranean around this time. This could have come
from a localized flood. In all cases, a flood of this type of duration and intensity would have increased faith
by conveying to mankind the power and omnipotence of God. Many cities in that region from the eighth millennium
to the second millennium had some form of water god. To those following the true God this would have been evidence of mankind
following false gods and lacking faith.
Directly after the flood, new aspects of
the relationship with God are revealed. Two of these are: (a) the retribution that occurs when shedding blood, and (b) the
cursing of Ham.
The retribution that occurs on shedding blood is detailed in
Gen 9:6. There it states:
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” 
God is emphasizing that violence and aggression
between men will have consequences.
The second change
occurs when Noah curses Ham who was the father of the Canaanites. The bible states:
“Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he
be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed be the Lord,
the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in
the tents of Shem,
may Canaan be his slave.”
This reveals a blessing and a cursing by
God, a motif that repeats itself many times in the Old Testament. It also reveals how a man of God can now speak for God.
This fits the archeological evidence of the time. People would have understood how a leader of a clan could speak for the
god of the clan. Kings of cities spoke for the local deity. The True God is however different from the other god’s of
the time in that He binds Himself to bless specific people. He is a God of future history. This selective blessing of a future
nation shows a new development of faith. It sets the scene for the later conflict between faith in God by men of Israel who
descend from Shem, and the attitude to God by the Canaanites who descend from Ham.
time that the flood occurred was probably around 8200B.C. Archeologically this has been shown to be before writing developed
and the bible states that at this time mankind still had a common language.
“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech”
This was to change. Men decided to build
a city with a significant tower to try and make a name for themselves. This occurred on the plains of Shinar which is currently
believed to be where Babelonia was situated. Many ancient cities had “holy mountains” that are termed Ziggurats. These were stepped temples that were
built, often one on top of the filled site of the previous, to enable the god’s to come to earth. When men decided to
build this huge idolatrous tower:
“…the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From
there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth”
Edifices of religious nature are present
in the Sumarian, Babelonian, Egyptian, and Assyrian cultures. This shows that God broke up the languages and established different
nations as indicated in the bible. All these nations then built different forms of towers, or Ziggurates. Some of these were
temples, or, as in the case of Egyptians, Pyramid burial chambers.
City cultures during
this time can be seen to show little faith in the true God but significant faith in idols.
The city of Eridu was a city of the early Ubaid period and was close to Ur which was about seven miles away. The
Sumerian literature indicates it was one of the cities that existed before the flood, and so was probably one of those cities
that became more and more evil with time as indicated in Genesis. Archeology however tracks the earliest settlement as occurring
in about 4000B.C. It had a temple known as “home of the watery deep”, a fitting name for a post flood temple god.
The older culture was one of subsistence farming and agriculture, perhaps having come from Seth’s descendants to the
Samarra culture. The region also had a hunter gatherer culture that seemed to have lived in reed huts along the river. Then
it had a third pastoral culture having sheep and herds, perhaps where members of an early semitic community established themselves.
This community lived in the semi-desert regions and the culture predominantly worshiped the god Enki or Ea, a “water”
god. Eridu had temples from the earliest times.
It is possible that the movement of people
to Shinar as reported in the bible came from Eridu. Then when God broke up the languages, many may have moved back to Eridu.
Originally the temples were mud huts but later they were the Ziggurats, e.g. the complex of Amar-Sin dating to around 2040
B.C. The building of these was perhaps due to centuries of skill honed by that initial start when building Babel.
Nippur as previously mentioned is another ancient city between thirty and forty miles from Eridu having
archeology that tracks back to about 6000 years of human history. About eighty percent of all known Sumerian literary information
has been found there, including the flood story and tales of Gilgamesh. A temple dedicated to “the queen of heaven”
was rebuilt many times from 3200 B.C to 100A.D. showing cultic worship.
Uruk (or Unug) was established around 3400B.C. and was a large
city with a temple mount incorporating the “white temple”. A group of buildings known as “the house of heaven”
was dedicated to the goddess Inanna.
Another city from early times was Ur, known today as tell el-Muqayyar It dates back to 5000BC and its temple dates back to 4000B.C. The common people of
the time also had small shrines on street corners. A ziggurat to the moon god Nanna dates to around 2000B.C. Ur could have
been the home of Abram as referred to in the Old Testament in Gen 11:29-31 where it states;
“Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son
of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to
go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.”
This is by no means
certain as there could have been other cities named Ur. However it appears all of these cities had worship places that would
have been referred to as being idolatrous.
The next significant development in Semitic
faith was when Abram is given the promise:
“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you
will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples
on earth will be blessed through you.”
God’s plan revealed through Noah
unfolds with the descendants of Abram when He promises them they will be a blessing and numerous. It took a huge step in faith
for Abram to “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”Abram arrives in Canaan at Shechem and God confirms he will displace the Canaanites
and give the land to Abram.
Archeologically, while there is no proof of the patriarchs,
there is substantial proof for Semitic names and activities in the 2nd millennium in the areas where the patriarchs
were active. Early patriarchal customs are confirmed by archeological discoveries such as those at Nuzi and Alalakh. The nature
of the patriachal journeys fit the times of relative peace and the trade routes of the period. Cities mentioned, such a Shechem
are evident archeologically and mentioned in ancient texts.
in God for the Hebrews was now starting to change to include faith in the creation of a nation dedicated to God. God‘s
protection of the nation to be and his blessing for all people on earth is promised to Abram. However Joshua
24:2 points out Abram’s father, Terah, followed other gods. Terah also preferred living in Haran located in the land
of Aram. In Haran a moon god was worshiped. Many of Terah’s ancestors’ names are similar to place names in the
land of Aram. Terah worshiped idols, probably in addition to the true God. Abram did not follow his
father but trusted instead in the true God. However, the practice of multiple different groups symbiotically living on the
land and worshipping different gods also fits these times.
Abram travels to Shechem
in Canaan where he built an altar. This is the second reference to an altar being built for God. Altars and holy mountains
to gods were an established part of near eastern religion by this time. From the Uruk period ziggurats had been built, and
many of these had altars of various forms, sometimes just an area of hard packed earth. The bible however does not address
altars in association with God until Noah’s time and the confirms it with Abram. It underlines the significant change
in the relationship with God. Equally significant was the statement that accompanies this:
“To your offspring I will give this land.” So
he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him”.
As Man becomes more complex and adept,
God introduces more complexitry into the relationship with Man. God appearing to Abram was a new development. Abram would
have gained significant hope in the future from the certainty that God was to bless his descendants. Land and children at
the time would have been considered a significant blessing. God was now reinforcing the promises that He
had made when Abram called on the name of God, Yahweh.
Shechem has been identified as Tell Balatah in recent years and is located between Mt. Gerizim
and Mt. Ebal. It is on the ancient road between the towns of Shiloh, Bethel/Ai, Ramah, Gibeah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron. Abram would have been able to see a considerable amount of the promised land from the
mountains. Later Mt Gerizim would be seen as the place of blessings and Mt Ebal, the place from which
curses are proclaimed. The mountains would also have been of importance in Canaan pagan idol worship at the time. The call
of Abram would have been perceived as a call away from worship of pagan gods to the worship of the true God. Shechem was of
significance because of Abram’s promise and also being on a busy trade route.
promise had parts of a simple form of near eastern treaties that would have been well understood by the people of the time.
These treaties have since been shown to have a few basic components: a preamble that introduced the speaker, a historical
prologue, stipulations, the document, witnesses, and curses and blessings. While not incorporating all these aspects, God was making his promise known in a formal
way and in a prominent place where it would be noticed.
Abram’s next stop was a town that
could have been known for idol worship as it was called was Beth El, or the “house of god”. El was the name for
god in much of Ancient Near East. The construction of an altar near Bethel would have been in addition to the existing pagan
altar that would have been in Beth El. God is making a public statement regarding his future chosen people and the fact they
were not to worship pagan gods. From this location Abram would have seen the future site of Jerusalem,
the city of God, and known it was clearly within the Promised Land.
It is reasonable
to assume God led Abram to Egypt about the time the Hyksos had their capital at Avaris. Abram gains in wealth and experience
as a result of the journey before returning back to the altar at Beth el. He then goes to Hebron which is also along the trade
route and has been shown to have existed. Excavations have shown it to be occupied from about 3500 B.C.
Abram battles against four kings and gains the victory. Archeology has confirmed that the Kings names fit
those present in the Ancient Near East of this time, and this action on the part of Abram shows faith in God’s promise. Abram was
aware that he would not die before he had a son, and so had confidence to take on major opponents. He then faces a test of
faith in God when upon returning when he is met by two kings. The king of Salem (Jerusalem) called Melchizedek, whose name
means “my king is righteous”, and the king of Sodom, a city which later we learn is considered evil.
Abram respects Melchizedek as one who is a Priest of God by giving him a tenth of what he has. This
practice of giving a tenth to priest kings was established soon after the barley standard had been established as a form of
currency in Mesopotamia in about 3000B.C. The tenth was already a standard in the ancient communities. Abram by providing
it to Melchizedek was honoring him as a Priest of the true God. In contrast Abram returns everything to the King of Sodom
as Abram didn’t want the King of Sodom bragging that he and not God had helped Abram. Abram passes God’s test
and is promised many offspring despite the fact that he has not had any children. Abram’s faith resounds through the
ages with the statement:
“Abram believed the Lord, and he credited
it to him as righteousness.”
Now God asks Abram to arrange a sacrifice
as part of a formal Covenant. This was a “grant” covenant. One example of a non-biblical covenant of this nature
is in the unconditional gifts given as part of the treaty of Hattušiliš III with Ulmi-Tešup of Dataša. Abraham is told by God to use a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon. In the
book of Leviticus, these animals are later associated with the sacrificial rituals. The heifer, goat and ram had to be three
years old and were killed and split in two leaving a path between them.
Treaties of this
form at that time had both parties passing through along the path between the split animals and expecting
if they broke the treaty that the same would happen to them as happened to the animals. In this case God alone performs the
role showing his omnipotence and special significance of the gift that is being given. The birds of prey descend and are warned
off portending the time that Israel will spend in Egypt. The dove, pigeon, torch and fire speak to the future work of the
Holy Spirit in the New Covenant that will still come. At that time authorizing a treaty by swearing by other god’s was
prevalent. God however swears to Abram using his own name to confirm that no god is greater that Himself. Treaties of the
time used curses before blessings. God reversed that order. Was God perhaps pointing out He prefers to bless rather than curse?
Faith develops by being tested. Abram is tested. The custom of the day as indicated in Hammurabi’s
code was that a man could have a child by a slave girl. By legitimizing the child with witnesses present, the childd could
then be adopted and take part in the inheritance.
Sarai, Abram’s wife is apparently
barren. She brings him Hagar, a slave girl, for just this purpose. Hagar when pregnant gets mistreated by Sarai. God sees
Hagar’s pain and responds showing he is not only the God of the chosen, but also the God of the underprivileged. God’s
name for Hagar’s son indicates he heard her cries. Later God promises her son will also become a great nation. God hears,
is compassionate and merciful but God’s purpose is not through a slave girl.
then renames Abram to Abraham, meaning the “Father of many nations”. Sarai is named Sarah meaning
“princess” perhaps portending the Kings that would come from Abraham’s clan. God then asks that Abraham
and all males be circumcised as a sign of His covenant. Circumcision was well known in the Ancient Near East. Recovered bodies
of Egyptians that date to around 4000B.C. show evidence of circumcision and there is Egyptian art depicting the act. Even
some stone age drawings depict what can be understood to be circumcision. This ritual was therefore known at the time. God
was marking his people to ensure they understood His purpose.
The next aspect
of understanding how faith in God grew is shown in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There has been no specific archeological
evidence for this destruction, but it served to show that God cares for the few and rescues them. It also showed that God
listened to Abraham and was willing to change his actions based on the discussions with Abraham. God is shown to be willing
to allow man to change his intended purpose.
Abraham finally enjoys the birth of his
son Isaac, and God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham must take his only son whom he loves and offer
him to God. His son has to carry the wood on his back to where he is to die. God however stops Abraham at the last minute
and provides a sacrificial Ram to take his place. The direct analogy to the events leading to the death of Christ on the cross
is evident. Jesus was God’s only son, and he carried his cross to where he was to die. The story however shows a difference
to pagan worship of the time. Pagans performed human sacrifice. The true God accepts animal but not human sacrifice!
Isaac follows God throughout his life having two sons Esau and Jacob. Esau marries two Hittite women and
does not follow God adequately. He becomes the father of the Edomites of which archeological evidence was found in 2004 at
the dig at Khirbat an-Nahas. Jacob follows God, but probably with less intensity than his father and has to be told to leave
Hittite country to find a wife. The wife he finds takes idols with her when they leave to come back. Perhaps she did this
because idols according to Nuzi tablets show they could have meant a right to inheritance. Jacob is angry about this but agrees
with Laban, based on God’s intervention, that they will avoid one another. These customs have similarities to those
identified archeologically at the time and while they are not proof of the period, they do support the fact that these stories
are typical of the events of the period.
Jacob then wrestles with God to obtain a blessing. This is an unusual event showed a very
specific interaction with God that would not have been common at the time. Jacob was named Israel by God at this point. Wrestling
was however known in the Near East by that time. It was evidenced by wrestling scenes on the tombs of Ptahotep and Ahethotep
in about 2400B.C.
Jacob’s family had rather problematic relationships. His
eldest three sons were disqualified from the inheritance due to bad behavior and so Judah succeeds Jacob. The younger sons
were favored and one of them, Joseph, who is considered arrogant by his brothers, was sold into slavery without their father’s
Joseph had faith in God through very trying circumstances. God blessed
Egyptians that were not Hebrew due to Joseph’s faith. Joseph becomes the Vizier, the second most powerful person in
Egypt. This role is well known and has been detailed on tomb inscriptions of the period supporting the bible account. Potentially
this occurred during the Hyksos era of Egypt and would perhaps explain why Joseph was so easily assimilated into the culture
as the Hyksos were of Semitic origin. Then the whole family clan goes to Egypt to get relief from a drought. Whether they
all went at once or whether various parties went at various times is not known. Evidence such as Semitic names and art does
show that Semitic people were in Egypt. They remain there for a long time serving the Egyptians. This is
the completion of the first part of the prophecy to Abraham.
Hypothesis indicates that much of the content of the Patriarchal interactions could have been written much later than the
expected timeframes. Chronology was however not a key aspect of what was being communicated. Faith was the key aspect. The
archeology of today has significantly pointed out that much the text must be accepted as valid, although some anachronistic
touches can be understood to have been applied later. Writing and oral traditions had existed for many years. The traditions
behind the writing fit the context of the texts and the times despite the fact that no historical figure of Genesis has been
clearly identified by archeology. This isn’t surprising. They were not key figures of the day. God was choosing common
people not exalted figureheads and kings to build faith in him.
Faith in God gave
meaning to God’s people in the Ancient Near East. Mankind understood him first as creator. As a single God he was different
to the polytheistic pantheons. Mankind’s success in agriculture and business was attributed to following him with righteousness.
They learnt to call on the name of God to protect them against idol gods. They believe that God through a flood had purified
mankind for a while. Other religions confirmed the flood had occurred. There were consequences to the shedding
of blood. They understood God would constrain their ways with blessings and curses. They also learnt that God wanted to have
a chosen people, and that he would evoke a covenant and would fulfill that covenant. God was unlike other gods in that he
wanted to bless rather than curse. They understood righteous men were to be blessed, but that God was just and what he said
would occur. God was a God who heard the cries of those being mistreated. He cared!
believers also understood God gave meaning to their lives and the lives of the nation he chose. Archeology cannot prove all
this. It supports this understanding with historical facts setting the scene and confirming much of its validity. God promised
to bring meaning to all men through that chosen nation. Jesus does this. God’s word is true!