The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis – 1

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis

Ignoring the original context of any text is one of the biggest mistakes readers can make.  This goes well beyond the language, as anyone who has read Shakespeare would realise. The problem becomes even more pronounced when we go back to the Ancient Near Eastern world in which Genesis was written.

Anyone who wants to understand Genesis as the ancient Hebrews would have understood it must enter that world. OT scholar John Walton notes:

“…we are not looking at ancient literature to try to decide whether Israel borrowed from some of the literature that was known to them. It was to be expected that Israelites held many concepts and perspectives in common with the rest of the ancient world. This is far different from suggesting literature was borrowed or copies. This is not even a case of Israel being influences by the peoples around them. Rather we simply recognise the common conceptual worldview that exists in ancient times. We should therefore not speak of Israel being influenced by what world – they were part of that world.”1

For example, the ancient Hebrews regarded the Earth as flat, with a solid firmament overheard. Walton continues:

“The Israelites received no revelation to update or modify their “scientific” understanding of the cosmos…They believed that the sky was material…solid enough to support the residence of deity as well as to hold back waters. In these ways, and many others, they thought about the cosmos in much the same way that anyone in the ancient world thought, and not at all like anyone thinks today. And God did not think it important to revise their thinking.”((ibid, p 16))


Walton is hardly alone((Enns, Peter. The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012)) in the evangelical scholarly world in maintaining this view. Interestingly, the essence of this argument can be found nearly 100 years ago in early Christadelphian arguments. C.C. Walker, the second editor of the Christadelphian magazine argued:

“Moses’ testimony was given to Israel in what might be called the infancy of the world, when men did not know the extent of the earth, let alone that of the sun, moon, and stars. And, as we believe, it was given…not so much to instruct Israel in cosmogony in detail, as to impress upon them the idea that The Most High God is the Possessor of Heaven and Earth. (Gen. 14:22). And this against the claims of the gods of the nations, as was abundantly proved in Israel’s history.”2

This raises the question of what the claims of the gods of the nations were, which obligates us to examine the creation myths of the ANE, if only to see the context in which Genesis was written.

((ibid, p 16))

Series NavigationThe Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis – 2 >>
  1. Walton, John. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009 p 13-14 []
  2. Walker, Charles Curwen. “Is it wrong to believe that the earth is a sphere?” The Christadelphian  50 (1913) : 346-348 []

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