Walk Like an Israelite

Michael S. Heiser

Cuneiform tablets changed my life. I’m not kidding. As I look back on my 15 years of graduate school in biblical studies, the turning point in how I view the Bible was my course in Ugaritic, a cuneiform language very similar to biblical Hebrew. This class compelled me to transform “read the Bible in context” from a naïve platitude to an issue of spiritual integrity.

A Bible Study Epiphany

I had the impression that interpreting the Bible in context meant learning about a piece of pottery here, an odd custom there, or having a factual acquaintance with who was alive, and what those people were doing at the time of the biblical events.

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But in my Ugaritic course, I learned that all of that can divorce the Bible from the ancient world in one critical way: It can exclude religious or theological ideas from all the “context talk.” It’s easy to presume that most of the Bible’s theological content was unique to Israel. I basically thought that Israel shared some cultural customs with pagan Gentiles—like diet, dress, marriage and family structure. But I thought Israel’s religious worldview was handed down from heaven, having no common links with paganism. Not true—and the content of the tablets I had to translate in my graduate school course was Exhibit A.

For starters, the people of Ugarit, a city-state in ancient Syria, described their gods with words and phrases that were in the Old Testament—in a number of cases word for word. Their chief deity shared the same name (El) as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (But the El of Ugarit could hardly be called holy by biblical standards.) The honorary titles and other descriptions of the Ugarit El and his primary assistant, Baal, are applied to the God of Israel in many passages in the Old Testament.

There are other examples. The behavior of prophets and the use of divination (casting lots, consulting the ephod) have clear ancient Near Eastern parallels. The design and purpose of the ark of the covenant align well with the use of sacred boxes known as palanquins in ancient Egypt. Trial by ordeal—such as that found in Numbers 5, where a woman accused of adultery must drink a potion to test her fidelity—occurred in surrounding cultures. Terms for Israelite sacrifices are found in ancient gentile religious texts. The belief that the sky was solid is part of the ancient Near Eastern cosmology shared by the Bible (Job 37:18; Prov 8:28). The notion that the seat of our intellect and emotions was our kidneys or intestines was common throughout the ancient world. 1

» QUICKBITS:
How Can I Do That?
Use a resource like The Context of Scripture or Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Start by reading ancient inscriptions and comparing them to the Old Testament. For this, check out resources like Heiser’s Semitic Inscriptions: Analyzed Text and English Translations.

Go to Logos.com/Context, Logos.com/DDD, and Logos.com/HeiserSemitic for these resources.

Spiritual Lessons and Implications

Discovering all this was a little shocking. But God used that temporary discomfort to produce honesty with the biblical text. I needed to think like an ancient Israelite to understand the Old Testament.

Israelite religion had some significant divergences from the religions of other surrounding nations, but on the whole, there were more similarities than differences. I came to the realization that the correct interpretive context for the Bible is not the early church, the Protestant Reformation, the Puritans, or modern evangelicalism. Those historical contexts are alien to the Bible. Rather, the context for understanding the Bible is the historical, literary, intellectual and religious context in which it was written.

Although He could have done so, God didn’t change Israel’s culture when dispensing His truth. He didn’t give Israel a new culture that was dramatically distinct from Israel’s neighbors. That choice would have produced something indecipherable to the people of the time. That would have undermined the whole enterprise of communication.

What this means is that inspiration operates within a cultural context chosen by God in His sovereign wisdom. We cannot honor God’s choice of communication strategies if we refuse to ignore the deep worldview connections shared by both Israelites and pagans.

The profound contextual overlaps between Israel and her pagan neighbors was a wise theological tactic on God’s part. When divergences in Israel’s theology appear in the text—and there are some dramatic, stark points of contrast—they scream for attention on the part of the ancient reader. Unlike the pagan deities, Israel’s God could not be cajoled like an idol; Yahweh could not be brought down to earth and tamed. Laws about sacrifices were set in specific covenant contexts, giving them a unique theological dimension. Yahweh would rather have faith and loyalty than sacrifice.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 4


1. For example, see the Hebrew words rendered “heart” and “breast” in modern translations of passages like Song 5:4; Jer 31:20; Job 19:27; Ps 7:9; 16:7; 22:14; 40:8. These are actually the same Hebrew words for “intestines” and “kidneys” in descriptions of sacrifices. There is no biblical Hebrew word for “brain.”

Walking in Circles

John D. Barry

Joshua 18:1–19:9; 2 Corinthians 12:1–10; Psalm 56:1–13

I often wish things were more obvious. I ask God to help me understanding His timing so that I can easily act. I ask for everything to happen at the right moments. I ask Him to give me such clear directions that I can’t fail in following them. I used to think this was a good thing, but I realize now that all my questions could indicate a lack of faith. It seems that my questions lead to more questions. Like a man losing his memory in old age, I end up walking in circles around the block rather than finding my way home.

Maybe it’s not the lack of knowing that disturbs me, but that when I really know what God wants, I will have to act. In general, this seems to be the problem with faith in western Christianity. We say we don’t know what God wants. However, if we’re honest with ourselves, perhaps we don’t really want to know what God wants. In our hearts, we’re certain that knowing will mean uncomfortable change.

Joshua calls the Israelites on this type of faith problem: “How long will you be slack about going to take possession of the land that Yahweh, the God of your ancestors, has given you?” (Josh 18:3). The same question applies to us. How long will we wait? We really know what we’re supposed to do? If we don’t, might the reason be that we don’t want to know?

Often we hesitate because we’re afraid of our weaknesses—that we don’t think we have what it takes. Paul addresses this when discussing his own weaknesses: “And [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, because the power is perfected in weakness.’ Therefore rather I will boast most gladly in my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may reside in me’ ” (2 Cor 12:9).

Rather than live in fear, we should boast in our weaknesses. Christ is working in us, to use us, in spite of them. No one is perfect; only Christ has the honor of perfection. And while we are weak, He will give us strength in Him. His strength can overcome whoever we are, wherever we have been, and whatever we will do.

Rather than walking in circles looking for home, let’s realize that we are already home. Our home is Christ.

In what ways are you currently walking in circles? What should you be doing instead?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.


John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at www.jesuseconomy.org.

Shelf Life Book Review: Images of Salvation in the New Testament

James R. Hamrick

Images of Salvation in the New Testament
Intervarsity Press, 2010

The New Testament writers use various metaphors and analogies when they talk about salvation. For example, the Gospels talk about the “Kingdom of God,” John emphasizes “eternal life,” and Paul talks about “justification” and “election.”

Brenda Colijn examines 12 of these images in their original contexts and discusses their implications for Christian theology and discipleship. She shows us that the biblical presentation of salvation is not one-dimensional, but rich and multifaceted. Many of her observations challenge popular understandings of salvation that are human-centered and individualistic.

This book is recommended for serious Bible students interested in the doctrine of salvation or New Testament theology. It would be an excellent resource for an adult Sunday school class or sermon series.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 4

Genres Define What We Read

Eli T. Evans

When you stroll through the aisles of your local bookstore, the organization of the shelves evokes expectations. A murder mystery with no murder and no mystery would be strange and disappointing, and historical romances ought to have a historical setting and romance plot. We have these expectations because of genre.

Genre sets expectations, and reading with inappropriate expectations is a recipe for misinterpretation.

The Bible is not a single book. It’s an anthology nearly a thousand years in the making. It consists of books of diverse genres, all united by the common theme of God’s (sometimes rocky) relationship with humankind.

This list of genres isn’t meant to be complete, but it’s a good start.

Historical narrative. Much of the Bible is history of one form or another: epic or “history of origins” (Genesis–Deuteronomy), royal annals and national history (1 Samuel–2 Chronicles), or biography (Ezra, Nehemiah). Some of this historical narrative is etiological—it explains the distant origins of something familiar in the present day. The Gospels form an important sub-genre of historical biography; they are the story of Jesus’ life, but with a strong emphasis on what His life, death and resurrection means to us.

Law code. Rules and regulations are found all over the ancient Near East, and much of the biblical law conforms to the laws of neighboring nations in form (if not in content). Covenant law has a strict format in the ancient Near East, and biblical covenants (e.g., Genesis 15) usually adhere to the established form.

Wisdom literature. These works aren’t usually meant to be thought of as history (even if they recount historical events), but as philosophical excursions into the nature of the universe and our place in it (Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). The tone of these works is elevated because they deal with life’s big questions. For example, Job and his friends don’t have conversations in the usual sense; instead, they take turns speechifying at one another.

Songs and poems. Sometimes poems and songs tell a story (in a non-narrative fashion), and sometimes they are expressions of a single emotion: joy, sorrow, praise or lament. Some memorable songs and poems include the Psalms, Lamentations, The Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32), The Song of Deborah (Judges 5), and The Annunciation (Luke 1:46–55).

Prophetic oracle. Sometimes prophets, like Isaiah and Micah, foretell the future, and sometimes they just tell the truth about the present that nobody wants to hear. Much of the prophetic content of the Bible is cast as poetry, with vivid imagery and carefully crafted parallel lines that characterize all Hebrew poetry.

Epistle. Many of the New Testament books are letters (e.g., Romans, 1 Peter, Philemon). They are either personal letters sent from one individual to another, or letters sent to whole communities—meant to be read in public and circulated among the churches.

Apocalypse. If much of the historical narrative of the Bible is concerned with the beginnings of things, apocalyptic literature is concerned with the end. Daniel, Zechariah and Revelation employ extended metaphors, sometimes bizarre imagery, and allusions to the past, present, and future to tell the story of where everything is going.

While the genre of a passage constructs a framework of initial expectations, you should be prepared for a few surprises. Great art often entails the interplay of convention and innovation. For example, compare the coronation narratives of Saul (1 Samuel 9) and David (1 Samuel 16). Saul’s story is true to form: The strongest (and tallest) man is crowned king. David’s story turns this expectation around: It is the youngest and smallest son of Jesse who is anointed. The point is that “the LORD sees not as man sees” (1 Sam 16:7). 1 Sometimes it is the language, not the content, of a passage that plays against genre. John 1:1–18 has a certain rhythmic cadence and elevated tone that seems out of place for prose—it isn’t poetry, but it feels like it could be. This tension between expectation and surprise is part of the delight of reading.

Since David Hume (1711–1776), so-called “critical” scholars of the Bible have approached it as they would approach any other book. This makes some sense, since the Bible is obviously literature—the very pinnacle of literary craftsmanship. Yet, this approach gets things backwards: If the Bible is the self-disclosure of the creator God, then it is the expression of His thoughts (which are not human; Isa 55:8) and is part of His creation. It is God-made rather than human-made. And just as art imitates nature, all other literature imitates the Bible, not the other way around. For this reason, the Bible resists easy classification. It is one of a kind because, unlike any other book, its authors were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21).

Though the Bible was written in everyday language and used the conventions of the genres that were current at the time, its ultimate source is wholly unconventional. It is the revelation of a holy God, and as such, it stands in a category all by itself.

Want to learn more about biblical genres? Pick up How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. Go to Logos.com/AllItsWorth

» QUICKBITS:

Anthologies are collections of writings that are bound together by common themes or forms, usually by different authors.

Etiology (sometimes spelled aetiology) is literally “the study of causes.” A story is etiological if it documents the original cause of something, usually an everyday event or phenomenon. The flood narrative in Genesis 6–10 provides, among other things, an etiology of rainbows.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 4


1. All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

We’re Pretending to Incorporate the Spirit

John D. Barry

Thousands of people in the stadium were coming forward, and as each accepted Christ a Bible was handed to them. I watched and thought: If they open their new Bible to the beginning, they will find poetic language about God’s creation and a story of two people living in a garden. If they flip 75 percent in, they’ll find a genealogy in Matthew. And at the end, they’ll find visions of an old man in a book called Revelation. Very little of it will make sense.

We’re trained from the beginning to believe that Christianity is all about me, myself and my Bible. We’re not given structure or instruction. We’re just told, “God will speak through it.” It’s an overused phrase packed with theology we don’t understand—until we experience it.

Later in life, as long-time Christians, we convince ourselves that God is speaking through the words, but we often don’t think about how. We just know it when we feel it; we can’t explain it. We’re not even sure how to find the Holy Spirit. We appeal to general phrases like, “God speaks to me.” That works, until we wake up one morning and say, “I can’t remember the last time I heard God.” And then it hits us: We don’t really know how to incorporate the Holy Spirit into Bible study. That thought is so frightening that we won’t tell anyone. We will just sit the Bible on a shelf.

God’s Not-So-Distant Cousin

Prior to Jesus, the Holy Spirit was primarily with select individuals, like kings and prophets (e.g., 2 Sam 23:2; Isa 61:1). They were God’s ambassadors—carriers of His Word.

But prophets, like Isaiah, looked forward to the day when the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon all of Israel and ultimately upon all people (Isa 32:15). He described it as the wilderness (the world) becoming a fruitful field and ultimately a forest (something worth investing in).

Jesus came to fulfill this idea. Isaiah prophesied that as well: “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isa 11:1). 1 Jesus wasn’t just bringing salvation to the world; He was changing the world. The Holy Spirit is the one who carries out this action.

We think of the Holy Spirit in terms of comfort and help, and He is those things. But He also has teeth. Hence all the fire:

“As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John [the Baptist], whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming … [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’ ” (Luke 3:15–17).

We have made the Holy Spirit into our buddy. We’ve ignored the fact that He wants us to change our ways. We’ve replaced the fire of the Spirit with only comfort, and in doing so we’ve quenched it. We’ve replaced God’s plan with ours. The Holy Spirit is our guide, and guides don’t listen to the people they’re leading. When the Spirit opens up God’s Word for us, He is trying to convince us to change—not just imparting special knowledge. I believe this is why we seem to lose the ability to hear God: We’re listening for what we want to hear, not what we need to hear.

The God Who Seems Late to the Party

The Spirit is the first person we invite to our church party, yet He seems like the last to arrive. Thus, when most of us think about our relationship with the Spirit, we feel shameful. You may even be feeling that way now: You’re ashamed that you don’t hear God, see Him at work, or feel His presence. In our shame, we often run away from the Spirit. Yet, that’s the opposite of what God wants. It’s the Spirit’s job to replace that shame with hope and love (Rom 5:5).

Once I realized this, I came to another startling realization. I was searching for the Spirit in church services and asking Him to arrive in worship songs, yet He was already present. Paul says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price [the price of Christ dying for you on the cross.] So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19–20). The idea of God moving from a physical temple in Jerusalem to indwelling our bodies with His very holy presence is unprecedented.

This is not a God that we find within ourselves, though. This is a God who comes from outside of us, finds us, and then goes inside of us—changing us from within. This is a God who can do that because He was willing to suffer and die for us. His resurrection overthrows the power of human flesh to make His will and reign on earth possible.

The Holy Spirit and Bible Study Must Work Together

The Holy Spirit moves us to be changed by God’s Word (John 14:26). The Spirit guarantees our relationship with God. Paul says that when we “heard the word of truth” (the good news that Christ has saved us) “and [we] believed in him,” we were “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of [our salvation], to the praise of [Christ’s] glory” (Eph 1:13–14). We have a guarantee, and now we have to live for that.

When the Spirit calls us, moves us and wants to change us, we need to listen. By filing the teeth of the Spirit, and by assuming that He needs to arrive when He’s already present, we’ve lost our ability to make Him part of our Bible study. We need Him again, badly. We need the Spirit to bring clarity and discern the way forward. Every day, we allow the work of God to be stopped by our deafness to the Spirit. We miss opportunities that may not rise again.

It’s simple to hear the call of the Spirit in your Bible study and in your life: just listen. Find times of silence. Pay attention to what seems out of the ordinary. Watch for God at work among us. Set aside busyness and distractions so that you can see God move. You won’t regret it.

John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at www.jesuseconomy.org.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 4

1. All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).