At this point I think a brief intermission is necessary to reflect on a few matters of importance.
When we read the Bible, or other ancient texts, we tend to ascribe our cultural norms to them, as if they had the same knowledge an understanding that we have. This creates problems when we try to understand the message the author of these ancient texts is trying to convey, because they (the people of the author’s time) have a different understanding of the world at large than we do. For example, consider the stars, planets, and the gods. To us the stars are distant versions of our sun; planets are bodies of rock or gas that orbit around a star (unless they are rogue planets, but that is another discussion); and god is a metaphysical concept existing beyond our realm of existence. But, in the time of Abram stars are bodies of light in a physical structure extending from one edge of the earth to the other; planets are similar lights, but which move across the heavens faster than the stars; gods are either physical (Greek and Olympic gods) or metaphysical (Egyptian and Sumerian gods) beings who like to toy and interfere in the earthly realm, and who can be born and die just as humans can. In some cultures the rulers were (or would become) gods, while in others gods can interact with humans and create demigods through these god-human interactions.
So, with this in mind, here are the things we need to keep in mind when reading on in Genesis:
- Genesis was not known to Abraham, it was first written down, according to tradition, by Moses during the desert wanderings. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Abraham’s covenant was ~1743BC, the exodus occurs around 1280BC, so we are looking at around 460+ years of oral tradition, including ~250 years of captivity in Egypt, when the people of God were under Egyptian influence.
- Vocabulary changes. We live in a day and age where dictionaries keep spelling correct, typesetting assures every copy of a book is exact; the first dictionary didn’t come into existence until 1604, and was not widely used. Read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, even this learned gentleman did not spell with consistency. Also, the meanings of words change with the years, much less the centuries. New words are added, archaic ones fall out of usage, meaning change because of societal changes. Ex: Spirit meant breath, not an incorporeal being or demon; awful once meant something wonderful or amazing (full of awe). The same is true of ancient words, they change meanings, especially when people are exposed to foreign cultures, or cut off from their mother culture. Look at American vs. British English, what is a torch? In America it is a flaming stick, in England it refers to any hand held object which emits light.
- Gods in Abram’s time were associated with people or places, Egyptian gods, Mesopotamian gods, Samaritan gods. When one people conquered another, the gods of the loosing group were assimilated or displaced, with the gods of the winning group proving to be more powerful. The old gods might recover power and overturn their conquerors, thus becoming more powerful again. This concept was not displaced when Abram accepted the covenant. Reading of the early history of Israel shows that this idea was never really lost. The people of Israel fell away from YHWH, worshiping other gods and idols several times, only to be brought back by Moses and the Prophets over and over again. Many times the Prophets of God went up against the priests of other gods, and even the Israelite rulers awaited the outcome – confirming their lack of understanding of “the One God” of Abram. The concept of a single, universal God would have to wait for Jesus and the Apostles to really take hold.
So, with these points in mind, next time we delve into the times as they existed when Abram first spoke with God.