John Walton believes that modern Christians have lost multiple worlds: The Lost World of Genesis One; The Lost World of Adam and Eve; The Lost World of Scripture; The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest; The Lost World of the Flood; The Lost World of the Torah. I believe this is the whole list of worlds that we have lost to date, but I would not be surprised if the list grew longer.
Noel Weeks responded. In an article in the Westminster Theological Journal titled “The Bible and the ‘Universal’ Ancient World: A Critique of John Walton,” he offers detailed criticisms of Walton’s understanding of the Ancient Near East and his methodology for “translating” the Bible and its cultural presuppositions into our modern perspective.[i] The complexities of Ancient Near Eastern cultures and treaties manifest themselves in Weeks’ search to account for and picture what Ancient Near Eastern cultures held in common and what was distinct.[ii]
Weeks refutes Walton’s assumption that there was a more-or-less monolithic Ancient Near Eastern culture that stands over against “modern” culture, but he also believes that there were common elements in the ancient cultures of the Near East, as well as important distinctions. The question I wish to address is how can we account for this? Does the Bible offer insight into the development of the early history of mankind that sheds light on our research into the Bible and its cultural context?
The answer is emphatically affirmative, but with one import qualification: only if we take the history of Genesis 1-11 to be literal and factual. It is not comprehensive, of course. Many questions remain. But it does give us an accurate record of the events it records, such as the Noahic deluge and the judgement of the tower of Babel. When seen as historical, these two events and the related narratives, both in Genesis and in the rest of the Bible, offer a basic explanation for similarities and diversity in ancient cultural traditions.
The problem, of course, is that it has become profoundly unpopular to believe the Bible and its miraculous account of creation of the universe from nothing by the all powerful Word of Yahweh, a universal flood that left only 8 members of the human race as the source of all humanity today, and a judgment from God that explains the diversity of human language. Taking Genesis 1-11 seriously invites mockery and ridicule, not to mention exclusion from elite intellectual circles. Walton’s “Lost” series is an attempt to “save” Christians from the embarrassment of believing the Bible, without actually denying our faith: We can eat our cake and have it, too!
Leaving Walton aside, what does the Bible suggest about a common culture in the Ancient Near East. Where did the relatively similar, though not uniform, notions of treaties, laws, covenants, etc. come from? The answer is that the ancient cultures — and not only those of the Near East — descended from Noah and his sons, from whom they originally inherited a common language, religion, history, and culture.
However, some generations after the deluge, as the race grew, two profound events altered the world for the descendants of Noah. One, as before the flood, a large percentage of mankind chose to go the way of Cain and stand against God. In an online article, “Who was Nimrod?” David Livingston argued that Nimrod was Gilgamesh and, following Keil and Delitzsch, that the phrase in Genesis 10:8 — “a mighty hunter before the Lord” — should be translated “in defiance of YHVH,” or “Nimrod the tyrannical opponent of YHVH.”[iii] In other words, whether or not he was Gilgamesh, Nimrod seems to be set forth as the leader of the apostate movement that came to expression in the attempt to build a tower that reached heaven.
Peter Leithart describes the apostasy of the time.
Genesis specifies two groups among the builders of Babel. ‘Nimrod the mighty hunter’ is the obvious one (10:9-10), but was assisted by the Joktanite clan of the Shemites. Prior to the flood, the faithful Sethite ‘sons of God’ had married Cainite ‘daughters of evil’ an erotic and cultural mingling that eventually compromised and corrupted nearly every member of the faithful line of Seth and filled the earth with violence (Gen 6:1-4). After the flood, it happened all over again as the Joktanite descendants of Seth offered their support for the Hamite/Nimrod Babel project. With sons of God ‘intermarrying’ with the daughters of men at Babel, it was only a matter of time before there was another catastrophic ‘flood.’[iv]
Two, Yahweh took note of Nimrod’s apostate project and brought judgment, but not like the Flood, destroying rebellious mankind and restarting human history. This time Yahweh confused the language and ideology of the peoples. Having a common history dating back to Noah, they naturally had common elements in their various cultures. But the apostasy from Noah’s faith distorted their common heritage, which was further confused through Yahweh’s judgment.
Not only did Yahweh shatter their unity and communication, He also scattered them over the face of the earth (Genesis 11:8-9). Over time, cultural idiosyncrasies naturally developed and increased. Of the four great cultural centers of the ancient world, it may be said that perhaps Egypt and Mesopotamia shared much. India and China, on the other hand, probably shared less with the world that Abraham came from — though I do think we should assume much more intercultural communication than is commonly thought.
But, as diverse as the cultural wellsprings of the ancient world were, they all had animal sacrifices, priesthoods, temples, taboos, and purification ceremonies — the elementary principles of the world that Paul spoke of (Galatians 4:3).[v] To begin to understand the ancient world, we need to follow the Biblical narrative, especially Genesis 1-11, both its historical outline and theological framework. Common forms of culture originated in Noah, though apostasy perverted them. Diversity, even radical disparity, are the result of Babel.
Once we understand the history of Genesis 1-11, we realize that Yahweh did not have to capitulate to the culture of the day to have Moses write a covenantal document. The origin of the covenantal idea and its forms are in Him. The cultures of the Ancient Near East learned from ancestors who knew of Yahweh’s covenant with Noah. They borrowed Yahweh’s idea and patterns, though in sin they twisted them for their own purposes.
The world of Scripture is not lost. It is open for all to read and believe. But it is uncomfortable, sometimes even painful. To follow Scripture means that we may be mocked, like Christ was. We will have to repent of our sins and seek to conform our minds, hearts, and lives to the Word that God has spoken. We will also be confronted with conundrums in understanding the Scriptures themselves, dilemmas that have challenged the greatest minds in all history, mysteries that should humble us before our Creator and the Savior who died for our sins and rose again in victory.
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
[i] Noel K. Weeks, “The Bible and the “Universal” Ancient World: A Critique of John Walton,” in The Westminster Theological Journal, No. 78, 2016, pp. 1-28.
[ii] Noel K. Weeks, Admonition and Curse: The Ancient Near Eastern Treaty/Covenant Form as a Problem in Inter-Cultural Relationships (London: T&T Clark, 2004), p. 180.
[iii] http://www.davelivingston.com/nimrod.htm Josephus and the Targums also regarded Nimrod as a rebel against Yahweh.
[iv] Peter J. Leithart, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012), p. 8. Following James Jordan, Leithart offers an historical, political, social, psychological and religious analysis of Genesis 10-11 and then contrasts the world empire ambitions of men like Cain and Nimrod with God’s kingdom program through Abraham.
[v] See, Peter J. Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), pp. 25-42.
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