How distinctive were the ancient Israelites? Biblical scholars dispute the degree to which Israel was the same as its neighbors living along the coastlines of the eastern Mediterranean Sea (the Levant). Some overemphasize the distinctiveness of Israel, portraying them as unlike the peoples living in the Levant in almost every respect. Others overstate the similarities, depicting ancient Israelites as indistinguishable from the Canaanites, Edomites, or Moabites.
The Levant was the crossroads of the ancient Near East; a land-bridge connecting three continents. Cultural influences flowed into the southern Levant from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Syria, and the numerous people groups living in this land-bridge comprised a virtual melting pot of the ancient world. We have plenty of evidence to suggest that Israel reflected that cultural diversity comfortably.
These parallels in literature and religious practices reveal a loving God who accommodates his revelation in order to be understood by his people. Learning about these parallels sheds light on Scripture and makes its message more accessible for today’s readers. And surprisingly, we find a lesson here about ancient Israel as a model for cross-cultural communication in a pluralistic society. In form, Israel looked a lot like the Canaanites. But in substance, there were important differences. Consider just three cultural features.
1) Tabernacle/Temple pattern
Archaeological discoveries have brought to light numerous temples in the Levant of multi-roomed structures, with adjacent or internal open spaces and courtyards used for sacrifices and other worship purposes. All of this evidence from the ancient Levant prior to Israel’s arrival in the land illustrates the degree to which Israelite worship practices resembled those of the land’s earlier inhabitants.
Most of these non-Israelite temples had an inner compartment, or holy of holies, usually blocked from public view, and often set into a rear wall of a long hall, or chamber. Courtyards served as the place for sacrifice of animals and public presentation of offerings.
Israel’s desert sanctuary, the tabernacle, and after it, Solomon’s Temple, had this same structure, with three areas – an entrance courtyard, a holy place or antechamber for only the priests, and a most holy cubicle, the holiest of holy places. The holy of holies was only accessible by the high priest, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16).
Among Israel’s neighbors, the innermost section of the temple housed the physical idol of the deity. But Israel was not permitted to worship God in physical form (the first two of the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:3-6, Deuteronomy 5:7-10). In Israel’s Holy of Holies was only a strange box – the ark of the covenant – surrounded by winged creatures or cherubim. This was God’s throne, from which he invisibly ruled the universe, and sustained and ordered Israel’s existence. The cherubim formed the throne of God, and the ark was God’s footstool. So Israel was the same, but different. The temple pattern among Israel’s neighbors moved progressively to a physical idol made by human hands in the inner sanctum. But for Israel, God could not be contained in such a room, and His presence could not be reduced to any form in heaven above, earth beneath, or anything in the water under the earth.
Another parallel to nearly all ancient cultures was Israel’s sacrificial system. Israel was instructed to offer four different types of sacrifices to God: burnt offerings, sacrifices of well-being, sin offerings, and guilt offerings. (A fifth, the cereal offering, functioned as a burnt offering for those who could not afford an animal sacrifice.) The first two of these four have clear parallels in Israel’s neighbors. On the other hand, sin and guilt offerings are unique to Israel.
Among Israel’s neighbors, these sacrifices were sometimes perceived as offering literal food to the god. Usually, too, their purpose was to gain the favor of a god, who was otherwise indifferent to the affairs of humans and who acted rather arbitrarily toward them. Among these other people groups, the will of the gods often rivaled each other and offered no direction or standard for the people.
Thus the form of the sacrifices was similar. But Israel practiced sacrifice for atonement from sin, and reconciliation with God and neighbor. Israel’s sacrificial system was transformed into a moral code of behavior, culminating in the call for Israel to become holy, as God is holy (Leviticus 11:44).
Another cultural feature of ancient Israel, much in common with its neighbors in the Levant, is that of festival observance. In particular, Passover, the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths) all coincide with agricultural festivals that were common in the region. Israel’s neighbors celebrated these festivals for the purpose of dramatizing cosmic events and manipulating nature. Ancients believed this was instrumental for securing fertility and prosperity.
But fertility themes are entirely absent in Israel’s festivals. And more importantly, Israel’s feasts are deeply historicized; each is associated with an event in Israel’s history. Passover becomes a commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, Pentecost is associated with the giving of the law and the covenant at Mount Sinai, and the Feast of Tabernacles becomes a reminder of Israel’s sojourn through the wilderness.
So Israel was the same in all these ways – worship space, sacrifices, and festivals. Yet Israel was also unique in all these ways. And so, Israel serves as an example for the Church today. Worship is made intelligible by taking on familiar forms, but the substance of the Christian faith remains unique.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Israel’s worship was its devotion to the singular God, Yahweh, at the exclusion of all other gods (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The structure of their worship space in the temple, the use of animal sacrifices, and their agricultural festivals would have been familiar cultural features to Israel’s neighbors. Indeed, the Canaanites, Edomites, and Arameans would have been comfortable with these features of Israelite life. But the substance of these cultural features was transformed for Israel in ways that set them apart as unique. We might even say the ancient Israelites were in the world, but not of the world. At least, that was their calling. Just as this is our calling. The closer we draw to Christ, the more we are sent into the world, while we know we do not belong to this world (John 17:14-19).
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