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Biblical scholars have been jubilant over the discovery of law tablets and other literature from the ancient Near East as well as the ruins of structures such as multichambered temples. Such discoveries have done much to help us understand the cultural and literary climate in which Israel and its Scripture arose and developed. But with these advances comes a nagging question. Why would a religion based on revelation have so much in common with religions that are only products of human imagination?
First, paganism is a corruption of an earlier, pure religion. The worship of the only true God did not develop from animism (the belief in many spirits) to ethical monotheism (the one-God belief of the Jews) according to an evolutionary scheme, as modernists claim. The Bible teaches that paganism began to develop when sin corrupted the worship of the true God (Rm 1:18–23). Thus some of the similarities between paganism and biblical faith could result from a common memory (however faulty) of early events and an earlier legitimate worship that lingers in human personality and culture.
Second, the nations, peoples, and cultures of the world, in spite of their rejection of God, have not developed independently of the Lord’s supervision (Dt 2:5, 9, 19; Am 1:3–2:16; 9:7). On the contrary, their course of departure has been within divinely decreed limits, and they have been included from the beginning in God’s redemptive purposes (Gn 12:1–3). Thus, just as God prepared the NT world for the proclamation of the gospel, so also He prepared the ancient Near East culturally for the revelation of the divine name in Israel. That is, the forms that Israel shared with the surrounding peoples were products of God’s common grace, though perverted in the nations’ case (and frequently in Israel) by paganism.
Third, however the forms of paganism arose, when God began revealing to the patriarchs and early generations of Israel how He was to be worshiped, it was only reasonable that He would employ forms that would have some meaning to them. That would mean using familiar events, symbols, and practices that could be redirected and filled with new meaning. Thus, while the forms of Israel’s faith shared many elements with their pagan neighbors, the substance or heart of Yahweh worship could diverge drastically.
Old Testament faith had five main distinctives. First and foremost, it was to be monotheistic and exclusivistic. Cities in the ancient Near East were often filled with temples to various gods. Each of Babylon’s nine city gates was dedicated to a different god. Practitioners of other religions often expended great effort in either identifying their gods with those of other nations or demonstrating the subordination of other gods to their patron deity. But Israel’s God demanded not a special place in a pantheon but exclusive allegiance. In the context of ancient Near Eastern polytheism, the call of Deuteronomy 6:4 to the worship of Yahweh as the one true God would have seemed revolutionary.
Monotheism also differed from polytheism in the nature of worship itself. By definition, polytheism precluded wholehearted devotion and loyalty to one god. If divine power existed in many gods, none could possess unlimited wisdom or power, and the activities of one god could often be counteracted by the activities of another. The divine will was thus fragmented so that a person could never be safe from divine displeasure and punishment since the will of one god may very well conflict with that of another. But if there is only one God, we can be wholehearted in our devotion to him, as Deuteronomy 6:5 goes on to demand.
The second distinctive was that the God of Israel was transcendent and self-sufficient. He was not the personification of nature with a sovereignty limited to the earth, the heavens, or the underworld. He did not need to be tended or fed in his temple like a Babylonian or Egyptian god. Nor did He need other divine or human assistance through religious rites to maintain cosmic and political order and agricultural productivity. Egyptian temple rituals were the means by which the people contributed to holding the forces of chaos at bay, and Canaanite fertility rites ensured continuing agricultural and human productivity. Yahweh is rather the transcendent One who created an inanimate universe of nature out of nothing and who continually maintains and controls it for His glory. “The profoundest insight of Hebrew religion,” John Oswalt declares, may be that “Whatever God is, he is not the world around us.” This means that magic has no part in biblical worship.
The third distinctive is that although God is transcendent, He has not kept His character or His will hidden as did the gods of other peoples. T. Jacobsen describes the Babylonian god Enlil this way: “Man can never be fully at ease with Enlil, can never know what he has in mind.… In his wild moods of destructiveness he is unreachable, deaf to all appeals.” Where the other peoples had to search continually for the divine will through divination, try to awaken divine interest through bodily mutilation (1 Kg 18:26–29), and avoid misfortune through incantations and the wearing of amulets, the Lord had revealed His will in His written Word (Dt 4:6–8).
The fourth distinctive was the nature of the relationship between God and His people. Israel’s relationship with Yahweh was based on divine election in which God established in history a covenant with His people. No other ancient people in that part of the world had a covenantal relationship with their god. The Bible presents mankind as the “crown of creation” and the natural world as theirs to oversee and enjoy. But the foreign gods were primarily feudal gods of the land, which they had created for themselves. People were little more than serfs, a necessary nuisance seldom receiving more than a brief expression of pity or remorse for their grievous situation. But the Lord had formed a people, bound them to each other and to Himself by covenant, and pledged to shepherd them faithfully forever by His grace and to guard jealously their relationship to Him.
Finally, while the Lord ordained the use of ritual in worship, He abhorred ritual that aimed at divine manipulation. The only actions that pleased God were those that arose from the heart (Hs 6:4–6), and true worship was to be accompanied by joy in the Lord (Dt 12:12, 18). Thus biblical religion gives at the same time a higher view of humanity and a higher view of God—omnipotent, undivided, purposeful, merciful, uniformly righteous, and deserving of our undivided love. Israel was to be a kingdom of priests, singing to the Lord and declaring His glory among the nations day after day (1 Ch 16:23).
25:15 Though God here instructs the Israelites not to remove the poles from the ark of the covenant, many English translations of Nm 4:6 suggest that they had been removed and had to be reinserted in the rings, with no indication that their removal had been an act of disobedience. But the Hebrew text of the relevant portion of Nm 4:6 simply states, “and they [the high priest Aaron and his sons] set its poles.” For centuries, many interpreters have suggested that this phrase means “and they adjusted its poles.” This translational tradition removes any conflict between the Ex and Nm passages.
25:18 If God prohibited the Israelites from making images of any earthly or heavenly beings, why did He command them to make the golden cherubim? In five separate passages within the Torah God commanded the Israelites not to make carved or molded images (20:4–6; Lv 26:1; Dt 4:15–19; 5:8; 27:15). The first three of these passages (20:4–6; Lv 26:1; Dt 4:15–19) add that these objects must not be worshiped; only the final two omit the additional statement, suggesting that these were just shortened forms of the fuller commands expressed earlier.
It seems clear that God never intended to prohibit people from making things of carved wood or molded metal. If so, how could people build houses or make tools? What was prohibited was the fashioning of items intended as objects of worship. The ornately decorated ark of the covenant was not an idol, it was a throne or footstool for the living God (Nm 7:89; 1 Sm 4:4; Ps 80:1); thus, it was permissible to adorn it with the golden cherubim. Similar figures were used in other ancient Near Eastern cultures to signify the presence and authority of a ruler.
According to the Seventh-day Adventists and other sabbatarian sects, the fourth commandment is an eternal decree to be obeyed by all throughout the ages. Since the Sabbath is Saturday, the sabbatarians deduce that Christians should be worshiping on the seventh day of the week, not the first. This passage, however, was not addressed to the church but to the children of Israel. Being under the new covenant, Christians are freed from the law of Moses (Rm 6:14; 14:5; Gl 3:24). The primitive church worshiped on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Co 16:1–2), commemorating the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
31:14–15 For a discussion of why the death penalty for violating the Sabbath does not apply to Christians, see note on 20:8–11.
31:18 The phrase “finger of God” is best understood as an anthropomorphism, that is, a metaphor comparing some aspect of God with the traits of a human being. The phrase does not assert that the Lord God possesses a human body; it affirms that God, and not Moses, was ultimately responsible for the creation of the text inscribed on the stones (cp. 24:12; 32:16; Dt 4:13; 5:22; 9:10). The wording suggests that the means by which the words were recorded was supernatural, but does not indicate the exact method God chose to inscribe them.
32:14 If God never sins, why do some Bible versions translate this verse to indicate that God planned to do evil and then repented? This verse takes its place among a series of passages in the OT that seem to indicate that God does evil (2 Sam 24:16; 1 Ch 21:15; Is 45:7; Jr 18:8; 26:13, 19; Jl 2:13; Jnh 3:10; 4:2). However, the Bible affirms that God is completely righteous (Ps 119:137; Jr 12:1; Jn 17:25; Rv 16:5) and does not repent (Nm 23:19; 1 Sm 15:29). The contradiction is only apparent, and can be resolved by examining the relevant words in the Hebrew language.
The Hebrew word raʿah, translated in some Bible versions as “evil,” actually possesses a broad spectrum of meanings ranging from moral wickedness to “trouble,” without any reference to morality. Applied to the result of God’s action, the term refers to affliction. God will never behave immorally, but He will bring affliction upon those who live in defiance of His will.
Similarly, the Hebrew term nacham is translated in some versions as “repent,” as though one is turning away from a sinful action. It is more accurately translated as “relent,” to decide to pursue a different course of action. As people change their actions and wills, God changes His response to them (Jr 18:8; Jnh 3:10). Although He is prepared to bring affliction (raʿah) upon people because of their sins, He is prepared to relent (nacham) as they repent.
The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007).