Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary

The 5 volumes of the recently-released Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary for the Old Testament is a wonderful reference tool that I would highly recommend to anyone involved in studying and teaching the Old Testament. Understanding the historical background and cultural context of a biblical passage is an important aspect of good exegesis. I often hear people defend their understanding of a passage as "the most natural reading of a text," but often without realizing that the meanings that we assign to text from our setting and context may not be the same as that of the biblical writer and his original audience. I have included some examples of the types of information found in this commentary from the two volumes dealing with the Old Testament prophets. I hope these examples will demonstrate how the careful and informed use of background information can help us to arrive at a better understanding of the difficult imagery and speech forms found in the Old Testament prophets.

Yahweh's Promise to "Swallow" Death in Isaiah 25:7-8

This image of Yahweh swallowing death serves as polemic against the conception of "Death" as a deity in other ancient Near Eastern religions. David Baker comments:

Death (mwt) was a god, and there is evidence of its personification in the ancient Near East as well (Ps 49:14). In Akkadian literature, death (mutu) eats people, since one person says, "He took me out of the mouth of death." The Canaanite god Mot devours others voraciously, including his fellow god, Baal, the god of fertility. Of him it says, "Baal will enter his innards (lit. 'liver'); he will enter his mouth like a shriveled olive." This devouring is a cyclical event, happening in the fall, which leads to the "death" of winter. In the spring Baal is released from the netherworld. For Isaiah the tables will be turned; death rather than devouring, will be devoured by Israel's god."

This background information helps the Isaiah passage come to life. The prophet is promising both the destruction of death (see the connection of these two ideas in Isaiah 26:12-19). The pagan worldview was essentially a hopeless one where death wins and swallows up everything in its path. One Canaanite text pictures Mot the god of death with one lip to the earth and one to the heavens. The Old Testament counters this dark reality with the promise that Yahweh will ultimately overcome death's power—the great swallower will be swallowed up. Paul references this passage from Isaiah when he taunts death at the end of 1 Corinthians 15 in celebration of the Christian hope that comes through the resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor 15:54-56).

Ezekiel 38: The Identity of Gog of the land of Magog

Ezekiel 38 portrays the future defeat of a powerful army led by Gog from the land of Magog that will invade and attack the land of Israel. The identity of this army has been a subject of speculation throughout church history. The army and/or its leader has been variously identified as the Goths (4th cent), Arabs (7th cent), the Mongol hordes (13th cent), the Pope or the Turks (17th cent), Russia (20th cent), and an Islamic-coalition of nations. Several features of the passage when seen from its ancient Near Eastern background would argue against trying to identify the army with specific peoples or nations. The name Gog for the leader of this coalition seems to derive from Gyges, the name of the king of Lydia in Asia Minor (668-631 B.C.). This king is mentioned in several Assyrian inscriptions and had a legendary reputation of brutality. Thus, this king from the time of Ezekiel becomes representative of the future leader of the coalition that will invade Israel. I would see Daniel using a similar convention when he compares the future Antichrist to Antiochus Epiphanes IV in Daniel 11 and John when he draws a parallel between Nero and Antichrist in John 13. There is no indication that Gyges ever actually attacked the land of Israel. The seven nations that are part of Gog's coalition are real nations mentioned as trading partners of Tyre (Ezekiel 26) or recorded in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 (cf. Gen 10:2). These seven nations represent peoples that surround Israel from all points of the compass. Meschech, Tubal, Gomer, and Beth-Togarmah represent the northern extreme of the world known to Israel, while Persia, Cush, and Put represent the eastern and southern extreme. The correct interpretation of the passage is to recognize these seven nations as representative of peoples from all the nations what will join in the future attack on Isarel and not to identify these seven ancient peoples with the specific geopolitical entities that occupy the same territories today. This international coalition will be led by a Gog-like figure, but not necessarily a leader who originates from the same geographical location as Gyges of Lydia.

Daniel Bodi's commentary in the ZIBBC notes a parallel between Ezekiel 38 and the Old Babylonian Cuthean Legend that was popular in the Neo-Assyrian period. In this text, an invading horde from the north (and specifically Anatolia) is set apart by the gods. The army goes out on a long march of plunder and devastation and is led by several prices under the supreme command of one of them. The leader of the army is identified by a historical royal name but without any specific connection to actual historical events associated with that ruler. Thus, Ezekiel is using a literary convention to portray an actual prophetic event—the eschatological assault on Israel by the nations (for other descriptions of an eschatological battle, see Mic 5:5-9; Zeph 3:8-9; Zech 12:1-9; Zech 14:1-5; Zech 14:1-5, 12-15; Rev 16; Rev 19 ) but is not giving a detailed list of the actual nations in the attack—they are merely representative of the unidentified army of the future.

Bodi points to one other feature that would seem to indicate the representative nature of the enemy portrayed in Ezekiel 38. The name Magog for the land of Gog is perhaps an atbash, a type of ancient code, for the nation of Babylon. In this atbash, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is replaced by the preceding one and thus, the letters m-g-g if read backward thus render b-b-l (or Babel, Babylon). It would have been dangerous for Ezekiel when prophesying in Babylon to have directly mentioned Babylon by name, but this code is perhaps a way of portraying the future invasion of the nations against Israel as a reversal of the Babylonian exile. We see similar atbash code names for Babylon in Jeremiah 25:11 and 51:1. Babylon will once again at some time in the distant future lead a powerful army against Israel, but God will use this invasion to destroy Babylon and those that oppress and oppose his people. We see Babylon as the leader of the forces against God and his people in Revelation 13-18 as well, and again, the intent is not to identify Babylon as the geographical location of the nation that opposes God but to use Babylon as representative of the peoples from all nations who stand against God and his purposes.

The purpose of prophetic revelation is not to give us specific and minute details about the future in order to satisfy our curiosity but rather to give us the big picture of God's plans for the future in a way that ultimately assures us of the triumph of God and his people over all opposition. Understanding the ancient context of Ezekiel's vision helps us to better understand the original intent and design of this passage.

The "sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood" in Joel 2:28-32

In this passage, the Lord promises to pour out his Spirit in the last days and also promises that the "sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood" (2:31). This astral phenomena is connected to blood, fire, and smoke on the earth in 2:30. We have another example of how ancient Near Eastern background helps us to understand this imagery and to avoid reading in a literalistic manner that violates the likely intended meaning of the original author. Mark Chavalas explains:

This passage is no doubt describing an eclipse, which was usually considered an evil omen in Mesopotamian society, often bringing disaster, specifically to the nation or the king. In fact, Mesopotamian kings sometimes "abdicated" their throne and had another "sit on the throne" until the eclipse (and bad omen) was over. In effect, it was hoped that the substitute king, not the true king, would thus endure the hardships associated with the eclipse.

Celestial observations were especially important to the kings of the Neo-Assyrian empires, and solar eclipses were particularly viewed as a good omen for the king and a bad one for his enemies. Even the time and color of the eclipse were important to the meaning and significance of the omen. One text specifies that the eclipse indicated a coming locust plague if it was red on the west side and rode the south wind. If the eclipse occurred on the 28th day of Iyyar, the king would have a long and prosperous reign.

Thus, the meaning of the Joel prophecy seems clear. The prophet promises that the last days will be a time of great blessing as Yahweh pours out his spirit so that all of his people will dream dreams and see visions. However, this eschatological blessing will be accompanied by a time of catastrophic time of judgment on Yahweh's enemies in which celestial signs reflect the doom that is to come upon the earth. We see this idea in the New Testament fulfillment of this passage. Peter views the pouring out of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost as the fulfillment of the promise in Joel 2 (cf. Acts 2:17-21), but this blessing is also accompanied by catastrophic judgment. The cataclysmic language of Joel 2 also appears to refer to the even greater and more intense eschatological judgment that will befall the earth in connection with the second coming of Christ (see Matt 24:29; Rev 6:12-14; 8:14).

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