For the next several weeks, these reflections will take up the topic of biblical theology in anticipation of our Sunday School series this Spring. The specific theme that we’ll consider is re-creation through the lens of mountains. But, before we can get to that specific theme, we need to address an important background point. Thus, this introductory reflection will raise the interaction between the events and people of the Bible and their broader cultural and historical context. The main point of this reflection is that we should not be afraid to point out parallels between the events and people of the Bible and the broader cultural and historical context.
With that in mind, let’s think through one example to illustrate this interaction. Proverbs 22:20-21 says, “Have I not written for you thirty sayings of counsel and knowledge, to make you know what is right and true, that you may give a true answer to those who sent you?” These verses have generated debate regarding the interaction between biblical and Egyptian wisdom literature because there is an Egyptian document called Instruction of Amenemope. This 12th-11th century BC wisdom document seems to parallel Proverbs 22:17-24:22, and it raises the question of dependency. Since there seems to be some interaction between Egyptian and Israelite wisdom literature, how are they related?
This example highlights how sticky these interactions can be. Are these Proverbs dependent on Egyptian wisdom literature? Is Instruction of Amenemope dependent on Proverbs? Are they independent? Are they mutually dependent on a common source? Such questions of dependence and interaction are not limited to the Proverbs. The whole covenant framework suggests some type of interaction between Israel and the Ancient Near East. The various flood narratives from the broader culture of the Ancient Near East also suggest an interaction, or at least a shared experience, with Genesis 6-9.
If we take a step back, this shouldn’t be surprising. History is a shared experience of all people, whether sinner or saint. As each experiences the events of history, their experience will be colored in a way that suits their own needs. Thus, the Epic of Gilgamesh reflects an Ancient Near East culture that exalts man in the midst of the flood. On the other hand, the story of the flood in Genesis 6-9 reflects Israel’s view that God is supreme, holy, and gracious. In that case, we ought not to be surprised that there are historical parallels or seeming interactions between a Bible story and its nearby cultural and historical moment. But more than that, we do not need to wring our hands over these parallels or interactions. Just because a sinner writes a story that sounds Biblical does not mean that it is original or more truthful than the Bible.
Returning to the interaction between Hebrew and Egyptian wisdom literature, we can illustrate that these seeming interactions are often not as significant as some believe. In the first place, the Hebrew text at Prov 22:20 is a difficult text. The translation “thirty sayings” is an interpretation of a difficult word based on the Instruction of Amenemope. Another way to translate it is “previously.” (Yes, those translations are radically different, but sometimes minor variances can result in major translation differences. This doesn’t happen often, though.) Moreover, scholars are divided on whether or not there are actually thirty sayings in Prov 22:17-24:22. K. A. Kitchen argues that the most natural reading of this portion of the Proverbs yields 33 sayings.
Finally, the parallels are mostly superficial. That is to say, the subject matter that is addressed is similar, but the treatment of the subject matter is not. Of course, given that wisdom literature is primarily concerned with making observations on life, we shouldn’t be surprised to find two wisdom traditions addressing the same subjects. The point, then, is that while there seems to be an interaction and possible dependency of Hebrew wisdom literature on Egyptian wisdom literature, it does not necessarily follow that the Proverbs are dependent on Instruction of Amenemope.
Why should we care about all of this? The fact is that you’re likely to run into some who think that these seeming interactions are fatal to the Christian faith. Or maybe you’ll read an article that assumes that some Ancient Near East myth is the basis for a Bible story. We can’t be afraid of these parallels. They exist, and in some cases they may even aid our interpretation of Scripture. Instead, we need to be confident in the truthfulness of Scripture, and understand that seeming interactions aren’t always what someone might claim them to be.
As we dive into a biblical theology of mountains for the next several weeks, we’ll note some parallels between the Bible and the Ancient Near East. When we do, remember that the interactions and parallels do not necessarily mean that the Bible is dependent on pagan myths. Instead, let’s see the value of understanding the cultural context of Scripture so that we can know God better through a deeper understanding of his Word.