Friday, May 18, 2007

Biblical Background to the Middle East

What was the Mesopotamian region like when Daniel was taken captivity to Babylon in 605 BC? 

It was a conglomeration of descendents from the far ancient past, who retained some tribal and national characteristics, but who had also been absorbed into larger governments by powerful kings and dynasties. Daniel probably learned much about these peoples. He felt the full social, religious, and cultural sweep of the great pagan nations of early history. It must be remembered also that these peoples were the ancestors of the sons of Noah who came out the Ark, and from whom "the whole earth was populated" (Gen. 9:19). Throughout his book, Daniel would be given revelation of the great nations that would come upon the earth. These nations, or kingdoms, come forth from the sea (7:3) that represented the Gentile peoples that inhabited the globe. Daniel was shown the master plan of how God would bring final peace to the world through the final great kingdom of the Son of Man, the Messiah (vv 26-28). 

The Genealogy of the Tribes of the World

The Table of Nations (Genesis 10) is one of the most remarkable documents coming down from ancient antiquity, and it is the starting point for the visions Daniel will receive. This document gives us the spread of the human race as it came forth from Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Verse 1 gives us the introduction: "Now these are the records of the generations of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah; and sons were born to them after the flood."

On the Table of Nations Unger writes:
In studying the Biblical account of the origin of the nations, … it is of the utmost importance to bear in mind that the Bible, in presenting this subject, as well as other subjects in general, does not outline the necessary facts in the form of mere history—the systematic record of past events. Rather it presents these facts in the framework of a highly specialized history of human redemption. And what is even more important to remember, it interprets them in the mold of a philosophy of history, which is more precisely "the philosophy of Israel’s history."3 Unger adds, "the Hebrew [Genesis] account of the origin of the nations is not authentic history, but simply that it is more than history," because it plays a vital role in how God will subdue and judge the earth’s pagan peoples.4 It also is the backdrop for the redemptive story, of both the peoples from the nations, but also of the spiritual redemption of the nation of Israel.
Keil And Delitzsch further note:
The genealogy of the tribes is not an ethnographical myth, nor the attempt of an ancient Hebrew to [simply] trace the connection of his own people with the other nations of the earth by means of uncertain traditions and subjective combinations, but a historical record of the genesis of the nations, founded upon a tradition handed down from the fathers. … [Written] by Moses in the early history of the kingdom of God on account of its universal importance in connection with sacred history. … The historical character of the genealogy is best attested by the contents themselves.5 In the account of the Table of Nations, the most important sections for this study is the sons of Cush who come forth from Ham (vv. 7-20), and also from the sons of Shem (vv. 21-31). Human origins in other religions are based on religious myth and fables. But the Genesis account shows evidence to be historically accurate in a most profound way.6 It "shows such a remarkably ‘modern’ understanding of the ethnic and linguistic situation in the ancient world, in spite of all its complexity, that scholars never fail to be impressed with the author’s knowledge of the subject."7

The Imperial Power of Ham. Genesis 10:8-10 pictures one of the first dynasties in history. This dynasty will come through Nimrod who is called "a mighty hunter before the Lord" and who establishes the first recorded "kingdom" consisting of Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, "in the land of Shinar" (v. 10). These peoples are located in Shinar and will form the background for the larger Mesopotamian region. But more is added because verse 11 is also important:
From that land he went forth into Assyria, and built Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah. One can plainly see that an empire was established in the Fertile Crescent that virtually ruled the world to some extent or another. From reading the torah scrolls of Moses, Daniel would have understood this historical background well.

Ham and his descendents receive from the Lord the first prophetic curse, and as well, the entire family are absent of any godly blessing (9:25-27). Nimrod was the founder of the Babylonian kingdom (10:8-9), which throughout biblical history is seen as a religious, moral, and governmental evil system (Isa. 21:9; Jer. 50:24; 51:64; Rev. 16:19; 15:5; 18:3, etc.).

The name Nimrod suggests to the nation of Israel the great rebel against the Lord. The Sumerians, the early non-Semitic people of Babylon, had the word Nin-Maradda, in their vocabulary that means, "Lord of Marad." This actually was a city southwest of Kish. Kish could have been the Sumarian word for Cush, from which the ancient Babylonian emperors came from, who are said to have held royal titles as kings of the world. "The Sumerian King List names the dynasty of Kish with twenty-three kings first in enumeration of Mesopotamian dynasties which reigned after the Flood."8

Shinar denotes the alluvial plain of Babylon between the Tigris and Euphrates where the well-known archeological sites of the ancient cities of Babel, Erech, and Akkad are located. In cuneiform inscriptions the area is divided into a northern section with Akkad, where the cities of Babel and Akkad (Agade) were found and the southern part called Sumer where Erech (Uruk) was established.

The Hamitic branch coming from Noah is extremely evil. Nimrod described as the "mighty hunter before Yahweh" (10:9) is in contrast to a godly image of a shepherd king who is noted as a blessing and a protector (cf. 2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7; Rev. 2:27; 19:15).
Both Babylonian and Assyrian art reliefs completely verify the account of Genesis 10. The city of Ashur may have been the early capital of Assyria (Ashur?) since it is located sixty miles south of Nineveh, and is one of the oldest cities of Assyrian power. The national god was also known as Ashur!

Nineveh. Located sixty miles north of Ashur, Nineveh was thought to be mythological by skeptical historians until the city was discovered in the nineteenth century. Destruction, as prophesied by Zephaniah 2:13-15, was so great it was almost lost to antiquity. The city walls have been archaeologically traced and shown to have encompassed an area of three miles by a mile and a half in size. However, the cities of Resen, Calah, and Rehoboth-Ir were often included as outer suburbs, making a huge metroplex of roads and buildings. Jonah 4:11 states that in his day there were more than 120,000 infants in the city. This probably means there were more than 600,000 people in the area.

Nineveh is written as Nina in cuneiform and is connected etymologically to the word fish. The Babylonian goddess Nina, the daughter of Ea, was identified with the Semitic Istar. "Istar of Nineveh" became a famous religious saying.

Ur. The Jewish people descended from Terah and Abraham, who came from Ur down into Canaan (Gen. 11:28-32; 12:1-4; 15:7; Neh. 9:7). They were pagan in religion until God called them forth from that city and land. Joshua said, "Your fathers dwelt of old time beyond the River, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor: and they served other gods" (24:2). Great excavations at Ur give to us more information at that city than found in many other ancient city sites. Urfa, a more modern excavated town, is known by the Moslems today as the site of Ur. There they have the "Mosque of Abraham," and a pond with sacred fish called "the lake of Abraham the Beloved."
Near Ur is a bulky artificial hill that was supposed to be constructed by Ur-Nammu. His name is stamped on all the heap of bricks that were once set in bitumen. The bricks formed a mound of various layers more than eight feet thick. Ancient idolaters worshipped their gods on high hills, but since none were found on the flat alluvial plain at Ur, the early people of the region built a mountain of brickwork, or a "high place" in order to worship their gods. At Ur the place was called "the hill of heaven," or the "mountain of God." The entire mound was a masterpiece of design work.

At Ur, the shrine of Nannar, the moon god, stood on the highest stage of the ziggurat artificial mountain. Though other gods were worshipped here, Ur Nannar ruled supreme, with epithets such as "the Exalted Lord," the "Crown of Heaven and Earth," the "Beautiful Lord who Shines in Heaven."
Conclusion. Leupold writes:
No nation of antiquity has anything to offer that presents an actual Parallel to this Table of Nations. Babylonian and Egyptian lists that Seem to parallel this are merely a record of nations conquered in war. Consequently, the spirit that prompted the making of such lists is the Very opposite of the [S]pirit that the Biblical list breathes.9
The prophet Daniel through his captivity is led to the place of the origins of his people the Jews, by the mysterious providence of God. He was back in the center of paganism, in order to prophesy the demise of evil that had dominated the world.
He was given the vision of the Son of Man, the Messiah, who would someday in the future rule over all the kingdoms of the earth!
To Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:14) _______________
  1. Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah, gen. eds., The Macmillan Bible Atlas (New York: Macmillan, 1976), 12.
  2. E. A. Wallis Budge, Babylonian Life and History (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993), 3.
  3. [the above 2 footnotes go in the chapter before}
  4. Merrill F. Unger, Archeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1956), 73.
  5. Ibid.
  6. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 Vols. (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 1989), 1:161.
  7. William F. Albright, "The Old Testament and Archeology," Old Testament Commentary (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1948), 138.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Merrill F. Unger, Archeology and the Old Testament, 87.
  10. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Columbus, OH: Wartburg Press, 1942), 358.