The Gods of the Ancient Near East

Viewing the narrative of Israel in their cultural perspective brings fresh insights into the profound power of their distinctive worldview and God.

Unlike Israel’s theology, the surrounding cultures of the Ancient Near East often started theological inquiry with theogonic inquiries – the origins of the gods. Theogony differed in each culture, but most of the first gods were primordial cosmic gods, and the different/subsequent gods came into existence as their equivalent forces of nature came into existence – i.e. theogony was inextricably linked with cosmogony. This link of theology and cosmology functioned from the ANE’s foundational principle of continuity, where all things are connected to one another – the divine, humanity, and nature.[1] For Israel, there was no attempt at theogonic inquiries. The God of Israel had no origin story. Yahweh was there in the beginning, and that was all that needed to be expressed in regards to their transcendent, infinite God’s origin. Moreover, the ontology of the gods in the ANE was expressed by their function. In contrast to modern and classical ontologies, “in the ancient world something came into existence when it was [1] separated out as a distinct entity, [2] given a function, and [3] given a name.”[2] Again, Israel’s God never “came into existence,” but rather He was assumed to have always been in existence. Whereas the creation of the world in Genesis was communicated from this ontological framework – the bringing about of function from non-function or chaos – it was assumed that Israel’s God was never created, but rather always existed as the one Creator.

Second, all of the ANE cultures were polytheistic with the one exception of Israel. Even though polytheism often consisted of a singular primordial god or ‘metadivine force,’ this divine entity was basically dormant (no function = no existence). Moreover, the principle of polytheism naturally led to the idea of a ‘divine assembly’ or ‘divine council.’ This council’s main function consisted in “decreeing destinies in general” and “making ad hoc decisions that arise in the process of governing the world.”[3] Unlike Israel, there was a wide range of tolerance for other gods in the ANE. For Israel, there was only one God, and this one God was the transcendent sovereign over the entire universe.

Third, in the ANE every deity was associated with something in the natural world, where everything was the product of supernatural, divine causation. The gods were therefore within the cosmos, designated with operational parameters or ‘control attributes,’ which were their specifically assigned role, function, and destiny. This insinuates a metadivine realm, in which the “control attributes exist independently of them.”[4] The divine attributes expressed in the ANE are many. One can best identify the ANE divine attributes by observing the gods in community and conflict, whereby several attributes emerge. The gods are featured as anthropomorphic, geographically and geopolitically based, cosmically bound, procreative, fallible, emotional, engaged in daily routines and activities, and in community.[5] With these features, understanding that the ontology of the ANE is determined by action and function, six attributes can be identified: justice, wisdom, goodness, faithfulness, mercy and compassion, and holiness. Whereas the gods of the ANE were limited and confined by their specific ‘control attributes,’ for Israel, all of these attributes were subsumed in the transcendent omni-God, Yahweh. Israel’s God was just, wise, good, faithful, merciful, compassionate, and holy. Yahweh was all-sufficient and lacking in nothing.

[1] John Oswalt noted, “Continuity is a philosophical principle that asserts all things are continuous with each other,” in The Bible Among the Myths (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 43.

[2] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 88.

[3] Ibid., 97.

[4] Ibid., 99.

 [5] Ibid., 103-104.