What do I mean?
What is the ancient Near East? Broadly and generally speaking, it was the area in ancient times that roughly corresponds to the modern Middle East. Israel was nestled in the land of Canaan between some of the major ancient Near Eastern empires (Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, etc.). The nation was often influenced by the political flow of ancient Near Eastern history. On example of the political turmoil experienced due to other nations is the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple.
When we look into the historical background of that event, we know that King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon’s goal was to secure Babylon’s imperial grip on the ancient Near East. Specifically, he was in the process of driving out Egyptian-supported opposition from within Canaan and Jerusalem happened to get caught up in the situation.
At the surface level, we learn from Scripture is that the Babylonians were used for the judgment of Judah. When we dig deeper and study the ancient Near Eastern background story is when the story takes a deeper meaning. The political circumstances surrounding Babylon’s presence in Canaan were well under way long before the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple. One thing we are able to gain from this detailed information is the highlighting of the sovereignty of God over history.
I personally believe that understanding the backgrounds (geographical, historical, cultural, etc.) of the Bible profoundly impacts the way that we approach and understand the message of Scripture (see also my post on the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible).
For (another) example, Psalm 74:12-17 is an odd passage of Scripture featuring God’s battle with Leviathan and “sea monsters.”
One of the things that is so interesting about this passage is the similarities that it shares with Ugaritic literature (see ch. 4 in The World Around the Old Testament [WAOT]). When the Ugaritic materials are compared with the portion of the Psalm above we see that this battle imagery likely concerns divine kingship. All of a sudden, this passage becomes less odd and more understandable–the imagery is related to God’s divine kingship. This makes sense because the Psalm is calling on God to act in the situation of his destroyed temple. Beyond historical and cultural backgrounds, geographical backgrounds cannot be ignored!
In 2014, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel for a three-week biblical geography course at Jerusalem University College. One of the most interesting things I experienced, specifically relating to geography (and geology), was seeing just how harsh of an environment the “wilderness” is.
One morning for class, we took our bus to a middle-of-nowhere spot in the wilderness. The vastness of the nothingness was breathtaking and I did not even want to think of having to spend a significant amount of time in those conditions. The heat was blazing at 9:00 a.m., and there was very little vegetation for miles around.
If you ever have the opportunity to see Israel–to experience the land–do it. The things that you see firsthand become the (geographically accurate) images that fill your mind when reading scripture.
How It Helps
The way in which I approach the Old Testament has changed due to an understanding of the backgrounds that influenced the text. In other words, it is important to understand “where the Old Testament is from” (WAOT, xv). Knowing that I am from Pittsburgh helps you to understand why I cheer for the Steelers; knowing about the societies and cultures around which Israel developed into a nation helps you understand Israel. It illuminates the rationale for particular laws and use of particular imagery. This background certainly helps you to have a better mental image of people groups mentioned throughout the Old Testament.