Israel’s Journey to Know God: Progressive Revelation Part One

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“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The LORD’ I did not make myself known to them.” (Ex. 6:3)

Have you ever had an “ah-ha!” moment while reading Scripture? Something that let you know either that you had finally figured something out, or at least that you’ve been wrong in your thinking? Well a few years ago, this was it for me. I read Exodus 6:3 which seemed pretty straight forward: God was known as El Shaddai (God Almighty as it is rendered in most English Bibles) to the patriarchs but was not known as Yahweh (The LORD) until he revealed himself as such to Moses. But I remembered reading in Genesis the day before, and I could have sworn God was referred to as Yahweh. Sure enough, I turned back to Genesis 14 and Abram refers to God as Yahweh in 14:22. You see this frequently in the book of Genesis, even as early as the second creation account in Genesis 2-3.

It was at this point that, in my mind, I had one of two options: I could declare the Christian faith a hoax due to contradictions in certain parts of the Bible, or I could nuance my understanding of biblical inspiration and my expectations of the Bible. Unfortunately, some have chosen the former option. That was never really an option for me though. I chose to study further and eventually realized that my inerrantist paradigm of biblical inspiration was not only untenable, but also completely unnecessary. Instances in the Bible such as the one I have described are only problematic if our expectations of Scripture and our theological preconceptions are unfounded. Do we expect an ancient collection of documents written a thousand years apart in different cultures, circumstances and languages to contain perfectly cohesive ideas about God and the world? Should we expect absolute historical and scientific precision? Some say yes due to the Bible being God’s word, and as far as assertions go, I suppose that is a fair assertion. But assertions alone are just that-assertions. They need to be substantiated. And we must substantiate our assertions about biblical inspiration with critical study of the text itself.

Thus, I am proposing that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, can best be understood through a progressive revelation paradigm. As I wrote in the previous article, God progressively revealed himself to humankind throughout history, with that revelation ultimately culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This means that there is inevitably a human element to Scripture, and that we must look to Jesus Christ to see a perfect revelation of who God is. After all, it was the apostle John -a Jew- who dared to proclaim that no one had ever seen God but that it was Jesus Christ who had made the Father known (Jn. 1:18).

Understanding progressive revelation is essential, in my opinion, to understanding the nature and purpose of Scripture. So, what does progressive revelation tell us about the Bible and the nature of God’s revelation to humans? For starters, it means that God chose to reveal himself to ancient Israel in such ways that they would understand. At times, this meant he would have to accommodate their human nature and culture. This can easily be seen in several ways, not least of which is examining texts from surrounding civilizations in the ancient Near East.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, many significant archeological discoveries were made specifically pertaining to the fields of biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern history. In the 19th century, archeologists discovered thousands of clay tablets which had Akkadian markings on them. This is important as Akkadian was the predominant language used by many of the ancient Near Eastern cultures in the third, second and first millennia BC, including Assyria and Babylon.[1] What these tablets exposed to us is that some of the material contained in the Old Testament, particularly the Torah, was not wholly unique to ancient Israel. This was a problematic discovery for many because a good number of Christians implicitly expected for revelation from God to be wholly unique. After all, if the Bible in its entirety is direct revelation from God and is not itself human reflection on or interpretation of revelation, then we should not expect the Old Testament to look anything like documents from surrounding cultures, as those documents were of human origin while the Old Testament was of divine origin. Further, how could we logically say that Genesis was to be read as literal history when many of these Akkadian tablets had myths that were similar to the narratives found in Genesis? Or, so the reasoning went. “Liberals” reacted by saying the Old Testament could not be inspired by God in any way, while “Conservatives” attempted to distance the Old Testament texts from the Akkadian texts, often times blatantly ignoring clear parallels between the two. Both reactions were and are unhelpful, in my opinion. Nonetheless, it is important to point them out as they demonstrate inerrantist expectations of Scripture.

Now, you might be wondering if these Akkadian texts really are similar to the Old Testament texts or if some skeptical scholars are just trying to discredit the biblical accounts by any means necessary. To be fair, there is some debate concerning the Akkadian texts and how reliant, if at all, the Israelite texts are on them. For instance, though some similarities can be drawn between the Babylonian myth Enuma Elish and the Genesis creation accounts, it certainly cannot be said that the Genesis accounts are reliant upon Enuma Elish.

Both Genesis and Enuma Elish share ancient cosmology. For example, both have light existing before the sun, and both have the waters being separated above and below the firmament. The creative sequence of days is also similar. There are, however, some major differences, as Enuma Elish says the god Marduk had to fight and kill the goddess Tiamat, and from her dead corpse he created the universe. The point of the story is likely to justify the worship of Marduk as the head of the Babylonian pantheon.[2] Of course in Genesis, God simply speaks the world into existence without having to struggle against any other deities. The Genesis creation accounts could be a reaction against stories like Enuma Elish; their purpose could very well be to demonstrate the sovereignty of Yahweh over the universe. At the same time, it is also possible that the authors of the Genesis creation accounts could have been completely unaware of Enuma Elish (though I don’t think this to be the case for various reasons). We do not know with certainty. The point is, while there are similarities between the Genesis creation accounts and Enuma Elish, there are differences as well.

There are various other ancient Near Eastern documents that share as much or more in common with the Old Testament. I would like to briefly look at two: the epic Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi. Gilgamesh is one of several flood myths from the ancient Near East. See if this looks familiar:

The ship which you shall build,

Let her dimensions be measured off.

Let her width and length be equal.

What living creatures I had I loaded upon her.

I made go aboard all my family and kin,

Beasts of the steppe, wild animals of the steppe.

The sea grew calm, the tempest grew still, the deluge ceased.

I looked at the weather, stillness reigned,

And all of mankind had turned to clay.

The boat rested on Mount Nimush,

Mount Nimush held the boat fast, not allowing it to move…

When the seventh day arrives,

I released a dove to go free,

The dove went and returned,

No landing place came to view, it turned back.

I released a swallow to go free,

The swallow went and returned,

No landing place came to view, it turned back.

I sent a raven to go free,

The raven went forth, saw the ebbing of the waters,

It ate, circled, left droppings, did not turn back.[3]

Compare some of those relevant lines of Gilgamesh with Genesis 6-8, and you will see the striking similarities. Now, for the Code of Hammurabi.[4] It is lengthy, so we will just look at a two exerts and compare them with some of the laws found in the book of Exodus:

Code of Hammurabi 195-97: “If a son has struck his father, they shall cut off his hand. If a nobleman has put out the eye of another nobleman, they shall put out his eye. If he has broken another nobleman’s bone, they shall break his bone.”

Exodus 21:23-25: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (NRSV)

Code of Hammurabi 209: “If a nobleman has struck another nobleman’s daughter and has caused her to have a miscarriage, he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fetus.”

Exodus 21:22: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.”

And yes, the Code of Hammurabi was written well before the Torah as we have it today. Hammurabi was a Babylonian king who ruled in the 18th century BC, while the earliest date anyone can conceive for any kind of biblical exodus is the 15th century BC. In actuality, the Israelite narratives, at least in the forms we have them in today, are much newer than their Akkadian counterparts. The Israelite stories could have existed earlier in oral form, and likely did in some capacity, though they would have undeniably been framed in an ancient Near Eastern worldview. But writing was reserved for established nations in the ancient world and Israel does not become that sort of established nation until roughly the kingdom monarchy. Not to mention, biblical Hebrew likely did not exist as a language before the 10th century BC. Nonetheless, scholarship has concluded that the Israelite narratives, as they are in their Hebrew forms, are very likely newer than the Akkadian myths.

From here, some may then ask how we are to understand some of the early Israelite narratives, particularly Genesis 1-11. That question will be addressed in a later article in this series. For now, it is safe to conclude that God was content to reveal himself to ancient Israel in ways they would understand. The ancient Near Eastern evidence suggests to us that the Old Testament is not some other-worldly book dropped out of heaven but is rather very much a part of the world in which it was produced. We should expect this, as even Joshua 24:2 says, “And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors-Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor-lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.” The ancient Israelites were a people who were deeply entrenched in a specific worldview and their Scriptures reflect that worldview. This means that God did not advance their scientific or historical knowledge in ways that would satisfy our post-Enlightenment minds. I mean, after God leads them out of Egypt, it’s not long before they are worshiping an inanimate object in the wilderness made out of gold. They clearly didn’t “get it” right away, as some might say. As Israel walked with God, they began to know him more and more. God gradually took Israel from their ancient Near Eastern roots and transformed them into a people who would eventually produce and embrace the Messiah who called them away from vengeance and to enemy love: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Mt. 5:38-39)

This leads us back to the questions concerning what we should expect of the Bible. Again, some Christians have expected absolute cohesiveness as well as scientific and historical accuracy. A man named Galileo, an Italian astronomer and devout Christian, once dared to question some of the cosmology found in the Bible. He agreed with a man born earlier named Copernicus, a Polish astronomer who had concluded that the earth revolved around the sun. This was, of course, a heretical view at the time because, well, the biblical authors thought otherwise. They thought that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth, as that was the prevailing consensus at the time. This can easily be seen in Joshua 10:12-14. The Israelites were in a battle with the Amorites and needed a bit more daylight. So, after Joshua prays to Yahweh for this additional daylight, 10:13-14 reads, “And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the LORD heeded a human voice; for the LORD fought for Israel.” Galileo’s assertion that it is actually the Earth that revolves around the sun got him imprisoned by the Catholic Church in 1633. Why? Because their expectations of Scripture were faulty. They did not recognize the aforementioned human element so evidentially present in Scripture. Thankfully, Christians eventually came to accept that the Earth revolved around the sun. However, some may still be troubled by examples such as the disagreement among Pentateuchal authors about when God became known as Yahweh. Perhaps we would be better off basing our beliefs about the doctrine of inspiration on all evidence available to us, including critical textual studies, as opposed to theological preconceptions and biblical expectations that some of us may have inherited.

In the next article, we will focus generally on some of the ideas which progressed throughout Israel’s history to demonstrate their journey to know and understand who God is.

[1]. Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, second ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, an imprint of Baker Publishing Group, 2015), 14.

[2]. Ibid., 16.  

[3]. Citations of Gilgamesh are from Ibid., 18.  

[4]. Again, this is not to say that the Code of Hammurabi and the law of Moses can be said to be synonymous. There are differences between the two as well. The point here is simply to demonstrate a shared worldview between the two.

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