Photo: Book Cover
Our current thinking about the Bible is framed by the extensive amount of God-talk in its pages. But we must understand that God-talk was characteristic of all ancient nations and virtually all ancient documents.
This was so even when the subject matter being discussed was highly secular stuff, such as deeds for property, punishment for crimes, or alliance treaties among nations.
Ancient people attributed everything they understood and everything they didn’t understand to the gods of nature in heaven.
Most see the Old Testament as a story about religion, and even more specifically, about denominational church doctrine. There certainly are a lot of mentions of God, faith, and commandments in this scripture.
One of the very first stories in the Bible appears to be a really obvious story about church worship. This is the story about Cain and Abel. This story is about their sacrifices, their separate ways of worship. One way turns out to be acceptable to God, the other not. Ancient folks reading this story would see in it a much broader focus. The story about the divergent sacrifices of Cain and Abel is really a story about proper government, and proper economics.
We can understand Cain and Abel better if we fast forward to the story of another pair of competing brothers, Jacob and Esau. They quarrel over two things: birthright, and blessing. Birthright relates to inheritance, and blessing relates to tribal leadership.
By means of a series of quarreling brother stories, God comes out again and again against the usual form of distribution of wealth in the ancient world, something called “primogeniture,” and the usual form of succession in tribal leadership, essentially nomination or selection of the new leader by the outgoing leader.
These methods of determining politics and economics are characteristic of monarchy, or autocracy.
In both the Cain/Abel, Jacob/Esau stories, and others too, the eldest son is traditionally supposed to inherit the main part of the wealth and also ongoing leadership in the family or tribal line. But God instead substitutes the idea that a younger son who is either more righteous or more competent than the older son must participate at least equally with the older brother, or perhaps even more fully in these fruits of ongoing power.
There is evidence that God enfranchises women equally with men in this process as well.
God throws his support to a more equal distribution of wealth in society and more local, more democratic distribution of political power than can be found in monarchy.
This political pattern in Israel results from the fact that nations generally embraced either a god of monarchy, or a god of democracy, and some had both. Israel chose democracy at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, and tried to keep the gods of monarchy out.
Jesus fits neatly into theo-political categories used all over the ancient world to deal with semi-divine kinds of persons. He is just as special as we have always thought, though not quite as unique. The “son of God” type that Jesus represents was a title either bestowed on kings by members of their dynasty (as in Egypt), or earned, often by democratic process, as with Romulus in Rome.
Also, Jesus was not the only son of God elevated to full godhood after his death. This happened with especially just and humane healing personalities in the ancient world, such as Asclepius in Greece, Imhotep in Egypt, and Dhanvantari in India.
Finally, in societies where a “son of God” experiences a problematic death, the society often embraces a teaching of a second coming, such as came to be expected of Elijah in Israel, one of the early Islamic Imams in Arabia, and, of course, Jesus in Judea.