It should seem obvious that, in order to read the Old Testament, one must read back into it the unstated assumptions the writers considered obvious. So we study the history of the Ancient Near East and do our best to reassemble the every day life of the Hebrew nation. Not just the actions and expectations, but the very assumptions that arose from their intellectual traditions.
One of the hardest things for us to grasp was the dramatic change in lifestyle God demanded of Abraham. He went from a highly civilized situation in Mesopotamia to a nomadic lifestyle in a largely unpopulated land. It’s not that Canaan had no people, but that they were restricted to areas where water was available year round. That means springs, wells and oases. The knowledge for finding and digging wells was not that common among those ancient Canaanites, so Abraham had an advantage living in the highlands with his advanced technology.
What we see is a highly educated and civilized man with a very long lifespan living as a nomad among other nomads with a shorter lifespan and far less education. In sum, God was demanding all sorts of changes, so as to build a nation like no other. We aren’t surprised to see Abraham stumbling from time to time in this task, as his civilized instincts and inappropriate expectations get him into trouble. And it all happened again, as the lessons were forgotten by the nation of Israel during Exodus, going from the sedentary plenty in Goshen and having to relearn the kind of lifestyle God required.
It’s the same thing for us today. We have taken civilization even farther than Abraham’s ancient home in Sumeria, and thus we are even more removed from the setting to which God called Abraham and his descendants. We don’t have the advantage of moving ourselves into an unsettled land as nomads. Instead, we have the advantage of a vast wealth of data about such a world, and we are still required to adopt as much as possible the assumptions of that lifestyle internally as they did in full. A critical element in learning the ways of Jehovah and His Son is embracing in spirit what we might otherwise discover first hand if we could be transported back to that setting.
We need to learn the austere expectations of a nomad who had little help from high technology, but could rely on the miraculous powers of obedience to the Creator. We have to limit our use of technology and human science when it conflicts with the dire necessities of moral change that fits us for returning to Eden. It’s very much a mystical art to discern where the things we take for granted in our world today interfere with what faith in Christ demands. The hardest thing of all for us today is learning to trust the heart over the head. It calls for a wealth of reeducating ourselves to use that higher faculty instead of trusting our own reason.
Some of the biggest changes come out in the lessons of Israeli history during the monarchy period. Once you become aware of how cultural assumptions work, you begin to see beyond the commands of the Law, and see the nature of why some things are forbidden. You can see how they conflict with the design of Creation, how they are inconsistent with reality as God made it. The narratives from the Old Testament begin to make sense in that fresh context of seeing the moral character of God versus the various ways His people sinned.
Probably the most obvious lesson we might learn is one that seems almost impossible by today’s standards — female decision-making has to be restricted. This should be painfully obvious in the Eden narrative, because Eve’s choice to eat the Forbidden Fruit was a decision not hers to make. That Adam allowed it only indicts him for refusing to stop her.
We know that women were allowed to govern more ways and places in Mesopotamia than they could among the nomadic tribes in Palestine. When Sarah attempted to solve the problem of childlessness by giving her maid to Abraham as a surrogate, there was trouble that we still live with today. Abraham was forced to send away Ishmael, without whom we would probably not have Islam. It was a hard decision Abraham could have avoided had he been more assertive in faith earlier. You cannot fulfill God’s promises by your own devices.
So it’s not that we blame women; we blame men for acting like Adam and refusing to take up the calling of God and asserting the moral boundaries we must have in this fallen world. We also blame men for not even doing what’s necessary to know those boundaries. If we as men provide insufficient boundaries, women will naturally fill in the empty space we have vacated. Not everything goes to Hell that way, but way too much does.
And we notice that it’s more common to see this bad situation in highly civilized societies, but not so much in the primitive nomadic societies of the Ancient Near East. On the one hand, Scripture granted women far more right to demand certain things than would have been acceptable in most nomadic nations in Palestine, but the Law placed distinct limits on other things. In the New Testament, Paul as the audacity to tell folks deeply soaked in Greek civilization to restrict women in ways no one in that world could imagine, and then linked it back to the Eden narrative.
Today this moral precept is virtually impossible. Even when the concept is taught, it’s inevitably done wrong according to a cultural background quite far removed from Scripture. And because it’s implemented falsely, the effects are also quite false. We see women pretending to be obedient while frankly governing the churches, exercising a veto power that simply does not match what God demanded of His people. Our churches are very Germanic instead of Hebraic in operation, where men are castrated in spirit.
It’s not that we need to go back and ape the particulars of Abraham’s lifestyle, nor the corrupt Jewish practices of today (Hellenism in disguise). We need to learn how to question all the fundamental assumptions in our culture and compare them with what we can know about the assumptions in ancient Hebrew society, and see with our hearts what it would mean where we live today.