The mindset of the people in the Ancient Near East (ANE) was quite different from ours today. This is a major reason that when we read the Bible, we need to do so with the mind of someone in ancient Israel. If we don’t do that; if we read and judge from our modern perspective, there is much that we miss because we simply don’t understand what is going on.
We can see this fallacy in society today in our cancel culture. People on the Left look at historical events through their own skewed lens of understanding that our schools have indoctrinated them with, and they cannot tolerate what they see. They look at the past from the perspective of how they’ve been taught, deem it wrong (some of which may be), but then determine that what previously happened must be erased because it offends their sensibilities. Rather than learn from history, they eradicate it and thus never understand how it has shaped them; it leaves them vulnerable to a future in which they repeat the mistakes of the past because they have no prior example.
In a sense, our church culture has done that same thing for years. The teaching in seminaries and Bible colleges has been done from a position of superiority. Because we are modern and so much smarter, that must mean that we know so much more than the ancients. The pastors that are products of these institutions naturally have passed on what they’ve learned to their congregations. What this means is that the people in churches read Scripture (if they read it at all) through a modern lens that has no comprehension of what people in the ANE thought and lived.
An example of how the ANE viewed life and all that happened through theological glasses shows clearly in the narrative of the Philistines capturing the ark of the covenant from the Israelites and the subsequent results. Israel went out to battle the Philistines and were roundly defeated. This was during the time of Judges and the people were far from God. Regardless, they clamored for the ark, i.e. for the presence of Yahweh, to lead them in battle. Eli’s corrupt sons brought out the ark, and when the Israelites saw it they gave a rousing cheer. At that, 1 Samuel 4:7-8 tells us:
The Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness.
Do you see how both the Israelites and the Philistines thought? By having the ark with them Israel believed that Yahweh would lead them to victory. Conversely, the Philistines had heard about Yahweh (in a convoluted way) and knew that He was exceedingly strong, having previously done the miraculous to deliver Israel from Egypt. Both sides in this thinking in the ANE attributed all that happened to God or the gods.
As the narrative continues we constantly see this perspective in view. The Philistines captured the ark and placed it before their god Dagon. That didn’t work out so well, and they realized Yahweh was more powerful (1 Samuel 5:1-5). From the ark’s presence, i.e. from Yahweh being in their midst, the Philistines believed (rightly) that He was the cause of the plague that came upon them, represented by the mice and the tumors. What did they do? They set the ark on a cart and gave the cows free reign. If they headed back to Israel the Philistines were absolutely convinced that it would be God’s hand at work. There was no thinking that any of these things would be coincidental. Everything, good and bad, was the result of divine influence.
Of course, in the time of Judges, everyone in Israel did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). When God brought Samuel into the position of Judge, upon seeing how Israel lamented their lack of Godly worship and by being under Philistine domination (1 Samuel 7:2), this is what how Samuel framed the situation in (1 Samuel 7:3-4):
And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.
Samuel understood the situation. God was truly in charge. The people had to change their ways if they wanted His intervention. Once they had done that for a time, they gathered to sacrifice corporately to Yahweh. The Philistines saw this as a threat and came against them. But 1 Samuel 7:10 informs us what happened next:
As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel.
Can you even imagine what that thundering must have been like to cause such confusion? Yahweh responded to the concerns and prayers of His people. Once more their God had delivered them.
Despite such evidence that Yahweh was their true leader and protector, Israel inevitably sought elsewhere for stability. Unfortunately, Samuel’s sons weren’t much better than Eli’s sons; Eli had been a poor role model for Samuel in this respect. The people of israel saw that Samuel was getting up in years; they didn’t want his immoral sons leading them, and in 1 Samuel 8:5 they demanded:
“Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
This grieved Samuel, but God consoled him. Yahweh told him a truth in 1 Samuel 8:7 that is as relevant today as it was then:
“Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”
Scripture depicts Israel as a theocracy, but one in which the God over the nation was never good enough for the people. They wanted a king that they could see, just like they desired gods for which they could make idols and have something physical to worship.
Samuel warned the people what having a king – a man – over them would do to their lives. He would cause them to serve him rather than direct their allegiance to Yahweh. It didn’t matter; the desire to be like all the surrounding pagan nations was intense, and 1 Samuel 8:19-20 relates their response:
But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
They wanted to “see” a man leading them into battle rather than have the “uncertainty” of an invisible God. Yahweh might have been more powerful, but that was immaterial. Seeing was believing; they couldn’t believe and see.
In our present day, we generally don’t look at the world as though God is always at work, shaping circumstances and working through the events we experience. We don’t have the mindset of the ANE whereby either God or other gods significantly influence people and events. Yet, shouldn’t we?
There is a highly active demonic spiritual hierarchy (Ephesians 6:12). If God speaks to those who believe, don’t you think that other gods – demonic powers – speak to those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ? Remember the image of an angel and a devil standing on someone’s shoulders and whispering in his ear? Which one does he listen to and follow? If he’s not a follower of Jesus, this person certainly isn’t heeding the Word of God; the word of the demonic spirit is much louder and convincing. Perhaps if we understood the world by considering it in this context, we’d have a better idea as to how things work. Aren’t we in a constant spiritual battle? Of course, and this is how it happens. The bad “angels” whisper in their followers’ ears, and these people do what they’re told, except they think the ideas they have originate from within themselves.
For our part, for Christians, don’t we – or shouldn’t we – operate in the same manner? Doesn’t Romans 8:28 tell us:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Perhaps if we took this verse more to heart in how we live day-to-day, the shape of our lives would be different. God is with us constantly. He is in our midst. He loves us. Because of that, He’s working in and through us to bring about His will and purposes for our lives.
Perhaps if we acknowledged this and gave Him praise for all things, we’d see a very different world, with outcomes more in tune with God’s intent for us.