Why bother to learn Ugaritic? Why take the time to learn Phoenician script and pour over inscription dictionaries? Why look into Canaanite gods and read Ancient Near East texts? Is there any point to studying something so obscure? Can it possibly have any purpose other than generating more journal articles? Is this going to help my understanding of how to live my life in a godly manner? Why is all this so important?
Why, indeed. In a word, Shrek.
The movies Shrek and Shrek2 are journeys into fractured fairy tales. But reviewing the movies for entertainment value is not my point here. Even if you haven’t seen the movies you have probably heard that they are chock full of cultural references. And therein lies my point. Say in 1000 years some future generation uncovers a treasure trove of DVDs from some landfill. They sit down to see what kind of movies were captivating to this “ancient” civilisation. They pop the movie “Shrek” into the video retrieval system and watch. They probably figure out that this is a story about a princess who falls in love with someone who is not acceptable to her parents and the journey all the characters take toward a change in that opinion. It is about character mattering more than appearance. It is about family pressure. It is about making sacrifices for what is important.
But did they really “get” it? Well, they got the main point. But they hardly grasped the rich context that the movie employs for humor. Without those cultural references to music, movies, fairy tales, books, celebrities, and even institutions like Starbucks you just don’t really appreciate what the moviemakers were trying to communicate. (Gee, even most of the people who have watched the movies in the here and now have hardly caught them all… look here for a list four pages long to see how well you did.) You have to study the culture to fully understand the movie.
So, go back through history in the other direction. You have a book that is thousands of years old. It’s even written in an ancient language (but fortunately, you have a knack for languages and are able to overcome that barrier). You can (somewhat) easily grasp the narrative stories, the histories, the ritual songs and prophecies. But did you really “get” it? Well, yes and no. Of course, I am talking about the Old Testament. And yes, if you read it without any information at all you will learn of the wonderful way that God has revealed himself and interacted with people throughout history. But, you will miss some of the texture, some of the polemic, some of the beauty, and some of the details if you don’t understand the culture and surrounding societies of the people who wrote the book(s).
Case in point: Psalm 29. Great psalm. Speaks to me of the thunderous glory of God. But without knowing about the types of hymns that were written to the god of thunder Baal and the imagery used, I won’t fully appreciate all that is being done. I’m not saying to equate the praises of Yahweh with the hymns to Baal. But, I am asking to consider why (and to what purpose) the psalmist utilized the cultic culture around him.
We can learn much from Ancient Near East (ANE) texts and findings. Studying imagery in artwork, cultic observations, and even treaties helps to reveal richness and layers of understanding when applied to scripture. What can we learn from creation and flood stories of the surrounding cultures? It helps us to see that the way God chose to reveal himself and record that revelation was very carefully crafted to take advantage of the cultural context.
In addition to understanding our own scriptures better, we should learn that rather than scorn contextualization, we might recognize that God has used this to his purposes from the very beginning. This is not some new emerging method. It’s as old as… well, Genesis. We could learn a lot about how to present the One True God in the midst of a pantheon of contemporary gods by looking at how the covenant-keeping Elohim is presented against the backdrop of ANE gods.
So, there is definitely a purpose in studying all those squiggly lines and old texts. And if I can learn enough of that rich, cultural context then maybe I’ll be able to help people understand the Old Testament narratives in the way that my husband (who is much more 20th/21st century savvy than me) “gets” movies like Shrek.