The worldview and theology of the Hebrew Bible emerges out of the cultural and intellectual milieu of the ancient Near East.  While many have argued that the Hebrew Bible is essentially the same as the sacred writings of its ancient neighbors, this could not be further from the truth.  While the Hebrew Bible shares some features with its historical neighbors it is different on critical points.  One point of contrast between the two is the concept of divine transcendence.  The transcendence of God as presented in the Hebrew Scriptures is at odds with the pervasive concept of continuity as found in the literature of ancient Israel’s neighbors.  The Hebrew Bible reveals a God who is set a part from the creation.  The sacred literature of ancient Israel’s neighbors, by way of contrast, understands the gods and the divine realm to be continuous with the created human realm.  This difference in worldview between Israel’s transcendent monotheism and ancient Near Eastern continuity is the critical difference that sets the Bible apart as unique revelation against human invention (Oswalt, 2009).

What components of ancient Near Eastern myth point to a conceptual world of continuity?  John Oswalt identifies the following as indicators of continuity being a fundamental principle of the ancient Near Eastern worldview: (1) polytheism, (2) the gods are continues with images that portray those gods, (3) eternity of chaotic matter, (4) personality is not essential to reality, (5) a low view of the gods, (6) conflict is the source of life, (7) a low view of humanity, (8) no single (transcendent) standard of ethics, and finally (9) a cyclical concept of existence (Oswalt, 2009).  Again, all of these features common to pagan myths of the ancient Near East indicate a worldview characterized by continuity between the divine and human realms.[1]

By way of contrast, what components of the Hebrew Bible point to a conceptual worldview characterized by divine transcendence?  The transcendence of Yahweh comes in various forms of the Old Testament.  John Oswalt identifies the following dynamics that attest to the transcendence of Yahweh in the Old Testament: (1) monotheism, (2) iconoclasm, (3) first principle is Spirit, (4) absence of conflict in the creation process, (5) high view of humanity, (6) the reliability of God, (7) God is supra-sexual, (8) desacralization of sex, (9) prohibition of magic, (10) ethical obedience as a religious response, and (11) the importance of human-historical activity (Oswalt, 2009.).  That is, transcendence is a key underlying theological principle holding together the story of redemption as told in Scripture.  Therefore, there is a clear critical difference between ancient Near Eastern paganism and Israel’s transcendent monotheism.

So, to clarify a bit further, the Hebrew Bible very clearly and vehemently understands Yahweh to be One.  By way of contrast, Israel’s neighbors believe in a pantheon of gods (polytheism).  In this essay, more important than monotheism versus polytheism is that pantheon of gods is continuous with the cosmos.  What do we mean by “continuity”?: the divine realm is inseparable from the human realm (comos).  What happens in the realm of the divine has automatic effects in the human realm and vice-versa.[2]  The gods of the ancient Near Eastern pantheon are also subject to the same powers of fate as humanity.  In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh is separate from his creation and his existence does not depend on it.  What happens in the created realm has no automatic (magical) effect on Yahweh who is transcendent (in the divine realm).

So the critical point of difference between ancient Near Eastern worldview and the worldview of the Hebrew Bible is continuity versus transcendence.  While the Hebrew Bible may be similar to ancient Near Eastern myths in superficial sense, it is unique on the most critical of points: the oneness and transcendence of the divine.  This reality, in turn, has a profound impact on ethical obedience as a religious response, salvation, and the sanctification of believers.  This impact is explored in the following chapter.

Transcendence, Salvation and Sanctification

The critical difference in conceptual worldviews of ancient Israel and her neighbors has a tremendous impact on soteriology.  The transcendence of God changes altogether they way the Old Testament understands salvation.  The very nature of redemption is determined by the fact that God is transcendent.  More specifically, the transcendence of God paired with the holiness of God means that redemption is centered in moral change.   How does this work?

Ancient Near Eastern continuity includes a moral continuity with the created cosmos.  The gods are immoral the same way that humans are.  The gods cheat, steal, lie, die, murder, and commit adultery the same as humans.  This means that there is no moral standard that transcends all.  This being the case, the ancient Near Eastern worldview projects a closed system in which the immoral and instable reality known to human life is all that exists.  There is no alternative reality to immorality and death.  If the divine realm is not transcendent, then there is no alternative (better) reality that he can offer in place of the broken human reality.  If God is transcendent, however, then he is able to repair the broken human world by bringing something new to it.

Here we have the importance of transcendence in salvation.  Because the God of the Bible is separate from the cosmos, he is able to offer a different reality than the human one.  Only if God is transcendent can He be moral even while the cosmos practices immorality.  There comes with the transcendence of God a transcendent moral standard for reality.  God’s goodness is not changed magically by events that occur in the created realm only because He is separate from the human realm.  It is only because God is not subject to the same fate as humanity that God can offer something other than human moral tragedy.  If God is not other than, then there is not hope for change.[3]  I suspect that this concept is at heart of the Divine Name.  In giving his name as “I Am”, God is saying that the human existence/ontology is not True existence.[4]  Rather, His life, His being, (untainted and moral because of transcendence) is the true life, the true reality by which all life is measured.  So, the transcendence of Yahweh is in direct correspondence to his holiness because of the element of morality.  The holiness of God describes his purely good, self-giving, loving and gracious character.  God is moral only if He is transcendent.

So, what of ethical obedience as a religious response?  Because of God’s holiness and transcendence, he asks his covenant people to share His life with him.  This means that there is a moral demand on God’s covenant people.  The gods of the ancient Near East are unable to justly put a moral demand on its people because the gods themselves are subject to moral failure the same way that humanity is subject to moral failure (because of being continuous with the human realm).  This being the case for paganism, morality cannot be the means by which one is able to measure a community’s, or individual’s relationship with its patron deity.  Also, with ancient Near Eastern continuity, morality has no correspondence with stability in life.  As a pagan, one can transgress any number of moral laws and still achieve stability of life through the practice of magic, divination and sorcery.

The theology of the Hebrew Bible is diametrically opposed to this.  In the Hebrew Bible, morality is the rubric used to measure Israel’s relationship to Yahweh.  Yahweh’s presence as a holy being is dependent upon the morality of his covenant people.  Yahweh is only present with his people when they respect and obey the covenant.  In turn, stability in life is in direct correspondence with the presence of Yahweh.  Therefore, stability in life is in direct correspondence to morality and morality is something deeply personal.[5]  Instability, or curse is God’s personal response to immorality in the world.  Yahweh’s curse comes upon his people when they transgress his law, which reflects his moral nature.

So, salvation must be centered on the moral transformation because of the transcendence and holiness of God.  God, as one that transcends the cosmos, breaks into the brokenness of the human situation (and the human heart) and offers something radically different.  One lacking moral transformation cannot lay claim to a redemptive encounter with the saving, transcendent God of Israel.  God demands his people to be holy because he is holy.  He wants to share his life with his creation but sharing that life means ethical obedience as a religious response.  To reject the transcendence of Yahweh is to reject the possibility of hope for change.  Where pagan nations create the gods in their image (immoral), the God of Israel creates (and recreates) his covenant people in His holy image.

[1] Some of the ancient near eastern myths (that get most attention because of being similar to some of the content found in the Pentateuch) underlining continuity include the Babylonian Creation Myth, the Akkadian EnumaElish and Atrahasis, the Babylonian flood epic Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Memphis Creation Account, the Hittite/Hurrian Kumarbi Cycle and the Baal Cycle of Ugarit.  The list goes on.

[2] It is this conceptual framework that makes magic an effective means for stability for the pagan ancient near eastern world.

[3] This point corresponds directed to the concept of history.  History being understood as something linear comes from the conceptual world of the Hebrew Bible.  If there is no hope for change because the human world is continuous with the divine, then history is simply a reoccurring cycle.  However, if God is transcendent and other than the human realm, then there is hope for change in the future.  If there is hope that the future will be something different than the past, then it can be understood as linear.  For more on this see Dennis Kinlaw’s “The Transcendent Element in History” from Lectures in Old Testament Theology, Anderson, IN: 2010.

[4] This does not mean that human existence is not real.  Rather, this means that the broken, sin stained human existence is not that which is good, eternal and what God desired in creating and sharing his life with creation.

[5] The blessing and curse formula in Deuteronomy attests to this.  If Israel does not keep the covenant (Ten Commandments, which are highly moral), then the presence of God departs from Israel and curse falls on the people.  In the keeping of the covenant, God’s presence remains with Israel and blessing is the result.

Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary


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