A couple of weeks ago I posted my overall impressions of Dr. Sandra Richter’s study, Epic of Eden – a 20,000 foot view of this incredible study of the Old Testament. Let’s zoom in a little closer this week and get a feel for the historical context that sets the stage for our greater understanding of God, the Old Testament, and Christ.
Dr. Richter writes and teaches from a place of great passion – not only of the facts and stories of this rich history but from a heart that longs to help today’s believers grab hold of our heritage, claim the Old Testament as OUR story, and have a better understanding of our God. She does this on multiple levels, which she labels “real space,” “real time,” and “real people.”
First, she helps us get acquainted with the real spaces of biblical history. Amazingly, all of biblical history happens in a small bit of land in what we call the “Middle East” today – the ancient lands of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan/Israel/Palestine. Memorize the three places (aka: “real spaces”), and you have all the lands involved in biblical history locked away in your noggin!
Then, Dr. Richter develops the chronology (“real time”) of the Old Testament through the use of her “handy dandy” timeline. This visual gives her students a resource that aids in our remembering of the different biblical eras and significant biblical events in history. (I don’t have permission to post the timeline here…sorry! I’ll reference dates along the way.)
Another way she helps us understand biblical history is by having us memorize five people of Old Testament history (“real people”). These five men not only mark significant eras of biblical history, but they also allow us to tie together God’s redemption plan: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David.
Dr. Richter calls this “redemptive history,” a phrase you’ll become familiar with as we progress through this summary series of Epic of Eden. In a nutshell, these real spaces, times, and people give us the tools we need to organize our Old Testament closets and to see that God has been working out His redemption plan from the beginning. His heart throughout time and Scripture is to reestablish His relationship with humanity.
Finally, we do all this learning while looking at the Old Testament through the covenantal lens. We’ll spend a lot of time learning what covenant means, what it looked like in Old Testament days (real time), and how it developed over time…all leading to the new covenant with Christ.
Before we get started… A disclaimer: I am not Dr. Richter! What I know about Old Testament is a conglomeration of memories of 20 years of Bible study, most recently being Epic of Eden. While I’m not a historian or biblical scholar, I do love learning and processing with other believers. That’s the intention of this site. Let’s learn together!
The second part of the disclaimer: To completely cover everything Dr. Richter teaches, we’d have to post her book! Maybe reading these posts will give you a hunger to learn more, so you’ll read her book and THE Book for yourself.
Till then, let’s meet on these digital pages as we simply try to unpack the themes and nuggets we can glean from Dr. Richter’s teachings.
So – let’s dig in!
The Great Cultural Barrier
Nearly three years ago I had the honor and privilege of traveling to the Holy Land. I have never in my life walked around a place in such awe and amazement. The people and stories of the Bible absolutely came to life for me. Which sounds funny…because I knew as I studied the Bible that all of it was real… but somehow being there made it REAL.
…Jesus walked up these same steps.
…David hid from Saul on this mountain oasis.
…Hezekiah’s men made this tunnel.
…This is the garden Jesus prayed in.
…Jesus was baptized in this river.
The feeling of “real-ness” was overwhelming and emotion-provoking.
I imagine Dr. Richter has had similar feelings when she has been at archaeological dig sites that have unearthed ancient artifacts coming from the days and times of our biblical heroes. …And she’d love to help us, the 21st Century believers, grasp a little of that awe and real-ness for ourselves.
She helps us recognize that humans have this tendency to assume that all humans on the planet live and think just like we do. The official term for this is ethnocentrism. She wants us to overcome this mentality to realize that the people of the Old Testament were real people with real faith in real places, but they lived in a different culture than we do now.
To start with, we need to understand that for much of the Old Testament, the culture was TRIBAL, which meant that the family was at the center and provided the economic opportunity and discipline for its people. (Contrast that to what American culture is – we are bureaucratic where the “state” cares for its people and upholds the law. Our government is central, rather than family.)
That’s a BIG difference for us to wrap our minds around!
This tribal culture truly has the family at the center – there’s even a Hebrew word for this kind of “extended” family: bet’ab.
Dr. Richter uses a concentric circle diagram to illustrate the tribal culture – the bet’ab is at the center (the father’s household, 15-30 people); then the clan; then the tribe; and the nation is the outer ring.
We need to understand bet’ab in order to understand the real spaces and real faith of these very real people. A bet’ab is:
- Patriarchal – the oldest living male is at the core and head of his family. He has the authority and responsibility to protect, defend, discipline, and provide for everyone in his bet’ab – including servants and livestock.
- Something to note about a patriarchal society is that if a woman were to lose the men in her life (father, husband, son…), she would have no place in society.
- Patrilineal – all the goods and inheritance tracks through the male lines/genealogies.
- The first born son eventually becomes the patriarch of the family, which is why his inheritance is a double portion – his responsibilities are much greater than his younger brothers.
- Patrilocal – the family unit and living space is built around the oldest male. The bet’ab is the family unit AND the compound where the extended family lives together. They jointly farm the land and share the produce.
It’s important to understand this culture. While Israel will evolve over time, these values that come with this patriarchal system remain.
The word redemption is not necessarily holy or theological but is actually a word pulled out Israel’s everyday experience. It means to deliver or free from some sort of bondage. To best understand what redemption is, it’s best to look at biblical stories (narratives).
- The story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz illustrates what a “Kinsman Redeemer” is (see book of Ruth) and how life circumstances can leave someone in need of redemption:
- Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, was the patriarch, and he moved his bet’ab to Moab when Israel was hit with a horrible famine
- It wasn’t long after Elimelech’s death that his two sons also died, leaving three women with no family – they were an “unfamily”
- Under Levirate Law (Jewish/Patriarchal Law), when a woman marries she becomes part of her husband’s bet’ab, which meant she was the responsibility of her father-in-law or husband. That meant Naomi was responsible for her daughters-in-law, but with no husbands or sons left, she decided to send them back to their original families.
- Ruth refused and traveled back to Israel with Naomi, claiming her kinship with Naomi
- Eventually Boaz, a distant relative of Naomi’s, stepped up to take responsibility for his kin – he became their KINSMAN REDEEMER. These two women were once again part of a bet’ab (Ruth married Boaz).
- The story of Abraham and Lot (see Genesis 11 & 13) gives us other illustrations of how a bet’ab works and demonstrates how captivity can leave someone in need of redemption:
- Abraham started life in his father, Terah’s, bet’ab. When Terah died, Abraham became the patriarch, which included his nephew, Lot.
- At some point, Abraham’s bet’ab became too large to support their flocks, so Lot and he split the bet’ab.
- When kings of the east raided Lot’s bet’ab and captured him, Abraham lived up to his patriarchal duties and REDEEMED Lot! (Abraham was able to arm 318 men to rescue Lot!)
- The story of Hosea and Gomer (see Hosea 1-3) shows us how a person, by their own bad choices and sin, can be in need of redemption:
- Hosea was a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel in the era after David, and God called him to live out his life as a visual aid for the people of the northern kingdom (Israel).
- This visual aid included Hosea having to marry a prostitute, Gomer. Hosea becomes the picture of redemption for Gomer. Gomer is the picture of brokenness. Hosea redeemed her a second time when she left their marriage/family to sell herself into slavery. He redeemed her from slavery and sin.
Life circumstances, captivity, and sin are all wiped clean and made right through redemption. This word from Hebrew daily experience and patriarchal law becomes a metaphor of Scripture.
As Christians, who is our patriarch?
Who sent His firstborn Son, not only to redeem the lost kinsman, but to share his inheritance with him/her?
What could this patriarch’s goal be?
Hopefully you’re starting to get the picture. GOD is our patriarch. And He sent His firstborn Son to earth to pay with His own life to ransom those who have been dragged off from the family’s household – to restore His kinsmen to the bet’ab so that where He is, there we may be also. And the Son will not only rescue us but share His inheritance with us.
Pause here. Let this sink in…
On a personal level, we are so loved by our Father that He gave us His Son so that we could be redeemed.
How appropriate for us to be at this point of our study on Good Friday – the day our Redeemer gave His life for us. His death was the ultimate sacrifice, yes. His death atones for our sin, yes. But we’ve also been redeemed, brought into the bet’ab of God the Father.
Never again will we be “unfamily.”
Real Time and Space
Dr. Richter would say we’ve crossed the barrier of culture, so now we can cross the barriers of space (geography) and time.
Do you remember the three regions, Real Space, of biblical history?
- Mesopotamia, “the land between two rivers” (Tigris and Euphrates), this is where biblical stories were born
- Egypt – along with Mesopotamia, these areas are where civilization were born, having urban centers, math, science, medicine, astronomy, wealth and resources
- Canaan/Israel/Palestine – yup, three names for the same piece of land.
- This area is a major “land bridge” that allowed the two other, larger regions (Egypt and Mesopotamia) to communicate
- The name of this region was determined by who was running it at the time
- Because of its access to ports and land crossroads, this area saw MUCH traffic…and WAR. They were always caught between the two major powers.
- It was this critical crossroads where God chose to reveal Himself.
Eden was described as the “garden of the East where a cosmic river flowed and split into four rivers” (two of those rivers being the Tigris and Euphrates). The biblical author wanted us to see Eden’s location as Mesopotamia.
Noah’s story took place in the flood plains of Mesopotamia. The ark even landed on Mt Ararat, in Mesopotamia.
Babel, where the tower was built and language scattered, was also in Mesopotamia.
The biblical story doesn’t leave this region until Abram, who was called out of Ur (a real city in Mesopotamia). Abram travels north to Haran. Also a real place – the center of Amorite worship in the third and second millennia.
When Abram hears the call again, he travels south into the land bridge area (Canaan). As a wealthy pastoralist (raising sheep and goats), he followed pasture land to feed his flocks. All of that fits with the history of that area at the time.
Canaan is the area of all the patriarchs until Jacob moved his family to Egypt during a famine. His son, Joseph, was in a position of high authority in Egypt, so he fed them and established them in an area called Goshen, in the eastern Nile delta.
The Israelites thrived and multiplied in Egypt until a new Pharaoh came into power, and eventually they were enslaved. Egypt was their home for 400 years, but when they cried out for deliverance, God sent them Moses.
Moses led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and down to Sinai where they were given the law and directed to the Promised Land.
Forty years later Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan River to claim their Promised Land, and as they settled, each of the twelve tribes were assigned parcels of land. They lived as independent tribes until they begged for a king. It was then they became one nation.
The nation didn’t stay united for long, and the split (between North and South) didn’t help their cause. First the northern kingdom was overtaken by Assyria, then the southern kingdom was exiled by Babylon.
Whew. That’s the basic history of the entire Old Testament in one breath! Don’t worry. We get to unpack this as we go. This is the big picture so that we can see the progression of all the places in this redemptive history.
Next up, Real Time. If you can recall the FIVE PEOPLE Dr. Richter asked us to memorize, then you will be able to relay the five key eras in redemptive history. Here we go!
First, appropriately, is Adam. We don’t know when Adam was created, just that he was. While the Bible has some lists of genealogies, Dr. Richter suggests we look at them more as file folders than precise, exhaustive lists. Fluid, even. Biblical authors often use genealogies to make specific points, so they are worth paying attention to. More on this later. For now, know that Adam marks the beginning of things, creation. And his choices (along with Eve) led to the Fall, to sin – to the ruination of the perfect relationship between God and humanity.
Noah is the first person God interacts with in redemptive history, and like Adam, we have no way of accurately dating when he lived. What we do know is… it was through Noah that God re-instituted his relationship with humanity.
Abraham (aka: Abram) is next, and we can date him as living approximately 2000 BC.
Moses and his deliverance of Israel from Egypt happened around 1400 BC.
David is part of the monarchy era, when Israel had kings. Israel was a united nation under Saul, David, and Solomon, from about 1050 BC till 931 BC when the nation split…and eventually went into exile.
We’re flying at some high speeds here as we lay this redemptive history foundation, but I’ll tell you what… Dr. Richter connects some dots for us at the end of this chapter.
- God keeps his promises to Abraham and Moses and David. Even when He allows His people to be oppressed and exiled by foreign nations, He stays loyal to the “remnant” who remain faithful to Him.
- Out of the southern kingdom a remnant is allowed to go back to Jerusalem under King Cyrus of Persia in 538 BC. This remnant rebuilds the city and the temple.
- And guess whose mom is a descendant of this remnant? You got it! Jesus’ mother, Mary.
God is faithful. He is unchanging and constant. He’s been working out His plan of redemption since the Fall.
Next week when we study covenant, we’ll see more clearly how God met each of our five people in ways they would understand so steps of restoration could be taken.
We’ll end it here for now, though. You’ve hung in there as we’ve tried to soak in A LOT of information in one sitting!
Savoring God’s Word,