Mel Gibson’s classic post-apocalyptic movie Mad Max (1979) is a good model for understanding the situation which gave rise to the Old Testament. According to the Bible (if we had no other historical records) all of history was the formation of the covenant between Israel and God. All other cultures were backwards, pagan, demonic, idol worshipers. They were dirty. They had cooties. God came to the Jews and gave them laws, guidance, victories in battle (although the same God also gave them diseases, terrible defeats and even led them into slavery a couple times.)
However, this story is a fiction. Actually there is a rich and robust cultural history that predates Israel by a couple thousand years. Sumer, Egypt, Babylon, etc.
In the third dynasty of Ur (2028-1920), the first king Urnammu wrote the first code of laws known anywhere in the world. There are countless business documents of the period, dated to the month and even the day (using a system that named each year after a specific event.)
Syria in the third millenia was already a major cosmopolitan center, already in commerce with Egypt. “These and many other examples that could be put forward demonstrate a cultural and linguistic continuity in the West Semitic world from Ebla (northern Syria) in the third millennium B.C.E. to Israel in the first millennium B.C.E.” (71, Gordon)
“Accordingly, there can be no doubt that the Israelite flood story has Mesopotamian precursors (either the Gilgamesh Epic itself, or parallel, less well-known, flood traditions). This demonstrates very clearly that Israel did not live in a vacuum, but rather was part and parcel of the ancient Near Eastern cultural world. At the same time, the relationship between the two stories points to the manner in which ancient Israel incorporated polytheistic literary traditions. The basic outline of the story is accepted, but the underlying theology is altered to conform to Israelite religion.” (Gordon, 51)
“Moreover, the long association with Persia, which lasted until 332 B.C., did materially influence Jewish religious ideas. The relative dualism that existed already in Judaism became more pronounced through contact with Iranian Zoroastrianism. Yahweh was thought of as opposed by externally active forces of spiritual wickedness.” (Frend, 16)
“Given the greater age and more advanced stage of Egyptian civilization, the Israelites became so fully assimilated to the Egyptian customs and rites that ‘it was not possible to find a single difference in the way of life of both nations.’ Spencer quotes from a Rabbinic source: ‘whereever the Israelites settled down in the desert, they started making themselves idols.’ The idols they made were Egyptian ones.” (golden calf-apis bull) (Assmann 71-72)
The MAIN stories of the Old Testament – David and Goliath, Moses and the 10 commandments, Joseph, the Ark, the Garden (Gilgamesh)…etc. Are all Jewish refurbished pagan stories – assimilated and retold because Jews needed their own national heroes.
The Old Testament demonstrates very clearly that it was influenced by and reflects the mythological, literary surroundings that it was developed in; not ‘eye-witness accounts’ or ‘history’…fables and folklore, possibly grafted onto national heroes like Moses and David, to glorify and make interesting for the people.
In Mad Max, the main character discovers a colony of young children, who – cut off from the violent and cruel world – have created a new form of redemptive cult mythology based around a few pictures and relics of the previous technological age. Likewise, although the Bible seems to give a clear picture of the history of mankind from the beginning of creation until the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ, the truth is that there were already extremely advanced and developed civilizations before the Old Testament was written, and that it is mainly a recollection and assimilation of older writings.
The Bible implies that all men were stupid and evil shepherds, until God gave them ethics. The truth is that Sumer was a vast empire of progress, trade, government,and education centers… and 2000 years later, a bunch of poor nomadic shepherds with fragmented visions of a once great civilization stoned each other to death. It is history – but not history of God’s covenant with the entire human race – it is the folklore of a backwater, poor and uneducated group of ex-slaves who needed a cultural identity.