On Supposed-Hebrew Culture

The problem with “worldview” is that it is all in the head.  It is an intellectualist assumption that once we tally up all of the ideas that a certain person or group holds to, organizing them according to causal force and foundational significance, the end result will be “system.”  Once this system is identified, we can then explain how certain ideas will invariably lead to one system or another, and from that point on we can make our respective curricula which will effectively teach the worldview we are looking for.

The major weakness here is that such systems rarely ever exist.  Even if they do exist enough to name, they never- ever- *do* anything on their own.  Ideas don’t really have consequences.  People have consequences.  And people typically borrow, bend, compromise, and even work contrary to their ideas and commitments.  Wars, technology, political marriages, dance-trends: these all have as much “impact” on a culture as any particular philosopher.

The same weakness shows up when theologians speak of a Hebrew “culture.”  What they are talking about has never actually existed.  The Hebrews in the Bible were always battling with syncretism, rebellion, idolatry, and generic sin.  Even when taken apart from obvious compromises, “Hebrew” would represent a mixed group of people who travel from Sumeria to Egypt, finally inheriting a land of Canaan which had houses, wells, and cities already waiting for them.  Moses was trained in Egyptian schools and married into a Cushite family.  David spent many years in a Philistine kingdom, and many of his closest soldiers were foreign men.  Solomon was an international and cosmopolitan thinker.  Daniel lived in Babylon, assisting the Emperor, and then moved on to help the Persians.  By the time of the Maccabees, we are told that the Spartans are descendants of Abraham (1 Mac. 12) !

Jesus was not very obviously a critic of Gentile culture.  He often ran afoul of his own Jewish culture, of course.  Acts 6:1 shows that Hellenistic Jews were among the earliest Christian congregations.  Paul is a “Hellenistic Jew” insofar as he writes religious works in Greek, engages in philosophical discourse (at Athens no less!), and builds on the infamous “Logos Christology” (not that such a thing actually exists, but folks make up their lingo and it helps to illustrate the point here).   The continuity between Philo and John’s Gospel, as well as the Epistle to the Hebrews, is also a good indicator of how “Hellenistic” the early Christian Jews were.  And of course, it was not the Hellenistic Jews who fiercely resisted Christianity.  It was the strict Rabbinic “orthodoxy” Jews who were least open.

You can certainly speak of a Hebrew culture.  Sure.  It involved farming, some sea-trade (as we now know, and as the book of Jonah ought to make plain), fairly consistent warfare, the Temple cult, a Near-Eastern cosmology, a Mediterranean commitment to hospitality, song, Near-Eastern poetry, Semetic views of family roles (which are at times different from Indo-European binary families), etc.

What you won’t find, however, is a unique and self-enclosed culture which stands in contrast to all surrounding cultures.  The old theories have all been shown to be false.  Monotheism?  Not really.  Hebrew monotheism was complex, with a multi-personed Yahweh/Angel-of-Yaweh/Ruach-of-Yaweh.  So too, it is widely understood that “Zeus” was capable of being applied to the general “High God” above all others.  Rejection of divine kingship?  No.  “Son of God” is a term for “king” as Psalm 2 shows.  Moses is considered to be half-divine by many of the rabbis (he turned into an angel atop Mt. Sinai, after all).  Rejection of human sacrifice?  Again, no.  There are several instances of human sacrifice in the Old Testament, and the heart of the Levitical cult was that of representative human sacrifice (Ex. 22:29-30).  One could go on and on.

C S Lewis’ Abolition of Man shows the common morality that exists among world cultures and world religions.  Cyrus Gordon shows the mythic and literary commonality.  John Pairman Brown shows the political commonality.  Again, one could go on.

A good Protestant, or even a “Reformed Catholic,” has to be a seeker of truth.  Philip Schaff taught us this much.  The “Protestant Principle” asks the question, “Yes, but is that actually the case?”

And so must we still.

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13 thoughts on “On Supposed-Hebrew Culture

  1. A few points, although I think I’m mostly in agreement with Steven here. There are a number of definitions of “worldview,” although I think there is a degree of relation between them all. The first two I’m exploring is what we could call the student’s use of the term, where an individual tries to develop and use a worldview, and the third term we could call the scholar’s use, in which someone tries to tease out the “worldview” of other cultures found in literature, history, and other sources. I think Steven dealt with the third use pretty soundly, but I’d like to address two other uses.

    When a number of people talk about cultivating or developing a “worldview,” they generally mean that they want to align their way of seeing things with the reality the Bible depicts. Perhaps a better term for what’s being sought would be perspective. I appreciate that this sense of of the word is fairly widespread – at least people are seeking to relate the Bible and reality. The worst part about this use of the term is that “worldview” is shared by another definition of the same word, and many of the more innocent users of the word get caught up in the other aspects of “worldview” as well. We could also call this a desired worldview.

    I think about the second term as being something like a grid. You hear folks say that such and such is inconsistent with a Biblical worldview. Sometimes it’s a semi-benign shorthand for making a good point, however inarticulate it might be. But more often than not, and especially now, what is meant is that a particular proposition cannot be seen to fit with a worldview and, as a result, is not only wrong but unreal. So on that hand, we’ve got hasty dismissal. But on the other hand, for the individual cultivating this grid-worldview, intellectual development means nothing more than the expansion of points or nodes along predetermined vectors. Seeking a system primarily, our student will get, and in fact make, what he seeks. I would write that a real intellectual encounter then, is precluded here, but in fact this worldview precludes any real engagement. This is the more dangerous kind of “worldview.”

    I know people who use the term and continuously mean the former definition. The word, for many, is habitual now, but it doesn’t denote anything as menacing as the second image I’ve offered.

    I don’t care to use the term that often because it attempts to be more specific than the language of faith, and as a result ends up being more vague. Striving for faith, hope, and love, and connecting daily actions and thoughts with those terms, will do far more than to reflect on a proposition or event with aims to include or exclude it from a worldview. Perhaps the biggest danger of “worldview” is that it unnecessarily delays action and good works, since such things can only be conceptualized after the framing of the grid is finished.

  2. Or, to your last sentence, it promotes unreflective action and works, since the “expansion of points or nodes along predetermined vectors” requires hasty, and simplistic, “biblical” solutions to complicated problems.

    Seeking a mythical, and allegedly superior “Hebrew culture” instead of a “syncretistic” one where the only reliable source of all knowledge, The Pure and Holy and Self-Sufficient Bible, has gotten all “compromised” by “Greek thought” is one iteration of this theme. Theonomic politics is another, as is the popular “Answers In Genesis” approach to cosmology.

    Another problem with “worldview” talk is exactly the “view” part, which treats the world like an external object that we, removed from it, are simply passively looking at. That isn’t true at all.

  3. I think you have overstated the case on worldviews, Steven, maybe even to the degree of a “straw man.”

    Evangelicals were culturally out of it for too long. Schaeffer and his type did a great service to the church in worldview thinking which had embodied consequences . Remember it was How Then Shall We Live, not How Then Shall We Think.

    You say:

    “Ideas don’t really have consequences. People have consequences.”

    Ok, yeah, whatever. But consider. I hear people express what they think about relationships between boys and girls. Then I see them teach or not teach their children in a certain way, and then I see a disaster or a success follow. Dad’s ideas had consequences.

    Of course, that is one line. Imitation has consequences. Actions have consequences. Consequences encourage ideas, sometimes. But ideas emphatically do have consequences in the ordinary way that we use the terms.

    I think we should say thank you to the worldview thinkers of the past 50 years and then grow. Pooh, poohing worldview thinkers comes across like you don’t have a very large debt that you owe them.

    It seems like a mistake in the opposite direction from “ideas are all that matter” to saying that “ideas do not matter.”

    Why choose? You are obviously against the “idea of the supposed Hebrew culture.” If ideas do not have consequences then why write all these ideas on a blog for us to avoid the false notion you are warning against? You prove too much, do you not?

    See you tomorrow in Monroe? We can fight it out then!!

  4. Ed,

    I think you’ve read me hastily (and besides, I didn’t say anything that PJL didn’t already say).

    I did not say that ideas do not have consequences. I said:

    Even if they do exist enough to name, they never- ever- *do* anything on their own. Ideas don’t really have consequences. People have consequences. And people typically borrow, bend, compromise, and even work contrary to their ideas and commitments.

    In context you can see that the point was that ideas are one piece of the picture and not necessarily even the most important piece, depending on the situation. It all depends.

    I can’t make it to Funroe tomorrow. We’ll have to duke it out another time!

  5. And the big point is that since reality is bigger than ideas about reality, or simply, since there is a real, worldview is an insufficient methodology to “explain” or “account for” what has happened in the world and what will happen.

  6. Fair enough. I should have paid more attention when you wrote “worldview” and not worldview! And don’t get me wrong, I too am against a certian unhealthy use of worldview.

    On re-re-reading, I see that you are warning in one direction.

    Tell me this: Would you be happy to just say “we need to see what the Bible says on that issue” rather than say a “biblical worldview?” Is that still a way of think about the Christian life that is unhealthy somehow.

    Practically, I seem to see Christian kids who go off to college without an awareness of the ideas they are hearing; say Hegelian theories of history, Darwinian social sciences, egalitarian assumptions galore, etc. How do you suggest enabling young people to see these to develop a biblical view / practice?

    Thanks, Steven, and my apologies for not reading more carefully!

    Ed

  7. Ed,

    I’m not sure exactly what you’re asking me. It might be the interwebz’ fault.

    But yes, we should ask what the Bible has to say about things. It isn’t always easy, and we will have to be sure we are making proper use of reason as well, but at the end of the day the Biblical teaching is authoritative.

    As far as teaching young people to be careful thinkers, I would stress the liberal arts. Make sure they are accustomed to reading widely and know how to find principles. Also, caution them against extremes. Most everything in this life is complicated, and we should apply the golden rule in scholarship as well as in diplomacy.

    We should have a catholic attitude towards our forefathers, and we should make sure that we honestly evaluate the past, all the while allowing them to live in their own time.

    A “Biblical” approach is an honest and humble approach. It doesn’t do less than it has to, and so at times thinkers, works, and concepts will be found incompatible with a biblically-informed mind. It also doesn’t do more than it has to, and so many issues will not be absolutely good or evil. Many things will be adiaphora.

  8. Good thoughts. But what is your definition of “culture.” And what about “religion” as culture, or at least the primary core?

    The the church is Israel. Israel had a culture. Do we share that culture?

  9. Stewart,

    Typically I think culture refers to the way of life, the artistic productions, and the beliefs and values of a certain community.

    Religion certainly influences a culture, but it is not the exhaustive influence, and people holding to the same religion can have different cultures (17th cent. Scottish culture compared with 17th cent. Dutch or Swiss culture; or Catholics in Ireland compared to Catholics in New Orleans) .

    The Church is not simply “Israel,” or at least not the cultural Israel of the OT. There are a ton of differences, not the least of which being the physical temple cult and sacrificial system. The teaching of Pentecost, Acts 15, Romans 14, Galatians, etc all show that one does not have to adopt a Jewish culture to be a true New Covenant son of Abraham.

  10. “beliefs and values of a certain community” are what animates the production of the other stuff. Religion is the primary core, the seed of culture. Changes in music, art, ect. usually works its way out from there. What set OT Israel apart from the nations? Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

    The Church is not simply “Israel.”

    Sigh. …Yes, I know….. But we do **share** the same culture a with OT Israel because we worship the same God, and read the same stories. And those same stories were efficacious to our salvation.

  11. Stewart,

    What was OT Israelite music and art like?

    All the actual findings of “culture” from OT Israel show a Mediterranean, mostly agrarian, premodern society, with images of sphinx, ziggurats, etc. There was an active Templar system, complete with blood sacrifices, and armed Levites.

    There was not a new covenant, yet, nor the Lord’s Supper. There wasn’t even a resurrected messiah yet. There was also not much by way of cosmopolitan mixing of races from the ends of the earth. (And much of the book of Acts and the Pauline Epistles field the very question of how much “change” needs to be foisted upon non-Jews.)

    It is not a negative judgment on the OT culture to say that we have a different culture now.

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