Israel was called to demonstrate the true God to the world (Exodus 19:4-6; Isaiah 49:6; Malachi 1:11,14; etc). Her religion was radically different to all other ancient religions (such as those of Egypt, Babylon, Canaan and Sumeria). Find out how and why; listen to the podcast (20 minutes). Click here to download.
i. Monotheism. Ancient religions were polytheistic.** The familiar myths were rejected or coopted. Creation myths; primeval sea; dragon. Note: even the advanced Romans looked down on monotheism. Cicero referred to the “barbarian superstitions” of monotheism. Tacitus criticized the Jews: “...they permit all that we abhor.”
ii. Concept of God. Gods were powers of nature personified (not deified). Nor were gods super-humans. Nor were earthly rulers considered to be gods. His holiness is not just a matter of degree; he is wholly above and beyond us.
iii. Idolatry. No images of the Deity—even in the Holy of Holies. Further, humans display the image of God.
iv. Relational faith. God is not manipulating us, nor can we manipulate him. Religion (vertical) neither mechanical nor magical. Ethics -- God is concerned with the heart. Religion (vertical and horizontal) without righteousness is worthless. “Ethical monotheism.” Because we have been rescued (as in the Exodus), we rescue others (orphans, widows, aliens, the needy, the oppressed).
v. Sabbath. Humans are neither animals nor machines. God’s people reject the world’s crazed emphasis on production. Work on seventh day viewed as unlucky in Babylon, and perhaps in Egypt, yet there’s no evidence the slaves got a day off.
vi. Priesthood and politics separate. Not to say faith wasn’t to affect policy, but priests could not be kings and kings could not be priests. Levi and Judah.
vii. Worship and sex separate. Whereas pagan religions sometimes included ritual prostitution (both male and female), Hebrew religion was pure. Sex set in context of marriage. Premarital sex required a marriage. Homosexuality, bestiality, and incest all forbidden. Ba‘al – bull sex.
viii. One law for all. The same standards were upheld for king and commoner alike.
ix. Persons are more valuable than property. (See Law Code of Hammurabi.)
x. Women respected. E.g., fifth commandment; divorce law: provide for needs and provide certificate; inheritance law.
** Only occasionally were ancient religions henotheistic (exclusively devoted to one god out of many -- not necessarily denying the existence of the other deities). Further, there is (sort of) one example of monotheism in ancient times. Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akenaten) attempted to bring his nation to monotheism (worshiping the sun), but only part of Egypt followed him and his efforts were undone in the time of his son and successor, Tutankhamen (King Tut).