Are God’s People Really Distinct?
When I was a child, the most memorable instruction my father gave me was “Don’t do as I do; do as I say do!” After I became a Christian and God became my Father, I imagined the Lord telling me, “Don’t do as they do; do as I say do!” This modification came from understanding the separated life God commanded Israel to live:
You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes. You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the LORD your God (Lev. 18:3–4, NASB).
God explained to the Israelites, “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Dt. 14:2). They were to behave in a unique manner, obeying God’s Word and being separate from the nations, making them a witness to them (4:5–7).
However, the surrounding pagans were already familiar with much in biblical law. Archaeology has revealed a Hittite law code that paralleled the purification laws in Leviticus, Sumerian instructions for temple construction, Ugaritic regulations for rituals and festivals, and Syrian and Mesopotamian laws similar to the Decalogue. In addition, the Bible writers used images and expressions common in the ancient Near East.
How, then, was God’s Law different and Israel’s lifestyle distinct? This is an important question because some evangelical authors now claim the Bible’s authors lived in the ancient Near Eastern culture and therefore shared the same ideas and behaviors as their pagan neighbors.1
While archaeology shows us similarities, it cannot explain the differences that clearly existed and that direct us to holy living. As scholar Angel Manuel Rodriguez cautioned, “The comparative method is indeed one of the most difficult disciplines because of its natural tendency to overemphasize similarities and its inherent danger of drawing conclusions unwarranted by the evidence.”2
Israel’s divinely provided Law did not ignore existing traditions, otherwise Israel would have been unable to interact with its neighbors. God gave Israel a system the other nations could relate to and thereby perceive the differences that defined the Jewish people in accordance with the biblical worldview.
Scripture emphasizes Israel’s singularity and the fact that Israel’s God is the sole Creator of everything and sole Sovereign of the universe. Scholar Peter Machinist listed 433 Old Testament passages that mention this distinctiveness, and he believes the passages’ diversity indicates Israel’s uniqueness was part of God’s design to bless the nations (Gen. 12:3).3
Scholar John Oswalt defended Israelite distinctiveness based on its unique worldview that separated it in every way from its neighbors.4 So Israel could not have had anything in common with pagan practices because its laws and ways operated in completely opposite realities.
Therefore, when the Lord says, in effect, “Don’t do as they do; do as I say do,” He gives us the means to comply: He gives us unique and special revelation—the Word of God.
- John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Torah (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019).
- Angel Manuel Rodriguez, “Ancient Near Eastern Parallels to the Bible and the Question of Revelation and Inspiration,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 12/1 (2001).
- Peter Machinist, “The Question of Distinctiveness in Ancient Israel: An Essay,” in Ah,
Assyria . . . Studies in Assyrian History and Ancient Near Eastern Historiography, ed. M. Cogan and H. Tadmor (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1991), 197–200.
- John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).