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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Theological Thought in the Ancient World

The origins of theology and a belief in the divine date from pre-historic eras. By the time humans learned to record their thoughts in writing and to depict their speculations and imaginations in more than elementary art, deity was already an important element in their interpretation of existence and experience. The belief in deity was the way humans gave expression to their confrontation with and experience of the numinous. The numinous or the transcendent was experienced not only in the mysterious and the unusual which produced fear, fright, and anxiety but also was seen in the routine and the recurrent which produced awe, fascination, and praise. Deity was thus experienced and understood in both positive and negative categories, as both threatening and consoling.

The elemental reactions to the numinous were given theological expression in the thought of both the biblical communities and their neighbors. Based upon universal experiences, their theological thought developed many concepts which were shared by biblical and non-biblical communities. This underlying common theology consisted of many shared principles. (1) Deity was considered to be both transcendent and immanent to the world of experience, that is, the divine was understood as standing outside and above and yet as deeply involved in the natural and human worlds simultaneously. (2) The divine was seen as the source of world and human order. (3) The will of the deity for human life in the form of general societal and personal norms was made known to humans through various mediators and mediations, and obedience to these norms was believed to bring reward while disobedience was believed to bring judgment and punishment. (4) Deity was to be offered worship with regulated forms of ritual and with prayer that was both petition and praise. (5) Deity could and did intervene in the course of human history and in the lives of individuals for the purpose of redeeming and saving or judging and destroying.

The ancients not only shared a common store of theological positions but also frequently employed similar metaphorical language in speaking of deity. These metaphors were drawn from both the non-human and the human world. Deity could be spoken of as the power inherent in and manifested through natural phenomena such as wind, storm, vegetation, drought, pestilence, and so forth. With metaphors drawn from the human world, deity was often described in terms of family/household and political images. Parent-child, family-kin, and ruler-subject metaphors predominated, in describing both divine-human and divine-divine relationships.

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Oxford University Press

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