The Ancient Near East & A Classical Education

I remember vividly looking at the syllabus for 9th grade history and wondering, “How will I ever teach an entire semester of Mesopotamian history?” Once the panic attack subsided, I slowly divided the semester into manageable units arranged around the peoples and empires on the syllabus with names like, “Sumer & Akkad,” “The Assyrians,” “The Neo-Assyrians,” “the Mitanni,” and on and on. While I had a good starting place, I still wasn’t entirely sure how to make the material fit within the scope and sequence of a Classical education centered on the ancient Greeks and Romans. Indeed, is it even fair to include the empires of the ancient Near East in a Classical curriculum and, if so, what does this period have to offer students?

The ancient Near East (hereafter, ANE) refers to the peoples, states, and empires living roughly in modern-day Israel, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey, covering from the period of the Early Bronze Age circa 4,000 BC to the conquests of Alexander the Great in 333-323 BC. The period includes nearly all of the great “firsts” of world history, including such seminal inventions as the wheel, writing, and all the arts of civilization like intensive agriculture, animal domestication, metallurgy, and textile production. Taking these discoveries alongside the monuments these states left behind, including the pyramids of Egypt and the temple complexes known as ziggurats in Sumer (ancient Iraq, known to the Greeks as Mesopotamia, or ‘the land between the rivers’), the Sumerians and Egyptians are found in most social studies curriculum in both public and private schools at the elementary level.

Students learn about the importance of farming and the way in which mighty rivers like the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates facilitated farming and the growth of the world’s first cities, but beyond that, the world of these ancient peoples is still lost in the proverbial sands of time. But, after teaching ANE history for a number of years, I would like to offer my reasons why it is a valuable unit of study and a worthy addendum to the Classical education.

1. The Greco-Roman world did not see themselves cut off from the empires of the ancient Near East.

The Greeks and Romans possessed a strong appreciation for the cultures of the great empires that once occupied the lands of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Achilles, in The Iliad, rejects Agamemon’s apology and refuses to fight for him ever again, even if Agamemnon should give Achilles all the wealth of Egyptian Thebes, “which is the richest city in the world” adorned with 100 gates. Herodotus, in his Histories, claims to have visited such rich cities as Babylon and describes them in incredible detail for his readers eager to hear accounts of the magnificent cities to the East. The Romans, meanwhile, took vacations to Egypt and marveled at its great pyramids like modern-day tourists. While the Romans sought to dominate Egypt and Syria, they still admired their monuments and sought to imitate them, or just carried them back to Rome and beautified their city with them. So, if there is a cultural break between the world of the ANE and that of the Greeks and Romans, the Greeks and Romans themselves did not see it.

2. The world of the ANE is the world of the Bible.

The strongest reason for a Classical curriculum to study the ANE is that these units provide the background for the major events of the Old Testament. Abraham is called out from the Sumerian city of Ur, one of the largest cities of the Bronze Age, and lives among the Hittites, a people from whom the Israelites adopted a covenant treaty ceremony that supports a date in the Late Bronze Age for the composition of the Torah. The Davidic monarchy takes root in the shadow of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, while the prophets predict the names of great Near Eastern kings like Cyrus the Great, who would deliver God’s people from exile in Babylon. Given the intense skepticism with which people view Old Testament events like Noah’s Flood or the Exodus, studying the ANE helps students see the Bible in its larger historical context that strengthens our confidence in biblical truth.

Take the Exodus, one of the most awe-inspiring episodes from the Old Testament and one for which secular archaeologists contend there is no physical evidence to support. While the arguments of the secular establishment often appear strong, studying ancient Egypt provides a plausible explanation to counter their claims. If one investigates the background of the two possible pharaohs for the Exodus, whom Moses does not name, one discovers one plausible reasonable why secular archaeologists have not found Egyptian evidence corroborating the biblical account. Depending on whether or not one accepts an early date of 1446 BC or a later date of 1246 BC for the Exodus, the two best candidates for the Pharaoh of the Exodus are Thutmosis III (1479-1425 BC) and Ramses II (1279-1213 BC).

The Egyptian pharaoh was worshiped as a god in Egypt and, to maintain the ruse, pharaohs often embellished their accomplishments or outright lied about them. Thutmosis III tried to erase every mention of his stepmother, Hatshepsut, from palace archives or temple walls, while Ramses II, who fought the Hittites to a draw at the Battle of Qadesh in 1274, wrote in his official accounts that he utterly destroyed them. Both pharaohs altered the textual record to remove people who embarrassed them (Thutmosis) or to make themselves appear a more fearsome and cunning general (Ramses), and, with the help of Egypt’s religious and intellectual establishment, they pulled the wool over the eyes of the Egyptians and thousands of years of recorded history.

So perhaps this is why no one has found a scroll containing the words, “And in the year of Pharaoh so-and-so, the God of Hebrews completely embarrassed our religious system and our king.” Pharaohs and their priests had a powerful incentive to destroy any physical or textual evidence of the Exodus because the God of the Hebrew people exposed Egypt’s pharaoh as a helpless human being, and it is entirely reasonable to suppose that no physical or textual evidence, outside the Bible, exists because pharaohs altered the textual record as they did in other instances. If our students attend a secular university, they will hear all the arguments why certain events in the OT never happened, why the historical claims of the Bible can’t be believed, or that Moses could not have authored the Torah, but studying the ANE equips our students with valid arguments against the claims of the secular academic establishment.

3. The worldviews of the ancient Near East highlights the uniqueness of the biblical worldview.

Texts like the Atrahasis Epic, a Sumerian creation myth, detail the creation of mankind in great detail. The Sumerians believed man was created with the sole purpose of performing slave labor in the temples of low-ranking gods, while in other Sumerian poems and myths, man is created to maintain the canals and dredges upon which Sumerian society depends. In such stories, mankind possesses no dignity whatsoever except that of a slave, whose purpose in life is to do the boring, menial tasks low-ranking Sumerian deities refuse to do. If you lived in Sumer and didn’t feel like working on the canals, what recourse did you have? None, not when the priestly bureaucrats in charge would remind you, “you were created for this, so get back to work!”

So when one reads Genesis 1-2 and the creation of mankind, in whom God breathes His Spirit and creates in His image, one understands the uniqueness of the biblical worldview and the inherent dignity of man. In Genesis, God creates both men and women in His image and invests them with His attributes, gifts that mirror the creativity, rationality, and mercy of our Creator. While God assigns Adam and Eve to work the garden, this is not the work of a slave, but of a steward and a king improving the earth under God’s steadfast love and guidance.

Post-modern theorists often reject Christianity as an intellectual tool of wealthy elites and as an irrational means of subduing the masses beneath them. However, this is truly the narrative of the Sumerian myths, composed to keep the great masses of people subservient to priestly bureaucrats, while the biblical narrative invests man with a dignity and honor as given to him by our Creator and Father. Reading these two accounts side-by-side shows the uniqueness of Bible over and against the pagan cultures that wanted man to stay in line, maintain the canals, and keep the sacrifices going in the temples. The biblical narrative invests both man and woman with an inherent dignity that can never be take away, because man’s grandeur comes from being created in God’s image and living under God’s loving care and guidance. 

A Classical education at its best should provide students with the intellectual toolbox needed to resolve the most profound issues in life. Extending the boundaries of a Classical education to include the Sumerians, Babylonians, and other peoples of the ANE enlarges the toolbox students would have to work out such issues. If it accomplishes nothing else, studying the ANE shows the majesty of the biblical worldview when it is compared to the pagan cultures, like Sumer and Egypt, the Bible so often sets itself against. While those cultures, and indeed, the secular worldview of our own day, contend that man has no inherent dignity save what he can make of himself, the Bible proclaims that man has an inherent self-worth because God made him, breathed His spirit into him, and loves him. Regardless of the time period that lesson comes from, that is a lesson worth teaching. 

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