In the Beginning
The Earliest History
Michael D. Coogan
Ex oriente lux goes the Latin tag—“from the East, light.” Civilization begins, from a European perspective, in the East. In its full form, the tag evinces a questionable Eurocentric bias: ex oriente lux, ex occidente lex—“from the East, light; from the West, law.” According to this euphonious phrase, civilization only began in the East; it took the genius of Rome to order the undeniable but undisciplined creativity of the peoples east of the Mediterranean. Even the terminology for the region is culturally determined: east of Europe, of course, or where the sun rose—the Orient, the Levant. Later, as Europeans moved farther into the vast reaches of Asia, it became the Near East, or (in modern nomenclature) the Middle East. But despite its arrogant assertion of Western superiority, the tag has some merit: civilization did arise in what is, from a European perspective, the East.
Not that the Near East and northeast Africa produced the only early civilizations that the world has known—far from it. There was genius before Homer not only in the Near East, but also in other regions, many of which invented rather than borrowed their own forms of civilization. But the cultures of the ancient Near East are the direct ancestors of our own in many respects, especially as mediated though the Bible. To take just one example, nearly every genre found in biblical literature, from creation account and Flood story through proverb, parable, historical narrative, letter, law code, love poem, and prophecy, has an ancient Near Eastern antecedent or parallel. Hence, knowledge of the ancient Near East, and of the classical world as well, is essential for readers and interpreters of the Bible.
Since the early nineteenth century, the ancient Near East has been an object of Western curiosity, exploration, and scholarship. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 inaugurated an age of discovery that is still going on. First the French, and then other Europeans, began to unearth the tombs, temples, and palaces of Egypt's extraordinarily long-lasting civilization. Since then, throughout the Near East, scholars from the West, joined in the twentieth century by Israelis and Iraqis, Turks and Jordanians, Iranians, Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Egyptians, and others, have unearthed dozens of languages and peoples, thousands of mounds and other sites, and countless texts and artifacts. With only brief interruptions caused by global and regional conflicts, this work continues today. It has given us an increasingly more complete reconstruction of the ancient Near East and the larger Mediterranean world, its history, its societies and institutions, its beliefs and practices, its people and their lives.
From the perspective of their contemporaries at least, ancient Israel and early Judaism and Christianity were only marginally important. But the books that these communities produced, a selection of which came to be called The Book (for that is what Bible means), became one of the foundational texts of Western culture. Hence the focus of this book: the world in which the Bible took shape, the biblical world.