As I near graduation and the completion of my Masters degree, I keep getting two questions: What are you going to do after you graduate? and What is it that you study again? A lot of people accept "I don't know" as an answer for where I'm going next; even more accept the fact that I am taking a much needed break (after being in school/classes for the last eight years, summers included). No one, however, seems to understand why I would have ANY interest in the field of Ancient Near Eastern studies, especially for a Seminary student.
The line of questioning goes something like this:
"Really? Like Old Testament studies?"
"Well, I study the Old Testament, but also the other peoples and cultures of that time, like Egyptian culture and Canaanite culture."
"Why would you want to learn about those? They don't have anything to do with Jesus or the Bible"
Normally, I say something like, "They help us understand the Israelite culture better" or "It helps show historicity" or even "It's very interesting to see how it compares and contrasts with the Biblical accounts." I never have time to prove the REAL answer to them: We cannot truly understand the full meaning of the Bible without understanding these ancient cultures. I honestly believe that some people must dig into these ancient cultures to provide the necessary tools for understanding what is actually happening in the Bible.
Let me give you my favorite example.
In Egyptian culture, the person is made up of several parts. The ba is the center of thought and personality. It is the soul of a person; this is the part that would continue on to the underworld and continue forever. However, the most powerful part of a person was not the soul (ba), but the name (ren). The ren of a person carried all of their experience, all of their memory, and all of their identity. This was bound up in their "true" name; and whoever knew that name had the power to control or destroy that person. You could only use a person's ren if they told you their name personally; it could not be gathered from a third party. The magician's of Egypt sought out the rens of the gods of Egypt and any powerful Egyptians (like the pharaohs, other magicians, or military heroes).
Now, let's consider Moses, who was taught in the Egyptian courts as a member of Pharaoh's household. When God sends Moses to Egypt to bring the people out from slavery, he asks God for a name to tell the people (Exodus 3:13). God tells him "I AM who I AM." Later (in Exodus 33), Moses asks God to reveal to him His glory. God does this (Exodus 34) by saying His name, "YHWH, YHWH, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness..." To an Egyptian, this would be a very intimate and powerful thing. Moses knew God's name -- even more so, he had been in the presence of God in His full glory.
Now, let's go one step further. John 1 narrates the Word becoming flesh among us (as Jesus Christ). John 1:14 links this act of incarnation to Exodus 34 by stating that "we have seen the glory, the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." In John 1:18 John explains that no one has seen God, but Jesus is an explanation (NASB) or proclamation (NIV) of God and His glory. When you understand that God's glory is tied to His name, you understand that the coming of Christ is more than the coming of a Messiah; it is even more than the astounding fact that God dwelt among mankind. It is the fact that Jesus is the incarnation of the glory and name and ren of God. (I don't want to make it sound as if Jesus was a part of God, but rather the significance that God revealed Himself not only through giving a name but by making that name known and available to all.) There is no third party (priests, leaders) needed; God has revealed His name in person!
That is a whole new perspective of on coming of Christ; it shows the concept that God made Himself (the most intimate, secretive, and powerful part of Himself) into a man to be among men and be known by them; that He sacrificed Himself entirely on the cross for our sins, and that He rose again from the dead (showing His preeminence over the Egyptian gods who were destroyed when their ren was destroyed).
Now this isn't perfectly exegetical, and I'm sure many people can find mistakes or problems with this summation, but the point is that cultural and background studies can have a huge impact on our understanding of Scripture. We cannot simply personalize whatever we read in the Bible; we must understand that the Bible has a context. While the truths of the Bible are universal and eternal, they are stated within a culture, a time, and (in many cases) specific circumstances.
Therefore, we need people to study Ancient Near Eastern cultures. And Greek culture. And Persian culture. And every other culture!
And now when people ask me why on earth I study Ancient Near Eastern cultures, I can send them here to read and understand why I am so passionate about it ;)