Enemies of Civilization: Attitudes Toward Foreigners in Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and China

This is such an interesting book on the topic “Attitudes toward Foreigners in Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and China.” The author studied ancient texts to determine that the word for “foreigner” was often the word for “enemy.” Moreover, the attitude toward foreigners and foreign cultures was often hostile, being perceived as a threat to a people’s way of life. “We Egyptians” or “We Chinese” or fill-in-the-blank must rally to protect our children and our way of life from “them.” The reader will recognize the similarity in the Bible stories of the Hebrew people; they were a “chosen people,” and for his reason they had to preserve their religion and protect their children from foreign influences. But “preserve and protect” is only a subtheme in the Bible; the dominant theme is “blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.” God gave this Great Commission to Abraham and to all how put their faith in God. The author has demonstrated, at least to me, that all people in the ancient world looked upon foreigners as “enemies of civilization.” This ancient bias against people who are “not like us,” is arguably the most intractable human problem of all time. The demons provoke us to war against one another on account of this. The author shows that from the beginning mothers have told their children, as the missionaries in Persia realized over a hundred years ago, “Go to sleep and be quiet or the Kurds will come and take you away.” Only the God of the Bible showed us “a more excellent way.”  After reviewing the book, I will make a connection to the Bible’s message about our Lord’s Golden Rule and its effect resolving the greatest problem humanity has been unable to solve.

Mu-Chou Poo writes:

The fact that the Sumerian word for foreigner (kur) was also used to designate “enemy” indicates that there was a tendency to identify foreigners with enemies in early Mesopotamia.[1] The primary meaning of kur was probably “mountain” or “hill country,” as the early pictograph of this word consisted of three rocks. As the mountainous region to the northwest of Mesopotamia was the home of the tribal peoples who were wont to invade the lowland area, it wa perhaps natural for the Mesopotamian to make the connection between the ideas of enemy and people of the hill country.[2]

In Shang, China, many of the foreign tribes mentioned in the oracle bones inscriptions are regarded as enemies by Shang.[3] According to the oracle bones inscriptions, the earliest script found in China, the Shang people engaged in various military conflicts with the surrounding tribes, even to the extent of being a common fact of life. The Shang Dynasty was probably built on an unequal alliance between the Shang, the main state, and various tribes that had either submitted to Shang rule of had entered into an alliance with the Shang.[4] This alliance would have entered into conflicts with other, non-allied tribes.

Sum. Mu-Chou Poo writes:

For people ancient and modern, there are always foreigners outside their political or cultural borders, since no identity could have been established without the presence of at least the concept of “others.” By identifying the others, whether from a biological point of view or from a cultural point of view (that is, language, religion, custom), people could hold on to a line that defines what is “we” and what is “they.” This appears to be a basic cognitive mechanism of human thinking, even though it may not be an entirely conscious act.[5]

Blincoe. I took a particular interest in the author’s reference to “the peoples of the Zagros mountains,” because the Zagros Mountains are the ancient home of the Kurdish people. The Kurds say of themselves, “We have no friends except the mountains.” This is the Kurdish way of saying that they are beleaguered on all sides by Turks, Persians and Arabs, the who occupy the cities and and larger regions around them. The author writes:

Archaeological discussions of the cultural characteristics of the peoples of the Zagros mountains to the north and east of Mesopotamia have established a clear differentiation between the material culture of northern Mesopotamia and the Zagros group. It has been suggested that because of this difference in lifestyles there existed constant animosity between the Mesopotamians and the people of the Zagros mountains, notably Elam and the surrounding countries.[6]

There were two kinds of lifestyles in and around ancient Mesopotamia that were competing with each other: the nomadic and the agricultural. Nomadic peoples, notably the Gutians who caused the downfall of the kingdom of Akkad, and the Amorites who contributed to the demise of the Third Dynasty of Ur caused some of the famous incidences of political and social disasters in Mesopotamia. However, recent studies have suggested as well that the two differing lifestyles existed in a state of symbiosis.

The ”Lamentations over the Destruction of Ur” mentions Elamites and Subarians as destroyers of Ur. The Gutians also are seen as the tool of Enlil to destroy Sumer: “On that day Enlil brought down the Guti from the mountain-land, whose coming is the Flood of Enlil, that none can withstand.”[7]

The agonizing memory that the Elamites and the Gutians were “god sent” destroyers, and a deep feeling of an almost innate conflict between “our country” and “enemy country” could also be seen in other Sumerian epics from the UR III period.[8]

The culture and habits of the foreigners is generally seen by the Assyrians as morally “bad.” They violate oaths, are unsubmissive, proud, insolent, act rebelliously, and so on. They are, in a word, the creation of an ideology that aimed at propagandistic affirmation of the justice of Assyrian kingship.[9]

When describing faraway places and peoples, although it was possible that in some cases the strange or monstrous figures might have originated from misunderstandings, exaggerations or embellishments upon received traditions, it was also a natural tendency for the storytellers to let their imagination take the reins and create exotic stories. They connect “the foreign” with “the monstrous or devilish, even “nonhuman” or “subhuman.” The entire history of the Jewish community can be described as a continuous effort to maintain its cultural identity by stressing a specific Jewish cultural consciousness.[10]

Blincoe.  Jesus Christ was crucified for all the world, “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” He died, the godly for the ungodly, “to bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). But the cross of Christ is teaches us to make peace with people who are not like us. No force but the love of God compelling us can reach to the heart of all that separates us from one another. There is not finished work of Christ on the cross except it also address and resolve what we have historical called “man’s inhumanity to man.” The Bible says,

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off[11] have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross,thus putting to death that hostility through it.  Ephesians 2:13-16

Our ancient foe would have us prepare for war, us against them, them against us, as though the cross were just a personal matter of going to heaven. But the cross is the beginning of a new peace effort, if we are Christians, to love our enemies. The Bible says, “You shall love the stranger as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:34). The great missionary work of going and residing among foreigners, at their invitation, is the pledge that we will make a new humanity in Christ. We will take communion with the peoples who were once said to be our enemies. No one else in the world can achieve peace between that nations. Christ alone and his true disciples “will break down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.” In Romans Paul writes that he is “obligated to the Barbarians as well as the Greeks” (chapter one, verse 14), so Paul is an unusual man. But he saw himself as a new Abraham–all believers are blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Therefore, the world cannot end as it is now. A new mission effort must begin, and must continue until the great achievement that God intends as come true in every way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).” If you can think of a missionary purpose greater than that you will have to tell me, because I can’t.

[1] Mu-Chou Poo, Enemies of Civilization: Attitudes toward Foreigners in Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China (State University of New York Press, 2005). 68

[2] Ibid. 39

[3] Ibid. 68

[4] Ibid. 29

[5] Ibid. 37

[6] Ibid. 68-69

[7] Ibid. 69

[8][8] ibid. 70

[9] Ibid. 71

[10] Ibid. 2 (The author refers here to A. Momigliano Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization Cambridge (1990) for his reference to Greek Christianity.)

[11] Far off: μακρὰν. Also Ephesians 2:17