One of the difficulties in reading the Old Testament is an unconscious assumption of uniformity between their time and ours. Modern readers often assume that they shared the same doctrinal understandings, worldview/Weltanschauung,assumptions, or culture as we do today. This is not the case, and often contributes to difficulties of interpretation and understanding.1
The Old Testament worldview and cultural setting turns out to have much in common with Lord of the Rings.2 If you want to get a general feel for the world of the Old Testament, watching or reading Lord of the Rings approximates that foreignness in general, if not always in specific.
- There are highly charismatic priestly/prophetic figures, who play various roles vis-à-vis the established governing powers. (Gandalf; various)
- A king wandering from his kingdom, while someone else reigns in his place (Strider; David in Philistia)
- More focus on extended family and genealogy (Can’t remember where this is in Lord of the Rings; general Old Testament, but see Josh 7:16-18 in particular for the family-clan-tribe structure.)
- Related but conflicting kingdoms, which sometimes unite under pressure for military reasons. (Rohan/Gondor; Israel/Judah)
- Ritual singing of funeral and other songs (Eowyn in The Two Towers; 2Sa 1:17, Eze 32:16, 2Chr 35:25)
- Oral tradition- history, legend, stories passed on orally and in song. (Lord of the Rings in general; Deu 32, Exo 15, Judges 5)
- Literacy was not widespread, but reading generally had little place in the day-to-day life of the average person. There were others, however, who were specialists, who kept or consulted records, often in multiple languages. (Gandalf in the white city; Old Testament scribes in general, 2Ki 18:26)
- Kingship as the dominant political structure, along with its respectful 3rd person terminology of “my lord” and referring to oneself as “your servant.” (2Sa 9:11)
- A “legendary” race of ancients with exceptionally long life (Numenor; Antediluvians, Sumerian king-list)
- “Cross-breeding” among “species” with destructive results ( Orcs/Uruk-Hai; sons of God with daughters of men See Note 1 below)
- Unusual or special objects which were particularly powerful, regarded as atypical, supernatural or talismanic in some ways, sometimes with particular military usage. (Ring, daggers, Elvish rope, palantirs; The Ark of the Covenant, Urim/Thummim)
- Non-modern cosmology (this isn’t obvious from the films or the books, but there are entries on it on Lord of the Rings Nerdsites. As to the Old Testament, their cosmology was geocentric and varied in other ways as well. This post has a diagram.)
- Non-modern weaponry necessitating close-range combat, with cavalry, melee and short-range weapons (bow/arrow, sling), siege machines (“Grond!”), etc.
My very limited understanding of Tolkien is that he read and drew many of his themes from Old English epic literature, Anglo-Saxon and Norse myths. Many of these list items may simply be tropes of ancient or epic literature or just a function of being non-technological in nature (as with the warfare), so it’s not the Old Testament they’re specifically related to. Nevertheless, I think it’s fun to point these out and I suspect there are more. Are some of these comparisons overplayed due to misreading Tolkien on my part? Are there more to add to the list? What say ye?
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Fn1With regards to interpreting Genesis 6, for example, “Initially interpreters did not balk at a mythological interpretation of the Bible because it coincided with their own worldview. Today interpreters do not balk at a mythological interpretation of biblical passages because they believe Israel’s worldview was little different from its neighbors. In the intervening period interpreters neither had a mythological worldview themselves, nor did they believe that the Bible represented such a worldview. Lacking correlation to either world, they rejected the identification.”- From “Sons of God, Daughters of Men” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch.
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Fn2 Lots of low-hanging Photoshop fruit there. The gauntlet is hereby cast down.