You say “ancient history” like it’s a bad thing.

Take one look at my 25 in 25 book list, and you’d think I’m making terrible progress. And you’d be right.

Sort of.

The truth is, I have been reading books. Honest. They just haven’t been “for fun.” Which isn’t to say that I haven’t enjoyed them. I’ve enjoyed (some of) them, but since I didn’t choose them myself, I just can’t put them on the list.

For the past two years, I have taught a literature class to middle schoolers at a local homeschool co-op. Each year, we study a different time period in history, so our books take place during that era as well. 2010-11 was the final year in our four-year cycle, so we were studying the year 19oo to the present (more like 1950). Easy. This year, we went back to the beginning – as in, the Genesis 1:1 beginning – and are ending up in the earliest stages of the church. Not as easy.

Making the transition from the 1950s to 6000 B.C. was a little tricky. To be honest, I had hardly any background knowledge on the topic heading into this year. And I’m the teacher. So, needless to say, we all learned a lot from the books, not so much from me. And that was okay.

One of the biggest lessons I learned this year came when I realized that I have always thought of history and the Bible as somehow separated. In my mind, I saw the Bible as a book of very isolated stories – occasionally isolated from one another, and almost always isolated from the other events that were happening around the world at the same time. When the Bible talks about the Hittites, I visualized a bunch of illiterate barbarians whose sole purpose in existence was to torment God’s people, never thinking about how they lived, their culture, or the fact that they also had their own history. When we learn of the wise men coming “from the East” in Matthew, I always just pictured them wandering in from some vast nothingness off stage left, instead of coming from a very real place with its own customs, gods, and stories.

In fact, one thing I saw this year for the first time is how, from the world’s perspective, the story of God and His people is actually pretty tiny. In the books about ancient Rome, the land of Judea is simply one place in a list of many places under Rome’s thumb. At the time, it wasn’t considered “special” to the Romans. In some of the books we read this year, it isn’t mentioned at all. Similarly, the Romans crucified thousands of people. In their records, Jesus is just one of the many who died that gruesome death, probably not even bolded or footnoted. How much more amazing is it, then, when we realize God’s story is anything but tiny? A tiny baby born to insignificant parents in an insignificant town, barely a blip in the timeline of human history, became the entire purpose – the point – of all human history. The rest of the world’s history pales in comparison.

And yet, part of me wonders if you can’t really understand how truly significant the events of the Bible are unless you take the time to study the rest of ancient history. When you study the physical might of the Hittites and the Assyrians, the longevity of the Egyptian empire, the knowledge of the Greeks, and the sheer vastness of Rome, you see how incredible it is that not one of them could wipe out God’s people. You see the evil and ugliness of their false gods and begin to appreciate even more the righteousness and beauty of our one true God. You see how every seemingly unconnected event intertwines into one story, and you begin to understand anew the sovereignty of God as He guides the steps of man and the paths of history for His purposes.

From discussions I’ve had with my students, their parents, and others, I’ve concluded that the average person doesn’t know much about ancient history. The things I’ve learned this year have primarily served to illustrate just how much I still don’t know. If you have any interest in spending a year (give or take) in ancient history and would like to start simple, try any of our books from this year:

  1. The Epic of Gilgamesh by Ludmila Zeman
    The “oldest story ever told,” retold in three picture books
  2. Hittite Warrior by Joanne Williamson
    The story of a young Hittite man who meets the biblical Barak and Deborah as he fights against Israel with Sisera’s army.
  3. Shadow Hawk by Andre Norton
    I actually hated this one, but you will learn a lot about Egypt…
  4. Children’s Homer by Padraic Colum
    An easy-to-read retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey
  5. God King by Joanne Williamson
    A dethroned Egyptian pharaoh ends up in Jerusalem with Hezekiah as Sennacherib and the Assyrians approach.
  6. Aesop’s Fables
  7. Archimedes and the Door of Science by Jeanne Bendick
    More of a history/science book, but very interesting nonetheless.
  8. Young Carthaginian by G. A. Henty
    The adventures of a soldier in Hannibal’s army during the Punic Wars
  9. The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
    A Roman centurion embarks on a journey through Roman Britain to rescue the Eagle of the lost Ninth Legion.
  10. The Ides of April by Mary Ray
    After a Roman senator is murdered, his secretary must prove the identity of the killer before all the slaves in the household are executed.
  11. Twice Freed by Patricia St. John
    A beautiful story about Onesimus, the slave of Philemon, as he flees his master and the gospel, only to have his life changed after meeting the Apostle Paul.

Although I was required to read these books for my class and admittedly did not enjoy some as much as others, I am grateful for what I learned through them, both about world history and about God’s story. And I look forward to learning more in the years ahead.

What books have helped you see God’s sovereignty demonstrated throughout human history?


6 thoughts on “You say “ancient history” like it’s a bad thing.

  1. I’ve been reading a lot of historical Jesus studies lately, particularly NT Wright. I guess it’s not fair to pick his books, since they’re DESIGNED to show me how God’s worked throughout history, but that’s what they’ve done. Reading some of the greek philosopher’s kind of does this too, especially Socrates (through Plato). I keep thinking, “Wow, he got SO CLOSE to describing God.”

    • My class didn’t study the philosophers too much, but even with the little bit that we studied Archimedes, I kept wondering how someone so brilliant and with so much knowledge about the way the world works could have missed the whole point of it.

      I just discovered your blog the other day, and I have to say I’m really impressed by what you’re setting out to accomplish. Looking forward to reading more… although, let’s be real, about 75% of it will go right over my head. 🙂

    • My class was students in 6th-8th grade, and most of the books were geared towards that level. A few, like Gilgamesh and Children’s Homer, may have been for students a little younger. Young Carthaginian and Shadow Hawk were on the more challenging side.

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