WARNING: The following is a focused book review I wrote while in seminary. This is a scholarly-oriented work that will likely interest very few of my readers. I post it here for the handful that enjoy this kind of stuff, or the random student who will surf the net and find it helpful in their research.
For those taking the same or similar class in seminary, be reminded that this is availible to be a help to you, not a free paper for you to steal. Please note that formatting has been lost in moving this paper to this blog.
BOOK SUMMARY: ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN THOUGHT AND THE
OLD TESTAMENT BY JOHN H. WALTON
CHAPTER 1 - HISTORY AND METHODS
Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by John H. Walton begins in 1902 with the German Oriental Society Lectures, featuring Friedrich Delitzsch. Coming from conservative lineage, Delitzsch created controversy when he presented his evidence for the possibility that the Old Testament (OT) was a secondary piece of literature, to that of the ancient writings of Mesopotamia. He proposed that the Holy Scripture not only borrowed from, but also depended on said writings. This hypothesis resulted in the inspiration of the OT being brought into question. So began the debate between critical and confessional scholars of the Bible, and so begins Walton's discussion on this subject matter through comparative studies.
Comparative studies deal with the cultures, myths, religions, worldviews, literature and function of all peoples living in the ancient Near East (ANE). Walton seeks to find and study similarities and differences between polytheistic cultures and monotheistic Israel, thereby carefully and honestly answering critical questions concerning the uniqueness of the OT.
It is true; ANE literature at times is quite similar to that of the OT. Critical scholars view this truth as a veritable Achilles heel, embracing the perspective that OT Scripture is not unique. And yet comparative studies help the learner understand that these likenesses do not insist that meaning within two cultures of similar texts have the same interpretation. Even when an interpretation is the same, such as a common law against murder, this does not mean that there is borrowing. Instead, it can easily mean that two cultures embrace a similar value.
Comparative studies focuses on all elements of a culture being understood within that culture. It also admits that separate cultures may know and understand the religion of the other, at times even engaging in their neighbor's religion themselves. However, comparative studies bring understanding to how and why such incidents can occur.
CHAPTER 2 - COMPARATIVE STUDIES, SCHOLARSHIP, AND THEOLOGY
Comparative studies is a remarkable tool in that it is used by both critical and confessional scholars. And yet there are clearly occasions where neither side of the scholarly pendulum finds that it embraces their perspective. In a sense, this kind of tool is refreshing in that it can create balance and a place for discussion.
Under the banner of critical scholarship arose a wide-range of theories and hypotheses that were used in a series of attacks against the OT. Over time as archaeological discoveries have been made and linguistics have been understood, many of these theories have been abandoned or at least greatly reconsidered through comparative studies. Among these have been form criticism and JEDP theory. Perspectives on cognitive development in the ANE have also dramatically changed among all scholars, as it is now believed that cultures were much more advanced than earlier thought. In essence, critical scholars have literally brought each other's theories and their own into question. And yet at the same time they will use comparative studies to their advantage, pointing out similarities between cultures to counter their opponents.
Confessional scholars have been slower to embrace comparative studies, usually due to their conservative perspectives on long-held traditional beliefs. Comparative studies confronts this group with problems of myth, narratives as history, minimalism and the discovery of the stele of Hammurabi, that appeared to have created problems for the uniqueness of the Torah. While there are a host of conservative scholars who skillfully use comparative studies to demonstrate OT uniqueness, a lack of training in the workings of this tool by a good number of conservatives has led to a few fiasco's.
Critical analysis, defense, and exegesis of the Biblical text are the three key umbrellas of comparative studies. These coverings help us when OT meaning is unclear.
CHAPTER 3 - SUMMARY OF THE LITERATURE OF THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST
The belief that all or most of ANE literature is myth creates significant difficulties. There are scholars who hold that any writing that is based on a deity or miracles that may arise from the acts of said deity is completely and utterly erroneous. The problem is most ANE literature is based on man's interaction with deity. The objecting scholars are known as "minimalists." This term is primarily because minimalists believe very little ANE literature can be considered authoritatively historical. Their position is based on a worldview that God or gods do not exist in reality, but only in the minds of an unknowing or superstitious people.
From this point, Walton embarks on a summary of ANE literature, noting the culture of origin and basic contents of the texts. On this journey, he notes the kinds of literature that are present, and where there are possible overlaps into the OT. For example under "Epics," he notes that the Akkadian "Atrahasis" story has three segments that scholars have used in comparative studies to correlate with Genesis 1-11. Egyptian literature tells the "Tale of Two Brothers" of which some might use to suggest that parts were interjected into the Biblical story of Joseph in Potiphar's house found in Genesis 39. There were also rituals that were performed and records of those acts so they could be passed down for generations to imitate. However, while the rituals themselves were likely historical, many were religious in orientation, bringing their substance into question by the aforementioned scholars. This is an example of the scrutiny of critical scholarship. There are writings about divination, omens, wisdom literature, letters, legal documents and fictional stories that were kept. There were even the one-sided accounts of kings of all their victories, leaving out their defeats for their own posterity and future kings to read, which further enhances the perspective of myth among critical scholars.
CHAPTER 4 - THE GODS
All of life in ANE cultures was related to the gods, every experience, every event and every good or difficult thing. The concepts of theogeny and ontology are important in understanding these cultures. Theogeny refers to the understanding of where gods came from whereas ontology helps us with the understanding of why a god exists. These terms also define differences and similarities between the gods and the one God of Israel.
Theogeny in the ANE varies from culture to culture. Some believe that the first gods arose out of some sort of primordial ooze while others believe that they were actual products of bodily excretions. Later, some gods would be offspring of existing gods, or could potentially just be made up, do to some event or feeling. Ontology tells us that the gods became known by name and function. Without a name or function, they ceased to exist. For example, consider and opportunity for an ancestor to be worshipped. They may have a name, but without a discernable function or destiny, there is no point in worshipping them. These gods also had a destiny and control attributes that kept them focused on what they could and could not do.
Comparative studies remind us that theogeny does not apply to Israel's Yahweh. Yahweh is forever existent. However, Yahweh is known by a variety of names that describe the things He does. This fits well into ontology, making this understanding of God similar to ANE belief.
The gods were many and they were worshipped without deference to the other gods within the culture. The people also believed that the gods met in a council in order to make important decisions. Unfortunately these gods were fickle, emotional, and prone to conflict. These outcomes were arbitrary where it could be understood that a number of gods were either for or against a people. Hope was often fleeting for their followers, as their consistently seemed to be no recourse when life became difficult.
CHAPTER 5 - TEMPLES AND RITUALS
In the center of ANE cities were temples built for their patron gods. These structures would be the largest in the community; significant, recognizable beacons for all who lived there and for all who would pass by.
The inside of these temples would often feature an image or idol that the god would manifest. In the main room there would likely be a stairwell of some kind, going to an upper space called a "ziggurat," where the god could relax. It is also notable that this high place was for the god to be able to come down to earth from the heavens, using this location as a sort of landing pad. Along with the temple itself, ziggurats were considered "sacred space." It was a mini-facsimile of the cosmos itself, of which the god was an integral part.
In this sacred space it was understood that temples were first and foremost, residences of the gods, and secondarily a place of worship. However, temples were also a symbol of prosperity, virility, potential and promise for a city and its inhabitants. It was the focal point of their power, knowing that their god was near. While the people could not personally know their god, it was no doubt a relief for them to be able to see where he lived.
There would be attendants, select people in the community whose job it was to service these temples, bringing food or anything else that would be perceived that the deity would want or need. Priests were also involved, performing a few rituals dealing with cleansing the idol and burning incense on behalf of the god for the community. These individuals would also serve as intermediaries, hearing from the god in order to dispense prophecy or hand down decisions on behalf of the legal system for the people. Lastly, the King of the city would be involved in the temple as well, making sure he was consistently on the right side of their deity so their reign would prosper.
CHAPTER 6 - STATE AND FAMILY RELIGION
In ANE cultures, religion was practiced on both state and family levels. From the perspective of the state, the deity would be serviced as if he were a king. This also included the delegation of the gods' earthly duties to leaders or attendants. The focus of worship would be the man-made idol within the residence of the god, the temple. Further, the god would communicate to the people what he believed would be appropriate appeasement. This would be done through a variety of channels, including, but not limited to priests, oracles, omens, dreams and visions. These measures were gladly carried out by assigned individuals, or even kings so that the society would do well and the king would prosper.
On the family level, the gods of the state for the most part were not accessible to them, nor did these gods care about them. These commoners focused on ancestral gods when they had needs or wanted blessing. If they needed access to the more powerful god of the state, they would use their ancestral gods as intermediaries to communicate to the greater deity on their behalf. People want to worship a god who seems near.
Any hardship or season of difficulty in the life of an individual was a hard issue. In these cultures it meant that they had angered a god, or worse, a council of gods. To make matters worse, it was known that the gods were fickle and arbitrary. This created several issues. First, they would need to follow the prescription for seeking forgiveness, usually through the giving of gifts or performing generous deeds to the god. Secondly, if their circumstances didn't change, they had no recourse. Thirdly, displeasure of a god would cause an individual to lose their standing in the community and possibly their family. In this regard, kings did have some recourse. They could use a patsy, a replacement who would literally take on their role for a season and later be executed to appease for the king's sins. Such was this life of uncertainty.
CHAPTER 7 - COSMIC GEOGRAPHY
Every culture has its own cosmic geography. A cosmic geography is a type of worldview that is a background default for culture concerning what they believe about their surroundings. For polytheistic peoples of the ANE, it began with their understanding of the cosmos, that humanity, deity and nature were all interrelated, and therefore part of their overall perception. Because of this, they believed their physical world was been made up of three separate levels. The sky above, which was held up by the mountains, was actually a hardscape where the gods dwelt. Below the earth was the underworld, the place of the dead. The middle level was earth, the dwelling place of men. To these ancients, the earth was flat, with a round land mass that floated on the water that surrounded them. The cycles of the sun and moon were dependant on deities moving across the sky. At night when the stars came out, these were simply considered part of the sky, offering light on those occasions when there was no cloud cover. In these cultures, everything had a function. Like their gods, without a function it simply didn't exist.
What is important in this discussion is that OT writings demonstrate these same observations of their polytheistic neighbors. While their view of the cosmos was different under monotheism, they perceived the same three levels within their cosmic geography concerning the sky, the land and Sheol (underworld). Further, they also viewed the center of the world as their neighbors did, from their most significant capitol that was related to their most powerful deity. For Israel this meant Jerusalem was the center; for the Mesopotamians it was Babylon.
Due to these similar mythological perceptions, the authority of the OT is brought into question. How could such errors exist when the document itself claims inerrancy? Bible writers simply recorded what they perceived from God through what was true around them.
CHAPTER 8 - COSMOLOGY AND COSMOGONY
Within ANE cultures there is a nuance between their cosmology of believing that everything has a function and cosmogony, referring to things that are created. In their writings, there are very few references to created cosmos.
To understand this issue, one must view these polytheistic cultures in light of their continuity of humanity, deity and nature being interrelated within their cosmos. These three components are in one another in such a way that it brings order to their universe. This creates a lesser focus on physical things that are around them. Instead, they place greater attention on the spiritual realities that lie beyond themselves. If things existing in the invisible have function, then the things that are created and are vetted by function somehow arise from this spiritual place.
Israel seems to have had this view as well in the creation of the world. In Genesis 1 where we see the six days of creation, the text appears to support the concept that when God created (the all-powerful "invisible"), He did so with function in mind. Light, land and water all had function, being less to do with their substance. The ANE world concluded that just because something takes up space doesn't mean that it exists.
The Egyptians and Mesopotamians had similar perspectives on creation. The Egyptians believed that a god was inserted into their cosmos, separating the waters above the sky and the waters below the earth, thereby both having function because of their connection to another god in this creative process. Along with Mesopotamians, naming something made it real, giving it a purpose, a destiny. Israel separates themselves at this point where they believe that one God created everything by speaking them into existence; He did not separate or split Himself in the creative process.
CHAPTER - 9 UNDERSTANDING THE PAST: HUMAN ORIGINS AND ROLE
The account of Adam and Eve, the first human pair from the Book of Genesis is not found in ANE manuscripts. In fact, no such direct and conclusive pairing exists by any names. Instead, human origins are described under the concept of polygenism, that humankind arose from multiple gene pools in the beginning.
According to ANE texts, there is no significant commonality in what people are made from. Some cultures point to people rising up from the ground, others from clay, still others from the tears, flesh and blood from the gods. One account speaks of a god giving her breath to human kind, thereby giving them life. The OT speaks with some similarities of the creation of man, with God breathing life into what He created from dust. Yet upon closer examination, they are very different.
Belief systems of polygenism and monogenism (the belief in a common descendent of all humans) are different in that within the ancient writings are encompassing archetypes, models of how these perspectives are constructed. For each position, the archetype is significantly different. For polytheistic cultures, everything is tied to their value within their cosmology of function and destiny. For the monotheism of Israel, their archetype is based on the One who created everything. Israel's God transcends the cosmos.
What makes a person who they are as a being is significantly different between the OT and the writings of the ANE. For polytheistic cultures, these components are related to what they believed about the beginning or the end of life, whereas Israel's viewpoint was related an individual's ongoing relationship with God. Terms such as body, soul and spirit have different meanings. The basis of why man exists is different as well. Polytheists believed humankind existed to be servants of the gods; Israel understood their worth through relationship with God.
CHAPTER 10 - UNDERSTANDING THE PAST: HISTORIOGRAPHY
Historiography is the study of the practice by which a culture communicates its past for posterity. Concerning ANE cultures, historiography helps in understanding how their scribes framed their events. While genres are important, they are secondary to this subject in that they may be outcomes of the writer's parameters and guidelines. In essence, all historiography could be considered an individual or cultural opinion in that they did not function by modern terms of reporting history, but instead by their respective values and beliefs systems.
Two separate but similar forms can classify historiography writings. The first is commemorative text, which is a recording of some societal landmark or event related to a current king. The second is chronological text that would include events from the lives of past kings. Through these kinds of writings, the timeline of a great king could be overemphasized, while those who were considered lesser kings would be underemphasized. Further, victories of a king could be noted while omitting his defeats. That is the nature of this kind of historical reporting.
Deity is a frequented theme in such writings because they were so important to these cultures. This is a problem for some scholars who are anti-supernatural. If deity is involved in a recorded event, the event itself can be missed because of this modern bias. Cursory reading of such documents requires one to move into the mindset and culture of the ancient people group to understand them. Even natural disasters that are recorded by these groups have the spiritual attached to them. Without understanding this, the disaster itself may be overlooked by moderns.
The OT suffers the same fate as the documents of Israel's ancient neighbors. God is prevalent throughout. However, the content of the OT does speak about defeats and difficulties within its story because it all relates back to humankind's relationship with God. If scholars take away God from the OT, they will most likely miss the outcome of its story every time.
CHAPTER 11 - ENCOUNTERING THE PRESENT: GUIDANCE FOR LIFE - DIVINATION AND OMENS
Divination and omens were major conduits of communication between the gods and polytheistic peoples of the ANE. In these cultures where deities pervaded every aspect of their societies, these kinds of communications were not only welcomed, but also at times sought after.
Divination can be divided into categories of inspired and deductive. Inspired divination occurs when a god initiates contact with a human to communicate a message. The recipient could be the actual intended target of the message. Another choice could be one of their professional prophets (who would have direct access to the king) who would be used as an intermediary. In some informal cases a priest or layperson could receive divine communication. This transmission could come through a variety of means such as dreams, visions, trances or some other spiritual experience.
In Israel's case, they also relied on dreams and prophecy to hear from God. However, it is interesting that Jeremiah 23:26 speaks of lying prophets who present perspectives from their own wrong thinking. Overall, dreams were looked down upon whereas visions seemed to be more acceptable. It is also interesting to note that the two most famous "dreamers" in the Bible were Joseph and Daniel, both of whom spent most of their lives living in polytheistic societies.
Deductive divination deals with those things that can be deduced from events, animal entrails (exta), human or animal deformities, and a wide range of omens based on nature. Such readings would be compared to collected recordings of previous communications; there would also be considerable attempts to clarify if a god really spoke by supporting an omen with follow up omens. Signs would literally be tallied so that a conclusion or interpretation could be arrived at. This kind of divination, with the exception of casting lots, was forbidden in Israel.
CHAPTER 12 - ENCOUNTERING THE PRESENT: CONTEXT OF LIFE -
CITIES AND KINGSHIP
The roles of cities and kingships in the ANE were significant in that they were in-step with their cosmic cultural settings. A city and king were intrinsically linked to one another, the city by its patron god and the king by his observance of making sure the local deity was appeased. If things went well, both the city and the king prospered. If the king angered the god, both he and the city suffered through the potential departure of the deity.
Cities not only served as a place of trade and commerce but also were primarily viewed as worship centers for the patron deity whose temple existed there. These structures, residences of the gods, would be the primary and most identifiable building in the city. Of note, cities were believed to be constructed by the gods, before the arrival of humans. To be in one was to be in a divine space of sorts. Sargon of Assyria actually constructed a city during his time. In order to get around the understanding that only gods built cities, he concluded that he was merely re-enacting the accomplishment of one of his deities.
Kings were engaged in a symbiotic relationship with the patron deity, and therefore were in a similar relationship with the city. The power of the king would flow from the deity; he would serve as a conduit for the god's power in the region. He would be aware of the will of the god, functioning as an informed governor over the primary leadership aspects of the city. Among these responsibilities would be carrying out justice, leading the army and facilitating building projects. Egyptian pharaohs took this relationship with the gods a step further. Positionally they were gods themselves. This was not the case of Israel's kings. Godly Israelite kings certainly served under their patron God, Yahweh. While they were considered God's choice servants, they did not ascribe to, or attain deity themselves.
CHAPTER 13 - ENCOUNTERING THE PRESENT: GUIDELINES FOR LIFE -
LAW AND WISDOM
The guiding principles for law-abiding citizens in polytheistic cultures can best be described by what appeased the patron god of their city. Being respectful and doing good works was considered acceptable citizenship. Behaviors considered violations of the god's pleasure were condemned. This brings up the issue of keeping order and keeping the god happy. This is where legal codes written by kings come into play.
There are six major codes or treatises in existence from the ANE world, including Biblical Deuteronomy. While not specifically a collection of laws, these treatises are primarily an anthology of legal cases. A king, functioning under the influence of their deity, would record their legal decisions on many kinds of matters that arose in their city. A positive outcome was that a wise king would validate their headship over the city through their good decisions.
As these cases were collected, they would serve as a monument of the justice of the god and king in such matters. For example, the Code of Hammurabi stele features a relief of Hammurabi and Shamash, the sun god. Relationship is implied here, which can bring comfort to a community that all is in balance and under the control of the divine and his key human vessel.
These collected treatises become wisdom literature for a culture. Those who would sit in judgment over the people would know and understand their contents and administer justice accordingly, because this recorded wisdom originated with the god. Further, such material would also bring order to a community. When unacceptable behaviors took place in the community, the people would know the punishment if it was already included in their legal treatise.
In Israel's case, God gave their laws. While Moses filled the role of conduit, somewhat like Israel's neighboring kings, the Law itself originated with God.
CHAPTER 14 - PONDERING THE FUTURE ON EARTH AND AFTER DEATH
A people without hope are a terrible thing. This was the nature of thinking concerning life after death among ANE peoples. With the exception of the Hebrews and Egyptians, nearly every culture had little understanding of an eternal hope.
This makes perfect sense when one considers the position of the common person among the gods. The gods had a low view of humankind. Man's primary purpose was to service the gods and do their bidding. They existed to make life easier for the pantheon of their deities.
Therefore, when this life was through, for the most part existence was over in the minds of many. Among those who believed in an afterlife, its uncertainty made one uneasy. For example, if burial rites were performed appropriately, the Mesopotamians believed that their deceased would possibly return to live as a ghost in the family home. A fetish or object might signify their existence, giving them permission to reside there. They may even be worshipped; they may also be the cause of nightmares among those living in the home. This was not a pleasurable existence. Nor would it be to be a homeless spirit, which was possible as well.
The Egyptians on the other hand, had an extensive perspective on the afterlife. Duat was the destination of those headed to the netherworld, whose hearts were deemed acceptable for the journey. Part of this process was the extensive mummification ritual that was followed, preparing the body for the afterlife. It was believed that worthy individuals would ascend to the sky, hopefully connecting with the sun god Re or another of their deities. In this way their entrance into Duat would be secure.
Israel is an interesting situation. There is belief that within the ANE cognitive, Sheol is their facsimile of the netherworld. Some scholars would push the point that they are one and the same. Whatever the case, one day heaven awaits the redeemed of the Lord.
Comparative studies are not accepted among all notable scholars whose specialty is the ANE. While said scholars are to be commended for their work, may the material presented in Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament open the conversation, that Israel did indeed live in a world where she and her polytheistic neighbors did share some basic commonalities. Within these likenesses, knowledge of ANE cultures assists in the interpretation of the OT. It is possible for moderns to stoop to using allegory in interpreting some OT Scripture. Yet when one understands ANE cognitives, they can see that the focus of the writers was actually within the bounds of truthful statements made by ancients, who were interpreting what they heard from God through their paradigm of perceived truth of their surroundings.
While scholars cannot truly know the minds of people living in the ANE, there is an admittance there were some crossovers of thought. Yet even on such topics as ontology where there was significant similarity, Israel's order was guided by Yahweh and not the gods of their neighbors. Israel was driven by covenant and their relationship with God. Her neighbors were driven to appease their gods. Yahweh is transcendent, over the cosmos. The gods, nature and humanity of polytheists are all interrelated in the cosmos. The earth is God's footstool whereas the gods have earthly residences and fabricated forms to occupy in order to receive worship in one locale. God is holy and refuses to be contained by an image. The images of the gods need a thorough and frequent ritual cleansing.
In conclusion, comparative studies create an opportunity for discussion and discovery of why ANE people thought and functioned the way that they did. To a certain extent, they influenced one another. Yet, comparative studies help one to understand Israel's considerable uniqueness.