Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible
Curious readers these days can find with relative ease texts translated and untranslated from the ancient Near East and information about the ancient world in books and articles, in libraries and bookstores, both academic and popular, in print and online, along with television and movie offerings that display ancient scenes, with or without historical accuracy. Unfamiliar names of people, places, items, and deities, combined with unfamiliar activities, however, may soon accumulate as mere curiosities and without yielding much enlightenment. They need to be sorted, explained, and interpreted. Walton has done this well, with a careful eye on both the biblical and extrabiblical materials, providing information and orientation for readers from his long and growing familiarity with ancient Near Eastern remnants of all sorts.
The book includes a chapter in which Walton summarizes the contents, provenance, dates, and bibliographic data for numerous ancient compositions, such as “Enki and Ninhursag,” “Adapa,” “Kirtu,” letters, lists, chronicles, legal documents, and texts detailing rituals and incantations. An appendix names and describes prominent ancient Near Eastern gods and goddesses. These sections provide convenient reference points for later reading. It would have been helpful to have included a timeline or two displaying major historical events and eras. Photos, tables, and highlighted sections add to the book’s appeal and usefulness.
The assembly and description of raw data are not, however, the book’s main purpose. The sections entitled “Religion,” “Cosmos,” and “People” contain chapters in which Walton summarizes ancient beliefs and practices regarding everything from the origins of the gods, the cosmos, and people to the conduct of life and the afterlife. He acknowledges the hazards of making generalizations. “The synthesis that I have offered is undoubtedly characterized by assessments that some scholars will judge to be misleading, premature, or even wrongheaded” (p. 331). His goal was to sift through the available information from the ancient Near East in order “to perceive some of the important basics of that ancient cognitive environment. I attempted this specifically with the intention of demonstrating that Israel was indeed a partaker of this cognitive environment and shared many of the basics in some degree with its neighbors” (ibid.). He assesses the significance of what they shared, and he is to be thanked for taking on this hazardous task.
He begins the book with two chapters about historiography and method in the comparison and use of information from ancient sources and the value of such study for exegesis and apologetics. In the process he challenges both critical scholars and confessional scholars to greater awareness of how best to understand and use ancient materials. For example two “principles of comparative study” that he urges should be remembered are that “both similarities and differences must be considered,” and that “when literary or cultural elements are borrowed they may in turn be transformed into something quite different by those who borrowed them” (pp. 26–27). The bulk of the book puts to use the method he recommends. As a possible unexpected side benefit, readers who work in contemporary cross-cultural situations will profit from the insight he provides concerning method and from their own recognition of similarities and differences between ancient beliefs that he highlights and the beliefs of people with whom they work.
From a book full of valuable information and insights, a look at just two topics may help indicate that further reading will be well rewarded. Walton surveys the symbolism and functions of temples for ancient Near Eastern peoples and finds help there for understanding the significance of the Garden of Eden. He maintains that early readers would have understood that the garden in Genesis was analogous to temple gardens where people grew food for feeding their gods, who resided within the temples. He finds that “in the aftermath of the fall, the greatest loss was not paradise but God’s presence” and that “Genesis 2 is not trying to develop the idea that Eden is the place of God’s presence, or the holy of holies of the cosmic temple. Those are givens that are simply assumed by author and audience. The text is most interested in the garden as the means by which God provided food for people (v. 9). The trees of the garden provided food, not for the Deity . . . but for the people who served the Deity. By providing food, the garden actualized the benefits that had been granted in the blessing in Genesis 1:29–30” (p. 125).
On the topic of historiography and its goals Walton writes that “ancient Near Eastern historiography desired to reveal the king to the people and to the deity. [But] Israelite historiography desired to reveal the Deity to the king and the people. Here we have an important reversal similar to that which has been noted in other chapters. In Israel the historiography purports to be from the Deity, whereas in the ancient Near East the royal inscriptions serve as communication to the deity. Consequently [in Israel], the audience is neither future kings nor the gods—it is the people of the covenant: ‘Then you will know that I, Yahweh, am god—there is no other’ ” (pp. 233–34, italics his).