I just finished poring over John Walton’s masterful book, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. He offers a thorough comparison between Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought and literature, and the Bible. His main thesis is that the early Hebrew receivers of the Old Testament text were people of their day. They shared a “common cognitive environment” with that of the Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians and Hittites around them. However, they had a key difference. In Walton’s words: “Israel had its covenant with its one God, Yahweh, who spoke through his covenant and the prophets, who were its guardians and champions” (p. 332).
Many conservative Bible students today are leery of these conclusions. They are concerned that the Bible’s uniqueness be preserved and they are wary of modern scholarship’s consensus that there was borrowing from other ANE literature (such as the Flood story in Gilgamesh and elsewhere). Walton speaks to this concern by painstakingly showing what difference the Bible actually communicates against the backdrop of other ANE thought-systems. As an example, take the creation of humanity. In the Bible, people were created not on a whim by indifferent rival deities, but by a loving God. But the fact that people were created in the image of God is important, as that concept was universally understood by the ancients, and often expressed using similar words to what the Hebrew record contains. Walton explains: “Across the ancient world, the image of God did the work of God on the earth” (p. 212). Function and purpose more so than ontology or anthropology is in view.
Other examples of shared ANE ideas include:
- Cosmology: A fixed earth (on pillars), surrounded by water and high mountains with a hard dome above (the sky) separating the waters above from the waters below. It is through windows or gates in this “firm”-ament, that rain falls to earth. God sits above the dome – in the sphere above the earth. The sun and moon rotate around the earth, and the stars are etched on the bottom of the dome and rotate in cycles.
- A divine council: Yahweh’s council is not of equal gods clamoring for a vote, He is the Actor; but He is pictured with a council in several passages, likely due to the shared ideas about a divine council. The Bible’s picture of Yahweh’s council speaks directly to ANE thought, offering a contrast in how Yahweh rules.
- Prophecy and pronouncements of doom or blessing: The prophets of the Bible find numerous parallels in the ancient world – yet true prediction and the central role of the covenant to Israel’s experience, are unique.
- Teaching through compiling lists of similar subjects: The Bible has much that modern reader find repetitious – but this was a characteristic of ANE literature. Keeping lists of judicial decisions (also referred to as law codes), and other lists of wisdom sayings, etc., was a common teaching tool.
- Proverbs and wisdom literature: ANE thought abounds with proverbs and wise sayings, many of which are eerily similar to what one finds in the Bible’s book of Proverbs. The book of Job, while often seeming strange to modern readers, is an example of standard genre of literature in the near east: a theodicy. Unlike ANE theodicies, however, the central figure does not ultimately find a capricious god who has no innate claims to being just. Yahweh vindicates his actions, and the reader can see there is a purpose behind Job’s pain.
I am sure to be over-simplifying the matter in some of my examples above. (The book goes into so much more detail on each of these points, and many besides). At times, all of this can be overwhelming. This is a text-book, after all; and as such space is devoted to a detailed description of all the major surviving ANE bodies of literature! But the sidebars (which compare the Bible’s approach on various subjects with ANE thought), the careful arrangement of material, and the extensive index all make the book more useful as a resource, and more accessible to the average joe.
Many of Walton’s conclusions warrant good hard thinking, and I don’t imagine everyone will follow him on all points. But his approach will change the way you think about certain passages of Scripture. I found many of his insights to be incredibly helpful. His discussion on Joshua 10 and the “sun standing still” highlights the role of apposition (a full moon appearing in the sky before the sun sets) as a “good omen” in ANE thought. He also argues (as he does in The Lost World of Genesis One) that when it comes to creation, the ancients thought in terms of function, name and purpose, rather than on the “substance” or physical/scientific “existence” which is our primary concern. This leads him to notice how the light created in day 1 is called “yom” (normally translated as “day” throughout Genesis 1). He contends the creation of the “stuff” of light (its physical makeup) is likely not in view — instead the creation of time, or periods of time, is what would be important to ANE readers.
Another example is his discussion of Jeremiah 31:33 and the idea of the Torah being “written on the heart.” He points out that what may very well be in view here is the common practice of looking for omens by reading the internal organs of a slaughtered animal — this practice is known as extispicy. Unlike some passages in the OT that have individuals writing something down on their heart (where memory and mnemonic learning is likely implied), in Jeremiah it is Yahweh writing the law on Israel’s heart. The terms used are similar to those used in ANE passages about extispicy. A fuller excerpt may both illustrate Walton’s style and help us understand this particular point:
The revelation that is sought out in extispicy proceedings is for guidance in major decisions and understanding of the intentions and will of deity. If Yahweh were writing the torah on the heart of Israel, he would be providing the same sort of guidance…. how does having the torah written on the heart differ from having it written on stone tablets? If the metaphor is from the world of extispicy, the text indicates that with God’s instructions/law written on the heart of his people, there would be no need for continuing guidance to teach God’s law [editor note: see Jer. 31:34]…. God would be known through his people who would be living out the law faithfully. People with the law written on their heart become a medium of communication [emphasis original]. Writing on the heart replaces not the law, but the teaching of the law. The law on stone had to be taught and could be ignored. The law on the heart represents a medium of modeling, in which case it is not being ignored. In this interpretation of the metaphor, then, the heart is a medium, not a repository. The metaphor would be one of revelation, not of memory. (p. 258)
So in light of the preceding, does the Bible borrow from ANE literature? Is it just another old book that happened to survive? Walton’s answer would be no. He repeatedly points out that it is the “common cognitive environment” that is shared by the Bible and other ANE works of literature. There is no direct borrowing, and the complexities of how different ideas influenced different cultures cannot easily be traced. What is clear is that the OT confronts ANE culture even as it borrows much from that cognitive environment. It traces out clear lines of discontinuity with the culture of its day, yet does not purport to update the thinking of ancients when it comes to science, ontology and sociology. Instead, the Bible reveals Yahweh and His covenant to Israel and calls Israel to live distinctly in their own culture.
This question of ANE influence on the Bible is a point of contention in today’s world. Walton will equip you to face the question dead-on and come away with an even greater appreciation for just what the Bible has to offer. Being aware of what type of literature forms the Old Testament’s cognitive background can help us approach the text with more understanding. I greatly benefited from this book, and recommend it highly to any who teach or preach from the Old Testament.
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