Book Review: Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by John Walton

This a very well done book. It really pulled the shades off my eyes considering the Old Testament and the people of that time (I’ll refer to them as ancients from here on out). If you’re interested in understanding more about the context in which the Old Testament was written (and therefore help us understand the meaning of the text much much better) this is a very good book to do it with. Walton is a professor of OT at Wheaton. I’ll just bring out a few big points that I thought were fantastic.

One of the points is the value of this kind of study, some would call it comparative, or cultural studies.

When we study and ancient text, we cannot make words mean whatever we want them to, or assume that they meant the same to the ancient audience that they do to a modern audience. Language itself is a cultural convention, and since the Bible and other ancient documents use language to communicate, they are bound to a culture. As interpreters, then, we much adapt to the language/culture matrix of the ancient world as we study the Old Testament. pg 20

One big illustration that we can miss is the story of Job. This story had a larger impact on the initial peoples that wrote, read, and heard it. Why? Because it is a story that revolves around cultural norms. When we educate ourselves about the other peoples and cultures of the time, we find that Job’s friends represent exactly these viewpoints. And Job does not hold these views. Whom does God praise and exalt? Job. In a very simple point, God is telling through this story that his perogatives are different than the other gods and the rest of the peoples. Another simple example is the tower of Babel. I know in the past I’ve concluded that the people did it as a way to reach heaven, to ascend in some way. But comparative studies show us that the reasons for making such a building is actually for the gods to descend to the earth and get involved. Usually there was a temple at the foot of the ziggurat.

I thought this realization was amazing:

There is no such word as ‘religion’ in the languages of the ancient Near East. Likewise, there is no dichotomy between sacred and secular, or even between natural and supernatural. The only suitable dichotomy is between spiritual and physical, though even that would be a less meaningful distinction to them than it is to us. In the end, there is a distinction between the heavenly realm and the earthly one, but events in the two were often intertwined or parallel… Life was religion and religion could not be compartmentalized within life. pg87

If only we had that same attitude towards Christianity – that it would pervade every aspect of our lives instinctively!

Walton spent a lot of time on comsology (what we could call the study of creation) in the ancient world as well, and I’m very thankful for it. He points out that the ancients were not consumed specifically with how things worked, what ingredients things were made of – but rather the reasons behind them, the functions they served, and why it was important. This isn’t a slight on the intelligence of the people either. Some ancient structures like the pyramids are intellectual marvels that with all our technology we would have incredible trouble replicating – these ancients were smart.

In the ancient world something came into existence when it was separated out as a distinct entity, given a function, and given a name… The gods exist on earth only through their functions. “On earth… the gods live only in images, in the king as an image of god, in cult images in the temples, and in sacred animals, plants and objects.” pg 88, 89

I want to do a bunch of work looking at genesis based on this information – something that is far too large to do here and now.

New gods come into existence as they take over the function of older gods pg 91

I find that particularly interesting because it doesn’t say that the old god was destroyed, uninterested, or left – but rather that a new name came onto the scene performing the same job, replacing the older god.

One of the distinctives in Israel is that YHWH is their only God. They will not trust in any other power to sustain them. YHWH is able to be their warrior, their God of fertility, their God concerned with their success personally. In all other ancient cultures, the family would have their own god (remember Rachael taking Laban’s image of his god). This family god took care of the family’s health, success, business, and general well-being. YHWH started as a family God – with Abraham. He followed that family until it became a tribe, and eventually a monarchy – all the way through to their exile, return, and into the New Testament. When the first commandment says ‘thou shalt have no other gods before me’ – it means precisely this. You will not trust in anyone else to take care of you. I am your provider in every aspect. YHWH was angry with Israel when they went to Egypt for help in wartime without going to YHWH. Israel did not trust in YHWH for all – and this angered YHWH.

Another distinctive about YHWH is the lack of theogony (creation of god). All other cultures describe the creation of their gods when they describe the creation of the cosmos (cosmos = order, not universe as we think of it). YHWH is ever existing, He is not created, He has always been.

There is a lot more to write about, but this will have to do for now!

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