Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (continued)

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the OTJohn H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the
Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Baker, 2006).

An area of significant interest for me is how a study of the Ancient Near Eastern (hereinafter ANE) world affects our understanding of the OT/Hebrew Bible. To be clear, I do not mean simply noting new discoveries in the ANE and how those discoveries might help flesh out an issue or two. Rather, as Walton notes, it is an issue of understanding the “conceptual world” of the OT and how such an understanding helps reorient us in our expectations of how to understand the OT as a whole.

Walton is without question one of the preeminent evangelical ANE scholars in America. There are others to mention, to be sure, but what I have always appreciated about Walton is his sensitivity to the fact that our study of the ANE actually does/should affect how we look at Scripture. Although the focus of this book is a description of the ANE world (itself written in an accessible style and a wonderful contribution to a studentʼs library), Walton spends a fair amount of time discussing how a study of the ANE relates to the OT.

He does this through a series of “call out boxes,” which he calls “Comparative Exploration.” These are grey shaded boxes, some running several pages, that, well, explore aspects of comparison between the ANE and the OT.

Let me say that I recommend this book warmly to an evangelical audience. I do not see this book being considered by others, namely because Waltonʼs concern is to bring these issues to an evangelical audience. Also, the issues of comparative exploration he raises are old hat for those well versed in these issues.

There are a number of extremely important and interesting issues that Walton raises, not only in the body of the book, but in the Comparative Exploration sections. First, I would like to reproduce the table of contents, which will give readers a very clear view of the breadth of topics Walton covers.

Part 1 Comparative Studies
1. History and Methods
Comparative Studies, Scholarship, and Theology

Part 2 Literature of the Ancient Near East
3. Summary of the Literature of the Ancient Near East

Part 3 Religion
4 .The Gods
5. Temples and Rituals
6. State and Family Religion

Part 4 Cosmos
7. Cosmic Geography
8. Cosmology and Cosmogony

Part 5 People
9. Understanding the Past: Human Origins and Role
10. Understanding the Past: Historiography
11. Encountering the Present: Guidance for Life–Divination and Omens
12. Encountering the Present: Context of Life–Cities and Kingship
13. Encountering the Present: Guideline for Life–Law and Wisdom
14. Pondering the Future on Earth and after Death

As one can see, in the span of about 350 pages, Walton has provided a very concise and accessible accounting of the world in which the OT arose. This will prove to be an extremely valuable resource for seminary and graduate school students as a primer of sorts for the essentials of ANE thought. To be sure, the diversity of ANE thought, which includes several nations, each of which developed over the millennia, is itself a topic of rich academic exploration. Walton is well aware of this fact, and so is well-suited for boiling down complex issues for consumption for non-specialists.

Moreover, Walton is to be applauded for not only his willingness but his commitment to engaging how our understanding of the ANE affects our understanding of the OT. Not every evangelical scholar is so committed to bringing the richness of ANE study to bear on evangelical thinking. One after the other, the Comparative Explorations bring readers face to face with a world that most really do not understand, but that provides invaluable information for having a more accurate understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. Walton sets the tone in a number of places in chapter 2, which lays out much of his approach. For example, in criticizing a more defensive/polemical approach on the part of confessional scholars (i.e., those who confess Scripture as Godʼs word) toward comparative studies, Walton writes, “…it is not uncommon for traditional interpreters to believe that the divine authorship of Scripture is mitigated if the human input into the text is used to arrive at an interpretation. Inspiration, in their view, lifts the text above its human element” (p. 36). This is not simply a caricature, but, as I have found, a fairly common mindset among evangelicals, even in cases among some scholars. Walton concludes chapter 2 with the following admonition: “More important are the many occasions in which core meaning of the text is misinterpreted for lack of assistance from the ancient Near East. This role of comparative studies is the principle focus of this book, so many examples will be offered in the following chapters. I would contend that while the committed reader of the Bible may find excuses not to care about comparative studies in the critical or defensive roles, he or she cannot overlook its importance for interpretation. If we do not bring the information from the ancient cognitive environment to bear on the text, we will automatically impose parameters of our modern worldview, thus risking serious distortion of meaning” (p. 40). Statements such as these represent Waltonʼs general posture toward the material being considered, and I am in agreement.

That being said, however, one criticism I have is Waltonʼs failure, at some crucial and perennially perplexing points, to connect the dots between the evidence and the conclusions drawn with respect to the nature of Scripture. To put it a bit more directly, with respect to Waltonʼs efforts in his “Comparative Explorations” sections, there are numerous places where, in my view, he drops the ball theologically. It may be best to illustrate this with examples (and I will limit myself to two).

(1) On pages 94-95, Walton discusses Yahwehʼs council, i.e., the references in the OT to a “court” of heavenly beings (Pss 29, 82, 89; 1 Kings 22; Gen 1:26; 3:22; 11:7). As expected, Walton does a very nice job in laying out succinctly the data and the general issues. Several comments, however, would seem to spark some interest for readers who might be new to all this, for example: “From the Old Testament itself, it would be clear that the Israelites thought in terms of a divine council (at least 1 Kings 22 is clear).” The ANE evidence actually helps us understand something of these OT passages that had been “previously opaque.” It also helps guard us against a common Christian tendency to read these OT plurals (e.g., “let us make man”) as references to the Trinity. This is fine, but it leaves unanswered just what we are to make of this council in the OT. Walton suggests in a footnote that the “members of the council are sometimes referred to as ʻthe sons of God,ʼ similar to the Ugaritic designation of the council as ʻthe sons of El.ʼ” But does not this very connection with Ugaritic mythology scream out for an explanation for how our Bible can look so similar? To be fair, Walton does provide a general orientation: “Confessional scholars would not think in terms of God revealing the concept of a divine council to Israel. It is just there in the background, not necessarily borrowed from the broader culture, but simply part of how people thought in the ancient world. Nevertheless, the thinking about it is adjusted in the BIble so that it is in line with revelation about the nature of God.”

The unstated assumptions and unanswered questions in this last quote, however, could fill many pages of discussion, but let me point out some of the more salient pressure points. (1) How is it easier theologically if the concept of a divine council is only assumed rather than revealed? The question remains, is there actually a divine council, and what in the world is it doing in the Bible? Also, the fact that the divine council rears its head (or their heads) numerous times in the OT sounds to me like God is revealing something.(2) I agree that the concept is not borrowed but simply forms part of the ANE conceptual landscape, but again, this does not ease the theological problems of Scripture raised by a depiction of a world that is, well, not “real” but simply an accommodation to an ANE mythic worldview. The question remains, why does our Bible act this way? (3) It is not at all clear how this background material is “adjusted” in the Bible to be “more in line with revelation about the nature of God.” This would have to be demonstrated very carefully (which Walton does not do, and his comment here reads almost like a throwaway line). Moreover, if Walton were to demonstrate this, he would have to be careful not to undercut the major point of the book: the OT conceptual world participates in the ANE conceptual world.

In other words, what do we, as contemporary readers of Scripture, “take away” from the presence of a divine council in the OT? Walton is to be applauded for undermining a purely defensive posture, and he makes positive overtures, but, in my view, they do not go far enough. What are the theological and doctrinal implications of the fact that Yahweh has a divine council, whether or not such a notion is “adjusted” for Israelite consumption?

(2) On pages 124-25, Walton discusses the Garden of Eden and wastes little time connecting the biblical story with the “well known” ANE depiction of “a sacred spot featuring a spring with an adjoining, well-watered park, stocked with specimens of trees and animals.” He continues, in a manner that for me lacks some clarity, by stating that the biblical geography is “real” but its significance is cosmic. Hence, the four rivers are “real bodies of water,” but “their description concerns their cosmic roles.” What this means is not really clear to me. Moreover, just below Walton refers to the Garden not as a garden for man but as an “archetypal sanctuary” that reflects the tabernacle and temple. “…the garden is understood to be comparable to the antechamber of the holy of holies (Eden) in the cosmic complex. It is presented as a real place, but the significance of it is to be found in what it represents theologically and literally.” I find this statement to be somewhat inconsistent, especially in view of the remainder of the essay. How can Walton say, somewhat casually, that Eden is depicted as a real place when the point of his essay is to show the cosmic symbolism that Genesis shares with the ANE? Is the biblical garden presented in any more a “real” way than the “well known” ANE depictions of similar sacred spots? Why should we take Eden as physical and the other garden as only of cosmic significance? Again, I greatly appreciate Waltonʼs larger point, that the Garden of Eden has ANE analogues, a point about which many evangelicals are still, surprisingly, unaware. But Walton falls far short, in my opinion, of drawing out the theological significance of these analogues. The theological implications are, in my view, worth exploring (if I may understate).

These criticisms should not detract from my overall appreciation for Waltonʼs work. There is, in my opinion, no one better suited in the evangelical world to bring the ANE and OT worlds into conversation with each other and to make those insights available to the popular evangelical world. The book is worthy of a far more lengthy review than I can give it here (perhaps even a review article interacting with more of the “Comparative Exploration” sections). As I have tried to express in various venues, the specialization in the fields of biblical studies, theology, etc., is not a helpful development, especially in a post-religious world. I would love to see come serious attempts at cross-fertilization, where much dialogue ensues, and Christian scholars are on the same page of trying to articulate issues that pertain to how we think about Scripture. Waltonʼs book would benefit, I feel, from interaction with theologians. At least as much, theologians would benefit from keeping Waltonʼs book on their desks and opening it once in a while before lecturing on the doctrine of Scripture.