Review of Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature

ancient_texts_sparks.jpgKenton L. Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2005).

Although I intend to keep my book reviews reasonably current, I want to interact a bit with Sparks’s Ancient Texts because it will no doubt prove to become a major guide to research, and it fits very well with the general theme of this website.

This is not a book for the faint of heart, but a first-rate academic contribution to the field of Hebrew Bible and ANE literature. Over 500 pages in length (including tables, charts, and indices), the book outlines in fifteen chapters the sweep of literature from the ANE.

Each chapter represents a different genre of literature (except for chapter 1, which discusses Near-Eastern libraries and archives), and is subdivided by geographic location. Further subdivisions provide synopses of specific pieces of literature in very manageable chunks, complete with a bibliography. (Complete translations of many of the more important ANE texts may be found in Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Context of Scripture, both standard sources in OT studies.) Each chapter concludes with a general bibliography.

The amount of information distilled in this book is staggering. One downside, of course, is that a book such as this will have to be updated periodically, and my hope is that Hendrickson will do so, and by adding to the length of the volume rather than replacing older items.

Although this book is aimed at the specialist, it is still accessible. There are several points that are food for more general thought.

Sparks is an evangelical who teaches at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA. This book is not written in a vacuum but meant to aid on some level an evangelical understanding of what it means to read and understand the OT in context.

The point of the book, therefore, is not simply to catalog ANE texts for the sake of it, but as those texts pertain to the study of the OT. If anything, even a casual glimpse at the table of contents will strike one with the enormity of material that forms the general literary (and therefore intellectual, religious, political, etc.) world in which the OT was written. It is, in other words, a bit of a gut check.

Perhaps one of the more direct contributions toward that end is in Sparks’s introduction where he discusses genre. He makes numerous fine points here, but, in a nutshell, the discussion comes to this: understanding the OT properly is a matter of proper genre recognition, and proper genre recognition is an inevitable matter of comparative study. No need for the dust to settle on that observation: it is self-evident, in my opinion. But, Sparks’s concern (as I know from some of his other writings) is how little attention is paid to issues of genre among evangelicals when the rubber hits the road of thorny interpretive issues and genre decisions. This is an issue that Sparks addresses more specifically in his soon-to-be-released God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Baker), which I was able to skim at a prepublication stage.

Sparks’s discussion of genre can get a bit heavy in places for the general reader, but it is well worth working through the twenty-one pages (plus bibliography). His grasp of the issue is impressive and learned, and even a quick reading will open one’s mind to the complexities and rewards of genre analysis.

At any rate, Sparks has produced a most valuable guide to research, as well as a reminder of the importance of competence in ANE literature for OT interpretation.