What I’m Reading: Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament

I cannot recall when or why I added this book to my Amazon wish list – it was probably footnoted in some other book I had read –  but it resided there for quite some time before I finally picked it up.  I even began reading it about six months ago and got sidetracked reading other things.  So I was pleasantly surprised when I finally worked my way through Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by John Walton.

In this book, Walton does a comparative study of the Old Testament along side other cultures of the time to see what can be drawn from the literature of the Ancient Near East (ANE).  Being a comparative study, Walton does not offer an apologetic of ancient Judaism, nor does he try to establish which cultures may have borrowed stories from their neighbors, sorting fact from fiction.  Rather he sets out to establish some commonalities to better understand the writings that make up the Hebrew scriptures: “There is simply common ground across the cognitive environment of the cultures of the ancient world.”

As Walton’s insights relate to the Ten Commandments, I have already shared some observations on my Ten Essential Words site.  I encourage you to check out my posts Written On The Human Heart and The Name of God for these thoughts.  Otherwise, here are some key points I took from this book.

  • “There is no such word as ‘religion’ in the languages of the ancient Near East.”  What we today call superstition was in the ANE a recognition that deities were active in the world around them and most every event could be interpreted as the workings of a deity.  The categories of sacred/secular and natural/supernatural are ones that we have come up with relatively recently, and I wonder if it is a good or bad thing.  Certainly we have more scientific and naturalistic explanations for everyday phenomena, but at the same time has this dulled us to the spiritual world?  A popular expression today is, “I am spiritual, but not religious.”  This would be utter nonsense to the world of the Old Testament.  Nowadays, we live compartmentalized lives keeping science, religion, politics, ethics, and even faith all at a safe distance from one another.  Perhaps it is time to reintegrate our modern lives.  As Walton summarizes, “Life was religion and religion could not be compartmentalized within life.”
  • The role of ethics and morality in the ANE.  Walton uses morality to mean inner convictions and ethics to refer to societal expectations.  While some may contest these definitions, I believe they are helpful ones.  Most of the cultures of the ANE operated on the basis of ethics, and this was a major distinction between Israel and the surrounding cultures.  In giving the Ten Commandments, Yahweh was making a covenant with Israel and that covenant was shaped by morality.  The Old Testament throughout stresses the importance of the condition of the heart – morality, and not ethics.  I wonder about the implications of this dichotomy for our culture today, where political correctness (ethics) rules and those in power get to define what that means.
  • What the gods want.  The gods of the ANE were unpredictable, easily offended, and often harsh in their anger.  Circumstances could help one perceive that a god might be angry or offended, but rarely would the actual offense be known.  Thus, the role of prayer and ritual was to appease the gods.  “This is the plight of those who live in a world without revelation.”  And this is another area in which Israel’s path diverged from that of its neighbor.  That Yahweh could be known and prayer could help one understand what pleased and offended Yahweh represented a new way of relating to deity.  Today, as people of faith, we can take for granted things like prayer, revelation, and morality, but these practices represent a major step forward from other ancient religions and even from much of what passes as spirituality today.

While Walton set out to do a comparative study of the cultures of the ANE, I found myself doing my own critical study between the Old Testament and today’s culture.  There are many points where it can be questioned whether much of our enlightenment has led us in the right direction.  I leave you with one final quote from Walton that captures this tension:

A modern empiricist historian’s response to ancient transcendent historiography might be; “it has not provided information that is reliable, since it is so full of deity.”  The ancient historians’s response to modern empiricist historiography might be: “it has not provided information that is worthwhile, since it is so empty of deity.”


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