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.”

Written On The Human Heart

As the Ten Commandments move forward through history, one interesting assertion found throughout scripture is that just as the original law was written on stone, one day Yahweh will write them on human hearts.  Speaking of this new covenant, the prophet Jeremiah writes,

I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

This is an important image in scripture – the image of God writing the law not on stone, but on the human heart.  I summarize this in the introductory chapter of Ten Essential Words:

Stone tablets can break, ink smears and paper crumbles, hard drives can crash, and public displays can be outlawed.  But something written on the human heart has staying power.  That is because when it is written on your heart, it becomes a part of who you are.  The evidence is not so much in your words but in your actions  – in the way you live.  This is what God is getting at when he uses that phrase: that these commands penetrate all the way to the heart level.

As I mention in a previous post, I am reading a book entitled Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.  The author, John Walton, has many fascinating insights into the meanings behind the language of the Old Testament.  One of his comparative observations involves this image of something being written on the human heart and may shed more light on what the writers had in mind by employing this image.

We most often associate something being written on the heart with memorization.  If I memorize the Ten Commandments, I am writing them on my heart.  Walton points out several difficulties with this interpretation.

First, where this image is used in scripture, it is Yahweh who is doing the writing.  If memorization were the goal, we might expect the language to describe the action of the individual writing them on their own heart.  Next, the Hebrew word we translate as heart, is actually better translated in this context as the entrails or more specifically the liver.  This is a less than inspiring image for us moderns so we stick with the idea of the heart.  When taken together, along with some other grammatical issues, the image being conjured is that of divination, or the reading of entrails of a sacrificial animal.

Now divination is not looked favorably upon in scripture.  So why would the image of reading entrails be utilized here?  Why would this make sense?  Because it would have been a practice that the people were familiar with, being surrounded by cultures who engaged in such activity, as well as being tempted to dabble in such practices themselves.  Hence the need for Yahweh to prohibit it.

In essence, Yahweh is saying you need not engage in divination to understand the revelation of God.  You only need to read the signs that I have already made plain to those who have eyes to see.  In this case, it is not the memorization of Torah that is being emphasized, but the revelation of Torah.  If you want to understand the Ten Commandments, you need look no further than the people of God.  It should be written all over their lives!

The Name of God

The First Commandment states, ““I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.”  In an excerpt of chapter two of Ten Essential Words, I write that it is not the second part of that command that is important, but the first part, “I am YHWH your God.”  God is introducing himself to his people.  He is establishing a relationship with them by giving them the personal name of God.

I am reading a fascinating book by John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.  In this book, Walton purports a further nuance to this introduction by God.  This introduction does not necessarily indicate they have never heard the personal name of God before, though being dispersed throughout Egypt this many have been true for some.  Rather, God is introducing his new role among them – God is introducing “a function that they had not as yet experienced.”

The name YHWH can mean “to be” or I Am, but in that same sense it can mean “the God who creates” or brings into being.  When God says, “I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,” God is literally calling Israel into existence: “I am the God who is creating at this very moment!”  In the Ancient Near East, something did not exist until it had been “separated out as a distinct entity, given a function, and given a name.”  So it very well may be that by separating them out from Egypt, giving them the name Israel, and establishing a covenant with them, God is announcing his creation of them as a people.  “I am YHWH, the God who is creating.”  The Hebrew people may have existed before in the physical sense, but God was announcing that from this time forward, they would start living and having purpose.  He was bringing them into existence!