A comparative study of the ancient Near Eastern cultures reveals that most of the traditions that the Israelites adhered to were similar to those of their neighbors. John Walton’s book is dedicated to an in-depth analysis of some of the important traditions, rituals, and beliefs that were held by these communities. In the end, it shows that an investigation of the cultures that surrounded the Israelite community can enable one to understand the Bible better.
Chapter one: History and Methods
Walton begins by looking at how the study of Assyrian culture impacted the understanding of the Old Testament. He examines the assertions of the scholars of the time, whose opinions were divergent regarding whether or not the Old Testament has its roots in a pagan culture. He gives the claim of Delitzsch as an example. He made the suggestion that the literature contained in the Bible was dependent on and resembled that which belonged to the pagan cultures. This assertion was met with a lot of opposition from the Assyriologists who were mostly Christians at the time. Later, however, these scientists embraced the secular stance of critical scholarship, and Delitzsch, once criticized for his thoughts, was now considered a trailblazer in comparative studies.
This, in turn, led to the division of scholars between the confessional Apologetics who used Assyriology to validate biblical assertions and the critics who thought that the Bible was only a mirror of what was presented in surrounding pagan literature and could not, therefore, be taken as an acceptable theological reference. In fact, Delitzsch’s teachings led to an ideology known as Pan-Babylonianism, which taught that all myths and biblical scriptures were merely versions of Babylonian mythology.
The negative consequence of this divide was that it distracted these scholars from the benefits of a comparative study which is the branch of cultural study that allows the researcher to explore the broader culture at the varied places or time so that he/she can learn facts from one to use in the understanding of another. This is important because all language is inextricably linked to the culture in which it is written, and to understand the Bible entirely, then a scholar needs to understand the culture of the time in which it has its roots. A comparative study is also useful in other spheres of theological studies, e.g. it allows students of the Bible to go beyond the mere contrast of the biblical religion with other faiths to the functional level of those differences and similarities.
Chapter Two: Comparative studies, scholarship, and theology
This chapter looks at how comparative studies revolutionized and challenged different scholarship camps. For the critical scholars, it contested the concept of evolution in literature which provided that older forms of literature evolved from primitive forms to become more sophisticated with time. This theory was challenged when a comparative study revealed the presence of sophisticated literature at earlier times. It is a comparative study that also overturned the critical assertion that older civilizations were not sophisticated for example, regarding literacy.
There is still resistance among critical circles on various bases. Among them are those who believe that the Bible is a single interpretative unit which does not require the intrusion of other studies to understand, another asserts that culture is singular and unique and is by its very nature incomparable while yet another is adamant that there are no actual events behind the Bible to reconstruct.
To the confessional scholars, a comparative study has also proved to be a bitter pill to swallow because it attempts to explain the biblical text which most of them hold sacred and unimpeachable. It revealed countless other literature written at the same time as the Old Testament and in some cases covering the same events, which detracted from the claims that the biblical narrative had been inspired.
Worse still, some literature by the other ancient near eastern writers predated that of the Bible. Confessional scholars are, therefore, also reticent in embracing comparative studies because the similarities that it reveals between the Bible and other literature threatens its credibility and also, some of them believe that the biblical text alone is all that is needed for interpretation. Be that as it may, comparative studies of ancient near eastern culture are considered very useful in proving some biblical information.
Chapter Three: Literature of the Ancient Near East
Walton provides an extensive summary of some of the ancient near eastern literature from various cultures. He begins with an analysis of their myths and he notes that the reality or not of a myth is not necessary; rather, the insight that it provides into the worldview of the people who consider it to be true or false. Walton further looks at the stories presented in different texts written by various ancient cultures. He looks at epics, letters, hymns, ritual texts, royal inscriptions, etc. He lists fifteen genres of ancient near eastern literature and gives examples from different cultures.
From the examples, it is evident that some of the genres that are listed e.g. hymns, songs, epics, ritual texts, are also present in the Old Testament scriptures. Furthermore, the accounts presented in these texts, though numerous and varied, contain certain similarities. For example, in the Gilgamesh account, after the death of the protagonist’s friend, Gilgamesh goes out in search of immortality and comes into contact with a survivor of the great flood which closely resembles the biblical account of the vast flood in Noah’s time. Another example is the birth legend of Sargon, which greatly resembles the biblical account of how Moses was placed in a basket and floated down a river to save his life. These accounts, therefore, reveal the importance of comparative study and how the understanding of the literature of one culture can be useful to the understanding of others produced at the same time.
Chapter Four: The Gods
In this chapter, Walton considers the gods of the ancient near eastern cultures and compares the understanding of their existence to that of Yahweh. He begins by asserting that these ancient cultures did not have a distinction between the natural and the spiritual as both these realms existed in parallel. This was the reason why they did not also have the concept of religion.
They considered the existence of a God to depend on his naming and function. Walton compares this practice with the biblical account of Moses and the burning bush where he asks Yahweh, what name should be used to refer to Him. This inquiry is explained by the tendency to use names and functions to conceptualize the existence of gods.
He also considered the presence of the gods within the cosmos. The Egyptian gods, for example, controlled some aspects of the cosmos even though they didn’t create them. Yahweh, on the other hand, is considered to have created everything within the natural realm. In addition to this, he also occupies the place of ultimate power over these creations. Finally, he contrasts the polytheism that was evident in other cultures to the monotheism that was required of the Israelites. The other cultures did not have any conception of false religions and false gods, and this is why they could not consider the worship of other gods as being wrong. This is, however, contrasted to the Israelite religion which instructed that only Yahweh should be worshiped and that the worship of other gods was tantamount to idolatry.
Chapter Five: Temples and Rituals
The author considers the importance of temples within the ancient near eastern cultures. The use of the temple as the residence of the deity cuts across all cultures, and it is also exemplified in the biblical narratives of God dwelling among his people through his residence in the temple. In other cultures, the idol was considered to symbolize the presence of a god.
The construction of the idol and the ritual that surrounded this construction were all relevant in ensuring that God would descend from the heavenly to the natural realms. These processes are also evidenced in the Bible in the description of the prophets who were criticizing their neighbors’ culture of idol making. Among the temple-like structures that Walton discusses is the ziggurat which was a tall building that was constructed for the purpose of aiding the god’s descent to the earth. Walton suggests that this is the building that is described in the biblical account of the Tower of Babel.
Further, the temple is a microcosm of the entire cosmos, and it contains various representations of the elements of the cosmos. The biblical Garden of Eden, i.e. the garden of God, is considered to be one such microcosm. Furthermore, the temple was also deemed to be the center from which the gods exercised their control, power, and order.
These benefits are echoed in the Bible by King Solomon when he was constructing the temple of God. About rituals, the other ancient cultures viewed them as an opportunity for humans to participate in maintaining order in the cosmos by providing sustenance for the God. Although these rituals were also present in the Israelite culture, the purpose of sacrifices was not to provide food but rather to give thanks.
Chapter Six: State and family religion
In all near eastern cultures, religion was not a personal endeavor but rather; it was a state or a family affair. Furthermore, the kings and priests played special roles in the worship of the deity. This is also reflected in the Israelite practice of worship. A distinction is, however, drawn in how the specific elements of worship were carried out. In the surrounding religions, worship was through caring for the needs of the idols, e.g. washing, clothing, and feeding them.
This is not the kind of care that was exhibited in Yahwism. Another contrast is also drawn where the worship of the idols was characterized by a lot of uncertainty because no one could claim to know what exactly their needs were. This uncertainty is not present in Israelite religion as their God was not as whimsical as those of their neighbors.
As a family endeavor, religion was mainly passed down through the ancestors. In Mesopotamia for example, religion was considered to be some sort of ancestral cult so that reference was also made to the gods of the forefathers. Parallels are drawn from the encounter that Abraham had with God and how he personalized his relationship with God and transmitted it to his descendants. As a state affair, the religion also demanded that the state officials participate actively in ensuring that the destinies of the gods are fulfilled.
Chapter Seven: Cosmic Geography
This chapter is mainly concerned with how the ancient cultures conceived the structure of the world around them. It is evident from the study that the worldview of the ancient cultures was greatly influenced by their ideology of linking existence with function. Mostly, a thing does not exist simply because it occupies space within the cosmos but it exists only if it has a function.
For example, they believed that the skies existed because they performed the function of holding up the waters above the earth. Ideally, the cosmos helped the gods to perform their duties. For instance, some cultures believed that the mountains were used to hold up the sky. Likewise, the sun was not just considered to disappear in the evenings but rather, it journeyed to the netherworlds where it would stay until it rose again the next day.
There are also similarities between these conceptions of the cosmos and the information that is presented in the Bible. For example, the people in Mesopotamia believed that the stars were engraved on the undersurface of the sky. This idea is also present in the book of Job where the stars are described as having been “sealed” or “engraved”. Also, their conceptions of the netherworld are similar in that most of them consider it to take the structure of a city. For example, in Mesopotamia, it is said to be a city with a sociopolitical structure like any other.
Chapter Eight: Cosmology and Cosmogony
In this chapter, the author still pursues the function-oriented conception of existence. He opines that this is the only way that one can understand the creation of stories. This theme is identified within the creation story in the bible. Moreover, there is no narrative of any of the ancient cultures which provide for things. The context in all the narratives alludes to a functional orientation of creation. Walton also looks at the precosmic condition in the narratives of the near eastern cultures which reveal that the opposite of the cosmos is chaos.
This is considered to be the state that the earth was in before its constituent elements were formed. The precosmic situation in these cultures is therefore not a place of abstraction. A keen interpretation of the Bible also supports this idea. The earth is described as being formless and empty at the time of creation. Using the knowledge of the Near Eastern cultures, this statement should be taken to mean that the earth was devoid of function and purpose.
Separation and naming are also considered to be important sub-processes of the overall process of coming into existence. In the Bible, disengagement and naming are, likewise, central to the way in which God created the earth and the things in it. The author revisits the significance of the temple to the cosmos. The belief of the temple being a microcosm of the ordered cosmos is important because it is the place of rest of the deity from where He exercises control and power over the cosmos.
Chapter Nine: Understanding the past
Human Origins and Role
In the comparison of other cultures with that of the Israelite community, the study of their human origins stories reveals that it is only the biblical account that provides for progenitors of the human race. All the other cultures viewed the creation of humankind as a collective process. These stories also differ in what they consider is the ingredients that make up the human being. In some, the man was made from the parts of an enemy deity, i.e. his flesh and blood while in others, he is molded from clay. The Egyptian and Israelite accounts provide that he has the breath of the deity. The biblical account is, however, unique in that man is connected to the deity through the role that he is given.
In addition to this, the ancient cultures also acknowledged the division of the human being into various parts although there is not much congruence in the numbers or forms of these parts. Even theologians are not decided on whether the human being is divided into the body, soul, and spirit or the body/soul and spirit. In Mesopotamia, the human being was divided into the human ghost, which came from the flesh of the deity that created him and the intellect, which came from the deity’s blood. Despite these differences, all the cultures agree on the idea that man is formed in the image of God and is placed on the earth to carry out specific roles. These roles are what bind the human race together in service to the gods.
Chapter Ten: Understanding the past
This is a study of the way that the ancient cultures recorded the history of their people. Walton asserts that to understand the history of these cultures, it is important to identify their worldview because this impacts heavily on the way that a historian records events. The ancient cultures gave preeminence to the role of the deity in daily occurrences. Their records of historical events were, therefore, replete with transcendental elements. After the enlightenment period, however, this system of recording history was rejected, and the only account that was considered acceptable was that which would be proved by empirical evidence.
The significance also informed the ancient view of history that they attached to it and the way that they viewed time. For example, whereas the modern conception of time is linear, theirs was filled with themes of recurrence and endurance. Also, they viewed the knowledge of history as an opportunity to get social coherence. Their interest, therefore, was not in its accuracy but rather, what they could gather and learn from it. In this way, they made allowance for human error. Furthermore, their focus was on the outcomes or goals that the historical narratives were aimed at and not the event themselves. Therefore, their narratives have a teleological agenda which is the result of the divine purpose that is embedded in a particular account.
Chapter Eleven: Encountering the Present
Guidance for life – Divinations and omens
There was no distinguishing between the spiritual and natural realm in ancient near eastern cultures. Their daily activities were naturally infused with activities from the heavenly realms. Among these spiritual influences were prophecies, which could either be inspired or deductive. Many inspired prophesies came in the form of dreams, and this is also seen in numerous accounts of the Bible where God used the medium of dreams to communicate with people like Joseph and Jacob. In Israel however, the validity of the interpretation of a dream was only considered to be valid if God was involved in it. In this regard, the stories of Joseph and Daniel are instructive. The other surrounding cultures, however, had recorded systems of how specific dreams were to be interpreted.
Although the Israelite culture allowed for inspired divination, deductive divination was forbidden. Deductive divination was also considered to derive from the divine, but it would be presented on things that could be seen e.g. on the entrails of a dead animal. Most of the other communities in the ancient near eastern region practiced this kind of divination. The distinction between divination and omens was that divination was meant to provide wisdom while omens contained power and in most cases, the thread that connected an individual to the portended evil of an omen had to be cut for this power to be released. On most occasions, they took the form of warnings issued by gods thus making them more harmful. Just like prophecies, they could also be organized and recorded for future use.
Chapter Twelve: Encountering the present
Context of life- Cities and Kingship
In this chapter, the author looks at how the ancient cultures viewed the cities- the symbols of urbanization. In Mesopotamia and Egypt for example, the cities were considered as having been created for and belonging to the gods. Furthermore, the government and all political power were exercised through the city-state. In fact, when power descended from the gods, it was first received in the city. National states were considered to be an extension of the cities. Most importantly, cities had a close relationship with the temples and the gods.
The patron deity of a city was believed to have been the one that constructed the city. More specifically, in some cultures, temples would only be located within a city. When contrasted with Israel, this idea is not wholly developed because they only had one temple but it is significant that the only temple that they had was found within the city of Jerusalem.
Walton also considers the significance of Kingship in these cultures. Although the king was considered to rule through divine sponsorship, it is only the biblical narrative that contains an agreement/covenant establishing the king’s rule. Be that as it may, all the cultures agreed that the role of the king was to carry out the will of the deity and to exercise authority over his domain.
However, in the other surrounding cultures, the king was almost always considered to belong to the spiritual realm whereas, in the Israelite conception, he was firmly placed in the natural realm and was entirely human. Also, in the other cultures there were Kings over some of the gods while in Israel, there was no room for such an idea as Yahweh was considered to be the only God.
Chapter Thirteen: Encountering the present
Guidelines for life – Law and Wisdom
This chapter looks at the laws and codes that ordered the way of life of the people in the ancient world. A study of the available literature reveals that some of these cultures did not have the law as it is understood in the modern society i.e. written regulations that guided one’s behavior. Instead, they were supposed to conform to previous decisions that had been made in the administration of justice and which were considered to be just. Instead of the modern conception of justice as that which adheres to the law, they considered as just that which adhered to tradition.
Comparing this with the Pentateuch, it is evident that the structure that the biblical laws take is widely divergent from that which is presented in the treatises of the ancient cultures of that time. Only a few of its records can be characterized as the wise verdicts which formed a bulk of the legal literature in the other cultures. In Israel, the law mostly consisted of stipulations that were derived from the covenant with God whereas, in the neighboring cultures, these treatises were based on jurisprudence.
In these cultures, therefore, the king was not a law-giver but rather, he was expounding his judicial wisdom by the decisions that he made. Examinations of the documents that contain the words of wisdom also show that the common theme of divine retribution was present in all the cultures. The difference, however, is that in the Israelite community, wisdom was considered to derive from God.
Chapter Fourteen: Pondering the future on Earth and after Death
On an individual level, the hope for the future was usually represented by making conquests on the earth or siring the next generation so that one’s lineage would not die out. On a national level, very few cultures believed in a better life after the present in the sense of a utopian dream. Most of them merely believed in perseverance until a difficult situation was over.
Israel on the other hand, constantly lived with the hope of a new world under the promised Messiah. In their conception of the afterlife, Egyptians believed that death was a threat to the unity of the body which could be surmounted by the means of certain rituals. The mummification process was, therefore, designed to achieve this reintegration of the interior community. In Mesopotamia, there was a community of the dead where the ghost traveled to but if the body was not buried, then the ghost would not find this community and would be restless forever.
In the ancient cultures, the living maintained contact with the dead through taking care of them e.g. by pouring libations. Other forms of contact were also sought after through necromancers when the life needed information about the future. In the Bible, such contact is cast in a negative light and is discouraged. However, several texts indicate that even the Israelites acknowledged the potency of such activities and occasionally engaged in them. Finally, with regards to punishment for acts committed in this life, the ancient cultures did not believe that the netherworld was a place of punishment but rather, a place of communion with their ancestors. In contrast, the Israelites linked one’s felicity in the afterlife to their adherence with the covenant.
In the last chapter, Walton defends his decision to look into the ancient near eastern cultures by alluding to the insights that have been gleaned from the study. Of importance are the similarities that have been discovered between the culture of the ancient eastern communities and the Israelite community. Where there has been a divergence in practices and beliefs, he has attributed this to the difference in the environment.
He also states that his intention was not to enable the reader to enter the mind of a person that existed in the ancient near eastern region, but rather, to avail them with the numerous insights that are opened by understanding the cognitive environment of the people that one is studying. A cognitive environment cannot be borrowed or mimicked, but rather it is shaped by a particular culture by forces that are carried from one generation to the next.
It is this factor that brings about the differences in Israel’s narratives and those of its neighbors. For example, its epistemology is shaped by the belief that God had spoken to them. With regards to anthropology, they believed that their human dignity was derived from the relationship that they had with God by having been created in his image. Their historiography was centered on the faithfulness of God. On the whole, therefore, the intrusion of God into their cognitive environment is what brings out the salient differences between their narratives and those of other ancient near eastern cultures.