Book Write-Up: Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context

John H. Walton.  Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context: A Survey of Parallels Between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts.  Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library (Zondervan Publishing House), 1989.  See here to buy the book.

In Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context, evangelical biblical scholar John H. Walton compares and contrasts the writings in the Hebrew Bible with writings from the ancient Near East, particularly Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Walton argues that there are differences between the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near Eastern documents.  Some examples:

—-The Hebrew Bible promotes the worship of one god, who is believed to be supreme.  Mesopotamian documents presume the existence of many gods, who may act contrary to one another.  The ancient Egyptian documents regard the Pharaoh as a deity.

For Walton, these differences in belief had a practical impact.  Why does the Psalmist complain before God about life’s injustices, whereas ancient Near Eastern Psalms do not, so much?  According to Walton, it is because the Psalmist believed in one supreme, just God, so he expected for there to be justice.  Regarding the Egyptians, why did they not have law codes, as the Mesopotamians did?  According to Walton, it was because they thought that the Pharaoh was a god: why have a law code, when a god is sitting right there on the throne, making rulings and dispensing justice?  Why is prophecy not as salient of a phenomenon in ancient Egypt?  Again, according to Walton, it is because of the ancient Egyptian belief that the Pharaoh was a god: why have prophets telling the king a god’s will, when the king himself is a god?  Still, according to Walton, the Pharaoh offered sacrifices to gods in an attempt to uphold maat, or order.

—-According to Walton, the historical writings in the Hebrew Bible organize information in reference to Israel’s covenant with God, which differs from stories, epics, and histories in the ancient Near East (even if they share some elements).  Israel is judged over her faithfulness or lack thereof to her God.  Walton argues that the Hebrew Bible could have gotten the idea of a covenant from second millennium B.C.E. Hittite treaties, in which people entered into a treaty with a suzerain.  The idea of a national covenant with a god, or at least the emphasis on that concept, is unique to Israel, as far as Walton is concerned.  (Walton at the end of the book says: “There may be other peoples who would have said that their god singled them out for special blessing, saying, ‘I will be your God and you will be my people,’ but in no other culture does that mean so much and serve as a theological premise for so long.”  Walton refers to D.I. Block’s 1988 book, The Gods of the Nations.)  Israel gives her history a central theme, the covenant, and her God responds to Israel in reference to specific requirements for Israel’s behavior.  With ancient Near Eastern gods, by contrast, it was not always clear which god was acting or why a god was acting as he or she was.

—-Ancient Near Eastern prophecies tended to be short-term, and they focused on the nation.  Prophecies in the Hebrew Bible, by contrast, could have a longer-term focus and include God’s plan for the other nations of the world.  So says Walton.  Walton acknowledges, though, that there is apocalyptic-like literature in the ancient Near East.  A document may predict a coming king who will set things right, establish order, and assist the cult, but this document is actually promoting the reigning king: it is political propaganda for the status quo, put in the mouth of someone in the past.  Biblical apocalyptic literature, by contrast, does not endorse the status quo but hopes for God’s intervention to bring justice.

—-According to Walton, the ancient Near East had a concept of justice, including for the poor.  That was a part of the beneficial order of the world.  The gods were not obligated to be just, however; it was simply a gift that they bestowed on human beings.  Mesopotamian kings were to demonstrate to a god that they were ruling the realm justly, which was the purpose of law codes.  But Walton distinguishes ancient Near Eastern justice from the biblical God’s morality and enforcement thereof.  Ancient Near Eastern justice appears to be pragmatic, for Walton: it was about maintaining a beneficial order.  Egyptian Pharaohs enforced maat, or order.  The Egyptian concept, according to Walton, was probably closer to the biblical concept of a righteous god upholding morality.  At the same time, while there was an Egyptian view that people would be judged in the afterlife according to their moral conduct, people could buy off a god to get a good afterlife.   Walton also says that the biblical sort of criticism of cult without ethics is not apparent in ancient Near Eastern literature.  According to Walton, ancient Near Eastern literature emphasized ritual over ethics when it came to the gods’ expectations on people, since ritual appeased and sustained the gods; there is an occasional reference to gods having ethical expectations, however.

Some areas of critique, or questions:

—-Walton should have attempted to explain how justice for the poor practically contributed to the order of the world, in the minds of ancient Near Easterners.  Was it because it would discourage the poor or the slaves from revolting?

—-Some of the ancient Near Eastern documents Walton mentions refer to the wicked.  Does that not imply some ethical conception?  Yet, Walton never says that the ancient Near East lacked a conception of ethics.  Rather, he said that the gods did not consistently conform to moral standards.

—-If the Hebrew Bible is distinct within the ancient Near East, in the ways that Walton says it is, what does that imply?  That God inspired the Hebrew Bible, since the Hebrew Bible is more advanced than the ancient Near East?  Does new imply divine inspiration?  And is there a naturalistic historical explanation for the Hebrew Bible’s distinct ideas?  John Van Seters, for example, argued that the concept of God’s covenant with Israel so that Israel could bless the nations emerged in exile, as Israel applied to herself ideas that were believed to be the function of a king.  For Van Seters, Israel was seeking purpose in exile.

—-There are scholars who have argued that the ancient Near East had a concept of universalism—-of a god being interested in other nations, or a king ruling other nations.  See my posts here, here, here, and here.  Are the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible depicting some grand vision of creation becoming reconciled with God, as if this is the goal of history?  Or are they simply envisioning the exaltation of Israel over the nations, which other ancient Near Eastern nations probably envisioned for themselves?  If the latter is the case, then the Hebrew Bible’s prophecies are not as historically distinct as many religious adherents might think!

 

 

 

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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