Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, continued

I'm reading Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament right now, and this is part 2 of my impressions.

A brief recap from last time:
The book is divided into 5 parts:
1. Comparative Studies
2. Literature of the Ancient Near East
3. Religion
4. Cosmos
5. People

Last time I mentioned parts 1 & 2 and a brief note on part 3. One thing I failed to mention is that the bibliography in the book is great. The footnotes are very helpful, pointing to sources for further reference.
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Of course, John is a longtime Eisenbrauns customer and it shows in the breadth of his sources.
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The section on Religion deals with the state cults as well as personal deity/family religion. It is very interesting reading; a good introduction for those new to ANE and OT studies. John is well aware of the dangers inherent here, for example this quote on prayer: “Most of us would have trouble making such distinctions [between true piety and prudence] in the roots of our own prayers and should be reluctant to draw conclusions from the literary prayers that are preserved from the ancient world.” (page 146). His emphasis is on defining in what ways the ancient Israelites were in continuity with their neighbors and in what ways they were not. To that end, there are periodic “Comparative Exploration” boxes throughout the book. These take a topic that is being discussed and highlight how the ANE and Israelite outlooks were similar and different.

I just finished the Cosmos section and John does a good job of highlighting how differently we think from how the ancients thought. We think in terms of substance—dirt, rock, iron, flesh, but the ancients thought in terms of function—“In other words, something exists when it has a function, not when it takes up space or is a substance characterized by material properties. . . The physical aspects of the cosmos did not define its existence or its importance; they were merely the tools the gods used for carrying out their purposes. The purposes of the gods were of prime interest to them.” (page 167)

He has several “Comparative Exploration” boxes related to Genesis 1 in this section. This is one of his main interests, as reflected in the NIVAC Genesis commentary that he did and in at least one forthcoming book on the cosmology of Genesis (not yet announced). I’m not a big fan of the NIVAC series, but I might have to get the Genesis volume after reading this book. The information in the book is sufficient for his purposes, but it piques my interest for further reading.

Part 5 is People; I hope to read that section this week and post on it over the weekend.

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