Monday, January 15, 2007

ANE Thought and the OT, part 3

This is the third and final post concerning John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament and will discuss part 5: People. This is by far the longest section of the book, constituting over 1/3 of the book (over 100 pages). He divides it up into 6 chapters: 2 concerning how the ancients understood the past, with a good chapter on historiography; 3 concerning the present, including divination and omens, cities and kingship, and law and wisdom; and finally, one concerning the future.

The chapter on historiography is very good, nothing earth shattering, but a good overview. The chapter on divination and omens has two interesting “Comparative Explorations” which I will comment on.

The first one, on pages 257-258, takes Jeremiah 31:33 and re-examines it in light of ANE traditions. The metaphor of “writing on one’s heart” is well known from scripture and is usually interpreted as a metaphor for memory or intimate familiarity. The problem is that in Jeremiah 31, YHWH is the one doing the writing, not the individual. Walton claims that this should cause us to look at the divination texts for a context, since it was believed by the ancients that the deities wrote on the exta of animals. He argues that NTN and KTB as verbs, with a preposition and QEREB and LEB as the objects, reflects the same idea as the deities writing on the exta of animals. He is quick to point out that there are significant differences, but the point is that YHWH writes torah on the hearts of his people. “People with the law written on their heart become a medium of communication. Writing on the heart replaces not the law, but the teaching of the law. The law on stone had to be taught and could be ignored. The law on the heart represents a medium of modeling, in which case it is not being ignored.” (italics his). A provocative interpretation.

The second “Comparative Exploration” begins on page 262 and discusses Joshua 10:12-15, the sun and moon standing still. He says we should examine the text in light of the world of omens, instead of physics. To that end Walton refers to the Mesopotamian celestial omen texts and compares the verbs used there with the ones in Joshua. His conclusion is that it refers to a non-propitious day, with the sun and moon both at the horizons, although opposite ones. He refers to his article inFaith, Tradition, and Historyfor more details–an Eisenbrauns book I haven’t read!

In the chapter “Law and Wisdom,” he offers an alternative understanding of Job, based on the shurpu incantation series. Walton claims that what Job’s friends are trying to do is convince him that he should make a blanket confession, thus placating the deity and being returned to favor. Or, to put it another way, say you were wrong somewhere so that the god stops persecuting you and instead begins to bless you. Just exactly what the adversary was saying: Job serves god for the benefits only! Righteousness didn’t matter, just rewards, the classic do ut dar [I give that I might be given] as the Romans used to say. “This modification, rather than offering a revised theodicy, seeks to reinterpret the justice of God from something that may be debated to something that is a given.” (page 308)

The final chapter, on death and life after death, reviews the little that we know (outside of Egypt) about what the ancients thought about the afterlife. He concludes that the Israelite view was very similar to the Mesopotamian view, bleak.

He ends the book with a postscript and an appendix listing the major Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Canaanite gods. The bibliography runs about 10 pages and is quite thorough. A scripture, foreign words, modern author, ancient literature, and subject index are also included.

I found the book a delightful read and a good synthesis. I know (as does Walton) that many don’t believe we can make a synthesis of this type, but I disagree. It is better to try to create a synthesis, acknowledging how much we don’t know, than to wait until we have enough data—whatever that means—to attempt it at a later date.

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