Comparative studies abound in our field. Discussions of the “Bible and,” focusing on a particular theme or text from the ancient Near Eastern or Mediterranean world, are commonplace. What is unusual is a one-volume, comprehensive treatment of how the Hebrew Bible participates in and differs from the cultures of the ancient Near East. Drawing from a wide array of scholarship on the textual remains of the ancient Near East (archaeology rarely factors into his discussions), John Walton’s new volume offers just such a rare synthesis. His analysis demonstrates many conceptual similarities between the Hebrew Bible and its ancient Near Eastern neighbors and locates the Bible’s uniqueness in covenantal theology and its portrayal of Yahweh’s divine nature. Ultimately, Walton believes, Yahweh, unlike all other ancient Near Eastern deities, desired a relationship with his people and revealed to them—in the Hebrew Bible—not just his will but also his character.
Walton is very well informed in both primary and secondary literature, writes clearly, and offers several interesting comparative suggestions throughout the book. As a work of synthetic presentation, the book is primarily geared toward students and the interested public. But given its narrow theological orientation and problematic methodology, this
This review was published by RBL 2007 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a subscription to RBL, please visit http://www.bookreviews.org/subscribe.asp.
book, unfortunately, cannot be recommended for the university classroom or for library purchase.
Walton divides his work into five thematically oriented parts: comparative studies (chapters 1–2), literature of the ancient Near East (chapter 3), religion (chapters 4–6), cosmos (chapters 7–8), and people (chapters 9–14).
Part 1 contains the methodologically foundational chapters “History and Method” and “Comparative Studies, Scholarship, and Theology.” Because these chapters orient the entire volume and are seriously flawed, they will receive more substantial comment below.
Part 2 offers thumbnail summaries of a generous selection of texts (arranged according to genre) from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the Levant, and provides references to accessible translations. Alongside the works usually included in such lists, Walton includes lesser known texts like Shurpu as well as some notes about various ancient Near Eastern archives (e.g., Emar, Mari, and Ebla).
Parts 3, 4, and 5 form the heart of the book (chapters 4–14). In each of the constituent chapters Walton provides descriptions of various aspects of the ancient Near Eastern “cognitive environment” (Walton’s term for “worldview,” used to refer to concepts or beliefs shared by all or some of the ancient Near Eastern cultures as well as those that are distinctive to each). His treatment shows sensitivity to the differences in the individual cultures, often treating Egypt separately from Mesopotamia and/or the Hittites.1 Part three (87–161) presents ancient Near Eastern concepts of ontology and deity, the role of temples and rituals, and the ideas of state and family religion. Part 4 covers cosmic geography and cosmology/cosmogony (165–99). Part 5, the longest in the book (203– 329), treats human origins and the role of humanity in the universe, historiography, divination and omens, the ideology of cities and kingship, the concepts of law and wisdom, and finally death and the afterlife. Walton commendably roots his syntheses and generalizations in frequent references to and quotations from primary documents.
Throughout these chapters Walton uses gray-shaded text boxes called “Comparative Explorations” to take up a point from the main text and compare it with the Hebrew Bible. These occur about every three or four pages and vary in length from less than one to several pages. In chapter one, for...