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:
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.
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
----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.
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
Some areas of critique, or questions:
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
----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.
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
----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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