John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 334 pp. + Appendix.
This book was my introduction to Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought. As such, I do not have a great depth of knowledge of this subject, but I do have the unique opportunity to review this book as the audience it was intended for. As an introduction to the conceptual world of the Old Testament, I am the target audience.
As an introduction, this book functioned very well. There is a great amount of information in this book but not in such a way that a lay reader cannot keep up. The main thrust of this book is to paint a picture of the worldview of the ANE. It is not primarily about the Old Testament, though the author, through a series of ‘call outs,’ does interact with the similarities and differences between the worldview of the ANE and the worldview of ancient Israel. Furthermore, as an introduction to worldview, this book is not a history of the ANE. It is arranged topically, rather than chronologically or geographically, though within topics the author does differentiate between different areas.
Walton divides this book into 5 parts: 1) and introduction to Comparative Studies, 2) Literature of the ANE, 3) Religion, 4) Cosmos, and 5) People.
The first part introduces the discipline of comparative studies and what we could seek to gain from it. The main reason for doing comparative studies is so that we do our best to read the text with an understanding of the worldview from which it was written. If we do not do this we automatically read the text within our own worldview (40).
The second part of the book is an introduction to the major literary works of the ANE. Walton surveys everything from myths and epics to chronicles and letters. This section is literally a list of texts and a synopsis of them.
The third part of Walton’s book introduces the Religion of the ANE. This is broken into threeparts: 1) the gods, 2) temples and rituals and 3) state and family religion. The section on the gods is not only an introduction to the various gods of the ANE but an introduction to the way the people of the ANE thought about gods. Here Walton highlights that the most different element of Israelite religion, and therefore most difficult thing for Israel to grasp, was the idea that God and God ALONE was to be worshipped. This is foriegn to the ANE way of thinking (112).
Part 4 is on the cosmos and is probably one of the more interesting sections of the book. Any study of the view of the cosmos, especially in the ancient world, is essentially a study of ontology. It is a study of how we view the world around us. Of the many things discussed in this passage the most interesting is Walton’s thesis that the ANE had a functional ontology rather than a substance ontology as we do. For example, on a ‘call out’ on p. 183, Walton discusses the Hebrew word bara’ , usually translated as ‘create.’ His thesis is that within the worldview of the ANE (that of functional ontology), “the point is not necessarily physical manufacturing as much as assigning roles” (183). I’m very interested in this thesis and Walton does well in arguing that this is the natural way to read this given the worldview of the ANE. There is much more that could be said about this, for a much more detailed (and informed) discussion see the exchanges on John Hobbins blog here, here and here.
The final and largest section of the book is understanding how the people of the ANE understood people. Walton reviews the way that the human person was understood (similar to our mind/body debates), how those of the ANE thought about historiography, how people know what they must do (divination, omens, etc.), how cities and kings were viewed, and more. One section that I found particularly illuminating was the chapter on law and wisdom. Some may know that our church recently preached through a series on Deuteronomy based on the following idea: that the Old Testament Law functions for us New Testament believers as wisdom. According to Walton, it functioned as wisdom for ancient Israel as well. The legal texts of the ANE were, “intended to reveal something about the king as a sponsor of the doucment: his worthiness (legitimation), his wisdom (in giving verdicts), and his values” (297). The legal texts were more examples of wise judgments than actual proscriptive laws so that we can understand the “juridical treatises as being a form of wisdom” (302).
Walton concludes by reiterating that “Israel was indeed a partaker of this [ANE] cognitive environment and shared many of the basics in some degree with its neighbors” (331). Walton’s work does a great job of introducing the reader to the conceptual world of the ANE. It is very informative and insightful, despite the fact that some of the most interesting sections (for the biblical student) are in awkwardly placed ‘call outs’ this book is well worth a read.