John Walton's `Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament' offers an accessible (on the whole) and interesting comparison of Israel's ancient beliefs with those of her neighbours - Sumeria, Egypt, Hittite, etc. The goal of `comparative studies' is to `learn from one [culture] to enhance the understanding of another': i.e. to study the broader ancient Near Eastern literature & archaeology to see what light that might shed on Israel and the Old Testament.
This book is divided into five parts:
Part 1 Comparative Studies (to p40) - this is introductory tracing the history of comparative study, the theology, etc. Part 2 Literature of the Ancient Near East (p43-83) - a hugely useful summary of all ancient Near Eastern literature so far unearthed Part 3 - Religion (p87-161) - describing the various ancient gods, temples and religion, etc. of the Near East Part 4 Cosmos (p165-199) - explaining ancient understandings of the physical and spiritual universe Part 5 People (p203-329) - explores the ancient's understanding of themselves in history, the future, within society, etc. Indexes, etc. follow
I was keenly looking forward to this book to compliment V H Matthews' Old Testament Parallels and Bancroft-Hunt's superb Historical Atlas of Ancient Mesopotamia. I was not disappointed. In Part 1's introduction it is easy to absorb Walton's clear and honest enthusiasm for the concept of comparing various ancient world views with the biblical world view. The ancient Near Eastern literature summarised in Part 2 is hugely useful as many theological books make passing reference to the `Gilgamesh Epic' or the `Amarna Letters', for instance, and this section offers an explanation of what these works or collections constitute. Some overviews are a lengthy paragraph or two, others just a couple of lines.
Part 3 onwards represents the main body of this book and here we find the often lowly black-and-white photos seen in other publications (though there are some in Part 2) as well as the all important `Comparative Exploration' text boxes. These text boxes are set within the main text, titled and slightly indented with a grey background & boarder to highlight & separate each `exploration' from the main text. They range from less than half a page to three or four pages long with a smaller type face which squeezes in more text. These sections directly compare the various Near Eastern understandings (Assyrian, Canaanite, Babylonian, etc.) of each topic with biblical understandings. While these are very interesting and illuminating, I wasn't necessarily convinced by all the arguments, though the whys and wherefores are all clearly explained. Some of the most interesting explored law and religion; the similarities are many, but so are the striking (and hugely distinctive) differences. For instance, much religious & legal belief outside Israel looked to ensuring that the needs of the various deities were met, while Yahweh's `needs' could never be met by people, it's the other way around. Walton notes that Idols and images are a sort of vessel to contain the deity's personality (as it were), where Yahweh's `personality' is present, via the Holy Spirit, within the Christian. (Also, humans being `the image of God'.) Shed-loads of material for meditation & theological study there!
Another hugely useful section is the Appendix `Individual Gods' (p335-341) which describes each regions' gods: `Mesopotamian', `Canaanite', `Egyptian' and `Others'. All the main players are listed, including, Enlil, Ishtar, Marduk, El, Baal/Hadad, Amon-Re, etc. with a few lines explaining their rank or role within the pantheon. In the `Others' section, only two are listed: `Kemosh/Chemosh... [who] was the national god of Moab' and `Yahweh... the God of Israel'. This entry ends with: `Only tantalising hints suggest an early history outside Israel'. Hmm!
If I were to offer a criticism, it would be that once the main body of the book is reached (Part 3), the text can get a tad technical here and there. The writing style is easy to follow - which is hugely important - but there is frequent mention of quite technical things like anomalies of ancient Hebrew text or `the protasis ("If...")', and such like. It is necessary but such technicalities can bog you down in parts.
In the end, I liked this work and find it helpful and useful. For essays, it's a gem with all the summarised ancient texts and descriptions of the gods but the `Comparative Exploration' sections (especially) can offer genuine devotional benefits if your faith really is `living and active'. I might deduct points for the occasionally technical nature of the text, and for the flimsy cover (even for a soft back), but it's still a title I'm happy to recommend (maybe 3½ stars?).
This is a very enjoyable book for those interested in the 'cognitive framework' of the area that God's people emerged from. Walton emphasises both the similarities and differences that made the Biblical Israelite faith unique. Some great insights come out of this - particularly on what Jeremiah meant by the law being 'written on our hearts.'