Ancient Near Eastern Thought And The Old Testament
Ancient Near Eastern Thought And The Old Testament
The opening chapter begins by orienting the reader to the idea of “comparative study,” or the area of study that strives to understand things within their broader cultural context. In the case of this book, the goal is to understand the Old Testament within the context of the Ancient Near Eastern milieu. Walton explains that over the years there has been much debate on the issue of comparative study and the way in which it is to be exercised. Scholars, always biased by their presuppositions, tend to enter the argument negating the importance of the Old Testament on the one side, or defending the inerrancy of Scripture so vehemently that the cultural context is lost. Walton poses a better way, namely, accepting the study of the Ancient Near Eastern cultures as important and academic in their own right while attempting to comprehend the Old Testament in light of what modern scholarship is learning about the ancient world.
Studies of this time period often center around who borrowed what literature from whom, but Walton insists that this is not the main issue that ought to be dealt with. Rather, studies of the literature and literary genres of the ANE should assist in the broader understanding of the society. Walton observes several areas that the text will deal with in further details. He first puts emphasis on appreciating the literary genres and how they function as a foundation to any quest into comparative studies. In order to understand the Old Testament fully, one must know how the genres were written and how they are to be interpreted within their cultural context. Secondly, Walton notes religious practices and the necessity of understanding them clearly.
Ritual sacrifices, priests, and ceremonial cleanliness are things that are foreign to readers in a modern context. Additionally, a crucial part of understanding the Old Testament is understanding not only the practices of the Israelites, but the practices of the other people groups that made up the ANE. Finally, it is important to understand the theology of a people group and the broader views of God and the gods within the ANE in order to interpret the text well. Walton closes the first chapter by pointing out that comparative studies assists study of the Bible in at least four major areas: (1) history of the ANE, (2) archeological understanding of the lifestyle, (3) literature, and (4) language.
Chapter two deals with the different ways in which comparative studies are used within current scholarship. Walton first attends to the ways in which comparative studies are being utilized within critical scholarship. As additional information is unearthed about the ANE, many of the ideas once held in critical scholarship have been challenged. Previous assumptions about texts and thoughts, primarily based on evolution, are being reconsidered. Critical scholarship has a history of assuming that critical thought and religious practice had simple beginnings and have evolved through time. Research is showing these assumptions in source criticism, reaction criticism, and issues of dating to be incorrect in light of the data. Though, as Walton notes, there has been some resistance to comparative studies within the circles of critical scholarship, most of the data being provided is being accepted and studied at greater length.
Walton also notes the use of comparative studies in polemics and dismisses such uses due to the fact that the text is not approached in a scholarly manner. Scholars of a more conservative persuasion, primarily Evangelicals, and others termed “confessional scholars” by Walton, have had a more difficult time adopting comparative studies. As further information has been gathered about the relation of the Pentateuch to ANE literature and as new data has arisen through archeology, confessional scholars have felt their longstanding foundations threatened, which has caused their hesitancy to fully embrace comparative studies.
Many feel that maintaining the Bible’s unique status among other ANE literature is of supreme importance and continue to argue that comparative studies degrades the inspiration of the text thus making God’s word subject to man’s interpretation. Walton closes the chapter by proposing an integrated approach including critical analysis to better understand the history of the Bible, unbiased and educated defense of the biblical text, and solid exegesis that guards the reader from understanding the text outside of its context. Walton argues that the field of comparative studies must be important not only to serious scholars, but also to anyone committed to truly knowing and understanding the Word of God.
Chapter three is dedicated to a brief overview of the literary styles of the ANE and gives examples of the styles from some of the primary people groups. The discussion begins with myth, which was one of the primary ways that ancient civilizations explained their present reality. Short examples from several cultures are given and include many parallels to the Biblical stories such as the creation account and the flood. Others bear little resemblance to the Bible such as the stories of the fighting gods of Akkadian myths. Next are literary texts and epics which tell the stories of the kings of different lands, their struggles to power, and their exploits while ruling. The most famous is the Gilgamesh epic, which follows Gilgamesh on his journey to find immortality. The third literary type is ritual texts which, as the name says, follow the rituals of the people groups of the ancient world. Rituals were important as they helped humans communicate with and persuade the gods. Fourth, Walton deals with divination and incantation texts which were used to divine the meanings of omens, undo evil spells, and ward off bad spirits.
These are dealt with at length later in the book. Fifth, he explains the significance of the use of letters exchanged between kings gives the modern day reader noteworthy information about the culture of the past. Walton then moves to royal inscriptions which were recordings ordered by kings. They could contain items such as details on how a building was to be constructed, conquests, details of how to handle their succession, and other various accomplishments and instructions. In a similar vein are annals and chronicles which detailed the succession of rulers through the history of an empire, coupled with their important victories in war. Treaties were another piece of literature that was used to establish rules between kings and rulers of different lands.
The next section deals with government and points out law collections and legal documents as important literary devices. While law collections detail the ways in which society was to run and how people were to behave, legal documents dealt with contracts for marriages, children, family estates, and court rulings. Religious literature was also common in the Ancient Near East. Psalms and hymns were ways to give adoration to the gods so that they would be pleased and provide for the people. Wisdom literature contained details about how to make good choices, but also contained laments and writings concerning ethics. Prophetic writing was another important communication because it contained communication from the gods which was a vital part of the life of the ancient cities. Kings sought answers to their problems from the gods and they received them through the prophets. These prophesies were often recorded. Walton closes the chapter by noting various miscellaneous writings as well as archives, which were groups of literature often found together which contained all sorts of different information.
Chapter four opens the third section of the book which is an overview of the religious views of the ANE. In order to fully understand the Old Testament and the interactions of the Hebrew people with God, and other false gods, it is important to understand how the religious system worked. Throughout the chapter Walton shows how other empires worshiped and compares those beliefs to beliefs held by Israel. First and foremost, the other people groups of the ANE were polytheistic and therefore, the idea of one God was odd in itself. Add to this the fact that the Israelite God was not made and had simply always been, and the oddities became significantly greater. Not only was the norm polytheistic, but there were great stories about how the gods came to be, their battles with one another, their failures, and their flaws. The gods were defined by the things that they did. Earlier chapters note the fact that the culture of this time period was highly focused on function. Again, due to the polytheism, the gods functioned as a team of sorts. The God of the Bible is, indeed, three in one, but nonetheless one God who is all powerful.
The Old Testament does make mention of a council that God used to make decisions, but this is altogether different from the unstable group of random gods of other people groups which were completely separate, with different gifts and skills, and with significant flaws. Walton then turns to the roles that the gods played in the cosmos as well as their attributes. Whereas Yahweh is completely outside of the cosmos, the gods of the ANE were associated with elements of the cosmos. So while Yahweh is the creator of the sun, the moon, and the waters, the gods of other polytheistic religions actually were one with those elements. They had no life or meaning independent from those elements. For instance, the god of the seas controlled the sea and was the sea itself. There was no distinction and no separation as with the God of the Israelites. The attributes of the gods were in some ways similar to Yahweh, but were altogether different in others.
The most notable difference is the fact that while Yahweh is completely other, the gods were inherently human in their characteristics. They argued with one another, they needed to be flattered with prayers that did not necessarily communicate their true nature, they were limited in their geographic location, they procreated, and they failed. People of the ANE had attributed to the gods of their myths the same characteristics that they saw in their everyday lives. The main difference between the gods and humans was that the gods were simply stronger. All other characteristics were intrinsically human. This is a far cry from the God of the Bible who is holy, not bound by anything, and never fails. The chapter closes by dealing with a very important part of the makeup of the gods, their divine attributes.
In Evangelical circles God is not simply described as being loving. Rather, He is love itself. God does not simply rule in a just way, he is the epitome of justice. The God of the Old Testament is perfection in every area of everything. There is no flaw or limitation in him. His wisdom, love, justice, and mercy are not only perfect in and of themselves, but God is those things. The gods of the ANE were significantly different in that the attributes that they had were directly linked to their actions. There were no inherent attributes in them, or as Walton says, “deity is as deity does.” The duties that each god had were the attributes that they carried.
Chapter five is dedicated to the understanding of the role of the temple and the accompanying rituals in the ANE. Walton first deals with the role that the temple played. Temples were created not primarily for worship of the gods, but were the places where the gods resided while on earth. This was a sacred space that was to be free from all profanity and reserved for the rest and worship of that god. Each temple contained an idol, like a plaque or a statue. This statue was not simply a rendering; the commonly held view was that the god actually inhabited the idol in some way without actually becoming the idol. Because of this, the ancients believed that the creation of the idol was supernaturally overseen and organized by that specific god so that the idol would meet its expectations. This process was familiar to the Old Testament prophets and they prophesied against the idols and false gods. Attached to the temple was at least one ziggurat, which was a structure that encased a stairway which served as a portal for the god from the heavenly realm into the earthly temple.
These were large structures and this was probably what Moses was referring to when he spoke of the tower of Babel in Genesis. So in opposition to common Sunday school teaching, the tower of Babel was not meant to reach to the heavens, but was a portal meant to bring heaven to earth. The temple was the most important structure in ancient culture. It was the center of everything and, due to the fact that the god inhabited the temple, was the source of all things good. Temples were viewed as the center of the cosmos in the ancient world. Walton observes that in this area, the Bible and ancient myths agree in that the presence of the god, or Yahweh in the case of the Bible, was what made the space important. He claims that the Garden of Eden was not a literal geographic place on earth, rather it was a place in the cosmos where God dwelt. The presence of God was what made Eden special. The same goes for the temples of the ancients.
The presence of the gods made them the focal point of life. Not only was the temple the central point of worship, but also of law, the wealth of the city, and the social activities of the people. The focal point of daily activities was the temple. That God would inhabit the tabernacle, or the temple, therefore, makes perfect sense in the culture of the ANE. Solomon’s temple is used as the focal point of the city, where God dwelt and where worship was given. Here, again, the ancient myths and the Bible agree. Harvest, weather, health, wealth, and victory in battle, among other things, were all controlled by the gods in the ANE. Due to this fact, the rituals that were performed for the gods in the temple were important to the livelihood of the people. The gods had to be appeased and the forces of evil and chaos needed to be held at bay.
Rituals, therefore, were the way in which humans interacted with the gods to make sure that they were happy and that the cosmos was in balance. Blood sacrifices were not unique to the Israelites, but were a common trend of the day. However, unlike the other tribes of the ANE, the Israelites did not use incantations. Furthermore, while faith in God was of primary concern for the Israelites, action and involvement in the cult of the temple were of paramount importance.
In the midst of everything that was happening in and around the temple, the way in which the common people of the land practiced religion was different. The contrast between the religion of the state and the religion of the common people is the focus of this chapter. Religion in the city environment is handled first. As mentioned in previous chapters, the gods were to be served, taken care of, and appeased. For these reasons, the idols mentioned in chapter five were cared for just as one might take care of a new born baby. They were woken, fed, pampered, and put to bed at night. The problem was that there was no way to know if the people were, indeed, pleasing the god. Without any revelation there was no way to know if the practices were actually making any difference in the temperament of the god. Each god was assigned roles and responsibilities, and each one, in turn,
delegated their responsibilities back to the people. For instance, a certain god might be in charge of keeping justice, but those responsibilities were meted out to the king.
However, in the midst of all of this service to the gods, the gods were prone to be temperamental. Gods would change their minds and moods often. Diviners might offer solutions like giving more money or upgrading the temple, but again, without revelation the gods were unknowable and this kept the ancient people always guessing and attempting new tactics to change their situations. Yahweh stood in stark contrast to the gods of the polytheistic pantheon. God has no need of anything from man. He is not contained. All of his choices are perfect and right. What is most important, however, is the fact that He communicated with his people so that they were fully aware of what he expected and in order that they might know the consequences for their actions. The religion of the common people was significantly different however. Whereas the temple and the workings of the state were dedicated to one of the higher and more powerful gods, the common people had individual gods, lower on the polytheistic totem pole, that they worshiped and attempted to appease.
Usually devotion to these gods was passed down from generation to generation. Abraham’s initial communication with and faith in God, before the Hebrews were a people, fit the idea of a personal god. The primary goal of having a personal god was to bring the family social success, stature, and wealth. The relationship with these gods was different from he relationship that Abraham had with Yahweh. Just as with the state, there was no real heart-connect with the god, no real desire to know him and be like him. The goal was to keep the god happy so that the family would reap the benefits. This attitude presented itself in the weak prayer life of the people. When a family’s personal god was not doing the things that caused their family success, the family was looked down upon in society. It was clear that the family was doing something wrong that was not satisfying the demands of the god.
The emphasis was not on the wrongdoing, but on the view society held of your family. Prayers and ritual acts to please the god focused on restoration of respect in the town, not restoration of a relationship with the god. Ethics and morals were also tightly bound to the gods and the balance of society. There were not ethical norms as there are in the modern context. Everything revolved around the gods and what they wanted. Because of the idea of continuity among all of the realms, morals were not necessarily important. Whatever it took to keep society orderly and balanced was what took priority. So, if orgies or other sexual actions pleased the gods and kept things in order, then it was perfectly acceptable. There was no sense that things of this nature might be considered immoral. These absolutes can only be found in a God who guides one to moral absolutes and makes clear what is morally right and wrong.
This is what God did as he revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob orally, and how he set up guidelines with the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai. God does what the artificial gods of the pagans could not do. He revealed himself so that the Israelites could know his will and follow it. He committed to them in a covenant relationship and taught them how to live within that relationship. He showed them how to strive for holiness, by imitating him, an idea that was otherwise nonexistent. He showed them how to have the best possible life, and ultimately, developed a relationship with them personally.
Chapter seven is the first chapter in the fourth part of the book, which is dedicated to the cosmos. The seventh chapter in particular deals with how the people of the ANE viewed the makeup of the cosmos. Whereas, due to science and exploration, people in modern times understand that the earth is round and that it travels around the sun while spinning on its own axis, the views of how the cosmos functioned were significantly different in the ANE. Understanding the ancient view of cosmological geography is vital in comprehending the worldview of the ANE. Many of the people groups of the ANE understood the cosmos to be layered. The Earth was the middle layer with heaven above and the netherworld below. The earth was thought to stand still and the sun was thought to travel on a track up on one side of the earth, across the sky, and down into the netherworld in the evening.
In some myth systems it was believed that the sky, which was believed to be solid, was supported by mountains at the edges of the earth, while yet other traditions claimed that the earth was supported by giant columns. In addition, ANE myths believed that the sky held the waters back and that when precipitation came, the water was falling through cracks or holes in the sky layer. It is important to note that the world of the ANE was primarily concerned about function over mere existence. Therefore, the cosmos had no importance in and of itself, but only within the context of the gods using nature to accomplish their desires and dole out their punishments. Regardless of the different views held within the ancient tribes, they all viewed the area that they inhabited as the center of the cosmos.
Walton shows that this view about the makeup up of the cosmos was held by the Israelites as well. We have no reason to believe that the modern view of the cosmos was held by the Israelites. Throughout the Old Testament we see references that show that the Israelites held to the common views of the cosmos first and foremost because that was the normal view in those days, but also because God never revealed to them any other way by which to understand the cosmos.
Chapter eight handles the important issues of the origin and order of the cosmos. Gaining knowledge about the origin of the world gives excellent insight into the creation account and shows the student of the Bible the important value that God places on humans. As mentioned earlier it is necessary to understand that the culture of the ANE valued function over existence. For something to merely exist was not nearly as important as the function of that thing. This idea has significant repercussions when it comes to the study of cosmogony. Moderns often read the creation account and assume that God was calling things into existence, but this view would not have made much sense to anyone writing in the ANE. It would have been a foreign idea because to simply bring something into existence was of little consequence. Creation was more focused on a purpose than it was on making an object available.
One of the first and most important steps in the “making functional” process was the naming of things, which fits nicely into the creation account of the Bible. God creates and names. This naming process kick starts that object’s function. Walton makes some very interesting points when it comes to the Biblical account of creation. He says that it should be understood, from the text, that the account in the first chapter of Genesis is not one of God creating things that did not exist, but bringing order and function to those things. The reader can notice that Genesis 1never claims that there was nothing. It simply communicates that the earth was without form; it had no order or function. He mentions that on days one through three God does not simply create light, water and vegetation, but that he was bringing function to those things by giving light the function of time-keeping, water the function of the climate, and vegetation the function of providing food for man and animals.
Therefore, unlike the gods of the other tribes, the God of the Bible gives function and destiny to all things from the very beginning. He is not trying to manage the cosmos and the functions therein, he has already created and set them in motion with specific purpose. His initial purposes for all things cannot be changed and need no management. The chapter closes by explaining the temple as a depiction of the cosmos. This idea is touched on in chapter five and is reiterated here. The place of rest for the gods was their temple. When everything was in order they were able to relax in their sacred space. God, however, is bigger than anything that he has created and uses the earth as his footstool. The Temple of Yahweh was modeled after the cosmos to show this relationship.
Literature, religion, and the cosmos have all been dealt with thus far. Now Walton turns to how people functioned and were understood in the context of the ANE. The first step, which is the focus of chapter nine, is to understand how people thought about the past and recorded history. Any conversation about humans naturally begins with their origins. The biblical account of the creation of humans is unique from the myths of the ANE in several ways. First is the fact that the Genesis account sets up Adam and Eve as the sole couple from which all other humans come, known as monogenesis. In other myths, humans are made in more of a group setting, polygenesis, where there is no singular couple from which all human life stems. Secondly is the difference in substance from which humans are created. The biblical account notes that God used the dust of the ground to create Adam and that He breathed life into his nostrils, whereas other matter, including clay and body parts from conquered gods, were used in other myths.
The conversation then moves from how humans were made to what pieces or parts they actually contain. Walton notes that there remains disagreement as to whether humans are a unified whole or if they are separated somehow by body, mind, and spirit. Walton notes that due to language barriers, the words describing the human makeup from the ANE are difficult to translate and explain. The Egyptians used several terms to describe how humans were made. Ka was the natural character of a person based on their ties to their lineage. Ba was the way in which they displayed themselves to society, similar to a reputation. Akh was the soul or spirit of a person that was said to live on after death. The Israelites, on the other hand, used different terms.
Perhaps, due to the aforementioned language issues, it is best to quote Walton in this explanation. He says that, “nephesh is related to awareness and perception while ruah is related to consciousness and vitality.” Finally, the chapter deals with the role of humans in the cosmos. There is a very important distinction to be made in this area between the views of the Egyptians, Akkadians, and Sumarians and the views of the Israelites. The former saw the gods as the center of the cosmos and humans as an unimportant byproduct to assist the gods and appease them, whereas the latter saw their role as priests created to serve God. The Bible gives an important role to humans as the pinnacle of God’s creation, and this idea is unique in the ANE.
Chapter ten addresses the recording of history and the mindset that drove the guidelines that the people of the ANE followed in recording history. Furthermore, the chapter shows what that set of guidelines communicates about the mindset of the recorders. As this text has clearly stated, the mindset of the people of the ANE was focused around the gods. The modern mindset is one that focuses on the things that people can see and experience. Modern history is based on physical facts. The cognitive environment of the ANE was such that natural proof or fact was not the main concern. The ancient culture was focused on the gods and what means had been employed to please and serve the gods. Deity was the focal point of historiography. Furthermore, the goals of history were different than the goals of a modern-day journalist. While the journalist of today is concerned about facts and events, the ancients were concerned about the meaning of those events.
Due to the fact that everything that happened was tied to the gods in some way, history was the result of what was happening in the supernatural world. These happenings, of course, were of primary importance, so little significance was placed on the events themselves. Rather, the emphasis was on deciphering what information these events were communicating about the actions of the gods. The way in which events of history worked together and the purpose behind them was also significant. There was a sense of an underlying through-line beneath the surface of every event in history. A good example of this mindset would be the way in which Christians believe that amidst all of the surface things in life, God is working out his perfect will. What happened in each event was not nearly as important as how that event may have furthered a larger piece of the narrative of life. The differences in mindset between the ancients and moderns continue in the area of explaining time.
Today most people think of time as linear; the present is now, the past behind, and the future ahead. This was not the normative view of time in the ANE. It was as if the person standing on the time line were turned around, looking into the past with the future behind them. Their view of the past and how it affected the future was most important. The final portion of the chapter focuses on the necessity of understanding the form in which history was written in order to fully realize the meaning of the history itself. Often writers were not necessarily attempting to provide legitimate history telling in their narratives. Because of this, the facts leading up to the conclusion may or may not be accurate because there was no need for them to be so. Much narrative was fiction.
Therefore, to understand the writings of the ANE, one must realize that narrative is not primarily concerned about the events, as mentioned above, but on the outcomes, which affects one’s ability to glean truth-telling history from the narrative writings. Additionally, the source of the literature, who it promotes, and the audience it was intended for all play an important role in attempting to understand the history of the times. These “values,” as Walton calls them, play a significant role in how ancient history is to be interpreted. The aforementioned points affect the way in which the Old Testament is read and understood. The history that is recorded in the Old Testament, though it is divinely inspired, must still be understood in the context in which it was written, taking into consideration the values, writers, intended audience, poetics, and importance of deity.
Chapter eleven moves to the next step by considering how people lived their day to day lives. Divination, mentioned briefly in other chapters, is now fully explained. Divination was the attempt to try to deduce from a god the future, or to gain a better comprehension of that god. There were two types of divination, inspired and deductive. Inspired divination involved a message from the gods through a human messenger, while deductive divination included a message from the gods sent through natural means like events or weather. People who engaged in this process were known by different names depending on the type of divination they practiced and the type of omens they used. Inspired messages often came through prophets and dreams. Official prophets were paid and trained by the king to serve as intermediaries between him and the gods. Others, outside of the kings employ that received random messages were known as informal prophets. Dreams generally came to people by happenstance, and because there was so much to decipher, there was much written in the area of dream interpretation.
Deductive divination was a reading of signs and events done by trained people. Signs or omens might be found in the sky, through the weather, the stars, the waters, organs of dead animals, lot casting, and other phenomena in nature. Attempting to divine answers about the future helped people feel a sense of control and normalcy. The Bible employs inspired divination as God speaks through the prophets and assists Daniel and Joseph, among others, to interpret dreams. However, the reading of others signs and omens, as in deductive divination, are scolded as evil by the Old Testament. Magic was also practiced in the ANE. Where divination discovered different meanings or problems, magic was able to use power to fix those problems. Incantations and rituals were used to appease the anger of the gods, to eliminate the evil spirits, to cleanse the affected home or space, and to cleanse the effected person from those evil spirits so that they could continue to function as normal.
Magicians, known as Asipu were elevated to a high place, similar to a priest, and were focused on discovering and eliminating bad spirits. The Asu used herbs and other natural remedies to aid in the effect of the incantations. Next, the text explains the specific goals of divination. First and foremost, the goal was to legitimize the king and give him guidance. Omens were not set in stone, but rather, were predictions and warnings. If a good omen was found, that didn’t necessarily guarantee that the good fortune would come to pass, and vice versa. A main point in understanding the importance of divination was the issue of certainty.
One would think that after several failed attempts to predict the future, the practice would lose its validity. However, this was not the common mindset. Rather than perfect prediction of the future, divination should be understood more along the lines of, “draw[ing] a particular issue to one’s attention.” (269) The chapter ends by quickly dealing with the test of a true prophet given in Deuteronomy 18. If a prophesy is off or does not come true, can that prophet immediately be discredited? Walton concludes that based on several texts, prophets were given an opportunity to show their trustworthiness, but if they continued to prove that their words were not from God, they were disregarded.
Chapter twelve delves further into how the importance of the city partners with life and purpose of the king. Earlier chapters noted that the people who lived outside of the cities practiced religion in different ways. Within the ANE cultures, living outside of the city or being a nomad was frowned upon. Life in the city was the best life in which to be engaged. The Mesopotamians as well as the Egyptians believed that cities were created by the gods, before humans, as a tie to the past. Just as in every other aspect of life in the ANE, the objectives of both the city and the king were to please the gods. Cities were the epicenter of the world; they were a place where people lived and did business, but ultimately where the temples were. Each city had its own temple that was dedicated to a specific god. The importance of the city was somewhat the same for the Israelites. God’s home on earth was the temple, and the temple was located in the city of Jerusalem.
The difference, however, was that there was only one temple for the Israelites, and that temple was in one city. Kings were the rulers of the time, thus directly tied to the cities, and therefore kingship played a very important role in religious practice. Kings were thought to have been chosen by the gods and were always attempting to show that the gods approved of them as king. They were the mediators between the gods and the people who lived under their rule. It was said that they had access to the gods and their plans in a way that no other person did. The view of king was so high in Egypt that he was seen as divine. The king had many responsibilities in regard to the upkeep of the city, one of the most important being the institution of justice.
But it was also the king’s responsibility to lead the charge in appeasing the gods so that their land would be safe and overflow with blessing. Again, these ideas are very similar to Hebrew kingship. God did choose a king and he gave them authority to speak on His behalf. Some pose that the OT is anti-king, but it is best to take from the text that God had always planned for a king. He was disgusted that the people did not want him to rule over them and that they wanted a king on their time line. And, of course, from the line of King David comes the ultimate king, the Messiah.
Chapter thirteen unpacks even more about how the people of the ANE lived, specifically how their laws were enforced, how wisdom was passed down, their views of justice, and how justice and ethics were related. The first section focuses on the treatises: medical, divinatory, and legal. These writings were wisdom passed down from past decisions made to offer guidance to the next set of people who would be making the decisions. Medical personnel could find remedies that worked, diviners could better know how to interpret an omen, and the king would know hold justice might have been handled prior to his time. These treatises were a series of “if” statements that explained certain situations and how to handle them. An example might be, “if a man steals something, cut off his hand.” It is important to note that there was not necessarily a set group of laws, rather, these treatises, along with wisdom literature, were used to create the norms of justice based on what had worked in the past. These pieces of literature served to legitimize the king.
The Book of the Covenant is the Israelite writing that most closely resembles this type of literature. Wisdom literature from Egypt and Mesopotamia also played an important role in keeping societal order, but in a different fashion. Wisdom from such literature was meant to foresee potential problems and develop ways to alter the behavior in society so that potential problems would not present themselves. Walton explains that law, as we understand it today, was not a part of the culture of the ANE. There was not a list of rules written down that people used to regulate the way in which they lived. Rather, the state functioned based on personal ideas of fairness, wisdom from kings past, and the king at the present time. The goals were always balance and order in society and in the cosmos. Ergo, as the gods delivered their responsibilities down through the kings, the kings were held responsible for keeping order in society by handling the judicial responsibilities entrusted to him by the gods.
As mentioned in the section on morals and ethics, the gods were primarily concerned about social order, and the personal morality of people was not specifically important. The chapter closes by comparing the way in which people outside of Israel tried to live and how the Hebrews were guided by God to live. While the pagan tribes were focused on conforming to societal expectations, honoring the king, and pleasing the gods, Yahweh had revealed himself to Israel and had given details through the Ten Commandments and the covenant about how to live a holy life. While the pagan communities continued to try and determine a right way to live by waiting for answers from mute gods, the Israelites had heard from the Almighty and were trying to obey the details of the covenant agreement.
Having dealt with the ideas of how life began, the importance of familial heritage, and the ways in which life functioned in the day-to-day of the ANE, the final chapter of the book focuses on how future life on earth and the afterlife were viewed in the ANE. The idea of a better life in the future was foreign to the ANE mindset. The focus was not to make a better life for oneself, but to continue the legacy of the family name. Having an heir who would take care of the family business and continue the worship of the family’s gods was vital. Regardless of their situation, there was no savior coming to make things better. Israel, on the other hand, had the hope of the Messiah, which many misunderstood to be an earthly king who would come to free them from bondage and return them to their place of stature as in the days of David. The afterlife was, except for a failed weighing of the heart in Egyptian thought, generally not believed to be a place of punishment.
The Egyptians believed that the ba and the ka were separated from the body at death, and that if the correct processes involved in burial were practiced, they would be enabled to reconnect with those pieces. In Mesopotamia, just as the future of life was strongly tied to the idea of family and community, so was the afterlife. The worst thing that could happen to a dead person was improper burial which would cut them off from the family and relegate them to a life alone. Additionally, those who did not receive a proper burial were thought to be potentially dangerous spirits. It was common practice that those still alive from the family would care for those dead by providing water libations, providing left-over food from the table, and holding meals in honor of their ancestors.
Specially trained men would assist them in communicating with the deceased. The netherworld is the name that was consistently used for the afterlife. Humans, aside from kings who were given the opportunity to enter into heaven with the gods, all ended up here. There are multiple stories about the process that one might take in order to gain access to the netherworld, but all eventually ended up here. This is never indicated as a place of torment, but just a plain and boring existence hopefully in community with their ancestors. The Israelite idea of Sheol, which is mentioned in the Old Testament, is not to be understood as hell either. Walton indicates that there is no text that supports the interpretation that Sheol is to be understood in this fashion.
In the postscript, Walton reminds the reader of the importance of comparative studies and how vital it is to understand the Old Testament within its cognitive environment. He admits that he has not created the perfect text on the subject, but that one of his goals was to try and further develop the idea of comparative studies in a more complete manner where others have shied to the safe side and not tackled a work such as this. The second goal was to show that the Israelites shared in the cognitive environment of the ANE, which this reader believes he did very well. The author notes that the literature involved in the study of the ANE must be connected to the culture in which it was written and understood in light of it. The final portion shows the latter to be true by summarizing the main areas of thought and the similarities and differences between Israel and the other nations. All believed that the source of human beings was the gods, but only Israel believed in the creation of an original man and woman from whom all other people came.
All attempted to please their gods, but only Israel had received revelation that communicated what Yahweh was thinking and what he expected. All were under the rule of a higher power, for Israel it was their upholding of the covenant while for the others it was submission to the king and the gods that had instituted his rule. While social norms and literature passed down from old kings drove behavior in most people of the ANE, the revelation from God at Sinai gave the Hebrew people a guide for how to live. While all others had no hope of anything good in the future nor anything exciting in the afterlife, the Israelites were given the promise of a king who would come through David whose throne would last forever.
Walton ends the text with a final statement that is worth repeating in this summary. He concludes that all of the information proposed within the text should be used to “guard against a facile or uninformed imposition of our own cognitive environment on the texts of ancient Israel, which is all too typical in confessional circles.” May all “confessional” readers of God’s word strive to understand his revelation as best as possible so that we might know and discern the perfect will of the one, true God.
Walton, John H.. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.