2015.06.13 | Walton, John H., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. $249.95. ISBN 978-0-310-25572-7).
Review by Kurtis Peters.
Many thanks to Zondervan for providing a review copy.
John Walton, chief editor of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, has taken on an enormous task. Enormous, of course, is simply the gathering of data and contributors for a multi-volume commentary. But perhaps more significant yet is his aim: to have the evangelical world engage with the ancient Near East (hereafter ANE) in a meaningful way. 5 volumes, 32 contributors, and nearly 3,000 pages later, Walton has, it seems, succeeded at least insofar as he has provided the evangelical community with perhaps the most thorough and most accessible resource for them to grapple with the reality of the Old Testament and its ANE setting.
The division into 5 volumes is done not according to any canonical groupings, though the first volume happens to coincide simply with the Pentateuch. Instead, modern ‘western’ canonical ordering and relative uniformity of length per volume seems to be the concern in how they were grouped. Therefore, one cannot hope to pick up just a volume on the writing prophets (spread over volumes 4 and 5), or the so-called historical books (volumes 2 and 3), or less still the Hebrew Bible grouping “the Writings” (volumes 2-5). Unless, then, one is concerned either with a single OT book, or the Pentateuch, the only reasonable option left is to purchase the entire series. One might expect, therefore, that buying them as a series will bring the relative cost down, but unfortunately that too is not the case, with individual volumes priced at $50 and the series at $250.
In the introduction, Walton lays his cards on the table, arguing that for too long evangelicals have eyed the ANE (and those who study it) with suspicion, or, at best, have seen the world of the ANE as that which Israel was to reject in favour of God’s plan for them (p. viii). The study of the ANE, argues Walton, has been left primarily to non-evangelical critical scholarship, which has promoted the idea that the Old Testament is derivative, and merely a cheap imitation of the proud literary cultures of the ANE and Egypt (ibid). Walton responds to such thinking by arguing: If the Flood is simply a human legend invented by people and borrowed into Israelite thinking, if the covenant is merely Israel’s way of expressing their optimism that God has specially favored them through a treaty agreement with them, if the prophets never heard the voice of God but simply mimicked their ancient Near Eastern counterparts, then Christians are greatly to be pitied for having been duped in what would have to be considered the greatest hoax in history. It is no surprise, then, that evangelicals have often rejected the claims of these critical schools of thought (p. viii).
While it is indeed admirable, and even crucial, for evangelicals to engage in the discussion around the OT’s relationship to the culture and literature of the ANE (the intent of the Commentary), Walton’s polemic here may be too strong. For, there are many scholars of various stripes, evangelical and otherwise, who might take exception to Walton’s wording. Many may argue, for example, that while the Flood is not simply a human legend invented by people, or that the covenant is not merely Israel’s way of expressing their optimism, or that the prophets did not simply mimic their ANE counterparts, some of these still may ring true. Is it not possible that the biblical prophets borrowed the style of prophecy from what they saw around them and heard the voice of God? Is the covenant not a way of expressing optimism in God’s choice of Israel, or the Flood not an account created by humankind to describe something significant in their past with relation to the divine realm? Is there no way to reconcile the two extremes? In fact, despite the fighting posture of Walton’s words here, it is clear that he sees a positive relationship between the Bible and its ancient setting. Therefore, one can see that the Atrahasis epic, the Hittite and Assyrian treaties, and evidence of prophetic activities from places such as Mari all come into play in various parts of the Commentary, and do so not as a way to distance the Bible from them, but to explain what might be going on in our biblical text.
Also very positively, Walton is concerned that his readers recognize that the ANE helps to condition the kind of conversations the biblical writers and communities were part of. That is, the ANE was interested in how order comes from chaos, and thus the biblical creation account addresses that question. By contrast, our modern world is largely invested in, as Walton puts it, the “physical structure” of the universe and thus a modern creation account would address conversations about the “Big Bang” and evolution (p. ix). Therefore, one must not make the mistake of asking the Genesis creation account to answer modern questions. One must, instead, hear what Genesis is saying in its conversation with the ANE. Linked with this attention to conversation is the consideration of literary genre, whereby it would be nonsense to expect wisdom literature to comment on history, and one would also be remiss to assume that the writing of history in the ANE was concerned with the same kinds of things that present day historiography is concerned (ibid).
With the ideological framework settled, Walton sets out three methodological pieces. First, he makes a distinction between various types of relationship between the Bible and the ANE: elements (e.g. ziggurats, circumcision, use of lots), concepts (e.g. making of idols, kingship ideology, netherworld conditions), and literature (e.g. Tammuz literature, proverbs, cosmologies). The status of each of these relationship categories may range anywhere from the Bible presenting a completely opposite perspective to that which was common in the ANE to the Bible borrowing directly or sharing a common heritage with the ANE culture (p. xi)
Walton’s second methodological piece is his list of ten principles for doing comparative studies:
- Both similarities and differences must be considered.
- Similarities may suggest a common cultural heritage rather than borrowing.
- It is common to find similarities at the surface but differences at the conceptual level and vice versa.
- All elements must be understood in their own context as accurately as possible before crosscultural [sic] comparisons are made.
- Proximity in time, geography, and spheres of cultural contact all increase the possibility of interaction leading to influence.
- A case for literary borrowing requires identification of likely channels of transmission.
- The significance of differences between two pieces of literature is minimized if the works are not the same genre.
- Similar functions may be performed by different genres in different cultures.
- When literary or cultural elements are borrowed, they may in turn be transformed into something quite different.
- A single culture will rarely be monolithic, either in a contemporary cross-section or in consideration of a passage of time (p. xi).
While some finer points could raise some level of debate, this is quite a thorough list and one that can be applied quite broadly in other comparative studies.
Lastly, Walton sets out three goals for such comparative studies:
- We study the history of the ancient Near East as a means of recovering knowledge of the events that shaped the lives of people in the ancient world.
- We study archaeology as a means of recovering the lifestyle reflected in the material culture of the ancient world.
- We study the literature of the ancient Near East as a means of penetrating the heart and soul of the people who inhabited the ancient world that Israel shared (p. xii).
As with the principles listed above, these goals too are admirable, and, if followed, may provide tangible insights into the world behind and around the Bible.
As one turns the pages of the commentary, regardless of which volume it is, one finds that these principles and goals are used to great effect. What is most immediately evident is that there is a vast wealth of visual data. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a single page without some kind of graphic, or three for that matter. Photographs, charts, maps, and diagrams abound, which offers the reader a much greater ability to imagine what they are reading. In addition, the writing tends to be of a highly readable nature, which again gives greater access to the content. A small drawback, however, is the layout of the Commentary, with heavy margins and large blocks for text etc. If some layout adjustments were made to clean it up somewhat, then the commentary could feasibly have been reduced to four volumes without appearing cluttered.
Dovetailing well with the visual elements of the Commentary is the abundance of good information from the ANE. The Commentary does not shy away from detail, or from somewhat complex references to ANE literature and culture. In general text boxes tend to offer broad-level information on a topic of a more introductory nature, but the section by section commentary assumes some level of familiarity already. This means that the Commentary can be useful to a wide variety of users. For newcomers, the text boxes are a necessary guide. For the average seminary-trained user, the main body text may stretch them a little, but will remain helpful. For those with a greater familiarity with the ANE, the boon that the Commentary offers is the ample bibliography and notes. All references are well documented and can be chased up for further analysis. Therefore, although the Commentary appears at first glance to be aimed at the seminarian, there are various levels at which readers can engage and reap great benefit.
It remains to be seen whether the Commentary will have a great impact. The fact that it is written by evangelicals for evangelicals makes it a risky enterprise, both because it excludes many who are not comfortable in evangelical theology (and such theology does come out in various places in the Commentary), and because evangelicals are not usually inclined to the positive comparison of the Bible to the ANE, as Walton mentioned in the introduction. Whether or not this hurdle is overcome, Walton can surely be congratulated for this vast resource that he has brought to students and scholars of the Bible.
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