This paper provides summary of John Walton’s Book, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. In his first chapter, the writer provides a thoughtful introduction to the importance of the study of the ancient Near East in order to enable his readers to deeply understand the Hebrew Bible. He introduces comparative analysis in order to understand the worldview according to which the Old Testament was written. According to Walton (18), comparative studies comprise cultural studies of various branches that emanate from different segments of the general cultural framework, based on time or environment. By bringing together these segments, the author has helped not only to assess what might have been learnt but has also helped to equip his students with a better understanding of any other material. Therefore, the chapter enables students to understand and appreciate that the Old Testament is more than simple Christian religious book of Christian theology as alleged by Delitzsch (p.17).
Walton believes that it is only through comparative studying of the Bible by students that they are not bound to misinterpret the text and content of the Bible. This is explained by the fact that the literary genres, religious practices, and cultural dimensions that are associated with Israelite theology which forms the basis of Old Testament, all are deeply rooted in the culture of the ancient Eastern people. He asserts that the understanding of the Near Eastern creation account as eluded in the Old Testament can best be captured by comparatively studying the time when human race occupied a common home where they also shared a common faith (p.22).
In the last section of the chapter, the author enunciates his vision of a shared theological structure that coexisted in the ancient Near East and completely forms the basis of the Old and New Testaments. He cautions against “parallellomania”, thereby suggesting certain principles that he believes, if observed in a comparative study, can render students and readers effectiveness in understanding the Old Testament.
Summary of Chapter 2, “Comparative Studies, Scholarly, and Theology”
In this chapter, Walton considers the important role of comparative studies in both scholarly and confessional contexts. His arbitration is seeking to work out the integrated role being played by comparative study in understanding the Old Testament. According to him, much of the content of Biblical scholarship conformed to the evolutionary theory as contributed by Darwin’s Origin of the Species publication (p.30). However, he asserts that these evolutionary theories had been established in an environment where theorization led to models and hypotheses which could not be tested against empirical data. Therefore, the discovery of the ancient Near East, its language decipherment, and other publications related to its context provided primary source material that reigned over the evolutionary theories. As a result, a comparative study has not only challenged Biblical scholarship, but enhanced it as well.
On the other hand, Walton discusses the reaction of comparative studies, contributed by confessional scholarship. He notes that the notion of the Old Testament is not as unique as it has been contributed by confessional scholarship that had negatively implicated it (p.35). The author asserts that most of the confessional scholars cherish and defend their traditional conviction about the content of the Old Testament, thereby finding some aspects of it unacceptable. However, the author concludes the chapter by envisioning the important role that comparative studies have envisaged in assisting not only critical analysis, but defending the Biblical text as well. He also points out how incorporating comparative studies of the Ancient Near East has helped in understanding the exegesis of the Biblical text as portrayed in the Old Testament. Hence, comparative studies have countered the false origins concepts as displayed in all sciences. As a result, this has negative impact on the image of the Old Testament.
Summary of Chapter 3, “Summary of the Literature of the Ancient Near East”
While giving out the summary of the ancient Near East literature, Walton divides them in this chapter into genres of myths, literature texts and epics, ritual texts and divination or incantation text. Under the genre of myths, the writer points out that there is variation in the definition and understanding of the term “myth” from which stories are generated with gods being the main characters and making such stories to become fancily and fictional (p.43). His assertion is that people tend to dispute the territory of the Old Testament based on their misconception as envisaged by mythological stories that gods do not exist. Therefore, people who believe that Yahweh exists are uncomfortable with classifying the Old Testament in the same category as mythological stories of the ancient Near East were classified.
In ensuring that each genre is effectively understood, Walton provides examples of writings from cultures of various ancient Near East. This includes writings from Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Hittite/Hurrian, and that from Ugaritic which he summarizes from Eridu Genesis to Nineteenth Dynasty Egyptian love poetry. The author poses the understanding of the stories in the Old Testament as being similar to that of the myths. According to him, just like the myths are set in the past while actually referring to the present, the Old Testament is also presented in the same manner (p.44). Through these accounts, readers are able to understand the worldview of the ancient people via which the ultimate cause in deity is portrayed in the Old Testament as pivot in denoting the existence of God of Israel. Additionally, Walton presents these selections in the annotated format. This helps the reader to easily find and understand the copies of various texts related to the Bible. He includes that little is known about text such as Shurpu and some ancient Near Eastern Achieves such as Emar, Mari, and Eblain’s the understanding the ancient literature associated with biblical texts.
Summary of Chapter 4, “The Gods”
Walton presents the concept of ontology and deity in this chapter in trying to explore comparatively the understanding of religion. This section of the book is not only an introduction to various gods that were known during the ancient Near East, but it as well introduces who the ancient people in the Near East thought about gods. Therefore, he explores this topic of “The Gods” in relation to common cognitive environment that the ancient Near East shared regarding gods. For instance, on pages 95-95, Walton discusses Yahweh’s council in registering out succinctly the data and general issues from the Old Testament that made Israelites thought in terms of a divine council. This evidence of the ancient Near East helps to understand the common tendency of Christians to read out Old Testaments texts such as “let us make man” in reference to Trinity.
According to Walton (97), the shared belief by all or some ancient cultures of the Near East, form the basis which they recognized and associated with gods. He highlights the indifference in elements of Israelite religion as have been the most significant thing in acknowledging the idea that God and only God alone need to and must be worshiped (112). It is such sensitivity in the difference of the individual cultures that the writer points out to the Old Testament as referring to human beings to have been made from the image of God. Based on his assertion, the Bible has been adjusted in line with the revelation regarding the nature of God. It is this imagery nature that made the ancient people of Near East to refer to the King as their representative of the gods. But for the Israelites, all human beings bear God’s image and qualities. Therefore, it presents Yahweh as being totally different from the gods of the ancient Near East.
Summary of Chapter 5, ‘Temples and Rituals”
Similar to chapter 4, in the fifth chapter Walton uses comparative exploration either in similarities or in difference between ancient Near Eastern concepts and appearance of the Hebrew Bible in understanding temples and rituals in the religious context. According to Walton (p.113), worships were performed in the temple but temples were not designed primarily as places for worship. This shows that temples were rather designed as residences for deities similar to place for performing cultic rituals.
In connecting temples and rituals Biblically and through ANE depiction, he discusses the Garden of Eden. Walton (114) notes that seeking God’s direction through engaging omens was a common practice that characterized the Near Eastern religion. This seems to be a sacred spot, similar to those depicted by ancient Near East which featured springs with adjoining well-watered parks covered with specimens of trees and animals. What the author tends to point out is the nature in which the Garden of Eden has ANE analogues. Similarly, cultic rituals and statue were incorporated as images and practices that mediated worship. The writer, therefore, tries to present the building accounts and dedicatory ceremonies that were engaged during the ancient times as had similar literacy forms that were indicated in the Old Testament. For instance, Genesis 28 notes Jacob sleeping in a place which was later described as a sacred place (p.118).
Walton also espouses the view of temple and rituals comparatively studying polytheistic iconism (p.114-18), and ziggurats (p.119-23). With respect to the latter, he present the temple and rituals as reflecting a two-tier universe while in the actual sense, he embraces a three-tie cosmos of the heaven, the earth, and the underworld. This aspect was derived from the mindset of ancient Near Eastern people.
Summary of Chapter 6, “State and Family Religion”
In this chapter, Walton continues with his comparative exploration to provide understanding of the connectivity between human beings and Gods from state, family and religion perspective. According to him, the religiosity of the ancient people of the Near East was widely caused by their feelings of fear, servility, and respect toward the divine which was portrayed in the human model (p.135). His assertion is that religion was characterized in the ANE as a family religion when it was popularly practiced and rooted in the family units. But at the state level, religion was based on what gods expected and wanted from the people. This concept supports the chapter 5 assertion that gods had needs and expectations that were to be met by human beings. Through substitutive king’s rituals, people wanted redemption from gods.
Similarly, the Old Testament portrays the role of Yahweh and how He associated with the Israelites beginning with time of Abraham. According to Walton (140), the family religion emerged from Abraham from whom it later expanded to the level of the state religion. Its common features were similar to those of the ancient Near East. The author tries to establish that the existing difference as portrayed in the Old Testament between Yahweh and other gods is due to the unacceptable ideals and values that were presented by prophets regarding Yahwism. Therefore, in the Old Testament, Yahweh unlike other deities has no needs thereby does not provide underlying premises for which a state should meet His demand. In this respect, rituals, prayers, and pieties that were practiced by ancient people in the Near East are only displayed as a response to requirements rather than to the needs. This denotes that Mesopotamia had exteriorized ethics while Hebrew Bible had developed interiorized morality of understanding the right and the wrong especially through the whims of gods and Yahweh. Unlike other deities, Yahweh served Israelites based on covenant.
Summary of Chapter 7, “Cosmic Geography”
In this chapter, Walton introduces a more interesting study on the view of cosmos based on the ancient world as an essential ontology study. The main thesis that comes out of this section of the book is the depiction of the ancient Near East as a functional ontology rather than the substance ontology associated with the contemporary world. He presents an excellent geographical examination of the structure of the heaven, the earth, and the underworld. According to him, the ancient Near East only accepted a three tier cosmology which is consistent of a flat earth with netherworld located under it and the celestial sphere (heaven) located above it (p.166). Therefore, he portrays the three-story cosmology as a universal cultural belief in antiquity of that was initiated by the uniformitarians in the Near East.
Additionally, Walton wants to point out the inaccuracy in primitive cosmology as posed by uniformitarians that has degraded and corrupted the faith and practices between earliest history and the penning of the Pentateuch highlighted in the Bible. According to him, the inaccuracy and, therefore, primitive cosmology in general was primitive through which uniformitarians harmonize the Bible story and ancient Near East believe that earth is a flat disk on the premise of antiquity. Moreover, the writer tries to counter the notion of three-story cosmology that noted the earliest history of universal belief of mapping the entire earth as round as depicted by scientist who were supporting Darwinism. His assertion of the ancient Near East conception of the earth as being supported on pillars also forms the language of the Old Testament. Therefore, it denotes the three-story cosmology not to have been degraded or corrupted by universal belief. Even though Walton maintains belief that ancient Near Eastern “diagrams and texts” consistently supported the three-story cosmology, he refutes the claims that the Bible actually teaches the same (p.171). Consequently, the three-story cosmology has been used consistently in questioning Biblical inerrancy.
Summary of Chapter 8, “Cosmology and Cosmogony”
Walton presents monotheism with respect to the Old Testament, especially how Genesis story is remarkably different from other cosmogonies of the ancient Near East. By outlining Enuma Elish, an epic creation story of the Babylonians engaged by the god Marduk, Walton attempts to provide comparative analysis of the views that surround the cultural understanding of cosmology. He portrays the world as operating by Yahweh’s and deities’ design and supervision to accomplish their purpose, i.e. the cosmos as the temple of God/ gods. Everything in the temple was assigned with a role by God/gods.
According to Walton (179), all ancient examples from Egyptian, Sumerian, and Babylonian epic creation stories have common aspect of non-functionality. He notes that nearly all these stories give an idea of creation as if the world has started from the situation when there was no operational system in place. In so doing, heaven and earth are displayed as non-differentiated, that means that they are inseparable. Additionally, the writer displays naming in the ancient world as based on identity, role, and function of gods or human beings in the cosmos. However, what is imperative in the ancient literature towards creation is the un-mentioning of creation of living creatures in their texts. The author emphasizes importance of the notion that the human beings were only created out of substances, such as clay, blood, and the breath of deity only shows that their identity has direct relationship with gods.
Additionally, in this chapter Walton tries to present creation as a way to bring order to the cosmos from its original non-functionality nature. From this aspect, readers are able to deduce the functional ontology that was associated with the ancient world, i.e. ancient literature attempts to offer explanations of the functional origins rather than being accouter of material origins. Therefore, creating something that has existed in the ancient world meant giving it function, and not a material property which made the ancient world to consider cosmos more like a kingdom.
Summary of Chapter 9, “Understanding the Past: Human Origin and Role”
In this chapter, Walton comparatively explores the understanding of people in relation to common cognitive environment that they shared during the ancient Near East. According to him, having memory, conscience, and responsibility of the ancient people in the Near East can only make sense by understanding their past (p.203). He notes that seeking to understand the cognitive environment of the ancient world which dominated their cultural belief can only be achieved through comprehending the human origin and their role during those times. Therefore he therefore presents oldest conceptions of man’s creation from Hebrews and Babylonians perspective in order to understand the ancient people of the Near East.
Walton (211) points out that Hebrews, as narrated in the Old Testament, especially Genesis, denotes that man had been designed from clay on purpose to rule over all the animals. However, this contradicted Babylonians mythology based on the “Epic Creation” stories that described man who was made of the blood by either one or more troublesome gods on purpose to serve them. Additionally, the writer notes that Babylonian creation myth pointed out that man was created to free gods from laboring in order to sustain them. Moreover, he attempts to associate the internal ka that is reflected in the human nature of the ancient Near East as not only linked to the supernatural, but as well ties to forecast the future of human beings.
Additionally, the author attempts to single out in this chapter the fact that recognizing of archetypal focus of human origins based on Biblical accounts does not in any way affect the confessional debate regarding the historicity of mankind. Based on the Old Testament, there is no indication that the original human pair was a progenitor of the entire human race (205). This was only a distinctive belief of the people from the ancient Near East regarding the blood which they believe to link human beings with gods.
Summary of Chapter 10, “Understanding the Past: Historiography”
In this chapter, Walton assesses how proper historiographical concerns have adversely complicated both the critical and confessional use of any Biblical material. First, he seeks to understand the nature in which historiography has developed. In his understanding, any preservation of any recorded events can only be achieved if the compiler sticks to the set of guiding principles, conscious, and subconscious outlined (p.217). Therefore, he describes a collection of principle values that characterized different Mesopotamian historiography genres that ranged from commemorative records, narrative works, chronographic texts, to historical epics and legends.
On the other hand, Walton explores the role of deity in historiography in the attempt to understand the cognitive environment that was associated with the ancient Near East (p.220). In this respect, he discusses what values motivated the historical enterprises thereby offering a shaded textbox containing comparative exploration of Israelites historiography. The writer challenges confessional scholars to rethink precisely on what constitutes the truth of the text which they ultimately seek to defend (p.235). He believes that while reading the ancient historiographical testimonies in its ancient cognitive environment, it is important for one to translate such readings into modern or post-modern historical interpretation. Latter is done to invoke derogatory imperialism that limits such interpretation, and thereby associating any Biblical text or ancient documentary with historical background that do not conform with the contemporary world.
By not critically understanding the ancient documents through indigenous historiographical practices, Walton notes that critical scholars are virtually vilified with rhetorical juxtaposition as content in the ancient document. This in turn, makes critical scholars to associate any truth with confessionals. By defining Israelite historiography as being a theological history that not only reveals Yahweh’s character, but as well legitimizes his covenant, the confessional approach even though slightly scolded is implicitly vindicated.
Summary of Chapter 11, “Encountering the Present: Guidance for Life-Divination and Omens”
In this chapter, John Walton provides thoughtful introduction to the conceptual world of divination and omens. He comparatively explores magic and divination as related to the cognitive environment under which Israelites and the Near Eastern people lived. He further provides readers with insightful interpretation of specific Old Testament beliefs and practices that are helpful for instructive study. According to him, divination is more concerned with gaining knowledge unlike omen or magic which involves excising power (p.265). He is committed to suggest a worldview as have been contributed by human belief and thought regarding divination and omens in order to encounter the present contemporary world.
As the author points out, there has been contradictory lines of reasoning, especially in recording omens that are observed and contrived, possible and impossible, or even those which are historical and contemporary (p.255). Such indifferences made it difficult to understand what is real or surreal in the contemporary world based on the historical literature like those of the ancient Near East. In his explanation, he observes that omen which held special importance in the ancient world by casting shadows before people on the coming events enabled women and men to seek glimpsing future possibilities. Thus, this could enable them prepare for the future challenges and opportunities that await them. Walton notes that the ancient Near East used omens as means of consulting the will of the gods in order to counter future challenges.
However, Walton (249) notes that Israelites have forbidden deductive divination since it was less initiated from divine realm with its primarily communicated revelation through events and incidents. Unlike other ancient literature, the Old Testament does not only show some awareness of celestial omens, but it also provides interpretation of dreams as established in the Daniel’s story. But Israelites shared with the ancient world the idea that events as portrayed are revelations. Omens and divination were, therefore, used as a way to abreast off from God or gods what future awaits people.
Summary of Chapter 12, “Encountering the Present: Context of Life-Cities and Kingship”
In this chapter, Walton provides comparative exploration on the knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian kingship and cities which offered insightful relationship between power, people and religion in the pre-modern societies. According to him, the cities of Mesopotamia and Egypt had ideal social context and saw nomadism which characterized cities outside Mesopotamia as being inferior and uncivilized (275). He notes that those cities were not central and integrated into life as they were not driven by the same notion of sacred kingship. In this respect, the writer attempts to point out civilization of the ancient Near East as was strongly influenced by Christian imagery that contributed to sacred kingship.
According to Walton (291), a form of regicide in which the divine king is traditionally sacrificed to ensure prosperity of the cities and continued fertility in the ancient world depicts important element of divine kingship. However, this does not play significant role for societies such as Israelites who exhibit the divination of the king. He also notes how self-deification conceded the rulers of the ancient world. Through this ontology study, Walton asserts that the ancient world perception differed significantly from how the contemporary world thinks as their justification and actions were established by gods. This limits the possibility of isolation of the individual’s character from duty; something which forms the content of the Old Testament. However, by learning about the ancient kings and kingship, people can easily characterize what they think suits them in the best way.
Summary of Chapter 13, “Encountering the Present: Guidelines for Life-Law and Wisdom”
In this chapter, John Walton continues with his comparative exploration on how the ancient Near East encountered the present in their day-to day existence, especially by pointing out their lives and behaviors. According to him, people in the ancient Near East were subjected to laws by deities that were supposed to guide them into a social protocol, etiquette, and norms for their daily existence (p.287). These laws were created by deities but executed and sustained through kings who were sponsored and endowed with wisdom from deities that help them in administering justice. Therefore, he portrays life as a process of seeking and finding one’s wisdom to encounter the present through obeying deity’s stipulated laws.
The writer’s comparative exploration in this section attempts to describe the law as only a matter of self-affirmation and integrity rather than that deployed for external judgment. He points out that since the covenant law, as indicated in the Old Testament, was not created or developed by the society, it cannot be guaranteed by the society as well (301). In the book of Exodus 20:1-21, God gives out laws known as the Ten Commandments. The laws purposely define Israelites, their behaviors, lives and relationship with God. This shows that when people broadly speak in line with the spirit of God’s law, they experience themselves being wise as in the synch with the God. Therefore, while the god’s name is invoked by ancient Near East for economic or political interest, God’s name, as indicated in the Hebrew Bible, is only invoked with respect and love and thus enhances individual life. However, Walton believes that the kingship covenant in Israel that demonstrated wisdom in administering justice originated from extended dynastic succession that ideally has lasted until the contemporary world.
Summary of Chapter 14, “Pondering the Future on Earth and After Death”
In this chapter, Walton use comparative exploration in presenting majority of views of both the Old Testament and the ancient literatures regarding future hope, death, and afterlife. According to him, mankind has ever been fascinated with the subject of life after death (313). This has resulted in the interest of the occult in the ancient Near East and speculation about the time and events which surround the return of Jesus as indicated in the Hebrew Bible. A lot of confusion has been created among Christians who have high expectations with certainty of having everlasting life after death.
Walton (313) believes that people’s fascination about life after death is what has continuously tied their hope for the future on earth with the dead. He believes that in so doing, they have constituted names either through exploits of renown or building projects that would make sure that their presence is felt on the earth even after they die. He adds that burial acted as a crucial future care for those who have passed away as they were the recipient of the continued mortuary rites and name invocation of the deceased that were widely practiced by the ancient Near East. Through corpora ancient literature of Egyptian source, the writer talks about pyramid sarcophagus chambers that were built in order to assist the deceased when trying to live on earth afterlife. His assertion on this section is that both the ancient Near East and Israelites believed that there was life after death and therefore people worked very hard to ensure that their afterlife is noticed and appreciated on Earth. However, Israelites only believed in resurrection, especially of the righteous ones as the only contributor to future life on earth after death.
Summary of the Postscript
In this section, Walton demonstrates his excellent job of achieving the goals of understanding some of the important basic concepts related to ancient cognitive environment. According to him, Israel is a partaker of this cognitive environment which has formed the content of the Old Testament (p.331). He points out that failure to understand the cognitive environment of the ancient Near East can result in generalization which can sometimes be misleading. But on the other hand, generalization when used effectively and carefully through comparative exploration can be an important educational tool that can help in the specialization of the filed related to ancient Near East.
Walton (332) points out that generalization of existence in terms of order and function during the ancient Near East was only determined by deity. This contradicted Israelites’ notion as indicated in the Old Testament that only Yahweh had the ultimate and continual responsibility of enhancing this order. Additionally, he summarizes the concept of cosmology by indicating that unlike other gods, the Israelite’s God portrayed in the Hebrew Bible worked outside the cosmos, he spoke to his people in different ways, and more so had no needs (p.333). Furthermore, the writer notes that the stipulated God’s law and his distinctive nature from the cosmos was the core contributor to Israelites identity. This influenced their lives and behaviors. What he tries to point out is that the difference in thoughts between ancient Near East and the Israelites was widely influenced by the kind of God they believed in. However, this can only be captured by comparing the theological perspective of both parties as related to their cognitive environment.
Walton has effectively expressed his overall interest in using comparative studies in projecting the world views as contributed by ancient Near East thoughts and the Old Testament. In ensuring that he achieves his goals, he has used a wide range of ancient materials which he has classified, described, and annotated. Therefore, he uses these texts interactively with the Old Testament to depict the uniqueness of the Old Testament conceptual world. However, the summary of Walton’s scholarly articles raises pertinent question of whether it is not another production of confessional contribution inhibited in the comparative debate. On this edge, a number of questions are rendered unanswered. How do comparative studies help in appropriate adoption of the Old Testament conceptual world outside the Bible College classroom? Does understanding the Old Testament through comparative exploration of the ancient cultures create self-affirmation and containment towards the Bible among people? Is it certain that people will change their perception towards the Bible if the Old Testament texts and content are comparatively studied with the ancient worldview thought?