Book Reviews

Book Review: Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (John Walton)

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Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament John Walton

In this book, long time Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern scholar John Walton introduces his readers into the conceptual world of the Hebrew Bible. I read the first edition the summer after my first year of Bible college and loved it. This was a great book. Below I’ll comment about some of the differences between the two editions before getting into the book itself.

The methodology section in chapter one describing comparative study has been lengthened by a few pages (it spans pages 5-7). Walton inserts a discussion about the “cultural river” we all live in. For example, Americans swim in concepts such as “rights, privacy, freedom, capitalism, consumerism, democracy, individualism, [and] globalism“ to name a few (6). Yet the ancient world had a common set of concepts such as “community identity, the comprehensive and ubiquitous control of the gods, the role of kingship, divination, the centrality of the temple, the mediatory role of images, and the reality of the spirit world and magic” (6). Even when we swim upstream, against the flow of our cultural river, we are still in our cultural river.

Chapter three, “Summary of the Literature of the Ancient Near East,” has been seriously condensed (14 pages instead of 44, which I doubt will cause many complaints), with the textual abbreviations found in the front matter of the book (which is easy to forget).

Beyond that, and I can’t catch everything, there didn’t seem to be much that was new. Some figures are taken out, new ones added in, and many photos have been included. There is a very helpful list of the Comparative Explorations (gray boxes) found throughout the book. The font has been updated, and the headings are easier to see, both of which look nice.

But why should you buy this book? As the paragraph above says, the OT Hebrews had a different mindset altogether. It’s one thing to experience culture shock today when you visit England, Norway, Germany, Ireland, France, Denmark, or upon meeting Californians. It’s another to experience it daily with people from 3,000 years ago. The western person doesn’t think about kingship, divination, omens, temples, or rituals. Walton guides his readers into the different categories of the OT Hebrew so that we can better understand the strange world of the Old Testament. 

  • God has a divine council.
  • People counted on kings, priests, and authorities to appease the gods.
  • God’s resting is actually one of “engagement as [he] takes his place at the helm to maintain an ordered, secure, and stable cosmos” (122). Israel rests to see that God brings and keeps order, not them. God was building and maintaining a temple.
  • They understood things within the world (and outside, like the stars) as existing because it had a function. Things weren’t just “there;” they serve a purpose. 
  • Israel believed the gods lived at the tops of mountains which were in the heavens, perhaps supporting the sky.
  • The firmament/sky was believed to be solid.
  • “The act of creation had involved setting boundaries for the cosmic waters. In the flood the restraints were removed, thus bringing destruction” (145).
  • “The image of God did the work of God on earth” (184). In ANE literature, humans were made to work/serve the gods, who were, basically, slave drivers. In the OT, God creates and orders the world, places Adam and Eve in a beautiful garden that they might serve him and serve with him. He is not a slave driver, but a slave rescuer (Exodus 14-15). 
  • “In the ancient Near East visible events on earth were reflections of the activity of the gods.” Instead of having journalists running around looking for eye witnesses, the people “needed experts who could interpret what the deity was communicating through events… In Israel it was the prophets who most commonly provided for the interpretation of history” (196-97).
  • Joshua 10.12–15 has more to do with omens than with the sun standing still (238-39)? (see my post for Walton’s proposal and some pushback)

It was in the first edition where I encountered the discussion of the divine council for the first time, a discussion I at least thought was intriguing. However, I was off-put by the fact that Walton didn’t believe Genesis 1.26-27 was about the Trinity. He understood it to be referring to the divine council! I thought that this guy had gone too deep down the ancient Near Eastern rabbit hole and had forgotten that the canon of Scripture teaches the Trinity. However, I’ve been convinced otherwise after having read Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm. It just make sense. Now, coming back to Walton’s work only a mere six years later, I can now nod my head to a few more beats of his drum.

Recommended?

If you haven’t picked up the first edition, you really ought to buy this book. John Walton has been studying the ancient Near East for over thirty years and is skilled at understanding the OT Israelite’s thinking. To have his thinking condensed into this book is extremely valuable. Buy it. However, if you have the first edition, then unfortunately there’s little need to buy this one. However, for the rest of you, this is a great book. On my top “ten” list for 2018. 

Lagniappe

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Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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