Hays, Christopher B. Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.
Christopher Hays (Fuller Theological Seminary) provides a succinct and clear introduction and sourcebook for comparative studies of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern literature. Having found its origins in his work as a master’s student at Princeton Theological Seminary in a class about direct engagement with primary texts, he works to elucidate and make alive the world of the Hebrew Bible.
Part one provides a helpful introduction to both his work and the history of comparative studies. Chapter one explores how, poetically put, he hopes that people learn to breathe oxygen of the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, resulting in a clearer and sharper image of the Hebrew Scriptures (4). Of course, his analysis is not intended to be “liberal”, “secular”, “evangelical”, or “conservative”; rather, it is intended to discuss the academic issues in a manner honest to scholarship and also provide discussion questions which may further one’s own studies. Furthermore, Hays provides, and does not assume, critical issues surrounding the composition of the Hebrew Scriptures, a point that permits one to fully grasp his analysis from any level. At last, he provides primary texts with authoritative translations, and an up-to-date bibliography by which one may study certain topics further.
Chapter two explores the history of comparative studies and surrounding issues. Namely it covers the earliest discoveries of “Orientalists” in from the European colonialism of the 17th century to the decipherments of Ugaritic and Akkadian in the 19th and 20th centuries. Following, Hays summarizes the methodological approaches of various scholars as they regarded the uniqueness of the Bible. Based off the work of William W. Hallo, he argues for comparative studies as from a contrastive approach that decenters “the Bible in order to grasp the way it takes part in a much larger cultural matrix” (36). In effect, Hays notes that one may know the biblical text for the first time (37).
The next four sections of the book, the remaining chapters, cover the Pentateuch, former prophets, latter prophets, and writings. Within each section are certain pieces of literature for comparison. For example, in chapter seven, Hays compares the Laws of Hammurabi and the Covenant Code. While more texts are available through the world, he only selects one or two texts and provides a bibliography for further study and more primary texts. Each selection is complete with a Bible reading and at least one primary source reading. Following each primary source, Hays discusses the critical issues surrounding the texts and illustrates how certain ancient Near Eastern literature elucidates elements within the Bible. In his comparative analysis’ he presents the full views of subjects without adhering to any point of certainty. In essence he does well to compare the texts without asserting biblical superiority, an easy possibility for confessional scholars.
While each chapter was effective in their presentation of the text and historical critical issues, there were a few points where potentially valuable information was lost. First, in Enuma Elish, Table VII, Hays excludes many of the fifty names for Marduk. For an undergraduate or masters student seeking to understand such a portion of text, it creates an inconvenience by which one must seek another translation. While his exclusion of Anshar’s sending Ea and Anu to defeat Tiamat or the repetition of Tiamat’s preparation is reasonable, exclusion of Marduk’s fifty names leave out a treasure trove of data regarding how people viewed their highest deity.
Also, aside from the chapter divisions by genre type, there is no further systematization to help one retain concepts found throughout the literature and analysis presented. In essence, Hays operates differently from John Walton (2006) who provides his own analysis of the ancient Near East, the cognitive environment, and categories for understanding. For the undergraduate reader, Hays work alone is inadequate in that while his comparative analysis is fantastic, there is not enough detail to help the reader organize information to retain. With this work, one should be accompanied by something like Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.
Beyond these two critiques, Hidden Riches was a joy to read for the neutrality. Again in contrast to Walton, Hays writes for a less conservative audience and provides one with the primary resources and guidance, the discussion questions, to consider the information independently. Though dense at some moments, Hays makes clear the various text critical issues, not assuming one already knows the issues. Additionally, he, as determined by his methodology, maintains respect of both the Hebrew Scriptures and ancient texts. Theological assertions about the Hebrew Scriptures are rare and, if present, only utilized as a comparison of Hebrew religions and ancient Near Eastern religions.
In sum, Christopher Hays’ exquisite work opens the literature of the ancient Near East to graduate and undergraduates alike. Although he doesn’t directly provide categories to help illustrate the cognitive environment, the nature of his methodology for comparative studies allows one to finish reading his work with a sense of the ancient genres within which the Hebrew Scriptures are located. As a result of reading Hays work one begins to be able to grasp the cultural matrix and complex dynamics between ancient Israel and its neighboring groups.