The Privileged Tradition: An Approach to Comparative Studies

Emerging from an academic environment in which the Hebrew Bible was extremely privileged and West Semitic culture “Canaanized” (Ballentine 2015, 17), much 20th and 21st century biblical scholarship has sought an equilibrium to allow for comparative studies without presupposed significance of one text over the other. By “Canaanized”, I mean the gross misrepresentation of West Semitic cultures primarily via the polemical lens of the Hebrew Bible and cherry picked texts. More recently, from an evangelical perspective, John Walton has championed the importance of comparative studies for the Hebrew Bible, drawing emphasis to the challenges of comparative studies for confessional scholars in Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Walton 2006, 29-40). Debra Ballentine succinctly notes in her discussion of “the comparative enterprise” that “Israelite and Judean traditions should be included among Canaanite traditions, not portrayed as being opposed to, completely other than, or superior to Canaanite traditions” (2015, 16).

But how does one avoid privileging the Israelite Judean traditions without abandoning recognition of the role of the Hebrew Bible in the daily lives of the religious? I believe the answer to this question does not rest upon increasing ones faith in the Bible, for doing so would move back towards the “Canaanization” of West Semitic culture and myth. Nor does it require movement towards complete agreement on the authoritative nature of ancient literature. Positive development of supporting the authoritative status for the religious, and avoidance of diminishment of it to one insignificant piece of literature among many, may be found by moving toward questions of the universality of story, myth, and ritual. As Catherine Bell (1952-2008) notes at the end of her introduction to ritual, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, “the form and scope of interpretation differ, and that should not be lightly dismissed, but it cannot be amiss to see in all of these instances practices that illuminate our shared humanity” (1997, 267). In other words, regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof, the ritual nature of life itself should be drawn out to find common humanity.

By elevating the status of other ancient literature to demonstrate the commonalities of humanity, comparative study may more successfully flourish amongst those who do privilege the Hebrew Bible. The notion of privilege then becomes an issue of praxis rather than glorified literature. So even if one firmly believes in the importance of the Hebrew Bible over other ancient literature, the common ritual, and hence uniting humanity, permits a more balanced equilibrium. Furthermore, this approach would allow confessional and non-confessional scholars alike to be heard better by those outside of the academy. Instead of hearing a person say that the Hebrew Bible is not significant, drawing out the common human elements of other literature allows people to hold to their beliefs while still recognizing the intrinsic value of other ancient literature.

Such an approach accomplishes two important missions for all people. First, this approach unites people in finding common humanity. No evidence need be shown to reveal the disconnected and opposing behavior of many people due to the sense of one’s traditions over another. But by elevating the intrinsic value of ancient literature for human commonalities, an environment is cultured in which conducive discussion may occur and unite, rather than splinter people. Secondly, people are permitted to believe freely in what they understand to be Truth, or truth. Culture of scholarship would permit confessional and non-confessional alike to unite and hold to their own tenants. Hence the validity of scholars are upheld and the community becomes more inclusive, accepting the full spectrum of traditions and scholastic approaches.

Finding the intrinsic value of ancient literature has the potential to improve the quality of biblical scholarship. How do certain texts discuss the nature of humanity? Does the text do so in a ritual manner that compares equally to the Hebrew Bible? Too what extent does ritual illustrate the common humanity between ancient Israel and Canaan? These are the sort of questions that may be explored more thoroughly only when one is willing to note the intrinsic value of all ancient literature for demonstrating common humanity.


Cited Works

Ballentine, Debra Scoggins. The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

“Hidden Riches” by Christopher B. Hays

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.

Why Priests?

Within ancient Israel, Priests held extremely important roles. Priestly significance is demonstrated even more so by the entire ancient Near East. Unlike the 21st century western world, ancient civilizations in the Near East placed high value on the “sacred space”, often designating them as temples. The sacred space was essential to the survival of an ancient civilization because “it was considered the center of power, control, and order from which deity [brought] order to the human world” (Walton, 127). In effect, the temple, sacred space, was a sort of “government” for the ancient world in that provided life, prosperity, and justice. The sacred temple was also considered a microcosm of the cosmos, the center of the cosmos. With this context, it is evident why priests in Leviticus are so dignified and viewed with prestige.

The value of priesthood depended not upon the tribe or lineage. In its purest sense, priesthoods attained value because they acted as the ones who ensured the sanctity of the sancta (the sacred space). Consequently the priesthoods allowed (1) the gods to continues maintaining order and (2) permitted human involvement in retaining cosmic order (Walton, 130). Unfortunately, because the temple was simeltaneously a political entity and religious expression, priesthoods could easily evolve into political powerhouses rather than sanctifying/sancitified powerhouses. And due to our own context which dichotomizes religious practice and politics, we easily pick up on the political struggles but miss the high cultural value of priests within a cultic context. In this context, then, it is evident why the priests were so important to ancient Israel. Without priests, order could not be maintained and life could fall into non-order/disorder as the world was left without Yahweh’s presence.

References

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

By William Brown

“The Lost World of Adam and Eve” by John H. Walton

Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a review copy of The Lost World of Adam and Eve.

John Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate immerses the reader into the ancient context of Genesis 2-3 in order to demonstrate the necessity of Genesis’ autonomy from the modern cognitive environment. In effect, he is able to explore Genesis 2-3’s implications for humanity without conflicting modern science. His research is honest to Genesis’ ancient cognitive environment. Even after illustrating the ancient context of Genesis 2-3’s message, he explores the New Testament’s use of Adam and demonstrates how it is compatible with Genesis’ ancient context. By his conclusion, he reasons that Genesis 2-3 is, in fact, not about human origins; rather, it is an explanation of how the priests of humanity, Adam with Eve, designated themselves as the ones who determine and create order in the cosmos.

Although Walton aims his work towards a primarily evangelical audience, it remains an essential analysis of human origins and Genesis 2-3. For any reader, he convincingly communicates the non-scientific nature of Genesis 2-3. In doing so, Walton allows for Scripture and science to maintain distinct and autonomous authoritative voices. And with the increasing secularism (not intended to be pejorative), he provides his audience the well-reasoned and thought out information to respect Scripture and the science of human origins.

Additionally, from an exegetical perspective, his sound approach to Genesis’ context explains many aspects of it which are generally missed by the common reader. For example, his pristine treatment of chaos in the ancient world clearly and concisely provides the reader with a proper frame by which to approach the text. Rather than leaving the discussion to the Hebrew bible, his clarity in connecting the information to the New Testament literature allows Christian readers to formulate more complete and thought out reasons for their faith. Even to those without a Christian faith, Walton’s book is a prime example of Christian scholarship which is honest with its materials, and yet also faithful to Christian tradition.

Overall, Walton is thorough covers many of the important aspects of Genesis 2-3. However, the one surprising bit which he excluded was any interaction with Jon Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil. Considering that Levenson exploration of the persistence of evil throughout the the Hebrew Bible agreed at many points with Walton’s conclusion, Walton should have utilized Levenon’s work more fully to paint a fuller picture of Genesis 2-3 and also support his conclusions.

In conclusion, John Walton’s exploration of the ancient context of Genesis 2-3 is an essential read to any person seeking to interpret Genesis 2-3 in its own context. For Christians, it provides an explanation of the New Testament’s use of Adam and allows them to better understand the underlying messages within the New Testament. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with what Walton considers to be authoritative texts, namely the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, his work opens up the ancient world to scholars and laypersons alike. With understandable language the reader is introduced to the ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment and invited to read Genesis 2-3 in the same framework as ancient Israel. In doing so, the debate of human origins is no longer an issue and the reader recognizes how s/he can respect the sciences and the Scriptures.

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