As the title of this compendium of studies indicates, this volume offers a series of studies of the general ancient Near Eastern context, and with particular reference to W. W. Hallo’s contextual comparative method, with a view at the place of the Hebrew Bible in that context. To cite the editors’ statement from the preface,
… this volume is not intended to be an exhaustive overview of Mesopotamian civilization, but a description of certain aspects of that civilization that may (or may not) help the reader place the Bible in its greater ancient Near Eastern context (p. 8).
After the preliminary usual pages, the volume starts with a long introductory chapter by Mark W. Chavalas, titled “Assyriology and Biblical Studies: A Century and a Half of Tension” (pp. 21–67) in which he surveys the love-hate relations between assyriology and biblical studies over a 150 year period. Chavalas proposes in his introductory chapter “to trace some of the major developments of the relationships between the two fields since the discovery and subsequent decipherment of ‘Babylonic’ cuneiform in the mid-nineteenth century” (p. 23). Questions raised include: Was assyriology founded to be subservient to the Bible, to help authenticate it for its believers? Or was it founded as a discipline of its own, designed to examine the cradle of civilization? Related is also the question of the autonomy of each culture, and whether one needs to study each in comparison with the other, as well as the question of the uniqueness of each culture. Chavalas also looks closely at various issues, some quite heavy, related to the comparative enterprise and to the application of the comparative method in the study of these fields in relation to one another. He suggests, and I completely agree with him, that the best way to circumvent the various hurdles that stand in the way of the ancient Near Eastern comparativist is to adopt Hallo’s contextual method of comparison which looks at the general ancient Near Eastern milieu as one large cultural context harboring different sub-cultures, one of which is Israelite culture.
Steven W. Holloway’s “The Quest for Sargon, Pul and Tiglath-Pileser in the Nineteenth Century” (pp. 68–87) surveys early pre-assyriological literature wherein attempts were made to identify Sargon II, mentioned only once in the Bible (Isa 20: 1), with Shalmaneser, Sennacherib, and even Esarhaddon. Only after the excavations of Khorsabad in the middle of the 19th century did Sargon receive his own identity as a distinct ruler. Similar efforts are evident with regard to the identification of the enigmatic Pul (2 Kgs 15: 19–20). Is this name an alias for some other Assyrian king or does it refer to an independent ruler? Holloway follows closely the history of research and the trail of the various epigraphic finds that helped correct earlier views, based as they had been, solely on biblical and classical evidence, and gives each ancient ruler his distinctive identity.
The title of Richard E. Averbeck’s contribution “Sumer, the Bible and Comparative Method: Historiography and Temple Building” (pp. 88–125) focuses the reader’s attention on the difficulties associated with any attempt to compare two cultures so distant (both temporally and geographically) as Israelite and Sumerian cultures. Accordingly, Averbeck starts by addressing these issues and then proposes to follow closely four methodological principles set out by Sh. Talmon as a framework for such a comparative study. Talmon’s principles are “proximity in time and place, the priority of inner biblical parallels, correspondence of social function, and the holistic approach to texts and comparisons” (p. 89). Taking these principles as a guide, Averbeck examines the themes of historical writing in Sumer and Israel, and of temple building in the ancient Near East, particularly comparing the Gudea Cylinders with the biblical episodes reporting temple building in ancient Israel. He finds similarities and differences: it seems that the phenomenon of historical writing that had been considered to be a unique biblical trait also can be traced back to Sumerian records of the 3rd millennium bc In addition, in both cultures history writing served a sociological function. Looking at the stories of temple building in Sumer and in the Bible, Averbeck notes that whereas in the Bible such reports are woven into narrative contexts, the Gudea report, contextually speaking, records a ritual, which along with the whole process of building, was the main theme in his report.
Mark W. Chavalas’ contribution, “Syria and Northern Mesopotamia to the End of the Third Millennium bce” (pp. 126–148), discusses the “developments in northern Mesopotamia in a … chronological order, from the early Neolitic, Halaf, Ubaid, and Uruk periods” to the end of the 3rd millennium, thus exposing rich and diverse socio-cultural and historical contexts for the study of the Bible. Beyond this survey of data from various sources, epigraphic as well as archaeological, Chavalas does not delve into any comparative issues, nor does he discuss specific areas of biblical studies that might be benefited from the rich cultural context drawn here.
In the same footsteps follow the next three contributions (by Veenker, Matthews and Deuel) which, beyond briefly reviewing for the reader the known cultural and historical data pertaining to particular areas and periods of the ancient Near East, do not tackle any comparative issue as would be expected from the title of this compendium of studies.
Roland A. Veenker’s contribution “Syro-Mesopotamia: The Old Babylonian Period” (pp. 149–167) starts with a historical survey that moves from the fall of Ur III onward, and then offers a short historical survey of Syro-Mesopotamia in the Old Babylonian period of a kind that can be found in any standard textbook. Save for the recitation of some sections from the Code of Hammurapi with their biblical counterparts, no discussion is offered from a comparative point of view.
Victor H. Matthews’ contribution “Syria to the Early Second Millennium” (pp. 168–190) proposes to study the kingdom of Mari in the Old Babylonian period and to look at the way its kings administered their nation and its various units. Matthews proposes to apply anthropological models for the study of nomadism and he mainly describes the struggles of the kings of Mari with the nomadic tribes around their kingdom. The implied promise to look at the comparable phenomenon in the Bible and to apply the same anthropological models for the biblical nomadic evidence is not met.
In the next contribution, “Apprehending Kidnappers by Correspondence at Provincial Arrapha” (pp. 191–208), David C. Deuel studies five administrative missives from Arrapha regarding a case in which three persons (or three run-away thieves) were kidnapped, and interprets them in the light of the role of messages, officials mentioned in them, their archival relationships, and the administrative activity reflected in them. Such an examination of each administrative correspondence, the author asserts, can teach us how various officials carried out their duties and how they used correspondence for doing it. Again, for all it’s worth, this chapter too does not stand up to the purported claim expressed in the title of this volume.
Richard S. Hess’ contribution “The Bible and Alalakh” (pp. 209–221) addresses the comparative relationships between the epigraphic finds from Alalakh levels 7 and 4 and the Bible. After duly cautioning that such comparisons should be carried out case by case, he moves on to a brief summary of the chief parallels between the Alalakhian texts and the Bible, following basically the order of the biblical books. The impression that one gets from this recitation of parallels is of a common ancient Near Eastern context and of typological, rather than historical-genetic, similarities. This inventory of parallels and pertinent literature does carry some value for the interested reader and student of the Bible and the ancient Near East.
Daniel E. Fleming’s contribution “Emar: On the Road from Harran to Hebron” (pp. 222–250) is in my view a more successful attempt to stand up to the proposed goal of this volume. It attempts to examine closely the value of Emar and its finds to the elucidation of the Bible, particularly the patriarchal narratives and the origins of Israel. Fleming takes issue with the current scholarly trends related to the history of Israel, especially those that confine the biblical evidence to the 1st millennium, and asserts that the biblical evidence exhibits clear and firm footing in the Syrian milieu of the 2nd millennium bc Fleming focuses in particular on the religious evidence of Emar, especially on the zukru festival, a ritual of treaty-making between the people and the god Dagan, which he compares with a similar institution in the Bible. If Fleming’s reconstruction of the zukru-festival as a ritual of treaty-making between a population and its god is correct, then—as he himself duly notes—a biblical feature (the covenant between Israel and their God), which has always been considered to be a unique biblical phenomenon, is no longer unique. I find his suggestion to be intriguing, interesting and convincing, particularly in view of the parallelism between the two traditions in a number of basic themes (the existence of erected stones, their anointing with oil and blood, the time of the ritual in the autumn-spring, at the beginning of the year, and the renewal of the treaty once every seven years).
The chapter by Wayne T. Pitard “Voices from the Dust: The Tablets from Ugarit and the Bible” (pp. 251–275) examines the contribution which the Ugaritic finds offer for the study and shaping of our understanding of the Bible. He focuses, naturally, on the religious literature of Ugarit and the parallels and similarities that exist between it and biblical religion. Here included are the parallels between Ugaritic El and Biblical Yahweh, the creation theology common to both, the battle with the sea (Yam), with the dragon, and with the serpent (Psalm 74), and the themes of death and afterlife. Pitard also discusses obvious and well-known parallels between Ugaritic literature and the Bible in the realm of language and poetics, which has been the greatest contribution of Ugaritic studies to the Bible. Despite the obvious parallels and similarities, Pitard duly expresses caution and warns the reader not to be hasty in using one source for studying and elucidating another source. A case in point is the theme of death and afterlife, where he points to difficulties involved in its interpretation with relation to the parallel theme in the Bible.
The chapter by William M. Schniedewind, “The Rise of the Aramaic States” (pp. 276–287), reviews the scanty evidence pertaining to the rise of the Aramaic states along the northern parts of the Euphrates river. Because of the difficulties involved in the scanty epigraphical evidence, he falls back on archaeological and biblical evidence and applies an anthropological model for explaining the creation of the Aramaic states and for identifying the Arameans socially and ethnically.
K. Lawson Younger, Jr.’s contribution, “Recent Study on Sargon II, King of Assyria: Implications for Biblical Studies” (pp. 288–329) closely examines old and recent evidence pertaining to the known three campaigns of Sargon II to the southern Levant (720, 716/715, 712/711 bce) and the way they elucidate relevant biblical evidence. Sargon seems to have made a great impact on these regions both politically and militarily, an impact that was felt even after his death in battle.
Bill T. Arnold’s contribution, “What has Nebuchadnezzar to do with David? On the Neo-Babylonian Period and Early Israel” (pp. 330- 355), engages in what seems to be a clear typological comparative activity. Arnold notes that he is not interested in comparing specific texts, i.e., in literary comparisons, but “in institutional and socio-political analogies” (p. 330). Accordingly, he proposes to look into two major aspects of Neo-Babylonian history: (1) the rise of the empire from 747 to 626 bce and the heterogenous ethnic constitution of the inhabitants; and (2) the period 625–539 bce which offers several features for comparison with biblical Israel. The latter include a typological comparison of the social-ethnic constitution of southern Babylonia (composed of indigenous Babylonians, Arameans, and Chaldeans) with pre-monarchical tribal Israel, and the progression from tribalism to statehood in both societies. Like Fleming, Arnold too takes issue with the minimalist trends in biblical history and concludes that the evidence preserved in the Bible, particularly relating to the kingdom, the building projects, and the developed literary creation, must reflect some historical reality and is, thus, quite authentic.
Edwin Yamauchi, in his contribution “The Eastern Jewish Diaspora under the Babylonians” (pp. 356–377), surveys the history of the Jews during the Neo-Babylonian and Persian empires in the Eastern diaspora. A close look into the evidence shows that Jews, Egyptians, and other ethnic groups experienced the heavy hardships resulting from their enforced exile by the Babylonians. However, unlike other ethnic groups, which somehow assimilated and disappeared within the local population, the Jews managed to retain their ethnic and religious identity. Yamauchi assigns this miracle to the Jews ardent faith in their God and the covenant they had with him.
In summary, this compendium of articles pertaining to the general ancient Near Eastern milieu and the place of biblical Israel within it, due in particular to some of its chapters that carry a clear summary nature (especially the chapters by Pitard, Schniedewind, Lawson Younger, Jr., and Yamauchi) and due to the extensive lists of pertinent literature offered by the various writers, can be utilized as an excellent textbook in a university introductory course on the ancient Near East. As I have remarked above, some chapters do not stand up to the purported goal of this volume (the theme of weighing the Bible within the general ancient Near Eastern context), but only offer summaries, though welcome, of the state of research in this or that area or period of the ancient Near East. The chapters that do deal with comparative issues leave the impression that their writers view the relationships of the Bible to the cultures of the ancient Near East on a typological level. Only Fleming’s contribution seems to entertain the possibility that the similarity discerned between the Bible and the evidence from Emar pertaining to treaty-making might be on a historical level. However, all writers seem duly aware of the heavy issues and problems involved with the application of the comparative method in biblical studies, and they all seem to exercise due caution. This is a good proof that scholars have come a long way since the beginning of ancient Near East studies 150 years ago. The love-hate relations between assyriology and biblical studies have been replaced by a more judicious and sober scholarly approach.