Ancient Near East Comparative Studies

John Walton, in his book entitled Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, gives reasons for Bible readers to engage in Ancient Near East (ANE) comparative study. He explains that historical written documents are formed within a cultural context; therefore, language is developed, understood and practiced as a social construct, and so for interpreters to accurately understand any form of communication, they must recognize the sociocultural setting where the communicable act transpired.[1] When Bible readers engage in comparative studies, they will better understand the theatrical backdrop to God’s drama of redemption.

Adonai announced himself as the one, true and eternal God, and he made redemption promises to a particular people and entered into a covenant relationship with them. This all took place during a specific time and at a specific place in the history of the world. God set the historical and cultural stage and acted out his part of the drama. He spoke his script within the context of the Ancient Near East (ANE), and he used humans to speak and write his speech-act. These human theo-drama communicators and actors were surrounded by and entrenched in various ANE cultures, and so they adapted and shared ANE cultural norms and assumptions in the development of the script, but this all took place under the guidance of the divine playwright.

Therefore, if Bible readers want to understand, appreciate and partake in the drama of redemption, then it behooves them to study ANE history of which the drama is located. Comparative studies allows Bible readers to explore the events, lifestyles, literature and languages of the ANE[2] in order to bridge the ancient-contemporary gap of the theo-drama.  

In view of my positive assessment for engaging in Comparative studies, there are some challenging questions that need to be asked with regard to the doctrines of revelation and inspiration. The Judeo-Christian faith claims that the one, true, eternal, creator God has revealed himself in a unique way to his chosen people, but with the discovery of other similar ANE writings, ideas and experiences (i.e. creation stories, flood stories, etc.), some scholars question whether the Judeo-Christian faith is unique at all. Did God really reveal himself to the Hebrew people? Are the Hebrew scriptures merely human cultural or experiential accounts within the ANE contextual setting? Did the Hebrew people adapt stories from other ANE cultures?

These type of questions would need to be explored at a deeper level than what this post has set out to accomplish, but suffice it to say, regardless of the similarities with other ANE documents, the Hebrew scriptures present a unique account and experience of God’s relationship with the Hebrew people. The Hebrew scriptures present a strong argument for the relational God of the Hebrews being the one, true, eternal, creator God within the ANE religious pluralistic and polytheistic context. God’s redemptive promises and his relational covenants are what drives the narrative of the Hebrew scriptures, and his redemptive plan for humanity sets the faith of the Hebrews apart from the other ANE religions. The other ANE religions seem to be individualistic affairs with an impersonal god; whereas, the Hebrew faith is a community relationship with a loving God.

[1] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 20-21. [2] Ibid., 28.

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