Volume 35 - Issue 2

How to Write—and How Not to Write—A Review: An Appreciative Response to Reviews of Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology by Dempster and Edgar

By Jeffrey J. Niehaus


I want to thank Themelios for the unusual opportunity to interact with two reviewers of my book Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology. An author does not often have the opportunity, not only to join discussion with two reviewers, but also to express and document further some concepts that he may not have expressed as fully as possible in the original work.

I want to thank Themelios for the unusual opportunity to interact with two reviewers of my book Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology. An author does not often have the opportunity, not only to join discussion with two reviewers, but also to express and document further some concepts that he may not have expressed as fully as possible in the original work.

I also want to thank Stephen Dempster and William Edgar for their reviews, which illustrate what a review ought to be. Both of them have understood the work under review and have helped the reader to see some of the virtues of that work. Both of them have also raised reasonable questions regarding points that might have been made more clear or explored further. The goal of such reviews is to understand better and establish more clearly what we may know to be true of the data under discussion, in this case, the Bible and ancient near eastern materials that may relate theologically to the Bible.

If the reviews they have written are exemplary in the ways mentioned above, there is another sort of review that is not. Since two examples of this latter form of review have recently appeared, I would like to take this occasion to comment on them briefly before entering the lists with Dempster and Edgar. In a sense, the two specimens discussed briefly below may be taken as foils to the better reviews by Dempster and Edgar, which most of my discussion will engage.

1. How Not to Write a Review

Recently two other reviews of my book have appeared: one by Krzysztof Baranowski and the other by Elke B. Speliopoulis.1 Because Speliopoulis follows Baranowski uncritically, it will be convenient to deal with both of their critiques in tandem.

Perhaps their most important critique is that—in Baranowski’s words and which Speliopoulis quotes—many of the texts studied show “a reliance on antiquated scholarly literature,” which, to use Speliopoulis’s words, “would show up in a markdown of a grade in any graduate student’s work.”2 I think, however, that any fair-minded reader of my book—or, perhaps better, any reader who actually checks its bibliography and the proportional use of the works cited—will come to a different conclusion. The textual sources that I have quoted for the great majority of non-Egyptian materials are not at all “antiquated” but continue to be standard reference works for such data.3 Some scholarly works that comment on ancient texts, as well as reproducing select material in translation, are in the same category.4 I have used Weidner’s edition of the Hittite treaties in Akkadian, and that is an older work.5 In doing so, I ought perhaps to have mentioned the more recent translations by Gary Beckman, which, however, do not offer the reader the original language texts.6 For a different reason, I drew extensively on Breasted’s translation of the Egyptian annals because it remains the only set that accomplishes anything like completeness.7 Any reader who considers the actual space devoted to particular ancient near eastern textual materials will see that the great majority of those materials are not from sources that are “antiquated.” Further, the older source material cited for reasons noted above continues to be accurate for the purposes employed (e.g., the Akkadian of Weidner’s edition).

Baranowski and Speloipolis also take issue with my finding parallels in some cases, but that is to be expected. One area that certainly requires further documentation is that of supposed divine-royal or divine-human covenants in the ancient Near East, and I will address that below. In addition to disagreeing with an author whom they review, reviewers can also show their own theological biases or misconceptions in their reviews, as both Baranowski and Speliopoulis do. Baranowski for instance finds it “naive” that “on Jesus’ authority, the author seems to consider as fact Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of a great fish (p. 15).”8 Speliopoulis, for her part, comments in her summary of the book’s chapter topics, “The following chapters evaluate specific text elements, both from ANE texts and from the Bible—surprisingly from both Old and New Testaments.”9 However, this should come as no surprise. A thematic comparison that involves both Testaments is the whole point of the book, whose title, after all, is Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology.

2. The Reviews of Dempster and Edgar

A book that not only surveys ancient near eastern data and compares them with biblical data but also uses spiritual criteria to do so is likely to meet with some unsympathetic response. I am grateful that such has not been the case with the reviews of Stephen Dempster and William Edgar. It would be a good thing, in my opinion, if evangelical scholarship were more open to the spiritual side of things and did not avoid such considerations because two hundred years of liberal scholarship has considered them unscientific. Being open to such matters includes, of course, accepting the historicity and truth of what Jesus and the NT writers affirm as well as the historicity and truth of the OT witness. Every scholarly work has assumptions, and my work assumes without apology the historicity and truth of the biblical data.10

Another of the governing assumptions of Ancient Near Eastern Themes is the possibility of correspondences between the ancient near eastern and biblical data on spiritual grounds. If such connections are possible—that is, if parallels can justly be attributed to one or more non-human spiritual source—then synchronic and/or diachronic considerations obviously become less significant.11 This is, of course, a theological matter, and one in which considerations of common grace and/or of demonic influence come under discussion. Dempster has called for greater clarity regarding this distinction, and I turn now to interact with his review.

2.1. Dempster

In §3 of his review, Dempster comments, “I also appreciated the spiritual dimension of the book, a willingness to go where some of the evidence led.” I think it is appropriate that he highlights the irony of cultural development in pre-World War II Germany, where, as he notes, “A country that produced some of the most demonic acts in history also produced a theology that discounted the world of the demonic.”12 Higher critical scholarship in Germany, with its antisupernatural bias, arguably led to a cultural climate in which Nazis could characterize the Bible as “the Jews’ book of lies.” Ironically, on the other hand, Hitler could be aware of power coming upon him as he began to speak, and naturally believed that power was none other than “der Gott der uns geschaffen hat.”13 I am consequently not only happy to agree with Dempster that the theological outline proposed in my book “accounts for a remarkably vast section of scripture, providing it with a coherent and logical outline,” I also agree that it has “extra-biblical relevance.”

The question that remains to be explored, however, is how both common grace and demonic influence can play roles in extra-biblical theologies. I agree that I do not explore that issue with anything like the care that it deserves, and I am not sure that I could have explored it with such care at the time of the book’s composition. I do hope to explore it further in the forthcoming biblical theology. I would say now, however, that I find Dempster’s statement of a possibility—that demonic spirits can distort common grace natural revelation and thus produce darkened parallels—is close to my own further thought. Another possibility is that evil spirits, knowing what God has done, and perhaps even, by God’s permission, knowing what he intends to do (cf. 1 Kgs 22:19–22), can and sometimes do produce a false version of divine activity to which people respond because people are shaped in God’s image to receive the truth and if the closest thing to the truth is a distorted version of it, that is what people will embrace.

It is also possible that the Holy Spirit provides some inspirations or guidance in the realm of common grace, even in the cultural context of demonic religion. So, for instance, the Lord can call Cyrus his “shepherd,” and even his “messiah” (i.e., “anointed one,” Isa 45:1), and yet say of the polytheistic pagan emperor, “You never knew me” (Isa 45:4). “Messiah” is highly significant in this context because it implies that the Holy Spirit comes upon the emperor and gives him the authority and guidance to accomplish what God intends. Similarly, God tells Elijah to “anoint” Hazael king of Damascus (1 Kgs 19:15). Summarily, Paul affirms that all earthly governmental authority is from God (Rom 13:1–2), and such authority can come only from the active presence of the divine Person of the Holy Spirit, who also, for example, gives “authority” to believers to become children of God (John 1:12). The Bible indicates clearly enough by its terminology that God’s Spirit acts in an empowering and revelatory way in the very context of pagan, polytheistic, and thus demonic religious contexts (cf. Deut 32:16ff., 1 Cor 10:20). It may be within our grasp to understand each particular biblical example. To understand whether or where the Holy Spirit operates in one case or another of pagan theology is not so easy.

As evil spirits can produce false teaching (cf. 1 Tim 4:1), so they can adopt and use forms or ideas or acts that originated with God to inform such teaching or theology. This is where, as Dempster suggests, we may see the influence of such spirits on, for example, the pagan flood and creation accounts, and also the pagan development of the international treaty forms—pagan forms of a covenant relational concept that, as I have argued elsewhere, originated as an idea in the mind of God, or in the very nature of God as Suzerain in relationship with his vassals.14 In these matters I agree entirely with Dempster, and I ought to have made my views more clear.

Another area of parallelism, and one that perhaps I should have specially noted, lies in the area of the polemical. Dempster mentions the use of mythological imagery in the Psalms, and I would add, for example, Isa 27:1, a virtual lifting of lines from an old Ugaritic poem about Baal and Mot done for polemical, allusive, and illustrative purposes, which I have discussed in that light in another book.15 I have also treated some of the Psalms in this regard, in particular Ps 18 with its allusions to Canaanite mythology.16 I would point out, though, that when Dempster quotes me as saying that the biblical writers would not have just “couched things in terms familiar to them from their contemporary thought world,” I was not ruling out such parallels produced for polemical or other purposes by the biblical writers, but rather making the point that the biblical writers did not simply borrow uncritically the concepts from the world around them and then make up a literature out of such material. That would consider them “to be part of an ancient near eastern worldview,” as I said in the sentence preceding the one Dempster quoted.17

Dempster also raises the question that if some of the parallels we find in the ancient Near East are part of natural grace revelation, “then why is it limited to the ancient near east because it is not really found anywhere else?” First, I am not sure that such theological parallels as I have indicated are not found anywhere else. I suggested at the end of the first chapter,

As humankind spread across the globe and cultures arose that were more remote in time from the beginning, the theological outline we find in the ancient Near East became somewhat blurred. Modern western cultures, of course, have abandoned it altogether in favor of alternate, secular worldviews, except that it is kept alive in the church, God’s people, who continue to be his temple and to advance his kingdom, until he returns to establish it once and for all: for all time, and for all who believe in him.18

I have no doubt that further study on a global scale would produce more of the sort of theological and thematic parallels that form the subject matter of the book. To take one example, poetry about the exploits of Ghengis Khan shows the emperor enacting the same sort of household judgments that I discuss in the sixth chapter (“The Covenantal Household: Destruction and Salvation”).19 To take another, Charles Halton has noted the parallel shown by my diagram (Amon Ra > Pharaoh, son of Ra, “Ra in his limbs” > warfare > covenant with conquered > temple service, and Jesus, Son of God, God incarnate > warfare > new covenant > temple service), and he has drawn a further parallel with Krishna.20 Halton seems to think that in doing so he has presented a counterexample to my thesis, but in fact he may have presented further evidence in favor of it. The occurrence of such a parallel in India suggests the very sort of theological production by evil spirits that I have proposed.21 In any case, to revert to the question Dempster raises, it touches on an issue that, in their own ways, Frazer and Jung also handled, although not in ways that I could endorse.22 But the question of global parallels is, after all, a subject for another book. My book sought to explore ancient near eastern themes (not global themes) in biblical theology. The attempt to do so, and to account for some parallels spiritually, naturally raises questions about theological parallels beyond the ancient Near East, but to engage that question, beyond the sort of general and suggestive comment that I made at the end of the first chapter, lies beyond the proper scope of the book.

Dempster devotes attention to the same parallel between Pharaoh and Christ that Halton notes, but raises a different question about it, namely, the question of temporal distance: “There are connections here, but frequently in his haste to make comparisons the author skips immense temporal gaps.” The spanning of such temporal gaps, however, comes not from a haste to make connections, but from a belief that such apparent parallels have a spiritual substrate. I believe I have drawn an accurate set of parallels between the essential elements of the theology of pharaonic kingdom-advance on the one hand and that of Christ’s kingdom-advance on the other. Such a portrayal of essential elements may be viewed unsympathetically as simplistic by some (although not by Dempster), or it may be viewed as part of the “grammar,” to use Dempster’s term, of ancient near eastern theological thought. I have proposed, in effect, that it is the latter. As such (as noted above) diachronic and synchronic issues become less important and certainly fall short of being determinative any more than diachronic issues impede our recognizing past (and possible future) manifestations of antichrist types, of which each Pharaoh was one.23 If we are willing to accept John’s statement that there are, have been, and will be many “antichrists” (from ancient near eastern monarchs with divine pretensions through Roman emperor worship, and on to such figures as Napoleon, Hitler, and so on), we already participate in the point of view whose application in comparative biblical theology I have advocated. Similarly it may be true that “a leap of imagination is required to move from 2000 b.c. to the time of Christ and from wars of conquest to the spread of the gospel,” but I would argue for precisely such leaps of imagination, if the elements that constitute the comparative structures of thought are sufficiently, and so obviously, parallel. Imagination has a role to play in scholarship, just as all scholarship is in one way or another an act of poiesis.

A related parallel that appears questionable is that of divine-human covenants. As Dempster rightly observes, “Many times commands can exist without assuming a prior covenantal context.” However, I would note here a work to which Dempster refers, and I am indebted to him for it. Morton Smith, at the end of “The Common Thought of the Ancient Near East,” concludes, “The relation between people and god was therefore a contractual one, and the question as to when it was first given dramatic expression in a formal contract is one for the history rather of rhetoric than of theology.”24 Although I disagree with Smith’s classically liberal perspective on the OT and its constituent documents, I entirely agree with him on this. I have recently argued, on theological grounds, that covenant is an idea in the mind of God, or to put it another way, an expression of God’s nature in relation to his creatures.25 Since humans are made in the imago Dei, one could reasonably expect that not only the capacity for relationship, but also some of the constituent elements of relationship, being grounded in God’s very nature, would show up in human relationships (e.g., in family relationships, as discussed in my article). It also follows that covenantal elements may be expected to appear in any relationship between one in authority and one who is under that authority. Such elements can be expected to include affirming the authority of the “suzerain,” noticing his prior relationship with and benefits to the “vassal,” and then making requirements of the “vassal” (i.e., stipulations), blessings for obeying the “suzerain” and curses for disobeying. Not all of these elements may be articulated in every conceivable or recorded contractual or power relationship, but we should expect in such power relationships some statement of the most essential elements, namely, those that define the roles of “suzerain” and “vassal” or “boss” and “subordinate” and that stipulate the subordinate party’s obligations to his superior. So, for example, K. A. Kitchen notes that the term brt appears as a Canaanite loan word in the Nauri Decree of Year 4 of Sethos I (ca. 1302/1291 b.c.), where it is used for a contract involving hired labor paid at an agreed rate.26 It also characterizes the contractual situation of a group of hired women during the reign of Merenptah (ca. 1200/1210 b.c.).27

Dempster is understandably concerned that one avoid what he calls “covenantal overkill.” However, I respectfully disagree with his understanding of the four examples he cites from my book. One of them (the Philippian jailer episode as it illustrates the concept of household redemption) is properly appreciated if we see it as drawing upon a paradigm foundational in creation, that is, the paradigm of household headship and its potential consequences when dealing with a Suzerain who can bless or curse (as I have argued). The concept of household judgment (or, its alternate, redemption) as a primordial value, is, in effect, built into humanity and human thinking and will appear in a variety of contexts (as, e.g., in the case of Ghengis Khan, noted above). A second example is that of royal typology in Samson, suggested because he is able to fight with and kill a lion with his bare hands. I would still maintain that an ancient near eastern reader would have, or could have, caught the implication of fitness to be a judge, because monarchs (who could also be called “judges”—cf. the king of Moab as a “judge” in Amos 2:3) claimed to do the very thing that Samson did.28

Dempster’s other two examples regard observations by other scholars with whom I agree. The first of these is the commonality of blood shed and smeared on an altar as a covenant sealing ritual in a Hittite example and, in the case of the Mosaic altar, a parallel drawn by Gurney before me.29 The second is the translation of Hebrew nir not as, traditionally, “lamp,” but rather in light of an Assyrian cognate meaning “yoke.” Paul Hanson first proposed this alternative translation.30 Other scholars have made the same identification, and I believe it has merit.31 As has been shown to be the case with Hebrew yom (“day”), and yom (“wind, storm”), both of which also have Assyrian cognates (Å«mÅ« and Å«mÅ«), two Hebrew words that look alike may both appear in the OT and cause confusion or lead to mistranslations when the second, though less common, translation value is not appreciated.32

Another very valuable question Dempster raises is why the theological substructure I have outlined—what he calls a “grammar” of ancient near eastern thought—“never produced in the ancient near east a narrative similar to that of the Bible.” The possible causes that he indicates, those of continuity and the plethora of divine wills in ancient near eastern perspective, probably played a role in producing a cultural soil (or cultural soils) that were not favorable to the development of historiography as we find it in the OT. Ultimately, however, I believe that this question of historical narrative and its origins can be answered only from the realm of treaty (or covenant), because it is in connection with this genre that most ancient near eastern history appears.

Some years ago I argued that ancient near eastern historiography was rooted in covenant.33 History writing as we find it in the ancient world suggests that this is so. The ancient Near East provides for the most part two genres of historical narrative: the historical prologues of second millennium b.c. international treaties on the one hand, and royal annals on the other. The first genre is obviously rooted in covenant, since historical prologues are part of the structure of Hittite international treaties.34 The second genre, the royal annals, records various royal activities (conquest, sometimes the royal hunt, domestic building projects, temple building or refurbishing, and dedicating booty to the gods), but mostly they record royal conquest. Such conquest involved making new suzerain-vassal treaty relationships (routinely reported, e.g., in Assyrian annalistic tradition by the concluding phrase, “I made them swear the oath of the great gods,” i.e., enter into a suzerain-vassal treaty with the Assyrian emperor). They also involve the reconquest of rebellious vassals (of which the Hittite royal annals also give us some good examples). A study of these two genres makes it obvious that they are history written on the basis of covenant: either the formation of new suzerain-vassal treaties, or the punishment of rebellious vassals and the return of the same, if possible, to their previous vassal condition.35

If ancient near eastern historiography is rooted in treaty/covenant, we may expect to find that the same is true of OT historiography. I would submit, and have argued elsewhere, that the same covenantal foundation for historiography is to be found in the OT. Indeed, that is why the historical books, with their covenant-lawsuit undertones, were traditionally referred to as the “former prophets” (and recognition of the same covenant-lawsuit or prophetic perspective has made possible that famous but misguided reconstruction, the “Deuteronomistic History”). However, in addition to a shared foundation in the concept of covenant, there is also a profound difference between the historiography of the ancient Near East and that of the OT. The fact that God truly acted in the history of a people and instituted covenant relations with them answers why the pagan cultures of the ancient Near East never produced such continuous historical narrative as we find in the OT. On the one hand, people in the ancient Near East arguably thought they were the people of their gods. This implied both a familial relationship (they could call themselves, e.g., the “sons of Ashur”) and, correspondingly, a covenant relationship. Cross has argued that these nations were sacral leagues, like Israel, in covenant with their god (e.g., “the am Kemos, ‘sacral league’ or ‘kindred’ of Chemosh, and Ammon, the am Milkom”).36 On the other hand, however, and this is of the utmost importance, no god ever actually manifested himself among any of them as God did at Sinai, and no god ever actually made a covenant with them as God did there. To have the concept that you are the “sons” or “people” of your national god and are thus implicitly in covenantal relationship with him is one thing. To have experienced the reality of his redemption and forging of such a relationship, and his intervening again and again to maintain it through history, is quite another.37 I believe that historiography took the form it did in Israel because, like other ancient near eastern historiography, it reported on relations between suzerain and vassal, but, unlike other ancient near eastern historiography, it could report the successive real encounters with, and actions of, that living Suzerain God among and on behalf of (or even in judgment of) his people. Finally, the clarity of mind, honesty of evaluation, and continuity of purpose shown by Israelite historiography ought justly to be attributed to the action of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, since the historical books of the OT, like the rest of Scripture, are “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). Not every scholar will be comfortable with such a claim, but evangelical scholars ought to be.

2.2. Edgar

I turn now to the review of William Edgar, for which likewise I express appreciation. I am especially grateful for his emphasis on the compatibility of Scripture with the data derived from textual and historical study, an emphasis I share. I also share his concern to understand the relation between the divine inspiration of Scripture, on the one hand, and its humanity, on the other. I have long agreed with Bishop Lowth, for example, in his hierarchical ranking of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in poetical quality. Ezekiel is far from being the poet that Isaiah is, and yet, the work of both prophets is “God-breathed.” The Spirit works in mysterious cooperation with the particular gifts and background of each biblical writer to produce just what God wanted to say through that writer. Finally, I appreciate Edgar’s affirmation of my book as “an excellent first step” toward understanding the significance of the many parallels between the ancient near eastern data and the biblical data.

As I have proposed, above, the importance of treating the biblical data—and the ancient near eastern data, too—from a spiritual point of view, I also agree with Edgar about the objectivity of God: “God has an objective way of looking at phenomena, which in turn allows us to discover what they are through careful science. A comparative method thus emerges by which the unknown is enlightened by the known.” There is only one objective point of view in the universe, and God has it. Only he knows all things exactly as they are. We can approximate his objectivity to the degree that we come to be in step with the Spirit in the way that we evaluate and understand phenomena, in everything from our personal relationships to the phenomena of the Bible and the ancient Near East.

Like Edgar also, I am far from being a Kantian, and in this regard it may be that referring to God’s breaking “into the historical plane” was unfortunate because it is potentially misleading. God sustains all things by his powerful word (Heb 1:1), which means, I suspect, that his Spirit, working through his Word, is in touch with and sustains all things (as Jesus could say, “The words I speak to you are Spirit, and they are life,” John 6:63). So it certainly follows that God’s general and special revelation “work together, not against the backdrop of history, but within the very fabric of history,” as Edgar says.

Edgar poses a couple of questions with regard to my book, and to these I now turn. He asks, “How legitimate are the discoveries of parallels between Egyptian parity treaties and OT covenant treaties of conquest?” This question perplexes me a little. I cannot see what Egyptian parity treaties (of which we have only one exemplar, that between Rameses II and Hattusilis III) should have to do with “OT covenant treaties of conquest” (of which we have few instances, e.g., in Josh 9, since God commanded Israel to exterminate those they conquered and explicitly forbade Israel to make treaties with them). Edgar may have intended to question parallels between Egyptian suzerain-vassal treaties and the OT Suzerain-vassal covenants (e.g., the Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic). Since Edgar mentions Weeks’ work on the topic, I assume that this is his concern, and it is an appropriate topic to raise.

Weeks notes the paucity of documentary evidence for Egyptian suzerain-vassal treaties, and provides some possible explanations for it.38 I suspect that the reason for such apparent lack is akin to the reason we find no pharaonic legal corpus (e.g., no “Codex Thutmoses III” comparable to the “Codex Hammurapi”): since Pharaoh was considered to be a god, his word was law.39 This would apply to foreign vassals, as well as to Egyptians. Indeed, what I wrote in Ancient Near Eastern Themes would be consistent with this understanding: Pharaoh’s job was to extend the borders of Egypt and to make the conquered people both people and servants of Amon Ra and the gods of Egypt.40 Whether or not the future presents us with newly uncovered Egyptian suzerain-vassal treaties, a de facto suzerain-vassal relationship obtained between any pharaoh and any king or kingdom that he conquered.41 As I have written above, it is the relationship that is essential, and that is what we find in the Egyptian conquest of foreign peoples, who are then made part of the land of Egypt (in theory at least) and people of Amon-Ra, pay tribute to Pharaoh, and even become servants in the temples of Egypt’s gods.42 They are effectively vassals, subject to Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt.43 It follows that the parallelism that I propose between Pharaoh, the supposed incarnate god, and Christ, the true incarnate God, contains an element of effective covenantal relationship in each case.

Edgar raises two other matters that I would like to address. One is the broad socio-historical question of “the influences and affinities between these different cultures.” With regard to this question, I affirm what Edgar says: “one book cannot accomplish too many purposes.” My purpose is to demonstrate by quoting relevant data that the elements of a shared theological structure of thought can be found throughout the ancient Near East. I suggest that such a structure might also be found beyond the ancient Near East, although probably in increasingly attenuated forms, and in modern western cultures, not at all. I take this approach with the understanding that the Bible got it right: that the demonstrated structure of thought does indeed represent the way that God had operated with his people through history as part of his program of salvation in which the making of successive covenants played a key role. This understanding enables us to recognize parallel structural elements in ancient near eastern data (as Edgar says, “A comparative method thus emerges by which the unknown is enlightened by the known”). It is not part of my purpose, then, to produce a comparative study of ancient near eastern cultures or to suggest how one culture might have influenced another.44 As we have seen, if Pharaoh, Krishna, and Christ can all be part of a parallel structure of thought, then that structure of thought is more likely to be spiritual in its origin than cross-cultural.

The second question has to do with “the larger issue of God’s purposes in judging the very sinful cultures of the ANE, especially when Israel sinfully accommodates them.” Here again, although I affirm such a point and will readily discuss it in the forthcoming biblical theology, I do not see it as germane to the purpose of my book. Similar matters (i.e., those worthy of discussion but not germane to my purpose) might be the transcendence of God (as opposed to the immanence of the deities of the ancient Near East), the presence of eschatology in the OT and NT, or even, to pick a manifestly NT datum, the triune nature of the true God. My purpose is not to review the qualities of God or of his activity that set him apart from the deities of the ancient Near East, but rather, to explore and demonstrate a shared structure of thought.

As I review these last two questions raised by Edgar, I also affirm them as, to use his words, “an encouragement to take the next step and commend the uniqueness of revelation, stemming from the unique and self-authenticating God of the universe.” To do so will be a fundamental purpose of the future biblical theology.

3. Conclusion

I revert here to Smith’s article on the common thought of the ancient Near East. That thought, as he understood it, was as follows: a contractual relationship existed between a people and their gods, and that relationship included obligations of worship and sacrifice (i.e., cultic law) as well as prescribed and proscribed behavior in the land (i.e., social law):

But as father and king, the god of worship is just as well as merciful, an object—not to say an objectification—of fear as well as love. His justice has accordingly expressed itself in the law, both the law of his cult and the law of the land, which he has given or caused to be given . . . it should be noticed that everywhere the civil law, like the cult law, is the god’s law, and an offender against either is an offender against the god.45

I have argued elsewhere for the intimate connection between family and covenant, an argument Gruenler made before me, and one that Cross and Hafemann have also, each in his own way, affirmed.46 I have argued that such a connection exists as part of the imago Dei because God is from the beginning in covenant with his human family, who are made in his image.47 It is no surprise that such creational ideas later appeared in the fallen cultures of the ancient Near East.

Although Smith’s study of ancient near eastern theology builds upon presuppositions that I do not share regarding the nature of Scripture, he succeeds in outlining some of the basic elements (e.g., a god in contractual relationship with a people, the divine donation of law, and divine blessing or punishment according to a people’s obedience or disobedience) of a larger paradigm that obtained not only in the Bible but also in the ancient Near East. Producing and demonstrating that paradigm is the goal of my book. As I indicated in my first chapter, and indeed in the book’s title, my goal is to demonstrate that larger paradigm within the ancient near eastern and biblical domains. That self-limitation is purposeful.48 Others may wish to pursue the occurrence of such a structure globally. I myself may make such a pursuit ancillary to a future biblical theology.

One cannot address all topics in one book, and there may be some topics that I should have pursued more completely in Ancient Near Eastern Themes (although I think there are some concepts I could not have pursued more completely at the time of the book’s composition). I am grateful for the opportunity provided by Themelios and by the reviews of Dempster and Edgar to elaborate more fully on some concepts and to answer the valuable questions they raise. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to discuss further the issue of the spiritual causation of some theological parallels and what such causation implies for the significance of cultural influences (and of diachronicity and synchronicity). When I began the collection of essays for ETS conferences that eventually led to the book, I had no idea that the spiritual dimension would loom so large. But the longer I live the more convinced I am, not only of the spiritual nature of our universe, but also of the pervasive quality of spiritual influences globally, culturally, and even individually. Scholarship—including scholarship in institutions that discredit such spiritual realities—is not immune to spiritual influence.49 I hope that biblically considering such matters will become more acceptable as part of the scholar’s kit in days to come.

  1. ^Krzysztof J. Baranowski, review of Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 9 (2009): 1–2; Elke B. Speliopoulis, “Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology by Jeffrey J. Niehaus—A Critical Interaction,” unpublished review submitted to Gary E. Yates in partial fulfillment of requirements for THEO 695 at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary (Downingtown, PA: March 1, 2010). Baranowski, also a student, is pursuing a PhD at the University of Toronto (
  2. ^Speliopoulis, 7.
  3. ^E.g., Jerrold S. Cooper, Sumerian and Akkadian Royal Inscriptions, I, Presargonic (New Haven: The American Oriental Society, 1986) ; R. O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969); Loren Fischer, Ras Shamra Parallels (Rome: Pontificum Institutum Biblicum, 1972); Douglas R. Frayne, The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Old Babylonian Period (Early Periods 4; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990); Albrecht Götze, Die Annalen des Mursilis (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1967); A. K. Grayson, The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Assyrian Periods (2 vols. [Assyrian Rulers of the Third and Second Millennia B.C. and Assyrian Rulers of the Early First Millennium B.C.]; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987–91); W. M. Green, “The Eridu Lament,” JCS 30 (1978): 127–61; W. M. Green, “The Uruk Lament,” JAOS 104 (1984): 253–79; S. N. Kramer, “Lamentation over the Destruction of Nippur: A Preliminary Report,” Eretz-Israel 9 (1969): 89–93; Raphael Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975); Tremper Longman III, Fictional Akkadian Biography (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1991); Piotr Michalowski, The Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1989).
  4. ^E.g., Riekele Borger, Einleitung in die assyrischen Königsinschriften, erster Theil (Leiden: Brill, 1961); Richard J. Clifford, Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible (CBQMS 26; Catholic Biblical Association of America: Washington, 1994); Morton Cogan, Imperialism and Religion: Assyria, Judah and Israel in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries B.C.E. (Missoula: Scholars, 1974); J. van Dijk, “Le motif cosmique dans la pensée sumeriénne,” AcOr 28:1–2 (1964): 1–59; Ivan Engnell, Studies in Divine Kingship in the Ancient Near East (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967). I do sometimes cite older articles, either in German or in English, because they deal with some inscriptional evidence that is either pertinent to a particular point or is not available in a more recent edition. E.g., W. G. Lambert, “Three Unpublished Fragments of the Tukulti-Ninurta Epic,” AfO 18 (Graz: Weidner, 1957–58): 38–51; William L. Moran, “A Note on the Treaty Terminology of the Sefire Stelas,” JNES 22:3 (1963): 174; Knut Tallqvist, Akkadische Götterepitheta (Leipzig: Harrassowitz, 1938); Ernst F. Weidner, “Die Kämpfe Adadniraris I. gegen Hanigalbat,” AfO 5 (1928–9): 89–100; D. J. Wiseman, “A New Stela of Assur-nasir-pal II,” Iraq 14:1 (1952): 24–44, which is important for its mistranslation of mamÄ«tu as “spell,” as I note in Ancient Near Eastern Themes (61n15).
  5. ^Ernst F. Weidner, Politische Dokumente aus Kleinasien, die Staatsverträge in akkadischer Sprache aus dem Archiv von Boghazköi (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs’sche, 1923).
  6. ^Gary Beckman, Hittite Diplomatic Texts (2d ed.; Atlanta: Scholars, 1999).
  7. ^James H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest (5 vols.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906).
  8. ^Baranowski, 1. Different readers, of course, will reach different conclusions as to whether they accept Jesus’ statement as made by him and whether they accept the historicity of Jonah.
  9. ^Speliopoulis, 4.
  10. ^Although it has not been my purpose to argue at length for such historicity and truth, I am certainly grateful for the work of others who have done so. Perhaps the most important volume of that sort recently produced is by K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
  11. ^I note in addition here what was never in doubt in the book: I have not attempted to reconstruct the ancient cultural milieus that produced the texts under study. That was not the purpose of the book, and one can find a host of respected scholarly works that use ancient near eastern texts in studies of biblical parallels without discussing the ancient near eastern cultures that produced the parallel texts. E.g., Frank M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1973); and Peter Machinist, “Literature as Politics: The Tukulti-Ninurta Epic and the Bible,” CBQ 38 (1976): 455–82. The reason for this is probably that a good deal of commonality obtains among the ancient cultures, despite undeniable differences. It was such commonality that makes possible such a book as Cyrus Gordon’s Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations (New York: Norton, 1965). I submit further that even parallels that some readers may find questionable will be borne out by future study and discovery, perhaps the most important one being the divine-royal/human covenant category.
  12. ^Bultmann’s “electric light bulb speech” may seem rather quaint today when we can view it from the perspective provided by a century or more of dynamic experience both of the Holy Spirit and of demonic resistance in the global growth of the church.
  13. ^“The God who has formed/created us,” a quote from one of Hitler’s speeches at the 1934 Reichsparteitag, as documented in Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will (trans. of Triumph des Willens; Bloomington: Synapse Films, 2001).
  14. ^Cf. Jeffrey J. Niehaus, “Covenant: An Idea in the Mind of God,” JETS 52 (2009): 225–46.
  15. ^Jeffrey J. Niehaus, God at Sinai (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 111–15.
  16. ^Ibid., 301–4.
  17. ^Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes, 177.
  18. ^Ibid., 54–55 (emphasis added).
  19. ^Cf. Paul Kahn, The Secret History of the Mongols: The Origin of Chingis Khan (San Francisco: North Point, 1984), 42, 48–49, 68.
  20. ^Charkes Halton, review of Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology, JETS 52 (2009): 133.
  21. ^Halton elaborates, “This chart and associated discussion are simplistic. It is akin to saying one could substitute Jesus for Nirvana and change Buddhism into Christianity” (review of Niehaus, 133). I think any thoughtful reader will not agree with the kinship that Halton proposes, and my book clearly advocates no such substitutions; such a reader may also question whether my chart or Halton’s comment is the more “simplistic.”
  22. ^For Frazer, cf. in brief Dempster’s summary of my treatment above. Carl Jung accounted for parallels of religious thought by positing “the universality of the collective unconscious,” which he attributed to the “similarity of the structure of the brain in all races of men, and this similarity in turn is due to a common evolution.” Cf. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes, 19 (and 16–21 for the more general discussion that includes Frazer, Freud, and Jung).
  23. ^This observation applies to such apparent problems as the use of, e.g., the shepherd metaphor or the lack of such usage in different periods in Egyptian history, as Dempster notes.
  24. ^Morton Smith, “The Common Thought of the Ancient Near East,” JBL 71:3 (1952): 145 (emphasis added). I would note here a separate point: the desirability of my interaction with, e.g., Assmann, Bottero, and Snell, as Dempster indicates. I interacted with Bottero, in effect, when I disagreed with Walton’s acceptance of his thesis about the Codex Hammurapi (Ancient Near Eastern Themes, 56–57n1). As for the others, and as for Bottero also, although their contributions are clearly very worthwhile and although I do not agree with their understanding of the ancient near eastern data at every point (this applies especially to Bottero), it was not my purpose to interact with their work, since the goal of my book is quite different from theirs. Cf. further comments below.
  25. ^Niehaus, “Covenant,” 228–30, 245–46.
  26. ^K. A. Kitchen, “Egypt, Ugarit, Qatna and Covenant,” UF 11 (1979): 454–56.
  27. ^Ibid., 457, where Kitchen summarizes the Egyptian data under discussion: “By c. 1300 B.C., the term brt could be used for contract/compact/agreement, in the economic sphere, for hired labour.”
  28. ^We might also note, e.g., the association of the lion with rule in the blessing of Judah as thematically related (Gen 49:9–10). Cf. Elena Cassin, “Le roi et le lion,” RHR 298 (1981): 355–401.
  29. ^O. R. Gurney, Some Aspects of Hittite Religion (The Schweich Lectures, 1976; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 29–30.
  30. ^Paul Hanson, “The Song of Heshbon and David’s NIR,” HTR 61:5 (1968): 297–320.
  31. ^Cf. further, and in agreement with Hanson’s proposal, M. Görg, “Ein ‘Machtzeichen’ Davids 1 Könige xi 36,” VT 35 (1985): 363–68; Iain W. Provan, Hezekiah and the Books of Kings (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1988), 91, who translates 1 Kgs 15:4–5, “Nevertheless, for David’s sake Yahweh his God gave him dominion in Jerusalem, setting up his son after him and establishing Jerusalem; because David did what was right in his sight.”
  32. ^For the two values of yom, cf. L. Koehler and W. Baumgartner, Hebräisches und Aramäisches Handwörterbuch zum Alten Testament (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974), 384. They are followed by William L. Holladay, Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 131. Cf. also my article on the translation of yom in Gen 3:8, “In the Wind of the Storm: Another look at Genesis III 8,” VT 44 (1994): 263–67, and subsequently in God at Sinai, 155–59.
  33. ^I put forth this thesis in a rudimentary fashion in “The Warrior and His God: The Covenant Foundation of History and Historiography,” in Faith, Tradition, and History: Old Testament Historiography in Its Near Eastern Context (ed. A. R. Millard, James K. Hoffmeier, and David W. Baker; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 299–312.
  34. ^Klaus Baltzer, The Covenant Formulary (trans. David E. Green; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 11, made a very brief but similar observation about the historical prologue (which he calls the “antecedent history”) of a Hittite treaty: “The description must be considered as a form of historiography.” By “description” he means the account of prior events and relations between the two parties to the treaty, in other words, the “antecedent history” or historical prologue. We should note here the long tradition, amply documented in Mesopotamia, of dedicatory inscriptions that contain historical episodes. Jerrold S. Cooper, Sumerian and Akkadian Royal Inscriptions, I (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1986), 13, notes, “The historical narrative is attested as early as Urnanshe, full-blown, as it were, and sources before his reign are too few to pinpoint a specific moment when reports of political successes were introduced into building and dedicatory inscriptions, or commemorated on monuments specially designed for that purpose.” Urnanshe’s reign has been dated ca. 2520 b.c. Such inscriptions portray a range of concepts, including the god’s choice of and commissioning of the king to do various works, from conquests to public works to the impartation of law both for the nation of the god and for subjugated foreign kings and their lands. Such elements obviously have to do with relationships, whether elective or enforced, that entail obligations and thus have a covenantal tone to them, even when covenants are not explicitly mentioned. For the basic concept, cf. Niehaus, “Covenant,” passim.
  35. ^I have just completed an article that touches on the topic, “Covenant and Narrative, God and Time,” which will appear sometime next year in JETS.
  36. ^Frank Cross, From Epic to Canon, History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1998), 12.
  37. ^Cf. Deut 4:32–34 (niv): “Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created man on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by miraculous signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?”
  38. ^Weeks, Admonition and Curse, 111; cf. 99–112 for the Egyptian treaty question more broadly.
  39. ^Weeks makes essentially the same point, 111. The same consideration—the supremacy of a pharaoh above merely human considerations—may be the cause why circumlocutions such as “brotherhood” and “friendship,” which as Weeks notes are standard in references to treaty relationships, occur in the Amarna correspondence, whereas the normal terms for treaty or oath (Akk. riksu, mamÄ«tu) do not. Cf. Weeks, 100–101.
  40. ^Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes, 68–69.
  41. ^Weeks points out that the administrative details of such a relationship would be carried out by subordinate Egyptian officials (103–11).
  42. ^All of which I discuss in “Covenant and Conquest,” ch. 3 in Ancient Near Eastern Themes.
  43. ^I note briefly here the same concept of territorial addition and its legal/treaty implications in Assyrian royal tradition, where the conquering emperor (in ancient near eastern parlance, the “great king”) added “land to his land and people to his people” with each conquest—and such additions were legally sealed by causing the conquered to “swear the oath of the great gods,” i.e., enter into treaty with the Assyrian suzerain. For the continuity of such phrases in Assyrian royal tradition, cf. Riekele Borger, Einleitung in die assyrischen Königsinschriften, erster Theil (Leiden: Brill, 1961), and Wolfgang Schramm, Einleitung in die assyrischen Königsinschriften, zweiter Theil (Leiden: Brill, 1973).
  44. ^As noted above in n11.
  45. ^Smith, “The Common Theology of the Ancient Near East,” 142–44.
  46. ^Cf. Royce Gordon Gruenler, The Trinity in the Gospel of John: A Thematic Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 12–13, 19–20; F. M. Cross, From Epic to Canon, History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1998). 17; Scott Hafemann, “The Covenant Relationship,” in Central Themes in Biblical Theology (ed. Scott Hafemann and Paul House; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 26–27.
  47. ^Niehaus, “Covenant,” 225–29.
  48. ^In this, too, I agree with Smith’s earlier approach, and I also suspect he may be correct with regard to more global manifestations of the same ideas: “Such was the common theology of the ancient Near East—and not only of the ancient Near East, but of most periods and countries where polytheism has been the religion of civi- lized peoples. In describing it I have discussed only its appearance in the ancient Near East, because that alone is usually referred to in the study of the OT” (Smith, “The Common Theology of the Ancient Near East,” 146).
  49. ^One might reflect here ironically on the perspective of Bultmann, illustrated by his above comment.

Jeffrey J. Niehaus

Jeffrey J. Niehaus is professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is the author of Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008).

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