READINGS FROM THE ANCIENT NEAR EASTWritten by Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer Reviewed By P. J. Williams
Students of the OT need easy access to texts from its historical environment. Until now the most frequently used reference works have been W.W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger’s The Context of Scripture, the first volume of which retails at $129, and the similarly priced collection by J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Price alone means that, while those works are completely unaffordable to most students, this present collection will prove rather attractive. It is, of course, shorter and therefore much more selective. Yet there are no gaping omissions, except perhaps the absence of any of the Aramaic documents from Elephantine. If used to provide students with an overview of the texts that exist in languages like Akkadian, Aramaic, Egyptian, Hittite, Sumerian, and Ugaritic, it will prove very successful, containing 90 such documents, each with a brief introduction, as well as some pictures and maps.
The translations that have been used have been culled from various previously published sources. This creates a certain unevenness of literary style: some are flowing while others more literal and stilted. On the other hand, it means that the translations have all been produced by specialist scholars and are therefore as reliable as such translations and tend to be.
While this collection is excellent for beginners and many intermediate students, for a number of reasons it will prove dissatisfying to any who work at a more advanced level. Firstly, texts are given without line or column numbers. Thus, though Enuma Elish runs from pages 31 to 50 of this edition, there is no way of identifying passages in the text other than by page number. Yet most of these texts do have conventional division labels that do have been worth preserving. Secondly, while gaps in the text are marked, no indication is given of how long these are. Students will therefore read a Ugaritic text and wonder how much action they have missed—line or a column?
Despite enthusiasm about the book’s potential with those early in their studies there are a few aspects of the presentation which may be unhelpful to them. The fact that many of the translations are generally uncluttered by brackets and question marks certainly makes them attractive to read. However, the result when reading, for instance, the Ugaritic Baal cycle is that a student will gain the impression that basically every part of the text has an agreed interpretation. Repetition of translations that many scholars regard as unlikely will give them an air of certainly. Moreover, students will find some texts hard-going because of the lack of explanatory notes. A student reading the translation of, say, the Egyptian Admonitions of Ipuwer out of class and unguided will probably be mystified by most of its details. Readers may also be puzzled by the use of brackets in the Tel Dan inscription (165). Here the names ‘Jehoram’ and ‘Ahaziahu’ are entirely in brackets, as if mere conjecture, when some of the letters from which they are restored are dear in the original. This will tend to look like editorial licence, which is rather unfortunate given the importance of the inscription. The suggestion on page 166 that the collection of the Amarna letters ‘appears to describe the situation just before the events of the books of Joshua and Judges’ is fairly far-fetched.
Despite these reservations there is nothing like this collection that includes such breadth at low cost. It would be a very appropriate reference work for many students to acquire.
P. J. Williams
University of Aberdeen