Backgroundism

It is common now in Old Testament studies for scholars to think that they are studying the Old Testament when they are in fact studying Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) parallels. I was reading a book on an OT book this morning (which will remain anonymous) that had some really excellent essays on the theology of the book, but which also had some essays on the ANE background of the book. There seems to be an assumption that if it was written anywhere near the time of the biblical book, and it was written anywhere near the location of Israel, then it must be relevant to our understanding of that particular book. I believe some serious qualifications of this idea are in order.

First up, the context of ANE documents and the biblical books cannot be assumed to be the same. For one thing, the biblical books are addressed to God’s people, whereas ANE documents are not. Furthermore, the biblical books are inspired by God Himself, whereas the ANE documents are not. The context of the recipients and the method by which the books are made are vastly different. This should give us great pause. I am not saying that background studies of this type are completely irrelevant or useless. However, we need to be quite a bit more cautious about applying our understanding of ANE documents to the OT books.

A second qualification I would offer is this: background documents seem to be much more helpful in understanding the biblical text when there is an apologetic in the OT text against the ANE background texts. As an obvious example, I would point out the apologetic intent of Genesis 1 against the various ANE understandings of how the world was created. Genesis proclaims that God created this world by His speaking it into existence, not by some kind of cosmic battle (like the Enuma Elish claims, for instance). Also, the sun and the moon are not the origin of anything, but were created by God (witness Moses calling them “the greater light” and “the lesser light” instead of their more common but also potentially misunderstood nouns; shemesh is the name of an ANE god of the sun).

Thirdly, it is really irritating to me to read stuff on the ANE background of the OT that never draws any conclusions about why their study is relevant to our understanding of the OT texts in question. They often simply point out a parallel without saying how that parallel actually affects our exegesis of the text. Sometimes, the scholar seems to be saying “Well, I’ve read all the relevant ANE texts, so therefore my understanding of the OT book must be correct.” Even worse is when the ANE background text is used in preference to the OT book’s own literary context in order to change, diminish, or twist the biblical text.

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13 Comments

  1. michael said,

    April 5, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    It’s just my guess but I think the Apostle Paul may have had similar thoughts?

    Acts 20:32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

    While I also agree with you reading good well established historical accounts of the policies, customs and traditions of the Ancient Near East, knowing God makes it much easier when reading and understanding His Words.

    Having said that, just over time policies and customs and traditions have changed, not God, or the Word of His Grace, which for me anyway, leads me to conclude people that are the Sheep of His pasture will still need anointed teachers, pastors and Elders to give now the sense and meaning of the Words of God as then:::>

    Nehemiah 8:3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
    4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.
    5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood.
    6 And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
    7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places.
    8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

    Now of course this Proverb is as true today as then:::>

    Proverbs 16:20 Whoever gives thought to the word will discover good, and blessed is he who trusts in the LORD.

  2. Frank Aderholdt said,

    April 6, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Back in my college days in the late 1960′s, II remember the Gilgamesh Epic being used to supposedly “discredit” the Biblical story. I wasn’t impressed, then, nor am I impressed by the current craze for ANE texts and “parallels.” Unbelief tends to recycle old ideas. One of the advantages of age is that you’ve seen all this stuff before.

  3. Trent said,

    April 6, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    You’re [screwed] (for lack of better word) if you do and same if don’t in this case. If we never found relevant background info in the form of texts, critics would say the OT was made up from out of the blue. Now the fact that we have done archaeology should point to the fact that the Bible is trustworthy and from the time period it says. Now they say, the OT was just stolen and tweaked.
    There is a cult of the ‘academics’ floating around especially in ‘Biblical scholarship.’ Many of the so called conservatives come to mind…Longman anyone? As for Pete Enns, I don’t even consider him evangelical or worth the time. He cracked up.

  4. Steve Drake said,

    April 7, 2014 at 7:47 am

    Why do the ANE texts have appeal over and above the Hebrew OT for these scholars, especially in Genesis? What is it that one seeks to justify by contrast and compare? Is it a distrust of the historical account of creation in 6×24 days in this age of scientific enlightenment? A pattern that many theologians since the Enlightenment have rarely deviated from? Fear of man, rather than a fear of God?

  5. Tim Harris said,

    April 7, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    I wish y’all would sign your posts, I never know who I am addressing…
    In any case, Author, what is the evidence that Gen. 1 was written as an “apologetic” “against” ANE texts? I’ve heard the claim of course, but never heard a non-question begging argument for the claim. Also, if it was an apologetic, who was Moses trying to convert?

  6. Andrew said,

    April 7, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    Tim,

    Presumably apologetic in the sense of dissuading the Israelites from idolatry, especially given their 400 year immersion in polytheistic Egypt.

    The level of detail suggests to me an apologetic slant: i.e. not a square inch that God does not create or rule, but I am not sure how that could be proved. It might just be that Moses is exuberant in the glory of creation.

    It might be helpful if people were to give any specific examples of helpful/unhelpful background. I generally find it fascinating, but perhaps I filter out the poorer/irrelevant stuff.

    For example, I was always puzzled by God’s commanding Abraham to chop up the animals when making the covenant. Then I read some old treaties like that where the symbolism is that the makers of the treaty will be chopped up in similar fashion if they break it.

    Now the treaties are much later than Abraham, and involved different people groups, but it certainly is suggestive.

  7. Frank Aderholdt said,

    April 8, 2014 at 12:30 am

    John Currid’s “Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament” argues the case about as persuasively as possible. I want to believe that the OT writers were consciously doing battle with other ANE sources. It sure would tie up many loose ends into a neat package. I’m not convinced, though, that comparisons and contrasts can ever prove the case definitively, absent direct quotations of extra-Biblical texts.

  8. rfwhite said,

    April 8, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    greenbaggins: Are you familiar with Tremper Longman’s essay, “Evangelicals and the Comparative Method,” in Creator Redeemer Consummator: A Festschrift for Meredith G. Kline (Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 2000) 33-42? Having study under Longman back in the mid-1980s, I recall finding his thinking appropriately guarded. I don’t know if he stands by his position in that 2000 essay now. To what extent, though, do you think his essay expresses or anticipates your concerns?

  9. Jason Loh said,

    April 9, 2014 at 11:41 am

    I strongly agree with Lane. As a Lutheran, the concern would be that ANE *backgroundism* can obscure the *proper* distinction between Law and Gospel. That is, no matter how useful, ANE hermeneutics never “pushes Christ” or drives Christ forward — as the promise/ Promised One of the OT.

    The only way is to reverse the sequence so that ANE narrative is read in light of the OT or rather the Promised One — much like polytheism is a corruption of monotheism rather than the way round.

    So, I suppose it should be OT backgroundism in illuminating ANE creeds, codes and cults.

    The covenantal parallels between the OT and ANE practices will always be Law (i.e. these do not “push Christ)” and at the same time also obscure the distinction between the civil/ political and theological uses of the Law.

    The everlasting Covenant is a Testament which is sheer unilateral and unconditional and unremitted(!) love/ grace. Totally unparalleled and unique and unrepeatable.

    For the Covenant promise to take effect, the Subject must be alive. For the Testament promise to take effect, the Subject must die.Hence, death and resurrection.

    Or to use another example, contract law does not apply to the New Testament — there is no offer, acceptance, consideration, intention to create legal relations, capacity …

    What applies is precisely the opposite of the *Law*(!)

  10. April 11, 2014 at 12:07 am

    […] the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]

  11. Mark G said,

    April 11, 2014 at 10:34 am

    In addition to Currid’s “Against the God’s” there are some good materials by Noel Weeks identifying some of the pitfalls and cautions regarding drawing conclusions about the biblical accounts from ANE literature.

  12. David A Booth said,

    April 11, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    Studying ANE documents is an important part of becoming an Old Testament scholar.

    The problem is that people have difficulty spending a lot of time studying something only to conclude that it is of limited value in many circumstances. So, they write about it and make their students study it too. We see this in other fields. How else can one explain a Systematic Theology written in the 21st century which spends more time discussing Plato than Pentecostalism and more time on Barth than on Islam?

    The value of ANE literature is that it can help us understand what MIGHT have made sense to the original audience. It is therefore most helpful when it alerts us to new possibilities rather than serving in a simplistic way of suggesting “since this tablet in Ugaritic says therefore this passage from First Samuel must mean.”

    Common sense will help a great deal in preventing us from leaning too heavily on parallels. First, we should remember that ANE is used to cover a vast period of time across rather diverse cultures. Simply ask: How much light would a document in Mexico from the 16th century case on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? [Perhaps someone 3,000 years from now refer to both as Ancient North American Documents] Second, we should remember that we actually have only a tiny percentage of ANE literature. This is akin to looking under the street light for my keys because that is where the best light is. Third, we should remember that the Apostolic Church had essentially no access to ANE literature (other than the Bible and that which was part of the Jewish tradition). This didn’t keep them from being able to understand the Bible.

    ANE literature can be both interesting and helpful, but we shouldn’t imagine that we can’t understand the Bible without it.

  13. Tim Harris said,

    April 21, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    So, for example, they say Gen. 1 was a polemic against ANE creation narratives, emphasizing the sovereignty of God, his aseity, the lack of struggle, etc.

    But it teaches none of those things unless it is a true account. Otherwise, it has no more polemical/apologetic value than two boys arguing in the playground about who’s Dad is tougher. “My Dad could beat up Spiderman.” Imagine the other boy throwing in the towel at that. “Ok, you win. My Dad could beat up the Human Torch, but not Spiderman.”

    To to be polemical or apologetical, it needs to be true… which brings us right back to what it means to be a true account. In other words, the hermeneutic of “polemics” didn’t help us at all.


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