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.