Comparative studies of the Hebrew Bible date back centuries, and the approach remains vital to our discipline because it helps eliminate dubious interpretations and sheds light on obscure words, literary conventions, social customs, and beliefs. Comparativism allows us to appreciate realistically the limits of biblical historicity, or the rhetorical dimensions of theological arguments within the Bible, to take obvious examples. Although such taxing research is nowadays often overshadowed by strictly literary (quasi-New Critical) readings of the Bible, also appropriate within their limitations, it continues to yield valuable results. Such basic research deserves the guild’s encouragement.
This volume’s fourteen essays address major methodological and evidentiary problems confronting our understanding of Israel’s history, religion, literature, and culture within its ancient Near Eastern setting. Topics discussed include: comparative philology and the text of the Old Testament (Cathcart), annals and chronicles in Israel and its neighbors (Dijkstra), comparativism and the nature of YHWH (Gordon), the presence of Greeks in Palestine (Hagedorn), conceptions of death and afterlife in Egypt and Israel (Johnston), Neo-Hittite inscriptions and the Bible (Kitchen), disillusion among post-exilic Jews (Korpel), monotheism and rationality in Gerstenberger’s Theologies in the Old Testament (MacDonald), textual modification in Egyptian texts (Richardson), Abraham and his wives (Tollington), the inversion of pastoral metaphors for divine activity in ancient literature (van Hecke), priestly calendars (Wagenaar), word play in the Bible and Levantine inscriptions (Wesselius), and the Rephaim in Israel and Ugarit (Williams). Many of these are well-traveled paths, but the authors manage to find new twists in the road and take us to new destinations.
The essays address several types of issues. On religion or theology, the essays by Gordon and MacDonald make astute, clarifying comments about Israel’s portrayals of God and our use of them in current theology, cautioning us against both an Albrightian contrast between YHWH and other deities and a facile elision of the distinctives of Israel’s faith. Johnston, drawing mostly on texts and not archaeological artifacts, argues for Israel’s lack of obsession with the dead, in contrast to neighboring cultures. Van Hecke shows how the inversion of a common topos, pastoral metaphors for divine action, allowed ancients to question conventional religion. Korpel finds a dissatisfaction with their faith among Achaemenid period Jews. Wagenaar shows connections between Israel’s and Mesopotamia’s calendars and their implications for cultic practice.
On historical and historiographic issues, Dijkstra helpfully locates several biblical texts (including, innovatively, the book of Haggai) in their place among the historiographic genres of the Near East. Kitchen’s survey of Iron Age Neo-Hittite texts and their implications for biblical studies well introduces a too neglected field, though the piece suffers from the author’s idiosyncratic take of the United Monarchy and other controversial problems. Hagedorn traces evidence for Greeks in Israel before 600 bce.
On aspects of text-making, Richardson shows how Egyptian texts could be modified, while Wesselius finds polysemy in the Bible and the Kilamuwa inscription from Zençirli. Cathcart catalogues examples of comparative philology shedding light on the translation of selected texts. Given the temptation to speculate about the development of the biblical texts among (reconstructed) circles of editors, the existence of such controls holds out promise to future research.
Naturally, readers may quarrel with arguments of the authors. To take some examples, Kitchen’s too-easy dismissal of problems with a United Monarchy or Korpel’s discovery of nihilism in Esther will be controversial. Wesselius’s ingenious identifications of wordplay in Kilamuwa seem difficult to accept, given the brevity and likely use of the inscription, though he convincingly identifies anomalies in its rhetoric.Johnston could have dealt with relevant archaeological evidence more extensively. The articles by Gordon and MacDonald, because they address highly controversial issues, deserve meaningful responses. In every case, however, the essays’ positive contributions far outweigh any shortcomings, and no truly weak article appears in the book. In most cases, the essays will prompt further discussion.
Any collection of essays will have gaps, and it is not a criticism to hope that the editors will perhaps collaborate again on a volume revisiting such important topics as kingship, warfare, the sociology of elites and peasants, hymns and other poetry, or proverbs and other wisdom genres, among other topics that comparative approaches can elucidate. Still, the editors have managed to pull together articles of high quality that both address the state of their respective discussions and either clear away bad ideas or suggest new approaches that call for further research. The volume appears carefully edited and proofread, and the biblical and author indices are helpful, though a subject index would have been beneficial. Gordon and de Moor, along with their colleagues, have placed us in their debt. This book should be in every serious library of biblical studies, and we may hope for a cheaper edition making it available to individual scholars.