How would that differ from reading Genesis as if it owes a great deal of its present form and content to a mid-first millennium bce context? Not as much as one might think, according John H. Walton, the general editor of the massive, beautifully illustrated, and extensively documented Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (5 vols.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009). I agree.
In the introduction to his “backgrounds” commentary on Genesis in the compendium, Walton points out that in terms of cultural matrix, the differences between the Ancient Near East of the second as compared to the first millennia bce are slight, whereas the differences between the ANE of both millennia and the modern, techno-world of the third millennium ce are enormous (1: 3-4). He clearly wishes to offer the commentary as a resource to all third millennium ce readers of Genesis, those who read Genesis as if Moses wrote it in the Late Bronze Age or third quarter of the second millennium bce, and those who don’t.
It is an excellent resource. The 5 volume 2500+ page Zondervan “backgrounds” commentary makes an intensely interesting read for those who wish to examine the Pentateuch and the rest of the Hebrew Bible with an eye for backgrounds to its content in the longue durée of ANE culture. In particular, that culture in its classical and most formative periods, Bronze Age and sometimes earlier still, receives attention in ZIBBC. The “backgrounds” Walton’s team of scholars concentrate on in their point-by-point commentary are the perennial ones.
The ZIBBC makes only a slightly less interesting read for those like myself who view the Bible as a bridge document that reflects not only classical ANE cultural norms, but also, the new, revolutionary paradigms of the Axial Age (800-200 bce).
The culture of the Enlightenment, our culture, often compared and contrasted with ancient culture, is rightly thought of as marking a second axial age committed to naturalistic explanation and empirical discovery. What can we learn from taking a bath, as it were, in ANE culture viewed over against its reflection and polemical rejection in the Hebrew Bible, itself an expression of that culture? What can we learn from a bath in the primordial waters out of which the hillocks of both the first and second axial ages arose?
An awful lot, I wager. The lavishly illustrated Zondervan “backgrounds” commentary offers a tantalizing opportunity to take such a bath, and will, I predict, lead readers to take many more.
To be sure, it is easy to overemphasize the differences between ancient and modern culture. Just as it is easy to overemphasize the cultural differences between Old Kingdom Egypt, and the Alexandria of Philo and Clement; or the differences – here I take the discussion to another level of complexity – between the world of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey and the world of Virgil’s Aeneid; between the world of the Old and the world of the New Testaments; between the world of the Hebrew Bible and the world of the Talmud.
The new always sought to make room for the old. In the same way, we denizens of the third millennium ce make constant recourse to specialists whose art has no basis in empirical discovery or other Enlightenment values. We shape our moral and aesthetic imaginations through reading Lord of the Rings or watching The Matrix series. We sate our appetites for stylized violence by watching Pulp Fiction and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. We depend on an acupuncturist for healing and we practice yoga. We are pulled in by Yom Kippur or the Old Rugged Cross.
The metaphysical underpinnings of all of the above run very deep. They have little or no basis in empirical discovery or naturalistic explanation. Like the ancients, we experience far more than we understand. We experience in order to understand. And we are, or tend to be, syncretists.
John Walton’s introductory essay to ZIBBC deserves a wide reading (viii-xv). Anyone who reads both the Bible and ANE literature with a sense of both empathy and alienation will jump up and down with delight at the chart Walton offers on xi. For example, he notes that, with respect to sexual activity of the gods, theogony, and apotropaic rituals, the Bible totally ignores or presents a different view with respect to its cultural environment. On the other hand, the Bible has a subconscious shared heritage with respect to the use of lots, conceptualization of netherworld conditions, and temple ideology. It is aware of and adapts and transforms the practice of circumcision, kingship ideology, “classical” (for Israel) prophecy, the words of the wise, and love poetry from surrounding cultures. It registers disagreement and engages in polemics against ziggurats and the understanding of theomachy, the Flood, and other features of cosmological texts of its neighbors. At the same time, the Bible consciously imitates and borrows the covenant-treaty format, the calf-bull image, and the content found in Psalm 29.
In my next post, an overview of and list of contributors to ZIBBC. I thank the people at Zondervan for sending me a review copy.
Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary
A Review Series
Reading Genesis as if Moses wrote it in the Late Bronze Age
The ZIBBC: An Overview
Genre Identifications in the ZIBBC Part One
Genre Identifications in the ZIBBC Part Two
Genre Identifications in the ZIBBC Part Three
Genre Identifications in the ZIBBC Part Four