Walton, John H.: Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Book Summary)


Chapter One – History and Methods

In the first chapter of the book Walton introduces the notion of comparative study and describes the way in which historical facts can be understood in a broad cultural context. He emphasizes that it is crucial to consider the Old Testament as the part of the Ancient Near East history and thus study it in that particular context.

According to Walton, the comparative study and its methods have been subjects for discussions among scholars for many years. Many researchers go to extremes in their ideas concerning the place of the Old Testament in the history of the Ancient Near East. Some of them emphasize the inerrancy of the Old Testament and as the result reject the cultural context of the Ancient Near East. The others argue about the importance of the Old Testament in studying this context. The author of the book tries to combine these two approaches to understanding both the epoch and the Old Testament.

Walton writes that researching the genres of literature of that period are crucial in understanding that day society. Many scholars, as he states, pay too much attention to the question of borrowings in the literature of the Ancient Near East. The author states that if the researchers know the way those literally genres were written, then they will have no problems with explaining the cultural context to which the genres refer.

Walton emphasizes the four main principles that are important comparative studies. First, it is necessary to study the language, because it is the instrument for understanding metaphors, idioms and semantics in Hebrew. Second, studying literature gives an insight into the values people of Israel shared. Third, studying archeology helps to revive the life style of that time. Fourth, studying history is a means of understanding the sequence of events better.

Chapter Two – Comparative Studies, Scholarship, and Theology

Comparative method is used both in scientific and theological research of the Old Testament. The scientific approach investigates into literary and historical issues, while the confessional research studies only the text. Critical method of research poses many questions that require debates and leave several ways in which their finding can be interpreted. The scholars use polemic arguments in their comparative studies that are intended to find the rationale.

Theologists are attacked by comparative and critical interpretations of the Old Testament and have to defend against them. Among the well known issues that were discussed by the confessional and scientific researchers was the the uniqueness of the Old Testament. The opinion concerning this problem changed with the time and was fist not unique, then it was considered to be borrowed and derivative. It was also called unreliable, fictitious, and written by human. The comparative method showed that the Bible has many similarities with the books of this genre. Though, the polemical approach does not only diminish the uniqueness of the Old Testament, but also helps the theologists to show that there are also many distinctive features in the Bible.

Critical approach is important in exegesis of the Old Testament texts, in defending them and in analyzing them critically. The theologists try to avoid conclusions without rational support in order to cope with the negative criticism the critical analysis provides. Though, many of the confessional scholars find it wrong that the words of God undergo thorough analysis, because thus they lose their inspirational power. Walton, in his turn, proposes to use a combination of two approaches mentioned above. The critical analysis is efficient for researching the Biblical historical context, and exegesis guarantees that the reader will not try to explain the Old Testament apart from its context.


Chapter Three – Summary of the Literature of the Ancient Near East

In this chapter Walton investigates into various literary styles that existed in the Ancient Near East. The myth is one of the most well known primary ways in which the reality was depicted by the ancient civilizations. The myths of different nations had many things in common both with each other and the Bible. For example, the theme of floods is constantly repeating in the myths. Despite numerous similarities, there are even more distinctions between the Old Testament and the myths of ancient civilizations. For example, it is impossible to find the scenes of battles between gods in the Old Testament like it was in Akkadian myths.

Another genre of writing that was wide-spread in that epoch was epic descriptions of the king’s deeds. They were quite subjective and did not reflect the reality in the majority of cases, because they exaggerated the victories of the kings and kept silence about their defeats. One of the examples of this genre is the Gilgamesh epic, that describes his quest in search of immortality.

Religious writings existed in the Ancient Near East. It was presented by hymns and psalms that expressed people’s love towards their gods to please them. Prophetic literature conveyed the messages from gods to humans and was a part of religious style. Wisdom literature also existed in that time and there people could find the ethic code.

It was characteristic to the Ancient Near East that all these styles existed separately. The Old Testament combined these genres and so became a unique literally source that remained from the times of the Ancient Near East. In addition, it proves that despite all similarities in themes, the Bible is not a borrowed source.


Chapter Four – The Gods

In this chapter Walton describes the way the gods functioned in the civilizations of the Ancient Near East and compares it to the beliefs of people in Israel. It is difficult to compare those two systems, because even the idea of the only god is alien to the polytheistic world view of ancient civilizations.

In fact, there are many differences between the Christian God and the gods of the ancient civilizations. The God of the Israelite was not made from the heavenly sneeze, but pre-existed. He was not responsible for a specific sphere, for example like the god of justice, but was all mighty. Polytheistic gods were working in teems, while the God of the Old Testament created the universe by himself.

The author also investigates into the question about the place of the gods in the cosmos. Yahweh exists outside of it and is not associated with parts of it. He is considered to be the creator of everything in the cosmos. The waters, the stars and the time were created by him, but he was not the water or the time himself, as the polytheistic gods were.

Another peculiar difference between polytheistic gods and Yahweh is in the fact that the Christian God does not ascend from humans, he is absolutely another, while the gods of the ancient civilizations were human like.

The author finishes the fourth chapter with describing the attributes of gods. As it was mentioned earlier, the polytheistic gods are responsible for a certain sphere or element of cosmos. They do not possess all those qualities that people need to address in the celestial being. Yahweh from the Old Testament is absolute perfection. He is love, mercy, justice an wisdom, which makes the God entirely different from his polytheistic colleagues.

Chapter Five – Temples and Rituals

Temples of the Ancient Near East are important in understanding the religious life of people. A temple used to be a place where a specific god lived on earth, and a place for worshiping was not its main characteristic. The idol that inhabited the temple had a soul and powers of the god. Its creation was the manifestation of the god’s will and was considered to be supernatural. In fact, worshiping the idols was one of the issues against which the prophets of the Old Testament protested.

Ziggurat was a part of a temple that was closed for profane reality and was thought to be the most sacred place in the house of god. In ziggurat the deity could have rest and think. From that place the deity controlled the life in the human world and introduced new laws. In the Old Testament the Garden of Eden was also not a specific geographical place. It was the place in cosmos where Yahweh dwelt.

The responsibilities of the temple of Israelite were created by God. It gave people protection from the enemies, judged them, and brought them victories in wars. All of the temples of that time have one thing in common – they were not created to respond for individual needs of people. Their main duty was to maintain the order and keep the cosmos from chaos.

People were building places where the gods could reside on earth and brought food to those places. Offerings of food and sacrifices of animals were essential parts of the religious cult, that gave people hope that their gods were pleased enough to hear their calling, to see their needs and to care for them, because people themselves were not able to live without those rituals.

Chapter Six – State and Family Religion

The religion of the state in the Ancient Near East and the one of the family differed greatly. The state religion was in the temples and palaces, and only the chosen people had an access to the deities. Ordinary people had no possibility to address those gods with their minor problems, and so they thought that everything the gods want to tell the priests and the kings about the life order, they manage to tell them. That is why the general state of things is normal in their state.

Though, ordinary people had their personal problems and they felt that those state mighty gods do not care about them. That is why they exercised family cults to please their ancestral gods, and prayed for good crops, health and welfare. The only problem with the family religion was that people did not have revelation of the god’s will, so they were unable to understand whether they are doing their cult in the right way or not.

The idea that Abraham was able to speak to God and he was heard became a step towards unifying family religion with the state one. It introduced the notion of the personal god, that was all mighty and caring for everyone at the same time. The God of the Old Testament was caring for his people and made his will known to them personally, unlike the artificial pagan gods. The Christianity also set rigid moral and ethic norms, that were vague and relative in the pagan societies. For example, if the gods required people to participate in an orgy in order to please them, that it was not condemned by the society. The God of the Old Testament became the example of the moral absolute that all people had to follow.


Chapter Seven – Cosmic Geography

In this chapter Walton investigates into the question how people of the Ancient Near East viewed cosmos. Understanding of their viewpoint concerning the surrounding world is important in understanding the way people used to think in that epoch.

It is necessary to remember that people in that time had no knowledge about physical laws that the humankind has today. The pagans of the Ancient Near East had very similar thoughts with the Israelite about the place of the Earth in the universe or about the trajectory of Sun’s moving. That is why it is possible to find this kind of information both in the myths and in the Old Testament.

The gods lived in heavens and their place in the celestial spheres was determined by their place in the pantheon. The heavens were divided from the earth by the sky and it was theoretically possible to climb up the mountain and to see the gods. When the sky was opened, the rains and the snows fell on earth. The sun was traveling to the Netherworld and it was considered to be an integral part of the sky just like the stars and other planets. The Netherworld was inhabited by the souls of the dead and evil gods, who were responsible for such deadly issues.

Though, people of the Ancient Near East were interested more in metaphysical questions like how the dead enter the Netherworld than in the physical aspects of the cosmos. The cosmos meant the order, where everything was in the right place, because is was the will of the gods. Chaos was the opposite to the cosmos and people were scared by the unknown that might have existed in the darkness of the primary state of the universe.

Chapter Eight – Cosmology and Cosmogony

The ontology of the Ancient Near East is functional, that means that the function is more important that the existence. Walton supports this claim with the examples of specific semantics from the Old Testament and the myths of the Ancient Near East. The word “bara” in Hebrew means to create, but it refers only to creating something functional like female and male, gender roles or humans in general. It can not be used with the notion of table, for example. Such difference emphasizes that the act of giving substance to material objects and assigning roles are completely different processes in the cosmology of that time.

A peculiar thing is that according to the Old Testament, God did not create the world out of nothing. Everything has already existed in the cosmos and the only thing that God did was to give those things function, meaning and place. It is written in Genesis 1:2 that world before the act of creation was empty and formless, or “tohu wabohu” in original. Walton explains this term as the lack of something abstract that is responsible for integrity, purpose, worth and truth.

Walton indicates the following components of the cognitive environment of the Ancient Near East from Genesis. It consists of ontology (functional existence in ordered cosmos), cosmic geography (cosmos of three tiers), centrality of control attributes and destinies (creating the authority of God), war with other gods (theomachy), theogony (the idea that theogony does not influence cosmogony and Yahweh has no origin, he just pre existed), and relation of God to his control attributes (Yahweh exists outside of the cosmos he organized, but his attributes can not exist apart from him. As the result, it is thought that the control attributes are already initiated in the cosmos).


Chapter Nine – Understanding the Past, Human Origins and Role

In the ninth chapter Walton makes an attempt to describe and to analyze the ways in which people were perceived in the times of the Ancient Near East. The way people are described in the Old Testament is unique for that time and is absolutely different from the ideas expressed in the pagan myths. To start with, the humankind derives from one couple, Adam and Eve, so it is possible to talk about monogenesis. In the myths of Egypt people were made of clay, the Sumerians thought they stood up from the ground, and so on. The substance from which people are considered to be made is also different in the myths of the Ancient Near East and and the Old Testament. At least Adam was made not only from the dust, but also from the divine breath.

The discussion of the nature of humans is continued by the problem whether they are a unity, or they consist of the body, spirit and mind. According to Walton, it is sometimes problematic to understand all the nuances the myths imply because of the ancient languages. For example, in the Egyptian world view of that time there were three separate words that denoted the parts of the human. The first was Ka and it was the word for denoting the natural character of the human. The second was Ba, which referred to the way people acted in the community and was synonymous in some way to the reputation. The last notion of Akh was describing the immortal soul of the human that continued living after the person’s death.

Walton states that the main difference between the Israelite people and their neighbors was in the fact that in the Old Testament humans have a special role, they were the best creations of God. In the myths, humans were not important for the gods and lived only to serve them.

Chapter Ten – Understanding the Past, Historiography

In the times of the Ancient Near East the approach to recording history was different from the one that is dominant nowadays. In the description of events modern people tend to focus on the things that can be experienced in reality and seen, in other words, on facts. The ancient civilizations paid more attention to the gods and to their will, because they simply could not understand why somebody from the ext generations would be interested in their lives. In the historiography of that time the focal point was the deity and everything that was somehow connected with it.

It is also necessary to remember that the ancient people were perceiving the time differently from modern people. They were thinking that the most important things happened in their past and they were oriented on it, leaving the future behind their backs. Nowadays it is considered that the time has a linear structure and a person in standing in the present moment, looks into the future and has the past behind him/her.

Another peculiar aspect that is important in understanding the past is that the written sources of that epoch are not objective and thus do not provide the researchers with true facts. They were written to promote the victories of the ruling elite and to praise the deities, disregarding anything else that happened in that time. The Old Testament also needs to be interpreted as the literary heritage of that time. In other words, the increased attention to God, specific poetics, the values of the writers and the audience of that time should be taken into consideration.

Chapter Eleven – Encountering the Present; Guidance for Life – Divination and Omens

Divination was an indispensable part of life in the Ancient Near East. People tried to learn what they could expect from future and were making various attempts to learn the god’s will. The divination was deductive and inspired. Inspired divination became possible only with the help of a special person, who was able to hear the god’s will and to transmit it to the others. Deductive divination was reading of signs in the the weather or events in other words. It was also performed by special people, who possessed the sacred knowledge.

The messages from gods in the context of inspired divination were often seen in the dreams and were considered to be the prophecies. People who were able to receive those messages lived near the king and were specially taught to decipher them, because the dreams were vague. The prophets were very important in the life of the state, because they showed people that the king’s power is from the gods and the gods care about their nation. Knowing the future in the form of prophecies also gave people the sense of confidence. It is also possible to find the examples of inspired divination in the Old Testament, when God speaks to the Israelite people through the prophets.

When the signs in the surrounding world were read and interpreted by trained people it was considered to be the deductive divination. The signs could have been found mostly everywhere – in the water, in the sky, in the forms of the dead animal’s parts. I was made to give people the sense of control over the future. The omens were also used, they supported the hope of people that they know something in advance.

Chapter Twelve – Encountering the Present; Context of Life – Cities and Kingship

People of Egypt and Mesopotamia used to think that the cities were initially created by gods and so existed even before the first men. As the result, the cities were considered to by sacred places by their nature. In addition, the temples that were situated in the cities and proved the idea that the cities were god chosen places. Every city in Egypt and Mesopotamia has several temples that were dedicated to the deities that were the most powerful. People tried to live and to work near such places, because it was thought that those might gods would take care of them. The deities were not seeing those lived far from the temple, so there was no rational need to live outside the city. The Israelites also thought that the temple was the residence of God on earth, but only one city had a temple.

Another peculiar characteristic of that epoch was the kingship. It was viewed as the principle social institution, that united the human and the divine by mediating words and will of deities in the cities of that time. The king played an important tole in the religious practices. Among his main duties was to praise the gods, to appease them and in this way to protect the land from floods, droughts or other natural disasters. It is not strange that ordinary people wanted to live near the city, because that place was blessed by the deities.

The ideas about the kingship in Egypt and Mesopotamia were very similar to the ones of the Israelites. According to the Old Testament, the king was also chosen by God. He was considered to be blessed by God and thus all his people were also blessed. Those, who did not obey the rule of the king, who was god blessed, the God cursed.

Chapter Thirteen – Encountering the Present; Guidelines for Life – Law and Wisdom

Walton discusses the ancient treatises on legal, medical and related to divination issues. They provided people with the words of wisdom and guidelines for life on the basis of previous discussions. It was possible to find all kind of didactic and practical information in the treaties from the ways to interpret the dream to how to cure diseases. Even the kings of the ancient state learned the judicial wisdom from the legal treatises.

All of the treatises start from the “if” clause and describe a situation from the experience that should be taken as the starting point for further research. For example, the words of legislative wisdom look like “if a man steals something, cut off his hand.”

It is necessary to note that such books of treatises made the earth kings legitimate by providing the legislative background for their rights to rule the others. The same genre of literature can be found in the Israelite culture too, and the Book of the Covenant is the example of it. Such written sources were authoritative and were very important in preserving the social order.

Though, Walton emphasizes that the modern understanding of the law does not correspond to the one of the Ancient Near East. The law was not written as the set of constrains. The balance in the society was regulated by general ideas of what was fair and how the kings of the past times said to do. Ten Commandments of the Old Testament were the new way to prescribe people the moral and ethical code. They were easy to understand and despite their simplicity they were efficient in regulating the social life.

Chapter Fourteen – Pondering the Future of Earth and after Death

The pagans of the Ancient Near East were not that worried about the life after death as the Christians were. The myths do not reflect the people’s desire for the better afterlife and the only thing that they cared about was the improvement of their present conditions of living by praying to the most powerful gods. The Israelite people learned from God that they can hope for the coming of the kingdom of god and for the paradise. It gave them hope to struggle during the life time.

The civilization of Egypt has left some written sources about the life after death. The first were the Pyramid Texts and they consisted of the spells that the newly dead had to say when they descended into the realm of darkness. The second source was called the Coffin Texts, where there were detailed descriptions of the horrors that were waiting for the dead. Another source was the Book of the dead and there it possible to find information about the ways to avoid the serpents that the dead person might see on the way to the kingdom of the afterlife.

The Sumerian thought that the realm of death is placed in the west. The netherworld was ruled by the gods and the demons guarded its seven gates. In Mesopotamia there was a cult of the dead. The dead relatives received the divine status in the family and the conditions of the person’s life after death depended on the way in which his/her relatives cared about him/her. Every month all dead relatives were invited to the feast and it was considered that food would make their existence in the realm of death more pleasant.

There is not much information about the viewpoint of the Israelites concerning this issue. The netherworld was called Sheol and not all dead could go there. It was the place where the souls were not punished or rewarded, but it was the place with no joy, sorrow, knowledge, memory and possessions.


In the last chapter of the book Walton emphasizes the importance of understanding the cognitive environment of the Old Testament. The comparative approach to studying this issue is the most efficient way to compare and contrast the world views of the pagan nations of the Ancient Middle East and the Israelite ideas from the Old Testament.

The author had two main goals in his book. The first one was to create a more thorough picture of that epoch. The second aim was to prove that the cognitive environment was the same both for the Israelite and for other people of the Ancient Near East. The Old Testament brought certain significant changes to their lives, but they were not very different from the wold view if that time. Walton investigates into the religious, daily, social and judicial layers of life and compares the way the Israelite people organized it with the way it was performed in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Of course the difference between the monotheistic and the polytheistic religions was great, and it lead to the changes in all spheres of life. However the level of human perception was the same in all countries of the Ancient Near East and nothing was able to make them fear the unknown less.

In the postscript Walton enumerates the main differences between the two cultures. Though, in the end of the chapter, he writes the main idea that might have inspired him to write the book. He claims that the main result this book needs to achieve is to protect the Old Testament from imposing contemporary cognitive environment on it. According to the writer, it is a widely spread problem in the confessional circles.


Walton, John H.. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

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