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Friday, March 6, 2015

"Hidden Riches" (Christopher B. Hays)

TITLE: Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East
AUTHOR: Christopher B. Hays
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (288 pages).

Many people have heard of how the Bible shines light on the lives of individuals. Modern authors let the Bible inspire them and write bestselling books. Scholars dig deep into the riches of Scripture and their research have blessed and benefitted people interested in all things biblical study. Teachers and preachers exegeted the ancient texts with some understanding of the original languages. Bible study groups use commentaries and other helps to discover the Bible more. What about other literature that shine light on the Bible? What about materials from the Ancient Near East that reveal more of the context of the Pentateuch (Torah), the Prophets, the Writings? What about primary texts that compare and contrast with the biblical texts that open up the hidden riches of the Bible? Inspired by a seminar that compared such ancient primary texts with the biblical texts, Fuller Professor and Presbyterian minister, Christopher B. Hays is convinced that bible interpreters not only must one be able to read in the original languages, they need to harness the resources of surrounding literature at that time to aid their interpretation. He is referring to cultural literacy, not mere language skills. The benefits of comparison are many.
  • It highlights unique literary and theological features
  • It brings out the relative complexities of complex concepts like justice, beauty, and goodness.
  • It helps us appreciate more of the ancient biblical texts we have
  • It enhances biblical scholarship.
That said, readers who would benefit most are familiar with ancient culture, skilled in literary interpretation, and able to handle the ancient languages, especially Hebrew. Meant to spur greater interest, it is hoped that this book can create more curiosity and interest in Bible interpreters, the importance of greater cultural literacy of the ancient near east. This means being able to deal with the ancient writings, paintings, artifacts, models, and literary devices used during that day. This is no easy feat as some of these texts need to be restored. There are decisions to be made with regards to which texts are to be used. Even the texts concerned needed to be understood in their specific contexts. This book aims to cut through the pile of material to give readers and students an initial push in the study of such literature. While there will be "trial and error" situations, it is hoped that with more discovery and research, there would be greater clarity for modern readers trying to understand ancient culture.

Comparison methods are not new. We need to beware of "hypercomparativism" and "parallelomania" which are comparative methods taken to extreme ends. For the Bible can often be the best interpreter of its own texts. Then there is the danger of misinterpreting dated texts and the reliability of the texts. What makes a particular text an accurate depiction of the culture then? How can one be sure that a newly discovered artifact is a more reliable item than something discovered years ago? How is one able to connect a random discovery with the ancient near east jigsaw? With the huge amount of data already discovered, the challenge is to intelligently understand and interpret them. Thankfully, Hays has done a lot of groundwork for us and we are able to enjoy the fruits of his labour. Using the Old Testament categorization of the biblical texts of Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings, readers familiar with the Bible would be thrilled to see how extra-biblical materials are used to dig out hidden riches of the Bible.

In the creation account, ancient texts on tablets are translated into modern English. Hays compares the ancient pictograms and literature on how the world was created with the biblical version and found "striking points of similarity." We get a gist of the tension between the worship of the God of the Bible and the ancient Babylonian god, Marduk. There are cases of "watery chaos," day and night contrasted with the understanding of sun-god and moon-god; flood stories; and how the Flood Epic in the Bible seems more concerned with the character of God while the "Gilgamesh Epic" more interested in human characters.  Court stories are also compared where both the biblical and ANE texts were both "heavily shaped" for the sake of "interests and needs of later periods." We learn the complexities of making conclusions whether the texts are more historical fact or literary fiction that based on facts.  Of significance is also the law codes which is a huge part of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. Such laws are contrasted with the Babylonian laws of Hammurabi, a just king which again shows the different "supreme agent of justice." The treaties, oaths, and covenants of the Bible are compared with the Hittite treaties and show remarkable similarities to the ways the stipulations, punishments, blessings, curses, and retributive theologies.

For the Prophets, Hays separates the comparison of the Former Prophets from the Latter Prophets. He notes the biblical use of marriage to cast light on covenantal relationship with God as the "prophets' own literary invention." There is also a strong supernatural awareness by the pagan kings. Chronological records show that biblical "gaps" in history are not unique. Sometimes, there are differences that are quite difficult to account for. Between the biblical account and the Assyrian or Babylonian account of the same event, which can the independent interpreter trusts? In other words, which sources are more reliable? This is a challenge of dating the documents, and finding out the location where they refer to originally. What if BOTH sides of a war claim victory? On Prophecy, one needs to distinguish between "inductive and non-inductive divination." The former bases interpretation on concrete information while the latter is authoritative based on his track record. Prophecy and divination were used with the same stature at that time.  Questions are also asked why the ancient prophets used symbolic acts rather than plain words to prophesy. One reason is how these acts became "bridges" between "spoken oracles" and "divination." We learn about the differences between a curse, omens, and judgment oracles. Curses disadvantage the enemy through supernatural means. Omens predict outcomes of battles. Judgment oracles provide reasons for "divine wrath." An interesting question was raised about writing. Records show that Isaiah and Jeremiah had scribes who were able to record down the verbal prophecies. Many of these oracles in the ANE texts had a strong focus on social justice. The use of the word "Baal" is not necessarily always negative. In fact, it is often used for the equivalent of "lord" and the texts are unclear whether the people (Both Jews and non-Jews) use it also for the Hebrew God.

The last part of the book touches on Writings, which looks at proverbs and wisdom instructions with the instruction of Amenemope and the many virtues and vices they espoused. Proverbs 22:17-23:11 seemed to parallel Amenemope's texts. It may very well give modern readers a clue how much interactions have occurred between Israel and the other nations. Then, there is suffering as a human condition. The ancient document of "Ludlul bēl nēmeqi" is compared with Job. In both documents, a righteous person suffered and was restored. Both contain retributive theology. The big difference is how God appears and speaks for Himself, while the ANE texts have no strong attribution to any divine god. Prayers, laments, and poems are all contrasted with similar findings: that the Bible is more monotheistic than the rest.

Books of this nature are often more introductory rather than some defining reference on authenticity and interpretation. Ancient cultures are very foreign to modern minds. We only have limited access to materials. This makes our interpretation attempts even more limited. It would have been nice to have more, but ancient cultures do not have the computing powers of today, which means many aspects of life then were NEVER recorded in the first place. Whatever that was recorded, we have the challenge of trying to piece them together. I am thankful that the Bible we have is by itself a significant possession for understanding the culture at the Ancient Near East. Some Bible scholars prefer to take the stand of letting the Bible interpret itself and does not consider enough of the extrabiblical material available. This is not wise because we might miss out on relevant cultural nuances in the Bible. At the same time, there are those who search other literature without sufficient study of the Bible itself. It is like looking for treasure when the treasure is already in our backyard. Hays's approach is more moderate and does not yield to either of these extremities. I like the open-ended touch which tells the readers that this book is more like spurring people to do more research, instead of some dogmatic statement about "hidden riches." For me, reading this book has less to do with how the ANE literature has better illuminated the Holy Bible. Instead, it has given me a new appreciation of the Bible itself, how understanding the Bible can actually inform us more of the ANE. For every chapter of the book, there are different ANE passages but they are all contrasted and compared with the same Holy Scriptures. Thus, for me, it is the Bible that has provided the handrails of understanding the ANE. It is the Bible that contains hidden riches in the first place. It is also the Bible that shines light on the "hidden riches" of the ANE, more than the other way round.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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