Mesopotamia and the Bible: Comparative Explorations

  • Mark W. Chavalas, K. Lawson Younger, Jr.
  • Jan 1, 2003
  • Series: Volume 6 - 2003

Chavalas, Mark W. and K. Lawson Younger, Jr., editors Mesopotamia and the Bible: Comparative Explorations. New York: Sheffield Academic Press. 2002 400 pp. Hardcover. $29.99. ISBN 1-84127-252-3.

This collection of essays presents a current summary of selected archaeological data from Syro-Mesopotamia and utilizes that information in a comparative exploration of biblical studies. The work contains fourteen essays from thirteen authors, each a leading scholar in biblical studies and Mesopotamia. Topics range from discussions as early as the Neolithic (c. 10,000-5200 BCE) and Uruk (3500-3000 BCE) periods through the eastern Jewish Diaspora. The editors have broadly defined the region of Mesopotamia deciding to include research from Ugarit, Alalakh, and Ebla. By including this information from the region just west of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the editors have created a well rounded work that presents a comprehensive view of the cultures, languages and civilizations that influenced the growth and development of the nation Israel.

The first essay by M. Chavalas ("Assyriology and Biblical Studies: A Century and a Half of Tension" pp. 21-67) is an excellent historical overview of Assyriology's evolution and early comparative analysis. Chavalas chronicles the emergence of Assyriology from an auxiliary of biblical studies into a unique discipline. He goes on to discuss the rapid expansion of comparative analysis as a method to synthesize new archaeological discoveries. Chavalas depicts W. W. Hallo as an example of a scholar who utilizes a balanced contextual approach, analyzing data that both supports and conflicts biblical information. Here, the goal of comparative analysis is "not to find the key to every biblical phenomenon in some ancient Near Eastern precedent, but rather to silhouette the biblical text against its wider literary and cultural environment. " (p. 43).

Those seeking additional information on the development and appropriate use of the comparative method will find the essay by R. Averbeck useful. This essay ("Sumer, the Bible, and Comparative Method: Historiography and Temple Building pp. 88-125) not only presents a summary of the comparative method, but presents a compelling argument concerning the nature of historiography and history writing (pp. 97-113). Additionally, portions of the essays written by D. Fleming (pp. 223-30) and W. Pitard (pp. 252-68) add a rich insight into the use of the comparative model in biblical studies.

Although this work does an excellent job presenting the background for Assyriology and the comparative method, the real value of the material lies in the discussion of the culture and historiography of the Syro-Mesopotamian region. The essays are roughly grouped into three periods of Mesopotamian history.

The first grouping of essays explore the Neolithic period through the Middle Bronze Age. Chavals presents an overview of the first eight thousand years of Mesopotamian cultural development. Although his discussion moves quickly from the Neolithic period through the Early Bronze Age, he builds an excellent foundation on which other authors may build in later essays. In addition, he creates an excellent bibliography for scholars to utilize when researching these periods. R. Veenker and V. Matthews pick up in the Early Bronze Age and continue the discussion through the Middle Bronze Age. The Old Babylonian period is discussed by Veenker and includes a superior discussion on the Code of Hammurabi (pp. 152-61) and selected other Old Babylonian period literature (pp. 163-66). V. Matthews focuses primarily on the area of northern Syria in the early second millennium. His essay (pp. 168-90) presents a particularly compelling analysis of the Mari texts and their implications for the understanding and classification of a pastoral/nomadic economy.

The second grouping of essays focus on Western and Northern Mesopotamia through the Late Bronze Age. These essays cover a region that is generally considered outside traditional Mesopotamia, however, the authors argue effectively that these western areas are culturally and critically related to both traditional Mesopotamia and Israel. R. Hess begins the section with a presentation of the findings from Alalakh (pp. 209-21). This essay chronicles Alalakh's usefulness as a second millennium resource arguing for a "similar milieu for much of the biblical material from the books of the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and the first part of 1 Kings" (p. 217). Hess' expertise in this area is evident in his thoughtful discussion of the names and social customs found at the Alalakh archive. The findings at Emar are presented by D. Fleming (pp. 222-50) and contain several fascinating discussions. After establishing the relevance for Emar in a comparative study with Israel, Fleming presents a vivid picture of Emar as the crossroads of patriarchal movement between Canaan and the Euphrates basin. The essay concludes with a discussion of the seven day zukru festival (pp. 230-44) drawing insightful comparisons to biblical festivals. The tablets found at Ugarit are explained and discussed by W. Pitard (pp. 251-75). In his discussion, Pitard explores the progression of El as a Canaanite deity and potential implications for biblical studies. Pitard does a thorough job exploring a controversial topic in this area. He concludes with a caution to biblical scholars to utilize care in comparative studies and to evaluate all available data prior to drawing conclusions.

The third and final grouping of essays focus on the rise of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires from the beginning of the Iron Age through the Diaspora. A discussion of the Aramean states begins the section (pp. 276-87) and explores the semi-nomadic culture of a people living in what can be called a "steppeland". K. L. Younger moves the discussion forward with an insightful presentation on Sargon II (pp. 288-329). Here, scholars will find a wealth of information on the deportations conducted in the eighth century BCE. This essay also encompasses the Assyrian campaigns of 716/715 and 712/711, including an excellent discussion concerning Ashod. The Neo-Babylonian period is presented by B. Arnold (pp. 330-55) and includes some interesting comparisons between the formation of the Babylonian Empire and the biblical Monarchies of Saul and David. From a cultural perspective, three founding cultures of the Neo-Babylonian Empire are presented including the: Arameans, Chaldeans, and native Babylonians. Arnold does an excellent job chronicling the interaction between these cultures and the cause/affect relationships from Assyria that led to the formation of the Babylonian Empire. The final essay of the section presents an overview of the history and cultural conditions from 722 to 414 BCE. This essay, by E. Yamauchi (pp. 356-77), conveys the idea that a nation is more than the territory it controls. He uses a strong biblical foundation and concludes that the Jews' "key to survival was their faith in a God, who, though he momentarily punished them, was nonetheless a faithful covenant-keeping Lord, who would watch over them even in a foreign Diaspora and restore them to their Holy Land. " (p. 372)

"Mesopotamia and the Bible" provides an excellent survey of selected topics throughout the Bronze and Early Iron Ages. Each scholar shows an awareness of current research and each essay provides a thorough bibliography for additional study by the reader. Although the work is not designed as an exhaustive overview, readers will find most major topics addressed. Each author provides insightful discussions and endeavors to use a comparative model when exploring current archaeological data. The result is an exemplary comparative exploration of the Syro-Mesopotamian region and the Bible.

Bryan C. Babcock
Denver Seminary
August 2003

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