Intro to ANE and OT Studies: Parallels

There are quite a few good books out there which serve the purpose of tying together or somehow relating the OT to the parallel ANE documents. A few that come to mind are Jack Sasson’s Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Amelie Kuhrt’s The Ancient Near East, and the classic set edited by J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near East. I recently also noticed Kenton Sparks’ Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible as well as Hess’ Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey and Walton’s Ancient Near East Thought and the Old Testament. These texts are helpful, though some of these are quite expensive (Sasson & Kuhrt, for example).  Others of them may be too much for pastors or students who are not experts in the field (Hess, for example).   The Walton text is helpful, but you can’t read the ANE texts for yourself, if that’s what you’re after.  I admit I’m not the expert here, nor have I read the above books cover to cover.  I’ll let Andrew and our OT students comment more on these things.  ::::UPDATE May 29::::: John has a helpful post here (and elsewhere on his blog) if you want to dig a bit deeper in this realm (pun intended).

The Ancient Near East (Volume II): A New Anthology of Texts and Pictures

I used the Pritchard volume(s) in seminary, so I can and do vouch for those.  You can see pictures and the ANE texts themselves (translated, of course).   In these volumes you can read ANE war texts, temple dedication texts, letters, hymns, treaties, myths and so forth from ANE cultures/civilizations (Sumer, Assyria, Babylon, and so on).

One that I just purchased and have found useful is Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East by Victor Matthews and Don Benjamin (the newly expanded/revised edition just came out a few years ago).  So far, I’ve enjoyed this book.  Basically, it follows the structure of the OT (Pentateuch to Prophets) and lists several examples from ANE texts of clear parallels.  There is a Scripture index in the back, so, for example, if you were preaching on Psalm 68 you’d see that on page 250 an ancient Baal text is listed.  It says,

“Listen to me, almighty Ba’al
Hear me out, Rider of the Clouds
Now is the time for you to strike
Slay your enemies and eliminate your rivals
Now is the time to found an everlasting kingdom
Establish your dominion throughout all generations!”

This echoes Psalm 68 (or Psalm 68 echoes it), where Yahweh arises and his enemies are scattered, driven away, and melted like wax.  Psalm 68 is a poem where Yahweh ascends on high, leading captivity captive and giving gifts to men while slaying his enemies.  The parallels are obvious.

All in all, the Mathews/Benjamin book is a good start when studying ANE/OT parallels.  Granted, they do not discuss comparative studies with regard to methodology, use of texts, archaeology, and so forth (Andrew will tell us where to go for that!), but it does give the reader a little window into some ANE texts which clearly are similar to OT texts.

Feel free to add to this post by way of comment; it is just the tip of the iceberg, sort of a “way to begin” thinking about reading ANE texts in the Christian’s study.

One more note: You’ll recognize the above names Walton and Matthews if you have The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament – they did much of the work on that, and it is a good though brief one volume OT/ANE parallel commentary, very much worth getting.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

6 Replies to “Intro to ANE and OT Studies: Parallels”

  1. If I’m not mistaken, Pritchard’s work has been surpassed by the recent “Context of Scripture” series (3 or 4 vols–all quite pricey). Having done some recent comparative work on the Baal Cycle in Ugaritic, I have appreciated Meir Malul’s suggestions for comparative studies. Malul argues that we have to be careful not to confuse typological and historical parallels (something that happens quite often in the scholarly literature). In addition, scholars must take into account the large time gap between ANE documents, etc. and the Biblical texts. At one point, I devoured Walton’s book, but having read Malul, I’m now inclined to think that Walton is a bit sloppy in his scholarship (i.e., too much slapping texts together without regard for chronology, geography, etc.).

    Just some random thoughts :)


  2. Thanks, Nevada; that’s helpful. You’re (or Malul is) right: there’s more to comparative studies than simple parallels. I noticed that myself when looking at the Sumerian Code (ca. 1800 BCE) compared to the codes in Exodus (c. chapters 21-23). Since its hard to pin down the Exodus date, and since the Sumerian code possibly originated before it was written, I was uncomfortable doing any more than making generalizations concerning parallels.

    If you feel like it and have time, I’d like to hear more about your above note concerning confusing typological and historical parallels; sounds fascinating.

    Thanks again,


  3. Yeah, COS is 3 vols. Strong set. Pricey, but some great scholars contribute (Harry Hoffner, Kyle McCarter, etc.). If I’m not mistaken, there are still a few texts that one needs Prichard for, though, as they have not been included in COS. I might be wrong on this, though.

    As for comparative work, Kenton Sparks book, “Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible” (Published by Hendriksen) is required reading. It’s a thorough catalogue of all the materials out there, plus a bibliography of text editions and secondary lit written on the text under discussion. He’s also got an introductory chapter dealing with genre and how that ties in to the relevance of a particular text of the OT.

    Also, note that SBL publishes the WAW series (Writings from the Anient World) where everything from Akkadian law codes to Aramaic letters to Ugaritic Ritual and Epic texts are included. They’re fairly cheap paperbacks, also with some great scholars contributing.

    A number of these things are also available as logos or accordance modules as well, making for easy reference and searchability!


  4. Typological parallelism is more of an anthropological category. Essentially, it means taking something that is similar in two different cultures (be it a type of text, story, myth, ritual, law, etc.) without reference to historical connection and comparing it for illumination. A good example would be comparing Baal from the Ugaritic pantheon with Thor from Norse mythology. Both are “thunder gods,” etc. However, there is no real actual historical connection. Thus, the parallel represents a “type” of way in which human beings respond to similar phenomena or stimuli (i.e., thunder and lightening).

    In contrast, historical parallelism posits an actual historical connection between the two cultures. One culture has actually touched the other. Thus, the similar phenomenon is not simply the result of common human response, it has actually moved from one culture to the other. However, to make such a claim, a scholar has to show that the proper historical conditions exist for a connection between the two cultures.

    The problem is that scholars will often make a comparison without dealing with this issue. They will often assume that similarities in two cultures mean that there is an historical connection. So, for example, you have scholars like Dahood arguing in the Psalms that similar word pairs in Hebrew and Ugaritic mean that there is heavy borrowing. However, the word pairs are often pairs that occur in every culture: “mother/father,” “heaven/earth,” etc. It would be better in such instances to posit a typological parallel rather than direct borrowing (especially given that there are huge questions as to how much direct influence Ugarit had on Israel–at some points there are at least 600 hundred years between Ugaritic texts and Hebrew texts (cf. the Baal Cycle on Mot [Death] swallowing all things and YHWH swallowing death, [Isaiah 25]).

    The key (having established the possibility of historical connection) is to find some level of complexity in the text under question. So, for example, in Isaiah 25 it is odd that Isaiah uses the Hebrew word “swallow” (bl`)–especially in the verse prior to the “YHWH will swallow death” (most translations actually translate is “He will destroy the shroud covering…” rather than “he will swallow the shroud…”). The complexity is that it would have been more usual for Isaiah to use something like the hiphil “hishmid.”

    However, even with a good probability of historical connection between two cultures, one must deal with questions of how the connection was made (i.e., was it mediated, who’s the “borrower,” has it been changed, etc.).

    I hope that’s a little clearer… Let me know if it isn’t.

    Also, Shane, on another note, I have the sneaking suspicion that I went to college with your sisters. That is, if you are originally from Doon.


  5. Thanks, Nevada.

    That’s absolutely right; sort of like what Sandmel was critiquing back in 1962 in his article “Parallelomania” in JBL 81. It’s easy to start positing parallels all over the place and then simply assuming that the parallel is actually a meaningful one. That can actually make a set like COS dangerous if one is not prepared to speak more organically about the *how* of a possible connection.

    I’m finding that as my interests begin to diversify into ancient history (Mesopotamia, Levant, Egypt) more broadly (rather than simply ancient history as it relates to the biblical text), COS has become an even more helpful resource. Sparks’ book too. If I really want to understand MB economic models in various regions, it’s helpful to dig through economic texts. Same with ritual texts or letters or treaty documents. These help to understand what is *really* going on out there at that time.

    Of course what is happening in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the northern Levant does come to bear on the biblical text, but it is only after really understanding that history on its own terms (something I’m still far to green at) that Israel can be meaningfully brought into the conversation. And of course chronology is important as well; you are going to spend more time learning about Egypt for study of the LB period, whereas one really needs to understand Assyrian foreign policy and military tactics when reading about Jehu and Hezekiah. For Ezra-Nehemiah, one then needs to better understand the mechanics of the Achaemenid empire.

    But to add another level of complexity, one can’t just be satisfied reading texts from different eras and regions apart from studying the material remains as well. In some cases, of course, we don’t have many archaeological remains. But when we do, it’s so important to be able to understand what is going on based on the archaeology of regions in question. E.g., it’s really helpful to find an administrative quarter in Kanesh when trying to understand the mechanics of trade. It’s also helpful to see how widespread was the destruction of Avaris when trying to assess the strength of the Egyptian 18th dynasty’s army under Ahmose.

    Anyway, I’m getting too long here. Key: its so valuable (and rewarding, I find) to start synthesizing all these things (texts and artifacts) together. Even the texts from Ugarit have become so much more interesting by learning more about Ras-Shamra itself and, for that matter, the Phoenician cities from about the same time (Tyre, Sidon, Akko, etc). Thankfully we live at a time when such texts and site reports are readily available in English.


  6. Thanks again men. Good stuff.

    Nevada, I believe your sneaking suspicions are correct. I’m sure what my sisters said about me was not quite true; or unfortunately all too true! You decide…



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