Sometimes when Christians study the OT they are apprehensive about allowing ancient Near Eastern background studies to aid in interpretation. Or, to state this apprehension in a question: “What do ANE studies have to do with OT interpretation?” For some reason most Christians are more comfortable with NT background studies than OT ones. I appreciate John Walton’s discussion of this topic in his article “Ancient Near Eastern Background Studies” (found in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible).
In this article, Walton argues that comparative studies (studies between the OT and the ANE) are crucial to the theological understanding of the Old Testament. Here are his five (edited and summarized) theses on this point:
1) God did not reject the entire world-picture of Israel’s neighbors, but used much of its structure as a framework for revelation. The revelation that Israel received typically concerned the nature and acts of God, the condition of humanity, and the relationship between God and the people he had created. This revelation, penetrating and reformational as it was, did not change other aspects of Israel’s worldview (broadly speaking). God left unchanged much of the way Israel learned about the shape of their world. He left Israel operating and thinking in terms of Old World, premodern science. Perhaps the best example of this is found in the concept of the three-tiered cosmos.
2) God often used existing institutions and converted them to his theological purposes. Many of the theologically laden concepts and institutions in the OT were not devised as new ideas in heaven and delivered via theophany to the Israelites. Numerous examples can be cited where they were adapted from contemporary cultural practice, perhaps the most obvious being circumcision. This is an important example to show clearly that theological initiatives are not necessarily devoid of cultural history. At the same time, the recognition of a cultural bridge does not rule out the providential activity of God within those cultures.
3) Revelation did not always counter ancient Near Eastern concepts, but often used them in productive ways. When Israel was instructed to build the tabernacle, and thus define sacred space, ancient Near Eastern concepts were behind the entire undertaking, and they gave shape to the theology of sacred space. Many aspects of the tabernacle and temple draw heavily from the ancient Near Eastern context.
4) Literary connections do not negate the inspiration of Scripture. Ever since the discovery of the Babylonian flood and creations accounts, critics have attempted to prove that the OT is derivative literature and therefore a collection of man-made documents. However, there is nothing inherently damaging to a high view of Scripture if the authors interacted at various levels with the literature current in the culture. All literature is derivative relative to its culture – it must be if it intends to communicate effectively. For the text to engage in polemic and correction, it must be aware of the current thinking and literature. …Similarities do not jeopardize inspiration.
5) Spiritualized explanations must not be chosen when cultural explanations are readily available. Without the guidance of comparative studies, we are bound to misinterpret the text at some points. Distortion or misinterpretation will result if we fill gaps with contemporary theological trajectories when they ought to be filled [first] with cultural understanding.
Again, this is an edited summary of a bit longer essay. Even if one doesn’t fully agree with every statement Walton makes, he does give some helpful guidance in considering the importance of OT background studies – studies in the ANE. Here’s how he concludes:
“As theologians interested in the interpretation of the text, we should recognize the importance of comparative studies that focus on conceptual issues to illuminate the cultural dynamics behind the text.”