Book Review: Old Testament Parallels

Old Testament Parallels:  Laws And Stories From The Ancient Near East, by Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin

Anyone who has both scholarly interests and an abiding respect and honor for the scriptures is used to the claims that the Bible largely copies what is extant in the literature of the Ancient Near East, whether one looks at the laws or the history or poetry or prophecy that one finds in scripture.  This book is a useful one in that it demonstrates that while there are parallels between the writings of the Bible and those of other ancient Near East peoples, some of those parallels amount to writing about the same kinds of things and the same genres rather than being the sort of parallels that demonstrate influence.  And even a great deal of those that demonstrate influence show the polemical purposes of the Bible writers as well as the superiority of the Biblical accounts to their contemporary equivalents from the ancient world.  A book like this is a useful book to read for context to understand what it is that the ancient world had to deal with and make laws for and how people behaved and sought social change in an environment of rulers who made divine claims about themselves, but does not in any way diminish the respect that one should have for the Bible.

This book is between 350 and 400 pages long and is divided into sections based on the part of the Bible where the parallels exist in the minds of the book’s editors between the Bible (broadly defined) and a judicious selection of the massive body of ancient texts from the Near East.  The author begins with hymns and stories from Egypt and Mesopotamia that apparently mirror the Genesis accounts, as well as various Egyptian and Assyrian stories and the Hittite-Egyptian treaty that shed light on Exodus.  After that there are various law codes from Sumer, the HItties, and the Assyrians as well as stories of Balaam that shed light on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  The author looks at Egyptian and Canaanite texts that show the context of Joshua and Judges as well as an archive of Babatha that mirrors some parts of Ruth.  There are various annals, mostly Assyrian and Chaldean, as well as the Arad and Lachish Letters and the Siloam story and a Moabite source, that detail the period of history covered by Samuel and Kings.  A Persian degree and some Elephantine Letters provide context for Ezra and Nehemiah, some Egyptian and a Babylonian source mirror Job and Ecclesiastes, and various hymns and stories and laments provide something to compare with Psalms and Lamentations.  Various wisdom literature from Egypt provides a parallel with biblical and apocryphal wisdom literature, and a mercifully short collection of Egyptian erotica is seen as a parallel to the Song of Solomon.  Various letters and prophecies and stories are viewed as being similar in some way to Biblical prophecies (with of course more focus on divination).  Finally, the authors provide an outline of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Israelite history as well as a bibliography for critical editions of text as well as pictures, abbreviations, a list of biblical citations and parallels, and a subject index.

Thankfully, this book consists mainly of the authors attempting to provide excerpts from the large body of extant writings from the ancient world that they judge as being at least somewhat paralleled in scripture.  To be sure, they have a broader view of scripture that includes the apocryphal works, so writings like Tobit and Sirach and Ecclesiasticus appear here where they would not normally be thought of scripture by a great many Christians (or Jews).  Aside from this problem, the authors do a very good job in the main of getting out of the Bible’s way, and while they post a lot of dodgy parallels that are at best slight between the Bible and the non-biblical writings of ancient literature in the Middle East, there is mercifully little commentary or editorializing and a great deal of simply providing the ancient texts and letting the reader draw the parallels (or not) for themselves.  In the main I recommend this approach.  If it is not a replacement of the trusty ANET for the bookshelves of those who wish to put the Bible in the context of ancient history and literature, this volume is certainly a worthwhile supplement to it and a well put together resource book of its own.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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