Jeffrey J. Niehaus’s Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology is a superb introduction to the subject. In a brief 180 pages, he examines the parallels between Israel and the surrounding Gentiles in their conceptions of God and kinship; their notions of covenant, law and conquest; their views on the design of cities and temples, and the meaning of “image of God”; and the connection of all these themes and institutions with notions of “new creation.”
Niehaus doesn’t write in generalities; the book is generous in quotation from ancient sources and rich in detail. It’s well-organized, clearly written, accessible. There are some repetitions, unavoidable given the subject matter. Niehaus writes as a believer, showing throughout how ANE patterns of thought illuminate the Bible, Old and New Testaments alike.
Niehaus isn’t content to examine item-by-item similarities, but argues that there is a “shared theological structure of ideas,” which he summarizes as follows: “A god works through a man (a royal or prophetic figure, often styled a shepherd) to wage war against the god’s enemies and thereby advance his kingdom. The royal or prophetic protagonist is in a covenant with the god, as are the god’s people. The god establishes a temple among his people, either before or after the warfare, because he wants to dwell among them. This can mean the founding (or choice) of a city, as well as a temple location. The ultimate purpose is to bring into the god’s kingdom those who were not part of it. . . . The royal kingdom work is understood to be an act of divine creation or re-creation” (30-1).
This paradigm throws considerable light on many biblical themes. Reading Psalm 23 alongside the words of Ammi-Ditana of Babylon (1683-1647 BC) gives new meaning to the biblical text: Ammi-Ditana claims to “superbly shepherd the widespread people of my land by means of fine pastures and watering places and to make them lie down in (safe) pastures” (46). When David boasts that he can kill lions and bears with his hand, he reflects the royal rhetoric of Assyrian hunter-kings (49). It’s an implicit claim that he is qualified to rule.
Covenant, Niehaus argues, involves the grant of law; the god gives instructions to a chosen king that the king relays to the people. But Niehaus shows that covenant also involves commissioning for conquest, as the god sends his vassal-king into foreign territories to bring new people under the yoke of the god (62-81). Few treatments of covenant show so clearly that warfare is a covenant responsibility.
From the ANE idea that the temple, as well as the temple’s image, manifests the glory of God, Niehaus draws some striking theological conclusions: “It follows that the human form is the form of the Holy Spirit. . . . Humans are made in the image and likeness of the Glory Spirit, the power that is meant to fill them” (96). As a king deposited the law or covenant stele in a temple, so the Lord inserts his law into His temple, the human beings indwelt by the Spirit (114). Niehaus goes further to suggest that “if both image and temple are in some sense forms of the power that is meant to fill them, and if the cosmos is also a temple, then the cosmos is somehow also a form of the power that fills it. In other words, all of creation is somehow made in God’s image” (115). It’s no accident that Niehaus has published Sonnets and an autobiographical poem, and is author of a forthcoming book on the God the Poet!
Equally important is Niehaus’s explanation for the parallels that he compiles. In the opening chapter, he explains the main options - the Hebrews depended on the ANE (common today), the ANE depended on the Hebrews (common in the past), and the Bible and ANE give divergent accounts of the same events. Against the tide, Niehaus opts for door #3, arguing that “the Old Testament preserves true and accurate accounts of major events,” while the other sources “preserve the memory of such events in distorted forms” (29). He suggests that the distortions are not merely the result of error but the product of demonic activity (29, fn. 52). That is not an opinion that will win him friends at SBL, but for orthodox Christians it’s a perfectly sound, and very traditional, explanation.
At one point, Niehaus didn’t quite convince me. He points to the parallels between Israel’s covenantal order and covenants in Egypt and Mesopotamia. But the extrabiblical examples are mainly covenants between a god and a king; the people are included, but quite secondarily. Or so it seems from the evidence he presents. On this point, the divergence between Israel and the nations seem as important as the parallels; the comparatively late arrival of kingship to Israel tells us something important about God’s purposes.
And that leads, not to a criticism, but to a hope: That Niehaus will offer a similarly satisfying volume working through the difference that Israel was and made.
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