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The Bible in Light of Cuneiform Literature.

This is the third volume to issue from the N.E.H. Summer Seminars for College Teachers led by William W. Hallo. The papers espouse a contextual approach, defined by Hallo as a balance between comparison and contrast, in which material from the Bible is set in a broader ancient Near Eastern context. The goal is modest; according to Hallo it is "to silhouette the biblical text against its wider literary and cultural environment and thus to arrive at a proper assessment of the extent to which the biblical evidence reflects that environment or ... is distinctive and innovative over against it". It is hard to quarrel with this agenda, but if the goal is modest, then so are the results. This is because the contextual approach is not a theory or a methodology. It is a somewhat diffuse program of cross cultural study without a clear sense of what should be done with the data uncovered. To be sure, the seminar participants have learned quite a lot about the ancient Near East, and deserve credit for that. But to find the same phenomenon in Israel and Mesopotamia is not to explain it, although it may broaden one's perspective to know that it exists in more than one place. Nor does the co-occurrence of a phenomenon ipso facto shed light on the cultures in which it is found. Something more is needed, and that something is missing from many of the papers here. Too often we are presented with lists of similarities and little discussion as to what these similarities (or differences) mean to an understanding of their respective cultures. There is exciting work going on in cross-cultural and multicultural research that could have served as model for the application of the extensive data gathered in this volume.

The major exception to the criticism just leveled is Marilyn A. Katz's "Problems of Sacrifice in Ancient Cultures." The longest paper in the volume, it is a thorough discussion of sacrifice in Mesopotamia, Israel, and Greece. It calls upon various anthropological theories, which it evaluates, as well as the primary textual material. Most important, it draws conclusions: "the study of certain aspects of sacrificial theory and practice has revealed that sacrifice was elaborated into three quite different ways of conceptualizing the relation with divinity, and of defining the character and nature of human beings in all three of the ancient cultures we have considered." Katz has examined not only the similarities and differences in the three sacrificial systems, but has elucidated how each sacrificial system may be perceived within the context of the larger culture of which it is a part. This is a true contextual study, and the result tells us something important about each of the three cultures examined.

Other papers in the volume are William W. Hallo, "Compare and Contrast: The Contextual Approach to Biblical Literature"; Edward M. Curtis, "Images in Mesopotamia and the Bible: A Comparative Study"; Tom Nash, "Devils, Demons, and Disease: Folklore in Ancient Near Eastern Rites of Atonement"; Joseph J. Prentiss, "The Sacrifice of Isaac: A Comparative View"; Leland Edward Wilshire, "Jerusalem as the 'Servant City' in Isaiah 40-66: Reflections in Light of Further Study of the Cuneiform Tradition"; Michael Orth, "Genre in Jonah: The Effects of Parody in the Book of Jonah"; John F. Brug, "Biblical Acrostics and Their Relationship to other Ancient Near Eastern Acrostics"; Gerald Mattingly, "The Pious Sufferer: Mesopotamia's Traditional Theodicy and Job's Counselor's"; Bruce William Jones, "From Gilgamesh to Qoheleth"; Lillian Sigal, "The Feminine Divine in the Book of Esther: A Psychoanalytical Study"; Robert M. Martinez, "Epidemic, Disease, Ecology, and Culture in the Ancient Near East." This last paper, written by a professor of biology, gathers some interesting statistics on factors affecting population size, and offers observations on the way different cultures may view epidemics and disease.
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Author:Berlin, Adele
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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