Interpreting the Hebrew Bible in light of ancient Near Eastern material is one of the hallmark elements of historical-criticial methodologies yet I think that it is a very difficult thing to do and it is rarely done well.
There are many reasons for this but one of the most prominent is that inter-disciplinary study is always challenging since it requires stepping outside one’s area of primary expertise. A further challenge is that ancient Near Eastern studies is still a relatively young field. For example, Akkadian was only deciphered in the mid-1800′s and there are many important dialects for which reference grammars do not exist and the authoritative dictionary (CAD) was only completed a couple years ago. Ugaritic was discovered in the late 1920′s the Qumran documents in the 1940′s and 50′s and so on. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of cuneiform tablets remain unpublished and new ones are discovered (or looted) every year. Accordingly, theories, even on basic issues, change and there is still a considerable spectrum of debate regarding many topics that are of interest to biblical scholars. So, in order to provide a tiny modicum of help to those brave biblical scholars who wade into ANE studies here are some quick tips:
- Use up-to-date scholarship. Since we are still working out the kinks in our understanding of Akkadian, Sumerian, etc. this means that translations can drastically change over time so use the most current ones you can find. This is all the more true for the studies on ancient texts. Still using Alexander Heidel’s work on Gilgamesh and the Flood from the mid-1900′s (I still see it cited authoritatively all the time)? You shouldn’t except as an interesting piece of the evolving history of interpretation–there are MANY studies far more current than this.
- Read the entirety of compositions not just the snippets that are included in the anthologies. Using the Context of Scripture to study texts relating to creation or the flood could lead you far astray. COS only includes a portion of the so-called Mesopotamian creation account, Enuma Elish (it is not about creation; it is about the ascendency of Marduk in the pantheon), and they leave out the most important part–the 50 names of Marduk. To add insult to injury COS selects tablet 11 of the twelve tablet-long (in some versions) Gilgamesh epic that deals with a flood but this tablet was inserted rather late in the composition history of the epic and this must be factored in (since in the Gilgamesh Epic tablet 11 serves merely to advance a previously existing story how important is the flood to this composition anyway, etc).
- Understand ANE texts on their own terms. Ancient peoples viewed authorship, literature, and even the universe itself, in ways that are in many respects profoundly different than we do. In order to understand these texts properly, and concomitantly to responsibly employ these ideas in inter-disciplinary studies, we shouldn’t read modern perceptions into them. For instance, if we piggy-back off of point number 2, I think Enuma Elish can be used to discern how ancients viewed creation, however, probably not in the way that most biblical scholars typically think. The ‘creation story’ in Enuma Elish was not an end in and of itself, that is, I don’t think it is intended to explain, in a scientific manner, how ancients thought the earth was created. Rather, it was used to provide a backstory that explained the *contemporary* reality of the ascendency of Marduk in the pantheon. We see this kind of thing in the first biblical creation story which was probably originally centered upon providing a kind of backstory to the sabbath (cf. 2:1-3; however, things get complicated from here as it was repurposed as the intro to the Pentateuch which, in a sense, creates another layer of meaning but I’ll leave that for another day).
- *The* ancient Near East did not exist. The ancient Near East was not a monolithic thing. Depending on how people use the term it covers scores of different ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups from Iran to Egypt over thousands of years. Throughout these times, places, and peoples there were some commonly shared thoughts, tropes, and texts but to a large extent there were great differences as well. These differences need to be respected, preserved, and accounted for in inter-disciplinary study. If you read a book that says something like, “Kings were thought to be deities in the ancient world,” just put it aside and move on to a more nuanced and more accurate treatment.