The World around the Old Testament: The People and Places of the Ancient Near East. Edited by Bill T. Arnold and Brent A. Strawn. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016. xxvi + 531 pages. $49.99 hardcover.
Bill Arnold is the Paul S. Amos professor of Old Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, having joined their faculty in 1995. Arnold graduated from the Jewish Institute of Religion at Hebrew Union College (PhD). Brent A. Strawn is professor of Old Testament at Chandler School of Theology, Emory University. He undertook his doctor of philosophy studies at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Upon reading The World around the Old Testament, I became convinced that this volume should become a standard resource for anyone who studies the Old Testament. While the book does not blindly align to every Old Testament event, it succinctly and engagingly addresses the extrabiblical geopolitical situations that are pertinent to the Scriptures. The discussion focuses on the geopolitical groups surrounding the Israelites from the Late Bronze Age to the Persian period (ca. 1550–332 BC). The contributors produce historical overviews and discussions of the religion, art, and literature of people groups, and the biblical relevance. The volume covers thirteen distinct cultural groups who resided north, east, south, and west of the land we call Israel. Eighty-five illustrations (maps, drawings, and photographs) illumine the essays. The indices provide ready access for research. Along with the Scripture citations, other ancient Near Eastern literary sources are included in an index as well. Interestingly, the editors determined that an essay on the land of Canaan was not needed, since "the land of Canaan is where the Israelites lived and so, technically, is not around the Old Testament but a place where Israel was from " (p. xvi). While this is somewhat of a disappointment, the present articles prove to be valuable for readers who seek to understand the Old Testament.
The regional and cultural studies in the volume provide insights into the external influences upon Israel—influences that are frequently missed by students of Scripture. The Babylonian creation myths and flood stories offer a potential example of collaboration between Israel and other people groups as they constructed their individual stories. It is along these lines of identifying potential collaboration efforts that the contributors suggest parallel texts from neighboring lands.
One should remember, though, that not every event of the Old Testament has a corresponding literary story in the ancient cultures, thus not every biblical event is presented in the volume. One excellent example is the exodus narrative, concerning which the essayist states that the exodus is a distinct genre and therefore is not addressed. However, over and over again, the individual chapters bring to light new and refreshing insights into the biblical text. In particular, the frequent discussions from the groups outside of Israel concerning the abandonment and ultimate return of their national deity might have influenced Israelite thought about their national deity.
If you desire to understand how ancient Near Eastern societies outside Israel shaped the background of the Old Testament, this book is for you. Moreover, if you wish to understand the cultures and lifestyles of the nations around Israel, this book is also for you. Already, it has become a mainstay in my library, and I will refer to it frequently in the future.
Donald McNeeley, Tidewater Bible College Virginia Beach, VA