Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Kenton L. Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005). Pp. xxxvii + 514. Cloth, US$39.95. ISBN 1-56563-407-1.

The stated purpose of this work is to provide an overview and introduction to comparative Near Eastern literature. This volume is not a collection of translations of texts. Instead, it offers succinct and clear introductions to and a general bibliography for biblical and ancient Near Eastern genres; descriptions of specific texts within these genres; and substantial bibliography for the publications of texts, translations and secondary studies. Each chapter treating genres also opens with a fine introduction and closes with concluding observations that nicely summarize the features of the material. In addition to being highly conversant with ancient Near Eastern studies, the discussions show familiarity with contemporary theory in several fields outside of the biblical and ancient Near Eastern fields. The book thus constitutes a companion work to collections of translations of ancient Near Eastern texts (such as ANET and COS) and a helpful aid for comparative study in general.

The Preface states several helpful qualifications: the coverage of ancient Near Eastern texts that could be included in the discussed genres is not complete; no single chapter adequately covers a genre; and the entries for texts in a chapter sometimes vary tremendously in their dates. Although it may not be obvious at first glance, there is a rationale to the order of the book, which the Preface explains. The Introduction addresses various aspects of genre, its history in biblical studies and its definition in light of more recent work. The chapter order then gives priority to those genres that provide basic conceptual features for understanding the others. So the initial chapters on archives and libraries (chapter 1) and scribal wisdom (chapter 2) are basic for appreciating other genres. This information is particularly appropriate at the outset of this volume, as these were the ancient repositories for the vast majority of the texts that have been recovered. Chapter 1 addresses language and writing as well as scribes, scholars, literacy and canonicity, with separate sections devoted to Syria-Palestine, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia and Persia. Chapters 3-7 thus follow with the genres of hymns, prayers, and laments; love poetry and related texts; rituals and incantations; omens and prophecies; apocalyptic and related texts. Chapters 8-14 treat genres that serve as source material for historiography: tales and novellas; epics and legends; myth; genealogies, king lists, and related texts; historiography and royal inscriptions; law codes; treaty and covenant. Departing somewhat from the approach of genre, the final chapter 15 is devoted to West Semitic inscriptions. Six indices close the volume: modern authors; Hebrew Bible and early Jewish literature; ancient Near Eastern Sources; English translations found in ANET; English translations found in COS; and museum numbers, textual realia and standard text publications.

The criteria for genre include content and theme; language; context (Sitz im Leben); function; form and structure; the material attributes of texts; mode of composition and reception; and the relationship of texts to tradition. The result is a rather full understanding of genre compared to what one finds in traditional form criticism. The treatment of genres is driven equally by considerations of form as by considerations of content. Although I tend to prefer a more formal form criticism, the additional considerations of content do have important bearing on understanding the genres and their functions. Thus the broader view of genre is very helpful. Not every genre is covered (e.g., letters, administrative texts), and not every important work on a genre or text under discussion appears (e.g., for the marzēaḥ on p. 202, add John L. McLaughlin, The marzēaḥ in the Prophetic Literature: References and Allusions in Light of the Extra-Biblical Evidence [VTSup 86; Leiden/Boston/Köln: Brill, 2001]). Some scholars may also quibble about some characterizations of the details in the texts, but this is to be expected in view of scholarly disagreements about such matters.

Apart from such issues, as I read through the volume, I wondered what it might have looked like if it was a comprehensive presentation of ancient Near Eastern genres into which biblical texts had been fitted (rather than compared): would this approach have produced more or less or different insights for the study of the Bible? What might it show about what the Hebrew Bible is lacking vis-à-vis the larger ancient Near Eastern corpora? I also wondered what the volume would have looked like if the genres of ancient Near Eastern texts had been arranged loosely according to the order of biblical books (narrative, hymnic poetry, laws, rituals, historiography, prophecy, psalms, proverbs, speculative wisdom, love poetry, tales and novellas, apocalyptic). What might this show about what the Bible includes or emphasizes that is relatively lacking in ancient Near Eastern literature? Or, what might it indicate about the transformations of genres in the Hebrew Bible? Questions of this sort do arise in the volume, and they produce some interesting deductions. For example, the differences between Song of Songs and other ancient Near Eastern love poetry, especially the former's pseudonymous, post-exilic attribution to Solomon, issues in the deduction that it is a wisdom composition that used a number of older love songs to teach young Jewish women propriety in matters of love and sexuality. (Depending on how its details are read, Song of Songs would then represent a very interesting view of societal norms.)

On the whole, this is the sort of book that all scholars of Hebrew Bible should have in their libraries. In this day and age, it is difficult for those involved in comparative research to be equally conversant with all aspects of comparative study. For those who are not engaged in comparative research, this work gives ready access to current research in various biblical genres and their ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian literary counterparts. Whether one works in comparative research or not, this book will undoubtedly provides needed coverage. For teaching purposes, it will also serve as a great aid. Thanks to this book, ancient Near Eastern texts have never been so accessible for biblical studies. Since this is such a helpful book for both students and professors, one may hope that the author will issue revised editions of this work for decades to come (perhaps one per decade or half-decade).

Mark S. Smith, New York University