The Ancient Orient: An Introduction to the Study of the Ancient Near East

By Wolfram von Soden
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1994). 263 Pages.

Reviewed by
5.2 (Fall 1994) : 241-244

The author, viewed by many as "the master of the field of Assyriology" (D. G. Schley, "Translator's Preface") and best known for his Akkadisches Handwörterbuch (3 vols.) as well as hisGrundriss der akkadischen Grammatik, sets forth "the summing-up of a lifelong career in Assyriology" (G. Buccellati, front dust cover). Von Soden's primary objective is to provide an introductory work which he describes as a "short presentation" of "select themes" (xvii). In essence, he has written "to show what the study of the ancient Orient has already accomplished . . . and how much still remains to be done" (ibid.).

The present work, although an introduction, contains no history of the Orientalist's discipline. The beginning student may consult works such as G. Roux, Ancient Iraq, for a general but essential introduction to the field and the scholars who gave shape to it. Neither does von Soden intend to "provide an overview of the ancient Orient covering nearly three thousand years" (42). Here he defers to the comprehensive multi-volume works such as The Cambridge Ancient History and the Fischer-Weltgeschichte. His book does "sketch out the historical framework" (42) for the topical treatments of state and society, nutrition and agriculture, artisonry, trade and commerce, law, Sumerian and Babylonian science, religion and magic, literature, building, and art and music in that order.

At the outset, he notes with regrets that biblical studies and its more inclusive sister discipline, Ancient Near Eastern studies (ANE), once had closer connections but now have grown apart. "Many orientalists in the early years . . . were by no accident theologians" (3). The affirmative remarks on the back cover by prominent ANE scholars who also work in biblical studies serve as a further reminder of inter-relationships between the two disciplines. Unfortunately, specialization has and continues to drive the two fields further apart.

Since these cultures present us with their own manifold problems, according to the respective state of the development of their languages and literatures, no scholar can deal with all of these simultaneously in a thorough fashion . . . (3).

The disparity broadens through the uncritical research of scholars on both sides who present their theories as historical realities without sufficient disclaimers. Here, the author with his encyclopedic understanding of the methods, texts, and synthetic knowledge of ANE is painstakingly honest, even critical of historians' satisfaction with superficial analysis of their data. And because many aspects of historical analysis are still in their infancy stages (11) and the vast collections of documents and material remains both in museums and in unexcavated tells makes the task of analysis both daunting and tentative. Much of this abides as common knowledge among the community of scholars, but they leave out the uninitiated, failing to convey to them not only this knowledge, but the degree of certainty or speculation involved in it. Any theory or hypothesis needs scrutiny. "Both points of emphasis and gaps in the treatment will always be determined in part by the respective availability or lack of material" (12). These and other factors lead von Soden to conclude candidly, "Consequently, a presentation of the history and cultures which has been weighed from all perspectives and which in every case draws out that which is essential, is and will long remain impossible" (12).

Between the lines is a subtle plea for Bible students to remember this statement before they use this custom or that archaeological argument to interpret the Scriptures. One example of the complexities associated with historical analysis is the language used in textual remains to identify groupings of people. To call these "peoples" is imprecise. A more suitable term would be "ethnic groups" identifiable with states (14). That being the case, Israel distinguished itself exclusively as a "people." "People everywhere else were characterized only according to their origin in a particular land or according to their membership in a social group, insofar as one does not speak merely of `humankind'" (14). One reason for misunderstandings of this sort has to do with the assumptions with which scholars have drawn conclusions about various peoples based on the changes in material culture. Indeed, with respect to the interpretation of material remains which show changes, sometimes abrupt, in pottery styles and other types of material remains, von Soden cautions:

. . . there can be frequent and substantial changes in the ceramic style, even if no other people has come onto the scene. In other cases, very important events such as the invasion of Asia Minor by the people later known as the Hittites, cannot be read at all in the contemporary archaeological finds. Conclusions based on ceramic evidence and miniature sculpture can be drawn only in rare cases, and then only with great care (13).

All this is not to say that we know nothing. It is a realistic assessment of the data and methods. In the final analysis, it is an indictment of the sweeping and superficial generalizations which often lack the temper of careful study and publication.

Another challenge for Bible scholars and historians of the ancient Near East is the manner in which the Bible and extrabiblical sources interact. Many have argued that the Babel of Genesis 11 is, in reality, a folk etymology (explanation of the origin) of the Akkadian Babili, "the gate of God." But closer examination reveals the latter itself is an Akkadian interpretation of Babillu, a much earlier term with the place name infix ill- (15). Regarding the transcontinental attestation of this feature (Asia Minor), von Soden concludes,

It is still much too early for an historical interpretation of these and other linguistic phenomena which can be observed over broad sections of Western Asia; but this will be an important task for future scholarship (16).

Etymologies of individual terms pale into insignificance when compared to large-scale theories. The author disputes the Arabian hypothesis of the origin of the Semitic people on the grounds that "Arabia, which in large part is extremely arid, makes a poor cradle for emergent peoples" (18). In addition, the inflected characteristic of Semitic languages moves the locus of Semitic origins (ethnicity = language use) to other regions: "Since the Semites and Hamites may have emerged from northwest Africa one should also seek the earliest speakers of inflected languages in the area of northwest Africa and western Europe" (18).

On a far grander scale than any single hypothesis is the whole issue of ANE/OT chronology. Bible scholars who build upon the chronologies articulated by ANE or other Bible scholars would do well to heed the disclaimers of a scholar who has a thorough understanding of the issue: The chronology of the remaining areas of Western Asia after about 1500 depends primarily upon that of Assyria. Yet this dependence makes possible only rather rare, tolerably exact numerical determinations, so long as further temporal data or synchronisms do not come into play from Egypt, as is sometimes the case with the Hittite kingdom and Syria Palestine. The numerous chronological references in the Old Testament create a particularly difficult problem as well (44).

The last statement, in light of the remainder of the quote, serves as a warning regarding a greater issue: the dating system for the ANE is rife with gaps, and the synchronisms which link its various relative chronologies together are few and often suspect. The upshot is simple: no one can afford to be uncritical in using dates, particularly in discussions of events and documents. For the Bible scholar who uses historical data upon which he will probably base his theological conclusions, subjectivity increases exponentially when dating enters the discussion. This does not mean he cannot use chronology in his research. He must in order to comprehend the historical referents of the words of Scripture. But he can reduce exponentially the number of competing interpretations of a given passage as well as broader hypotheses by paying careful attention to the various strengths and weaknesses of his methods, particularly in the case of OT chronology.

The present work's topical organization makes it particularly suited to student research. Although not devoid of technical terms and complex theoretical hypotheses, it tends to be unusually readable for a book of its kind. The translator, D. G. Schley who has mediated both foreign language and field-specific complexity, has added notations that will facilitate the book's use by students of the Bible.