Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature

By Kenton L. Sparks
Peabody, Mass. : Hendrickson (2005). xxxvii + 514 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
18.1 (Spring 2007) : 136-137

This volume is the companion to Craig A. Evans, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies: A Guide to the Background Literature (Hendrickson, 2005). Sparks is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University, St. Davids, Penn. He is also author of The Pentateuch: An Annotated Bibliography, IBR Bibliographies 1 (Baker, 2002) and Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel: Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and Their Expression in the Hebrew Bible (Eisenbrauns, 1998).

In order to prepare the reader for the categorization of ancient texts in his volume, Sparks embarks upon a discussion of current concepts of genre (1-24). Contrary to the over-simplified generic realism of Gunkel and his followers, the author proposes generic nominalism, which recognizes that multiple legitimate genres can be assigned to any particular text.

For example, the book of Deuteronomy is no longer understood merely as a lawbook but also as an ancient treaty, a book of rituals, a history book, and a series of religious speeches. Nominalism does not force us to choose between all of these helpful alternatives (7).

Ultimately, Sparks takes an eclectic approach that realizes that there is no comprehensive theory o f genre that adequately represents all facets of the texts under examination (21). He is in the process of preparing a second volume examining the Hebrew Bible within its comparative literary context, which will reveal his “unique generic judgments about the Hebrew Bible” (xiii).

Following his examination of generic theory, the author describes the nature and existence of “Near Eastern Archives and Libraries” (25-55). Descriptions of selected libraries and archives in the ANE include Syria-Palestine, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia (52-55). Individual chapter topics include wisdom literature (56- 83), hymns, prayers, and laments (84-126), love poetry (127-43), rituals and incantations (144-215), intermediary texts (omens and prophecies, 216-39), apocalyptic (240-51), tales and novellas (252-70), epics and legends (271-304), myths (305-43), genealogies and king lists (344-60), historiography and royal inscriptions (361-416), law codes (417-34), treaty and covenant (435-48), and epigraphic sources from Syria-Palestine (449-76). Each chapter commences with an introduction followed by discussion moving from Mesopotamia, to Egypt, and then to Syria/Palestine, unless one of the civilizations is more important than others in that particular genre. Within the sections (e.g., “Mesopotamian Prayers and Laments,” 90-102), a number of sub-sections appear (e.g., “Dumuzi Laments,” 90- 91; “Laments for Deceased Kings,” 91-92; “Sumerian and Akkadian City/Temple Laments,” 92-94, etc.). Each sub-section is concluded with a list of resources divided into “Texts and translations,” “Translations,” and “Bibliography.” A general bibliography closes each chapter.

This reviewer benefited from the volume’s usefulness in locating ANE literature that contained the equivalents of the Psalter’s superscripts and subscripts. Sparks not only confirmed the presence of such superscripts and subscripts, but indicated that some corresponded to musical instrumentation and others to the format or purpose of the text (85). In addition, he listed the various types of Mesopotamian literature that contained those elements, making it possible to find his discussions of the types and to employ his list of sources to locate the literature in both text and translation formats. Others will find this work equally beneficial in such endeavors. Such research, however, uncovers the volume’s weaknesses: no subject index by which one might locate all references within the volume to “superscript,” “subscript,” “colophon,” “acrostic,” and similar topics.

At times Sparks exposes his personal biases. He apparently does not think that works produced by theological fundamentalists can be of any use for serious biblical research (xiii). He reflects a viewpoint that looks at some biblical texts as adaptations of pagan (usually Canaanite) texts, when he indicates the possibility that Psalm 20 “originated as a northern psalm at the bull cult in Bethel before it was transmitted to Jerusalem and underwent a process of ‘zionization’” (112). Falling in line with liberal scholarship, Sparks identifies the Joseph story, Ruth, Jonah, Esther, and parts of Daniel as pure fiction (267). This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. He believes that many other texts within the narratives of the Pentateuch and subsequent Deuteronomistic history are also fictitious (268).

A series of pragmatic indexes round out the volume: “Modern Authors” (477-92), “Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature” (493-96), “Ancient Near Eastern Sources” (497-504), “English Translations found in ANET” (505-9), “English Translations found in COS” (511-12), “Museum Numbers, Textual Realia, and Standard Text Publications” (513-14).