I have wanted to read John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament for a long time. When I learned that a second edition was being published, my desire only grew. My expectation was to learn bits and nuggets here and there. While I did not expect the book to shed a ton of light, I figured it would lead me to learn new things and put certain puzzle pieces together in new ways.
I was wrong. Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament is absolutely fantastic. This review will give an overview of the book and then turn to look at how the book sheds light on a biblical “contradiction,” monotheism, and the sun standing still in Joshua 10.
As the subtitle indicates, the book is focused on situating the Old Testament in the conceptual world of the Ancient Near East. This approach is better than literary approaches because it does not need to show literary dependence, a task with multiple hurdles to clear. Instead, by surveying the conceptual world of the Ancient Near East, one can grasp the world surrounding the nation of Israel. The writers of the Old Testament would not need to come into contact with a specific literary document, but only be aware of the culture around them, as we all are of our own cultures.
This is important because we have a tendency to read the Old Testament through our own cultural lenses. By doing comparative study, we can try to read the text through their cultural lenses, or at least recognize that we have our own cultural lenses. In doing comparative study, one must avoid the twin dangers of parallelomania and parallelophobia. The former sees parallels everywhere and for everything; the latter avoids any parallels whatsoever.
The book is divided into five parts. The first surveys comparative studies, the history of scholarship, and theology. The second summarizes the literature of the Ancient Near East. The third considers religion by looking at the gods, temples and rituals, and state and family religion. Cosmic geography and cosmology and cosmogony make up the fourth part focused on the cosmos. The final part looks at people by looking at human origins and role, historiography, divination and omens, cities and kingship, law and wisdom, and the future and life after death. The book also includes multiple photos, helpful tables, comparative explorations, and an appendix that looks at the individual gods.
Walton notes that comparative studies can be pursued in a number of ways. He explicitly says that he will “not take an apologetic approach.”  While he fulfills that promise, the book is still useful for apologists. We will highlight this by looking at a biblical “contradiction,” monotheism, and the sun standing still in Joshua 10.
A Biblical Contradiction?
Soon after God appears to Moses in the burning bush and tells Moses that he will go to Pharaoh so that Moses will lead God’s people out of Egypt. Moses then asks what God’s name is. The exact translation is debated, but it is usually rendered as “I am who I am.” Soon thereafter, we find two curious verses, “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them.'” (Ex. 6:2-3; ESV) For those who do not know, Lord is the Tetragrammaton, usually rendered in English as Yahweh.
That’s the rub. God says in these verses that he did not reveal himself as Yahweh to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But when we read the narrative in Genesis we find that Abram calls on the name of Yahweh (Gen. 13:4), Abram uses the name Yahweh (Gen. 14:22), Isaac uses the name Yahweh (Gen. 26:22), and Jacob does too (Gen. 32:9). Examples could be multiplied endlessly.
So what is going on here? Is there a contradiction? After all, one verse says God did not reveal himself as Yahweh to the patriarchs while other verses have the patriarchs using Yahweh’s name. There are differing solutions here. Maybe it is like when we talk about the President going to a certain college when they weren’t the President at the time. Or Bruce Waltke talks about the pronouns used and says one is focused on “who” God is while the other is focused on “what” God is.
John Walton sheds light on these verses in another way. Naming was significant in the Ancient Near East. For something to have a name means for that thing to have an identity and function. Thus, the name of a particular god talks about the god’s identity and existence. “So Moses’s question concerns which identity of the deity is pertinent to the mission on which he is being sent.”  So to ask about God’s name is to ask about God’s identity and function. How is God going to act, precisely?
So when God says that he has not revealed his name as Yahweh to the patriarchs, he means “that he had not yet acted in ways that would manifest the identity bound up in the name Yahweh. His statement does not suggest that the patriarchs had never been introduced to the name Yahweh but that God had not fulfilled that role in their experience.”  Therefore, understanding how Ancient Near Eastern culture thought about “existence” and naming sheds light on this biblical contradiction. Once we situate the text in its cultural context, it turns out that there is no contradiction at all.
There has been considerable debate as to how early monotheism is in Israel and whether Israelite belief evolved from polytheism to monotheism. Is this belief found in the biblical text?  Here one must distinguish between the Israelites and the biblical text, between what is described and what is proscribed. Can understanding the Ancient Near Eastern context shed light here?
People in the Ancient Near East believed in a council of gods that made decisions. Within this pantheon, the gods would have various functions. These would come about because of the control attributes of the cosmos and the destinies of the gods. With this as the necessary background, we can now think about the first commandment.
The first commandment teaches that one should have no other gods before Yahweh. The meaning of this is somewhat debated though. Does it mean in his presence or ahead of him? Can one have other gods as long as Yahweh is the top God? Here Walton looks at the first commandment in light of the divine council discussed above.
The upshot of the first commandment is that the Israelites were not to think of Yahweh as operating within a community of God. Yahweh “alone exercises divine authority.” This means that “Yahweh’s power is absolute, not distributed among other deities or limited by the will of the assembly.” 
How does this relate to monotheism? Here one needs to understand that monotheism can be said in different ways. That is, saying “there is only one God” in those exact terms is not the only way to express the same concept.  Thus, the first commandment removes other gods from Yahweh’s presence, insists that they are powerless, and disenfranchises them. This entails that “they are not gods in any meaningful sense of the word…It does not simply say that they should not be worshiped; it leaves them with no status worthy of worship.” 
Once again, we see how understanding the culture of the Ancient Near East can shed light on the biblical text and current debates. By understanding the Ancient Near East, we can see how monotheism is asserted by the first commandment. One of the strengths of Walton’s book is showing how investigating the conceptual world of the Ancient Near East sheds light on the biblical text. With that in mind, let us look at Joshua 10 as a final example.
The Sun Stood Still
Personally, I see no problem with the sun literally standing still. While someone might find this implausible, God can surely perform that act with all of the attendant acts involved. Nonetheless, does Joshua 10 actually teach that the sun stood still in the way we typically think?
John Walton suggests that is not the right interpretation. The necessary background here is the way Ancient Near Eastern people thought about divination and omens. Like those who follow astrology, the Ancient Near Eastern culture found significance in the heavenly bodies and their movements.
In the Ancient Near East, the months were lunar. The month began with the first appearance of a new moon while the full moon served an indicator of how many days the month would have. The full moon was identified “by the fact that the moon set just minutes after the sun rose.”  Walton explains, “If was considered a good omen if the full moon came on the fourteenth day of the month because then the month would be the ‘right’ length and all would be in harmony. If ‘opposition’ (moon and sun simultaneously on opposite horizons) occurred on the fourteenth, it was considered a ‘full-length’ month made up of full-length days (cf. Josh. 10:13).”  If opposition occurred, that was considered an omen of disaster, including military defeat.
Now consider Joshua 10:12-15 in light of this. The sun is over Gibeon in the east while the moon is over Aijalon in the west. Because of this, it is likely that it is near sunrise in the full moon phase. A number of points come in for confirmation. Language like “waiting,” “standing,” and “stopping” were used in Mesopotamian celestial omens. “When the moon and sun wait or stand, it indicates that the opposition occurs for the determination of the full moon day.”  Moreover, Joshua 10:14 highlights the uniqueness of the day not with regard to astronomical phenomena, but because God accepted a battle strategy from a man. To bring this home, “Joshua’s knowledge of the Amorites’ dependence on omens may have led him to ask the Lord for one that he knew would deflate their morale—for the opposition to occur on an unpropitious day.”  The point is not that God did not fight for the Israelites; it merely clarifies how he did so.
So, again, we see how understanding the Ancient Near Eastern context sheds light on the biblical text. By reading Joshua 10 in light of celestial omens, we learn that the text is not about God stopping the sun in the way we typically think, but about the lunar month and “opposition.”
From now on, when I want someone to grasp more of the Ancient Near Eastern cultural context or grasp why learning about the cultural context of the Old Testament is important, Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament will be my first recommendation. The book is simply marvelous. Along the way, one will learn more about the biblical text in a myriad of ways. As we have seen, the book also sheds light on certain issues in apologetics like a supposed contradiction, monotheism, and the sun standing still in Joshua 10. Highly recommended.