Five years ago I had no more than a casual awareness of John Walton and his work. I had the IVP Bible Background Commentary and had liked the way it pointed at the wider context in which the Bible was written. I also had his Genesis commentary (Life Application) and appreciated his nuanced handling of the creation stories.
Over the past five years, my casual awareness of John Walton has grown into a full fledged admiration of the man and his work. I have had this book for a couple of years and have dipped into it several times when I preached sermons on the old testament. Invariably I never found what I was looking for. I wanted something directly relevant to the understanding of particular texts (like his background commentaries). Recently I tried again and when the section I read, didn't give me anything immediately usable, I turned to page 1 and read through this book from cover to cover. There are usable chunks that I will continue to refer back to in sermon preparation, but in a general way, it also gave me a better understanding of the biblical world.Ancient Near East thought on a number of issues and how the people of Israel was both in continuity and dis-continuity with the world around them.
The book is divided into five parts. Part 1 gives an apology for comparative studies with particular attention to it's value for confessional scholarship.
Part 2 gives summaries of a number of different pieces of literature in the Ancient Near East. There is little analysis in this chapter, just classification of different types of literature and a synopsis of individual stories, myths, documents. Personally I think that this material would have made more sense as an appendix.
Parts 3-5 provide the 'meat of the book. Part three discusses Religion: God, temples and rituals, state and family religions. Part four discusses the cosmos: cosmic geography, cosmogony and cosmology. Part five discusses people: human origins, historiography, divination and omens, cities and kingship, law and wisdom, the future and life after death.
There were a number of insights which I found illuminating and will return to. In particular, Walton's discussion of ontology and metaphysics in the Ancient Near East and the Bible was helpful. Also would return to discussions of rituals, and temples in trying to rap my head around ancient practices. I found his discussion of prophecy and omens in the ANE/and the OT illuminating for understanding the nature of Biblical prophecy and its condemnation of certain practices.
Stylistically, this book fails for an inconsistency in style. In the main, Walton discusses the ANE in the body of the text and how it compares with the Bible in grey boxes within each chapter. Except when he doesn't. Sometimes the grey boxes are discussing the ANE and Israel and the Bible are discussed at length in the main body of the text. Makes it difficult for quick reference. This doesn't fault Walton's content, but he could be more systematic in his organisation of the material.