This book is an attempt to fill a particular niche in the vast field of commentaries on the Bible.
Rather than addressing all the varied elements of theology, literary structure, word meanings and
history of interpretation, it focuses on the task of providing background information to the text.
Some might wonder what significance background information has for the interpretation
of the text. What can we gain from knowing what this commentary seeks to convey? It has been rightly
observed that the theological message of the Bible is not dependent on knowing where the places are
or what the cultural background was. It is also correct that one could gather all the proofs from
history and archaeology that there actually were, for example, for an Israelite exodus from Egypt,
but that would still not prove that God orchestrated it-and it is God's involvement that is the most
important point of the biblical author. So why should we spend so much time and effort trying to
understand the background of Israelite culture, history, geography and archaeology?
The purpose of this book is not apologetics, though certainly some of the information
we present could find use in apologetic discussions. Nevertheless, it was not an apologetic agenda
that dictated our selection or presentation of the data. Instead, we are trying to shed light on
the Israelite culture and worldview. When we read the Bible as a community of faith, we want to
draw as much theological content out of the text as possible. As a result we tend to read theological
significance into the details. If we are not alerted to the differences that existed in the Israelite
way of thinking, we are inclined to read our own cultural biases and our own perspectives and worldview
into the text as a basis for understanding its theological significance. The larger ancient Near Eastern
world becomes significant in that many times it can serve as a window to the Israelite culture. In many
cases, by offering insight into the Israelite or ancient Near Eastern way of thinking, this book can
help the interpreter avoid erroneous conclusions. So, for instance, the theological significance of
the pillar of fire, the scapegoat or the Urim and Thummin can be understood in new ways once we make
connections to the general culture of the ancient Near East.
The issue is not a question of whether the Israelites "borrowed" from their
neighbors or not. God's process of revelation required that he condescend to us, accommodate our humanity
and express himself in familiar language and metaphors. It should be no surprise that many of the common
elements of the culture of the day were adopted-at times adapted, at times totally converted-and used
to accomplish God's purposes. Indeed, we would be surprised if this were not the case. Therefore, if
*circumcision is to be understood in Israel's context, it is helpful to understand its ancient Near
Eastern form. If sacrifice is to be appreciated for what it represented in Israel, it is helpful to
contrast what it represented in the ancient world. While sometimes this search for knowledge can result
in problems that are difficult to resolve, maintaining ignorance of those problems would not mean they
did not exist. And more often than not, our new knowledge has positive results.
Sometimes the information we provide is simply to satisfy curiosity. As teachers, however,
we have found that much of our task is taken up with developing in our students a curiosity about the
text and then attempting to satisfy, in some degree, that curiosity, so that they may become alert and
This book is intended to serve the nonprofessional market rather than the academic and
scholarly communities. If we were to footnote every piece of information here so that readers could
find and check the original publications, we would end up with a multivolume work too detailed to be
of any use to the laypeople for whom we are seeking to provide a service. So we have made the difficult
decision to omit footnotes. But we gladly acknowledge our debt to our colleagues and trust that the few
bibliographic references we do provide can lead you to their work. We have additionally tried to be
very careful with proprietary information and ideas so that a standard of integrity can be maintained.
Another consequence of targeting the nonprofessional market is that our references to
the primary literature have of necessity been somewhat vague. Rather than citing text reference and
publication resource, we have said, "Hittite regulations include…" or "Egyptian reliefs
show…," concentrating our efforts on giving the pertinent information rather than on offering a
research trail. We recognize that this will create some frustrations for those who would like to track
the reference for further information. We can only recommend going back to the bibliography and tracing
the information from there.
Taken from "The IVP Bible Background Commentary" by John Walton and Victor Matthews. ©1998
by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers
Grove, IL 60515. (www.ivpress.com)