New Moons and Sabbaths: A Case-study in the Contrastive Approach -- By: William W. Hallo

Journal: Bible and Spade (First Run)
Volume: BSP 09:4 (Autumn 1980)
Article: New Moons and Sabbaths: A Case-study in the Contrastive Approach
Author: William W. Hallo


New Moons and Sabbaths:
A Case-study in the Contrastive Approach

William W. Hallo

[William W. Hallo is Laffan Professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature at Yale University and curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection. This article was the Nelson Glueck Memorial Lecture in Bible delivered at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion at Cincinnati, Ohio, on March 7, 1977.]

Since Dr. Glueck’s untimely death, the particular combination of archaeological and theological interests which he championed, indeed the entire comparative approach to Biblical Studies, has been subjected to ever more serious challenges. The comparative method has been attacked as a form of “pseudorthodoxy” by Morton Smith, and more recently some of its most cherished results have been demolished, point by point, in the works of John van Seters and Thomas L. Thompson, particularly in respect of the patriarchal narratives and their possible historicity. Even those of us who have heeded Benno Landsberger’s strictures on the “conceptual autonomy” of each of the principal Ancient Near Eastern cultures, and Samuel Sandmel’s valid warnings against “parallelomania,” have nevertheless been suspected of reactionary tendencies — as if we wanted to reduce Assyriology once more to the role of handmaiden to Biblical Studies — or vice versa.

Nothing could be further from the mark, at least as far as my own intentions are concerned. I have defended and applied the comparative method in numerous studies, some literary and others historical, in which it seemed to me that cuneiform sources and biblical texts could fruitfully illuminate each other. But for me the method requires only the commensurability

of the two terms, not a prejudgement as to their equation. If A is the biblical text, or phenomenon, and B the Babylonian one, I am quite prepared to test the evidence for a whole spectrum of relationships, expressed “mathematically” not only by A = B but also by A ~ B or A < B or A > B and even A ≠ B. The last possibility needs stressing, because a comparative approach that is truly objective must be broad enough to embrace the possibility of a negative comparison, i.e. a contrast. And contrast can be every bit as illuminating as (positive) comparison. It can silhouette the distinctiveness of a biblical institution or formulation against its Ancient Near Eastern matrix. It is perhaps unfortunate that scholarly usage has tended to slight this notational breadth implied in true comparison, that it has the well-worn symbol cf. (confer) for positive comparison but none for negative ones. Perhaps one may suggest cs. for contrasta.

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