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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 61, 2013

SCOTT A. ASHMON, Birth Annunciations in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East. A Literary Analysis of the Forms and Functions of the Heavenly Foretelling of the Destiny of a Special Child (Lewiston-Queenston-Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2012). Pp. vi + 433; Paperback. US$49.95.

This publication is a revision of Ashmon’s doctoral dissertation at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion under the direction of Dr Nili S. Fox who provides the Foreword. The book’s aim is to fill a void in ANE studies; there has so far been no study “that analyses and compares the entire form and function of every Hebrew Bible (HB) and ANE birth annunciation, both diachronically and synchronically” (7). This is no easy task: Ashmon estimates there are eleven annunciations in the HB and nine in ANE literature (five in Egypt, two in Ugarit, and one each in Hittite (Hatti) and Sumerian literature). The Egyptian examples are “The Prophecies of Nerferti,” “King Cheops and the Magicians,” the Birth-Myth of the God King for Hatshepsut (a queen who portrayed herself as a king), the Birth-Myth of the God King for Amenhotep III, and the Birth-Myth of the God King for Ramasses II. The Ugaritic examples occur in the epics of Keret and Aqhat, while the Hittite annunciation is called “Appu” (a morality narrative) and the Sumerian one “Shulgi G” (a hymnal-epic). The HB texts are Genesis 15; 16; 17; 18; 22; Judges 13; 2 Samuel 7 with parallel in 1 Chronicles 22; 1 Kings 13; 2 Kings 4; Isaiah 7.

A review of previous approaches leads to Ashmon's decision to employ “the third phase of the comparative method, as practiced by Talmon, Hallo, and other kindred scholars” (50). An outline and discussion of the strengths and limitations of Talmon and Hallo’s methods is provided. Ashmon then outlines eight rules for his application of the method: 1) Each text is analysed synchronically in its literary setting; 2) texts within the same ‘historical stream’ are compared; 3) greater comparative value is given to texts in this historical stream that are closer in language, geography, chronology, and culture to the text being examined; 4) texts with the same genre or function are compared; 5) texts are compared to highlight common and unique features; 6) this largely synchronic analysis is followed by a diachronic one; 7) literary influence and any evolutionary development of the genre are identified; 8) care is taken to avoid attributing more than the evidence “indicates or allows” (53).

These rules or guidelines are then applied to a synchronic study of ANE birth annunciations (Ch. 3), followed by a synchronic study of HB examples (Ch. 4). Each example is examined to determine its form, function and likely date of composition. The ANE and HB texts are then compared to assess similarity and distinctiveness of form and function (Ch. 5). Chapter 6 applies the diachronic aspect of the method, and Chapter 7 is the conclusion. Ashmon provides his own translation of the Ugaritic texts but draws on others for the translation of the other ANE ones. A number of appendices contain handy charts of formal elements and elements that signal the functions of the texts studied. Appended are also some prints of Egyptian pictorial representations of birth annunciations. There is a bibliography and indexes of names and topics.

Ashmon finds that there is no one fixed form or function for either ANE or HB annunciations. However, one can identify recurring forms and functions. Most examples contain the following five formal elements—revelation of a future conception/birth; gender; destiny of offspring; mother’s identity; father’s identity. Most also contain the following four functions—to reveal the conception/birth of a child or children; to reveal his/their destiny or destinies; to legitimate these destinies; to assert that this is all under the divinity’s control. He also finds that the focus of ANE texts is legitimation of a king’s reign and the particular god’s supremacy, while the focus of HB texts is some aspect of covenant relationship and within this a test of the recipient’s faith. Only the HB examples “have functions pertaining to faith or doubt of the person who receives the annunciation” (366). Ashmon’s diachronic analysis finds “there is no single cultural origin for the HB and ANE annunciations” (366). They emerged independently to address two concerns or factors that these cultures shared. One is that each culture was addressing a similar aim—proclamation of a special birth and destiny—in a similar cognitive environment—a function oriented ontology and theistic worldview (367). The second is that the birth annunciation notion was a commonly shared one.

Readers of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament whose knowledge of ANE literature is as limited as mine will be grateful for a comparative study such as this, one that also provides translations of ANE texts. It allows a reader to see not only how different the HB examples are from their ANE counterparts, but also how ANE texts themselves differ. The apparent lack of cross-cultural influence between the ANE and HB texts could tempt one to set the former aside as of little value for an appreciation of the latter and to return with relief to the biblical text. This would be unfortunate. Attention to the differences not only helps to sharpen one's perception of the biblical texts but also one’s appreciation of the rich variety in ANE literature.

Review by
MCD University of Divinity, Melbourne