The Historical Writings: Introducing Israel’s Historical Literature

PrintFortress Press have sent along an electronic (Kindle) edition of their new book, The Historical Writings: Introducing Israel’s Historical Literature, for review.

History has an inescapable centrality in the Hebrew Bible, and biblical narratives are for many readers the best recognized and most memorable parts of the Bible. The history of ancient Israel and the nature of Hebrew historiography remain hotly contested topics today. This new introduction explores key questions and methods shaping contemporary scholarly debate. Students will explore the Deuteronomistic History and other historical writings and evaluate the different roles history-writing plays throughout the Hebrew Bible.

An introduction presents issues in the historical and literary interpretation of these writings. Subsequent chapters on the books Joshua through Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles each discuss literary concerns, historical issues, and theological themes relevant to each book, then offer succinct and informative commentary on the book. Pedagogical features include maps, timelines, photographs, primary sources from the ancient Near East, reading lists, and a glossary.

After giving readers a brief primer on historical method and the textual history of the work of the Deuteronomist, L&L launch into a series of discussions on the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.  Each chapter offers an introduction, a look at literary concerns, historical issues, major themes, and commentary.

There are maps and charts aplenty and something that’s in fashion these days called ‘sidebars’.  Think of these as topic-ettes too large to be treated in a footnote and too important to be ignored but tangential to the main thrust of the work.  And useful they are.  A visit to the book’s webpage allows interested persons to see all of the contents in detail- so I commend it to you:

Table of Contents
Figures, Sidebars, and Tables
Chapter 1: Introduction
Excerpt from Chapter 2: Joshua

Before launching into my view of the volume allow me to point out one problem I have with it- and it has nothing to do with the contents of the volume or the work of its authors. Instead, it has to do with the cover art.

The cover of the book, as seen above, shows the Tel Dan stele in what can only be described as a rather bizarre configuration.  Compare that configuration to the far more accurate work below:

tel-dan-stele

“House of David” inscription Tel Dan 9th century BCE Basalt H. 35 cm W. 32 cm Th. 26 cm IAA 1993-3162, 1996-125

It may seem a small detail of course, but a lack of careful editorial oversight in terms of a volume’s production can lead to subconcious questions concerning the content itself. We often say ‘you can’t tell a book by its cover’ and in many respects that’s true. But what you can tell from the cover of an academic volume is whether or not someone has been paying attention. And in academia paying attention isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

Alright, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, it’s time to turn to important matters.  First, concerning their view of history, our authors write

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Having said that, they continue their explanation, with which I agree nearly completely in spite of the fact that I would have replaced the word ‘historiography’ with ‘theology’.  Or at least expanded it to the venerable phrase of von Rad- ‘theological historiography’ because that in fact is what the Old Testament ‘historical’ books are.

Moving forward, had I the opportunity to make inquiries into our authors’ underlying motivations, I would ask L&L why they had a portrait of Martin Noth but not Gerhard von Rad… and why they cite Noth and Provan (and even Brent Strawn and John Walton get nods!) and many others but refer not once to von Rad.  I suspect I know the answer to that question and it lies in our dear author’s clear inclination to follow the Noth-ian line of historical reconstruction (and that’s perfectly fine.  If I want something more von Rad-ian then I should write it and not criticize someone else on the basis of my personal preferences.  But reviews are all about personal preferences, aren’t they).

These questions aside, the work at hand is a very fine achievement and could easily find a place in any college or university introduction to the historical literature of the Hebrew Bible.  Note, for instance, their treatment of the composition history of Chronicles:

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Judicious, sensible, concise, clear, communicative.  Those are the characteristics of the work at hand.

Normally when people read book reviews what they are looking for is a summary of the volume’s contents (and those were mentioned above) and the reviewer’s opinion of the book (which you also have above).  Along with perhaps a bit of interaction (though normally such interaction tends to devolve into a ‘if I were writing this book this is how I would do it and this is the way they should have done it too’ one-upsmanship-ism).  Reviews should review, not rewrite.

Were I in your position, having never read this book, and wondering if I should, my answer would be – unreservedly – yes, you should.  You should read this book.  You should tell your colleagues to read it.  You should encourage your friends to read it.  You should assign it to your undergrads.  You should have your institutional library order a couple of copies.  You should insist that one be on reserve for your courses at the front desk.

If you do read it, you will appreciate the work put into it and L&L for taking the time to produce it.  The cover art may mystify you or even miff you, but once you crack the volume open you will forget soon enough the glaring horribleness of the front of the book.

Tolle, lege.