The Hebrew Bible

k10700John Barton’s one of the best scholars in the world and nothing he does can be overlooked by people interested in the Hebrew Bible.  Nothing.

This book brings together some of the world’s most exciting scholars from across a variety of disciplines to provide a concise and accessible guide to the Hebrew Bible. It covers every major genre of book in the Old Testament together with in-depth discussions of major themes such as human nature, covenant, creation, ethics, ritual and purity, sacred space, and monotheism. This authoritative overview sets each book within its historical and cultural context in the ancient Near East, paying special attention to its sociological setting. It provides new insights into the reception of the books and the different ways they have been studied, from historical-critical enquiry to modern advocacy approaches such as feminism and liberation theology. It also includes a guide to biblical translations and textual criticism and helpful suggestions for further reading.

Featuring contributions from experts with backgrounds in the Jewish and Christian faith traditions as well as secular scholars in the humanities and social sciences, The Hebrew Bible is the perfect starting place for anyone seeking a user-friendly introduction to the Old Testament, and an invaluable reference book for students and teachers.

Reviews | Table of Contents
Introduction[PDF] pdf-icon

The publisher has sent along a review copy without any expectation concerning the results of said review.

The volume is comprised of three major divisions each with contributions from some of the sharpest minds in Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament studies presently active; many of whom are members of SOTS, the premier academic society of scholars of the Old Testament.

John Barton gets the ball rolling with his introduction (and for the record, instead of repeating the section titles and essay titles here, I’ll simply remind readers that all of that is available at the link above).  In it, he sets the stage and suggests the reasons why students of Scripture should concern themselves with the present work and the issues it raises and states that the purpose of the collection is to re-integrate biblical studies into the wider contemporary cultural context.  To that end Part One and the four issues it contains all attempt to describe the historical and social context of the Hebrew Bible.

Barton’s essay in Part One is extremely good but Francesca’s essay is, I have to say, worth the price of the volume.  It should, in fact, be required reading for every graduate and undergraduate student of the Old Testament.  It is – to use an overused phrase but one which in this case is absolutely accurate – critically important.

Part Two turns in a more traditional direction (in terms of the classic ‘introduction to the Old Testament’) and Römer and company do the normal and necessary things which are required to introduce students to texts.  The ‘narrative books’ (the Pentateuch, the Deuteronomistic History, and the Chronicler along with Ezra/Nehemiah) are set in their ancient contexts before Kratz takes on the prophetic literature and the other literary types are described and contextualized by other historians.

Part three is the most ‘theological’ portion of the book or perhaps the most ‘religion-historical’.  The more important topics of the Old Testament are compartmentalized in a way that the ancient Israelites never would have done and in fact never did do.  Nonetheless, such compartmentalizations help modern readers come to terms with what the Bible is on about when it talks about God as the ‘only God’ and when the human condition is the central concern of this passage or that or how rituals were to be performed and how sin atoned and where and when.  So, for instance, Crouch does a superb job in her description and discussion of ‘Ethics’, writing

The biblical texts preserve a remarkable diversity of opinions on matters ethical (p. 353).

This is actually a critical truth that applies not only to the ethics of the texts but of the theology, or more accurately, the theologies of the text.  Indeed, the Old Testament doesn’t have ‘a theology’ (or ‘an ethics’ or ‘a prophetic emphasis’) but rather a variety of theologies, and ethics, and prophetic emphases.  And that is precisely what Crouch and the other contributors do such a good job of highlighting.

The old models of doing Old Testament studies were to try to find a ‘center’ or organizing principle around which the entire text congeals.  So, for instance, for von Rad the center of the Old Testament was the ‘history of salvation’.  For Eichrodt, it was ‘covenant’.  As useful as such concepts were, they were, and are, ultimately wrong.  The Old Testament isn’t Kansas.  It’s Colorado.  It isn’t flat, it’s mountainous and it is comprised not of a single terrain but every imaginable contour.

The virtue of the present volume is that it helps readers of the Hebrew Bible see the colors and contours of the texts found within that ancient collection.  And that’s simply exciting.

The final segment with its focus on the Reception of the Biblical text nicely intertwines the old with the new; the ancient text with the modern reader and the bridge of readers between then and now so critical to our own reading of these biblical documents.  In terms of usefulness R.W.L. Moberly’s contribution is fantastically so and so is Eryl Davies’.

The volume concludes, though, with an eye opening essay by Curtis titled ‘To Map or Not to Map’. In it the differences between geographical and theological mappings are highlighted.  For instance

The reader of Mic 4:1 will realize that statements such as “The mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills” are envisaging a remarkable change in the very nature of things.  Clearly the hill on which the Temple was built was not as high as some of those overlooking the city, such as the Mount of Olives.  This is again theological geography, which can be appreciated thanks to an awareness of the actual physical geography, so the question “To map or not to map?” must, with appropriate caution, be answered affirmatively (p. 571).

Should students of the Hebrew Bible obtain a copy of this collection?  Should Professors assign this as a textbook to their introductory courses on the Hebrew Bible?  Should persons simply interested in learning about the Hebrew Bible read this book?

Those questions must, without hesitation, be answered affirmatively.