Introductions to the Old Testament: A Commentary
Writing an introduction to the Old Testament is clearly an undertaking of considerable complexity. The banality of this observation ought not to blind us to its truth. We are confronted in the first instance with a large collection of ancient texts, written over a period of almost a thousand years, the most recent of which is more than two thousand years old. Moreover the texts have undergone a process of canonization as sacred texts, and their theological message includes the idea that God revealed Himself in history, specifically in a special covenantal relationship with the people, and later the nation, of Israel. In fact, many of the Old Testament texts present themselves as historical accounts. Scholars thus find themselves drawn to the history of the people who produced the texts and to the historicity of the texts as validation of the theology. There are, then, at lest three tightly intertwined areas of study involved in any comprehensive treatment of the Old Testament: 1) Literary analysis of the individual books of the Old Testament, together with an analysis of the canonical whole; 2) History of the ancient Near East in general and of ancient Israel in particular, as attested by both biblical and extra-biblical evidence; 3) Analysis of the theology of the Old Testament, both as it was received by its original audiences, as it is understood in the context of modern Judaism, and as it is understood in relation to the New Testament. The choice of any one of these areas as the focus for an introductory textbook is very likely more dependant on the writer=s purpose and predilection than on any intrinsic merit in the choice; for all demand a high degree of scholarly sophistication, and any one will inevitable involve the other two.
Consider, for example, the complexities of literary analysis. It might begin with concerns common to literary study in general (authorship, language, structure and form, sources, literary meaning). But literary meaning necessarily includes historical meaning (texts are the products of particular times, places and circumstances), theological meaning (the subject matter in itself invites such analysis), and canonical meaning. But literary meaning does not exist in isolation: It is necessarily expressed in a context, in this case in the context of canon, history and theology. If, on the other hand, we begin with history, we find ourselves initially concerned with the literary analysis of the prime evidence for Israel=s history, the biblical texts; and we are faced with theological questions if and when the history attested from extra-biblical sources fails to accord with that attested by the biblical texts. Approaching the subject from the point of view of theology is potentially the most contentious, unless the study is addressed exclusively to a community of similar-minded believers. While it is undoubtedly wise for the authors of introductory texts to make their theological stance clear, it is also incumbent upon them to avoid dogmaticism and to present their material in a broad scholarly context.
The two books here reviewed for the most part respect both the complexity of the enterprise and its sensitive nature. the terms Aliberal@ and Aconservative@ night be loosely applied to them, but they are in fact far closer in attitude and treatment than such labels imply. LaSor and his collaborators suggest that they wished to combine an introduction to the Hebrew scriptures with history and theology, and Anderson states that his aim is Ato interweave the elements of historical study, archaeological research, literary criticism, and biblical theology.@ LaSor begins with the Old Testament canon: the purpose is Ato introduce the reader to the background, content, literary quality, and message of the Old Testament as a whole and of its various books.@ Anderson begins with history, from the Mosaic to the Maccabean period, Ataking into account the interrelated dimensions of story and history, of tradition history and final literary formulation.@ ANo other approach,@ he continues, Adoes justice to the historical character of Israel=s faith.@ But both, either explicitly (Anderson) or implicitly (LaSor) tend to view the Old Testament as a theological Astory,@ a special kind of history documenting and chronicling God=s relationship with the ancient Hebrews. This is a theology traditionally validated by its historical truth, and questions of history and historiography feature prominently in both books.
Differences between Anderson and LaSor are related to their differing entry points, to their conceptions of canon, to their theological perspectives, and to their notions of historiography. LaSor provides a discussion of the books of the Old Testament more or less in the canonical order of the Hebrew scriptures, even keeping the traditional division into Torah, Prophets, and Writings. Alterations of the canonical order are usually in the interests of chronology (some of the minor prophets) and the reversal of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles makes similar historical as well as textual sense. While the discussions of individual books does not follow a rigid pattern, they tend to treat topics such as purpose, content, structure, composition and authorship. Anderson, on the other hand, adopts the chronology and dates established by John Bright and traces the history of the Israelite peoples from the time of Abraham to that of the Maccabees. Anderson=s organization, however, focuses on the Exodus as the pivotal event in Israel=s history, as the crucial event in the creation of Aa self-conscious historical community,@ Aan event so decisive that earlier happenings and subsequent experiences were seen in its light.@ The Patriarchal period is a Aprologue@ to the drama that began with the Exodus. Within this historical survey, the books of the Old Testament-or parts of books-are discussed as they become relevant, either as they relate the history or as they arise out of it. While LaSor generally follows Brevard S. Childs in his concern with the final literary form of the Old Testament books, Anderson generally emphasizes the Acanonical process@ advocated by James Sanders.
Anderson thus points to four historical moments in the process through which the Hebrew texts were assembles, edited,and canonized and in the historiographical sense Hebrew history was created.
1) The formation of what Anderson calls an AAll-Israelite Epic@ during the period of the Judges, following the convocation at Shechem described in Joshua 24. Forged in liturgical story-telling, the accounts of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the wandering, the desert covenant, and the conquest of Canaan were originally in oral form, but were put into writing, first by the AYahwist@ during the period of the United Monarchy, and again by the AElohist@ from the northern kingdom of Israel after the division of the kingdom. AThese two traditions,@ writes Anderson, AJ and E, contained overlapping and often inseparable versions of what we call the `Old Epic= tradition.@
2) The work of the so-called Deuteronomistic historians who, in Anderson=s words, Areworked Israel=s traditions in the period shortly before and just after the fall of the nation in 587 b.c.e.@
3) During the Babylonian Captivity, Priestly writers (P), faced with the stark realization that the Deuteronomistic historians= ideal of a united Israelite kingdom under a Davidic king centered in the Jerusalem Temple had become a highly unlikely prospect, one again reworked the traditional materials in order to validate a priest-structured covenantal community. They traced the history of Israel and her God through a series of covenants that reached a climax with the revelation at Sinai. Their work is to be found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers (minus J and E) and in Deuteronomy 34.
4)The work of those we call the Chroniclers, who during the Second Temple period once again reinterpreted Israelite history and scriptures in two ways: i) by bringing the historical account up-to-date, especially in Ezra-Nehemiah, and ii) by offering in 1 and 2 Chronicles an alternative history to that provided by 1 and 2 Kings. The Chroniclers, notes Anderson, Aselect, omit, add, and modify@ in order to put forward a doctrine centered on worship in the newly constructed Jerusalem Temple.
I have cited principally Anderson in the course of this discussion, but LaSor too has an interest in this process. The scholarly interpretation of texts and events that underlies much of Anderson=s discussion of the making of the Hebrew scriptures is referred to by LaSor as the Adocumentary theory.@ He dutifully outlines the four major traditions (J, E, P, D) and the contributions of form criticism and tradition criticism, but concludes: AIt is doubtful that the documentary hypothesis will survive the critical labors of contemporary scholarship.@ In general, the authors of Old Testament Survey are content to use ADeuteronomistic history@ and AChroniclers@ as labels of convenience, to down-play the canonizing process, and to stress instead the message of the received text (in which they in fact differ very little from Anderson). They agree, for instance, that the Pentateuch Ais the product of the believing community through many centuries@; but, they argue, Aof much more importance for interpretation is the final result of this long process, produced by the inspired authors, editors, and tradition bearers of God=s chosen people.@
The differences in the treatment of the canon and the canonizing process noted above might be at least partially a consequence of a difference in theological perspective. LaSor and his colleagues take an unabashedly Christian perspective and they are commendably forthright about it:
We have written of the Old Testament as those who understand that its fulfillment is in the New Testament and in Jesus of Nazareth . . . . Though at every point we have sought to approach the Old Testament text from the vantage point of Israel=s sons and daughters to whom it was first given, yet we have been constrained not to stop there but to suggest the relationships of the Old Testament themes to the New Testament, the creedal affirmations of the early Church, and the evangelical confessions of the Reformation . . . .
This approach is valid insofar as Christianity has adopted the Hebrew scriptures as part of the Christian canon, and it can make for illuminating commentary. For example, the discussion linking the sacrificial legislation in Leviticus to Christ=s sacrificial death in Hebrews is good indeed. On the other hand, the references to the New Testament and Christian belief are not always so well integrated and are occasionally intrusive. This is particularly true of those found in the discussion of the Pentateuch. The approach is, of course, consistent with the tendency to treat texts primarily in their canonical form as message bearers, but it can sometimes make it appear as if Christians are the prime recipients of the message. Defending Chronicles from the charge that it simply repeats what is to be found in Kings, for instance, LaSor argues that Awhen its purposes are understood, it furnishes rich nourishment for Christian faith, life, and ministry.@ And he concludes his discussion of Ezra-Nehemiah by pointing out that the work Awould reach its ultimate, eternal fruition@ in Christ.
Anderson is equally insistent on the sacred nature of the Old Testament, arguing that the history presented Ais sacred history to both Jews and Christians because in these historical experiences, as interpreted by faith, the ultimate meaning of human life is disclosed.@ But he consciously breaks off his narrative at that point in history Awhen Jews and Christians appropriated the scriptural heritage of ancient Israel in differing ways in the Talmud and New Testament, respectively.@ He thus circumscribes his discussion of theology and views the texts of the Old Testament as records of how AIsraelite interpreters@ perceived the historical events, that is as Aa unique disclosure of God=s activity, the working out of God=s purpose in the career of Israel.@ References to Jesus of Nazareth are minimal.
Understanding the Old Testament and Old Testament Survey reflect differences in their authors= understanding of history and historiography, although neither Anderson nor LaSor takes an extreme position. There are extreme positions among biblical scholars concerning the historicity of the Old Testament however. A brief outline of those positions will serve to demonstrate the essential moderation of both books.
Serious doubts about the validity of the Ahistory@ presented in the Old Testament were first raised in the nineteenth century by Julius Wellhausen, but this skeptical view was successfully challenged in the middle of the twentieth century by William F. Albright, who argued that independent archaeological evidence supported the biblical accounts. John Bright, in his influential A History of Israel (first published in 1959), followed Albright in linking the biblical account of Israel=s history with the archaeological record. Although he proceeded with admirable scholarly caution, a careful methodology, and a keen recognition of the limitations of the evidence, Bright insisted upon the Aessential historicity of the [Patriarchal] traditions.@ Revisionist work begun in the 1970s by Thomas Thompson and John Van Seters and carried on more recently by others, has nonetheless thrown a spanner into this scholarly consensus, and we now have extreme positions represented by Aminimalists@ (who see no historical value in the bible) and Amaximalists@ (who see the bible as fundamentally a historical record). The Patriarchal and Mosaic periods are most vulnerable to the revisionist argument, but Joshua=s military conquest of Canaan has also been seriously questioned, and theories advanced that the Hebrews were in fact Canaanites, and the Ahistory@ of Samuel and Kings basically fiction, albeit with Aan often realistic and accurate setting.@ The revisionists ask different questions of biblical texts: Who wrote them and why? Whose purpose did they serve? To whom were they addressed? The contention that biblical Israel is fiction is admittedly extreme, but the response to the revisionists probing of biblical texts can be equally extreme. A prominent archaeologist, William G. Dever, blames it all on Apostmodernism@ or Apolitical correctness,@ argues that without the bible there is no Israel, and concludes: AAncient Israel is a fact. That this historical Israel does not correspond in all details with the `ideal theological Israel= portrayed in the Hebrew Bible is true. In the end, however, that is irrelevant.@ What is odd in all this is that Devers= understanding of Israel=s early formative years differs very little from that of the revisionists. And far from extending their historical skepticism to religious belief, the minimalists argue that by Afreeing@ religion from archaeology (the main support for the Albright hypothesis) they are actually reasserting the religious value of the texts. Whether Judaism created the scriptures or the scriptures created Judaism, the texts continue to speak of God=s interaction with this world.
The authors of both Old Testament Survey and Understanding the Old Testament are keenly aware of the minimalist-maximalist controversy, although it is probably fair to note that both accept generally the Albright hypothesis. Anderson and LaSor agree that archaeology can provide only circumstantial evidence in support of the biblical record, that it cannot independently prove the Bible=s historical accuracy. But they also share what seems to me to be a mistaken notion of history and historiography. Perhaps as a consequence of the revisionist attacks on the historicity of biblical texts, both LaSor and Anderson find themselves defending those texts by denying their historical nature. Again and again we find them asserting that one or another text Ais not history as defined by modern historians,@ or Ais not history in the modern sense.@ And they seem to agree that history in the Amodern sense@ is Aa purely objective practice,@ or Aa detached report of events.@ The Exodus story, writes Anderson, Adoes not pretend to be objective history.@
The problem is that few historians would try to make a case for Aobjective history.@ Far more prevalent is the idea of historical scholarship outlined by Donald Harmon Akenson in Surpassing Wonder. Historians of course attempt to determine what Areally@ happened; but they are equally concerned with what people think happened; and they also take note of those instances where an elite tells people what they are supposed to think happened. From this perspective, much of the Old Testament is indeed history and can be subjected to the same analysis as any other historical account. The question becomes one of distinguishing between the history they purport to tell and the history that they inevitably reflect, between the subject matter and the historical context. Both LaSor and Anderson occasionally express an awareness of the Asubjective@ nature of history writing, but they tend to view subjectivity as a weakness rather than as an inherent quality of the discipline.
Anderson nevertheless has a clearer understanding of the way that history is Amade@ than does LaSor. He notes that it is impossible to recover an Aevent@ devoid of Ainterpretation,@ and he has a historian=s sense of what makes an event Ahistorical@: AAn event is a meaningful happening in the experience of a people, and history is the narration of these experienced events . . . . He also understands that events can be and are made historical by the historian, but assumes, as most of us do, that this is a matter of selection and that real events lie behind the narrative. More skeptical critics have observed, however, that once an event is Ahistoricized,@ we have no way of determining from the text itself whether the event was Areal@ or Ainvented.@ This is the basis of the questions posed by so-called post-modern scholars.
LaSor struggles with the Asubjectivity@ of history. Commenting on the writer of Chronicles, he notes that the Chronicler is more concerned with Aspiritual and moral lessons@ than with history Ain the strict western sense@: AHe is not concerned so much with the bare facts of Israel=s history as with their meaning. If all valid historical writing is interpretive, the chronicler is highly interpretive.@ This represents not only a serious distortion of the practice of Awestern@ history, but a logical confusion as well. All history is concerned with meaning; and the second sentence not only contradicts the first but incorporates a logical non-sequitur as well. This brief statement is indicative of a general confusion concerning the nature of history and historiography.
Such criticism would be picayune were it not for the fact that so much depends upon understanding the Old Testament as a valid record of God=s revelation in human history. LaSor goes to great pains, for instance, to establish the basic historicity of such things as the ten plagues of Egypt. Anderson may feel less compelled to do so, steering a moderate course between unquestioning acceptance and dogmatic rejection of the story. But there is a tension inherent in the compulsion to validate historically texts that are valued principally as theology. And, unhappily, there appear to be occasions when that tension can be relieved only by violating a prime requisite of scholarship, balance. LaSor follows Bright, for example, in arguing for the historical reality of Moses as the founder of Israel=s religion. The author=s arguments are nevertheless a bit disturbing. He cites five instances in the Torah where there is a reference to Moses as its author, but then goes on to note that there are no references to Moses= literary activity in the preexilic prophets, that there are very few in the preexilic historical books (and with regard to Deuteronomy only), that only in the postexilic books of Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah and Daniel is the Torah referred to as the work of Moses, and he then concludes that the Atradition@ of Mosaic authorship was Aa growing one.@ This idea of the Agrowing tradition@ immediately becomes fact: A. . . the biblical sources and various streams of traditions concur that Moses wrote narrative, legislative, and poetic literature. . . . The core of both the narrative framework and legislative material goes back to his literary instigation and authentically reflect both the circumstances and events there narrated.@ The author buttresses this conclusion by reference to archaeology and to Albright=s assertion that it is Asheer hypercriticism to deny the substantially Mosaic character of the Pentateuchal tradition.@
Leaving aside the recent challenges to the Albright hypothesis, it is still important to note that Moses= role as Aonly begetter@ of the Pentateuch is not supported by the evidence or argument marshalled in support. In fact, it seems evident that the conclusion is based on religious premise. The author acknowledges that the Pentateuch underwent a Along and involved history of transmission and growth,@ but AFaith affirms that this development was superintended by the same Spirit of God that prompted Moses to act and write in the first place.@ Note how difficult it becomes to take issue with the author=s position. To do so is to challenge the Ahistorical and theological worth@ of the Pentateuch, and to Arender inexplicable the religion and even the very existence of Israel.@ Referring to Albright=s chief antagonist on the subject of Moses, Martin Noth, LaSor (or John Hartley) writes: AViews like those of Noth attack the very heart and core of the biblical proclamation.@ It is religious faith that explains the insistence in LaSor on the historicity of the Pentateuch, both as a record of Patriarchal age and as the work--however reworked--of a single religious genius, Moses. Noth and the minimalists are unacceptable, not on the basis of flaws in their evidence or argument (although there may well be such flaws), but because they challenge faith: AReaction against such extreme criticism is the only possible approach for those committed to the truth of the Bible.@ Evidently then opponents are not committed to the truth of the Bible: they are in error. And in a chilling phrase, LaSor makes clear the obligation of those committed to his truth: AError must be combatted.@
It is a pity that this tone is set so early in the book, for Old Testament Survey has a great deal to offer a student. The methodical survey of the books of the Old Testament is supplemented by useful chapters on canon formation, geography and archaeology, and the notes and bibliographies alone are worth the price of the book. Indeed, there are probably at least two counter-texts in the notes, waiting to be written. Anderson has fewer notes but an equally extensive and useful bibliography. Both books are theologically conservative, though perhaps in slightly different ways. But perhaps of most importance, these books point to serious questions concerning the nature of the biblical text and its relationship to religious faith. We need to think about what we mean when we speak of the Atruth of the Bible.@ Is the theological truth that God revealed himself in the history of Israel dependent upon the detailed historicity of the human record of His revelation? Are scholarly evidence and argument--so readily accepted, even sought out, when the results support the historicity of the Bible--to be rejected when they point to a less welcome alternative? In Matthew=s gospel, Jesus specifically adds Awith all your mind@ to the Deuteronomic commandment to love God with your heart and soul. We have an obligation to investigate religious phenomena, including scripture, with every tool at our command. Religious experience can be deepened by intellectual and scholarly research, and even a postmodernist has a place in the enterprise.
List of Works Consulted
Akenson, Donald Harmon. Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1998.
Albright, William F. Archaeology and the Religion of Israel. 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Prss, 1946.
Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. Abridged 4th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998.
Bright, John. A History of Israel. 2d ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972.
Childs, Brevard. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Philadelphia: The Fortress Press, 1979.
Davies, Philip. "What Separates a Minimalist from a Maximalist? Not Much," Biblical Archaeological Review 26, no. 2 (March/April 2000), 24-27, 72-73.
Devers, William. "Save Us from Postmodern Malarkey," Biblical Archaeological Review 26, no. 2 (March/April 2000), 28-35, 68-69.
Edelman, Diana. "Doing History in Biblical Studies." In The Fabric of Historu: Text, Artifact and Israel's Past. Ed. Diana Vikander Edelman. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
LaSor, William Sanford, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic Wm. Bush. Old Testament Survey. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.
Sanders, James A. Torah and Canon. Philadelphia: The Fortress Press, 1972.
--------. Canon and Community. Philadelphia: The Fortress Press, 1984.
Stanford, Michael. A Companion to the Study of History. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.
Thompson, Thomas. The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives. New York: W. de Gruy, 1974.
Van Seters, John. Abraham in History and Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.
AOld Testament@ implies a ANew Testament@; otherwise we should speak more appropriately of the AHebrew Scriptures.@
See Diana Edelman, ADoing History in Biblical Studies,@ in The Fabric of History: Text, Artifact and Israel=s Past, ed. Diana Vikander Edelman (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 22.
Bernard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, Abridged 4th edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998); William Sanford LaSor, David Allan Hubbard and Frederic Wm. Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996). These are referred to throughout the paper simply as@ Anderson@ and ALaSor.@
See LaSor, 604; Anderson, 579; Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: The Fortress Press, 1979); James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon (Philadelphia: The Fortress Press, 1972) and Canon and Community (Philadelphia: The Fortress Press, 1984).
It is desirable to recognize that Ahistory@ is commonly used in two related, but distinct, senses: 1) to refer to the actual events of the past, and 2) to refer to the written accounts of the past. AHistory@ in this second sense is sometimes called Ahistoriography,@ but this term can refer to the theory of writing history as well as to its practice. For a more sophisticated introduction to the vagaries of historical/historiographical thought see Michael Stanford, A Companion to the Study of History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.)
Anderson, 382-416. A secular historian, Donald Harmon Akenson, has expressed astonished admiration at the priestly accomplishment: ATo essay such a task was heroic, to complete it divine,@ Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen=s University Press, 1998), 22.
LaSor, 565. These scattered references are supplemented by a short chapter on AThe Authority of the Old Testament for Christians@ (585-90).
See William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, 2d ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1946).
See, for example, Bright=s discussion of the Patriarchal narratives, A History of Israel, 68-76.
Thomas Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (New York: W. de Gruy, 1974); John Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975).
Among the more prominent titles: Philip Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel (1992), John Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origin of Biblical History (1983), Niels Peter Lemche, The Israelites in History and Tradition (1998), Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (1999).
For a brief sketch of the history of the debate and some of the issues, see Philip Davies, AWhat Separates a Minimalist from a Maximalist? Not Much,@ Biblical Archaeological Review 26, no. 2 (March/April 2000), 24-27, 72-73.
William Devers, ASave Us from Postmodern Malarkey,@ Biblical Archaeological Review 26, no. 2 (March/April 2000), 28-35, 68-69. Devers= article, incidentally, is one of the most vicious Ascholarly@ attacks I have ever seen.
See Bright, History, 124; LaSor, 40-43. This section of Old Testament Survey was written by John E. Hartley.