Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Don C.  Benjamin, The Old Testament Story: An Introduction (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).  Pp. xxvi + 470.  Paper. ISBN 0-8006-3621-X. US$29.00.

            Don Benjamin has provided a fresh introduction to the Old Testament. Separating himself from the teaching tradition of Bernhard Anderson, Benjamin joins what he calls, “a new generation of introductions to the Bible” that focus less on history. Instead, he works from insights drawn from the various criticisms by which we can interpret the biblical traditions themselves. As a result, Benjamin claims that his introduction “teaches students how to listen to the words that the Bible speaks, and how to understand the people of ancient Israel who crafted these remarkable words” (19). The text is supplemented by a CD-ROM that provides the text, biblical citations, and helpful web sites. It also provides the student with a guide of questions and pertinent issues tied to each chapter that functions to steer the student toward some important material.

            All in all, Benjamin makes good on his promise. The Old Testament Story orients students to hear the text as story, not history. This is very appealing, especially since most religious studies teachers face classrooms full of students fundamentally ignorant about the nature and purpose of the biblical traditions. They have years of misinformation about the Bible that often rests on some type of literal revelation doctrine or they do not know the stories at all. Benjamin’s approach confronts the student primarily with what the ancient stories say.  He offers his own translations of pertinent texts, and shows the structure and form of the text so that the student can begin to understand the logic and force of Hebrew literature.

            Presenting the Hebrew traditions in the diversity of their literary shapes sometimes leads Benjamin to confront popular, theologically orthodox views.  For example, he deftly presents the creation narratives in their Hebraic context, while at the same time debunking later usages of these stories as biblical proof texts for doctrines of original sin, women as seductive and subordinate to men, work and childbearing as punishment for sin, and connecting the snake in the Garden with the Devil.  Eve is therefore not the gullible temptress bringing sin into the world, but intelligent, moral and heroic in action.  A few times this effort to keep consistency within his reading of the narrative leads Benjamin to force the issue.  He struggles to explain the explicit statement in Gen 3:16 that the man “will rule over you” by positing that originally, this consequence may have applied to the snake and not to Eve (38).  While this is a fascinating idea, no textual evidence exists for it, so far as I am aware.  Yet, in proposing it, Benjamin opts out of dealing with the direct statement as it appears in the text.  He does it again with his treatment of the story of Abraham’s offering of Isaac in Genesis 22, this time more by omission than by commission.  The portrayal of this story in its Hebraic context is excellent.  Benjamin shows its role in settling the vital issue of how God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah will be inherited.  He corrects common western theological readings of the text as an interior crisis of faith for Abraham.  Then, Benjamin announces that this story is not about human sacrifice, since that ritual was practiced only when the clan leader set off to war or founded a city (68-69).  Of course, it is clear to any student who reads the biblical text that Abraham is commanded to make a sacrifice and the plot of the story moves toward that action.  It is this very issue that has made Genesis 22 one of the most interpreted biblical texts in the history of theology and philosophy. Like his treatment of Eve, Benjamin avoids the problems that a “plain reading” of the text present by opting out of the problems altogether. Why does the element of the sacrifice occur at all in such a narrative?  Benjamin perhaps should have said more in this regard. But these are not  major flaws.  Benjamin still offers one of the most sensitive presentations of the Hebraic world view that I have seen. 

            It is clear that archaeology forms an important basis for Benjamin’s work.  In fact, at times reading The Old Testament Story could provide a challenge for someone not familiar with other ancient near eastern literature.  I got the feeling that the student was supposed to also have Benjamin’s other book (with Victor Matthews), Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East at hand.  Reading his new introduction without such a supplement could be difficult for the student.  While the CD-ROM helps, it is uneven in its offerings, and some of the sites were not accessible or difficult to find (e.g., Tanach: Resources for Academic Study did not go to the site; Gilgamesh (Search: Hero Choking a Small Lion) did not work, but could be found by browsing).  This is not Benjamin’s fault, but the nature of the internet.

            These comments do not diminish my enthusiasm for this book.  I found it invigorating to read, and written in a way that will attract undergraduate students.  This introduction can help students to listen to the Hebrew stories in a way that loosens preconceived notions about the irrelevancy of the Bible and shakes rigid ideology into facing the biblical text itself.

D.  Dixon Sutherland
Stetson University