Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review
In these two slim volumes Dianne Bergant offers a general introduction and orientation to the literature of the Hebrew Bible. Each book has six chapters that follow, more or less, the canonical order of the text. At the outset of the first volume she acknowledges the challenges that confront any author who attempts to write an introduction to a collection of writings as complex and diverse as the Hebrew Bible. An introduction to the Bible provides as much information as the writer thinks is necessary for the readers to become acquainted with the characters found in the biblical accounts. It gives some historical information about these people, from whom and from where they came, and it recounts some of the events in which they themselves were engaged. (vol. 1, p. v)
In other words, the task entails making choices about what to include and what to leave out, what to highlight and what to downplay. These are critical decisions on the author's part that have a direct bearing on the success or failure of a given work. Judging the merits of a particular introduction to the Hebrew Bible is an enterprise that must take into account, in addition to the accuracy of the information it contains, such criteria as the author's aim or focus, the book's length, and its intended audience. It would be unfair to compare a work like the present two-volume one that is about 200 pages in length to another that is twice as long, and then criticize it because it doesn't measure up. Rather, it must be evaluated and judged on its own terms.
From that perspective, Bergant's work does measure up. It does not attempt to be exhaustive or comprehensive in its scope, but what it does contain is well-informed and clearly presented. In places she tends to rely too much on summary and paraphrase, which is a common flaw of works of this genre, but elsewhere Bergant's analysis of important themes and essential information is incisive and succinct. For example, her discussions of the Egyptian background of the Moses story and the ancient Near Eastern context of the prophetic books give the reader a clear sense of why it is so important to be familiar with the world behind a text. In places, she offers insightful interpretations that put two texts in conversation with each other. To cite two instances, both her use of the Enuma Elish story to shed light on the Exodus tradition and her reference to the Jacob/Esau birth in connection with Ruth 4 open up new ways of thinking about these biblical stories.
For some of the themes or texts Bergant chooses to treat additional information could have been included to give a more complete picture. Nothing is mentioned about the hardening of the heart motif in Exodus. The discussion of the Philistines is rather superficial and sparse. The sections on the individual judges are too brief and lacking in detail. Only one-half page is given to the book of Jonah. There is no consideration of Christian interpretations of certain texts like the Servant Songs and the Immanuel oracle in Isaiah. While her primary purpose is not to become entangled in scholarly debates and disagreements, Bergant's readers would be better served if she were to acknowledge alternative theories at times. For example, she asserts the existence of the Elohist source in the Pentateuch but does not explain that this is one of the most contested aspects of the Documentary Hypothesis in the scholarly community.
There are a few errors in the books. Moses' son's name is Gershom, not Gershon (vol. 1, p. 20). The locations of Philistine and Edom are inaccurately stated, with the former being identified as east of Canaan and the latter west of the Negev desert (vol. 1, p. 23). The statement that the religion of Israel was aniconic (vol. 1, p. 50) is too sweeping a generalization that is not supported by textual and archaeological evidence. Elsewhere, Bergant gives the impression that Ben Sira was the author of Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon (vol. 2, p. 68).
Among the strongest sections of the books are those on Hellenization (vol. 2, Chapter 4) and the Second Temple Period (vol. 2, Chapter 6), which both provide good historical background. In the first, the book of Daniel is treated within the context of themes like immortality and messianic expectations, while the second examines various Jewish groups that highlight the diversity of Judaism during this period.
The decision to treat matters of orality, the written text, and the canon in Chapter 5 of the second volume is a curious one since these are important issues the reader needs to have a grasp of from the very beginning. Why not include them early in the first volume? Related to this is the packaging of the work in two small volumes when combining them into one seems to be the more logical and useful way to go. The second volume concludes with a helpful glossary and a very fine timeline that lists international powers, the kings of Judah and Israel, when the prophets lived, and the approximate dates when the biblical material was written and compiled.
Bergant has made a unique contribution to the ever-growing corpus of books that attempt to present an overview of the biblical material. Her two volumes will be a welcome resource for study groups and similar environments. These works can serve as useful primers that may be supplemented by other books for those seeking to delve more deeply into the Hebrew Bible and scholarship related to it.