Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Steven L. McKenzie and John Kaltner, The Old Testament: Its Background, Growth, & Content (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007). Pp. 382. Hardcover, US$32.00, £17.99. ISBN 978-0-687-03901-2.

Why do we need and select OT introductions? To give our students the leg up they need for starting a course; for establishing what we will not take class time to say; to offer information that can be reviewed and unpacked once students know more than when they start; to identify key issues; to establish a pattern for reading, such as content, growth, context and interpretation. If so, this book does a competent job (excellent in some spots, adequate in others) and offers a satisfying and useful choice for a basic course.

The introduction is, in my view, the best chapter, one of the most comprehensive introductions I have read. It covers many issues, some of which are rarely companions: order and division of biblical books (content); some composition, transmission, and translation factors (growth); geographical/topographical contexts, relevant temporal eras and a cross-section of cultural features (context); and a succinct consideration of ancient modes of reading (e.g., allegory and typology), Hebrew language study, Reformation concerns, critical modern study and finally the developments of recent decades (interpretation). Having modeled that format for us, the authors then pledge to follow the same format as they proceed-a promise that is kept.

The book is divided into four units (following the Jewish divisions of the Tanak): Torah, Former Prophets, Latter Prophets, and Writings. It concludes with some suggestions for further basic reading. Let me illustrate selectively what is on offer, indulging in minor quibbles as I go. I will conclude with a more basic critique, though which nestles within with a tone of general approval.

The introduction shows well why the question of “content” is not simple, nor are choices for considering the biblical books arbitrary. The discussion suggests the range of issues to be considered and then implicitly invites the reader to return to this section when further information on the nature of the books is desired, or when, for instance, some in the class have one story of Esther and others appear to have her additional adventures. The authors spend about forty-two pages here and get maximum mileage, in my opinion.

The section on Torah is the longest (comparatively speaking: seventy pages for five books). The consideration of law material is illustrative. The authors show where ten “chunks” of material are to be found, review what law is and what it was; they bring the topic of sources into the discussion to talk about whether Leviticus is best understood as Priestly or as composite in some way, hinting at a scholarly debate underway. There is a discussion of the Ten Commandments, presumably familiar to users of this book, but offering them more information than they likely had and some questions to pursue if interested (or prompted). Handy charts appear elsewhere in this general section (e.g., showing relationships between the creation stories) and boxes offer relevant ANE material (e.g., ways in which Sargon's and Moses' life adventures overlap). I miss some charts and boxes for law, but can see that asking students to construct them would be a great assignment.

The section on the Former Prophets (about sixty pages) follows the biblical storyline closely. I was hoping for some substantial discussion of the wonderful prophets that inhabit that section of biblical text, perhaps as well for a discussion of specifically what was the problem with hovering empires. It is not difficult to sense that the Assyrian and Babylonian threat was not salutary, but I think students need to know in more detail why that was. What specific strains and stresses did powerful, encroaching neighbours place on the cultures of Israel and Judah, and how did they respond? Not well, we know from the prophets. But why, in particular? On the other hand, the charts showing practical things (e.g., how Josiah's reform resembles Deuteronomy) are great.

The material on the latter prophets is rich for the number of pages allowed (about eighty-eight for the fifteen books to be reviewed, since Daniel is with Writings). I made Micah and Hosea my sample texts, and found in the case of Micah an indication of both his overlap with Isaiah and a reasons for differences as well; there was a suggestion for the shape of the book and an indication of stages of growth which have left sequencing of materials ragged. The Hosea discussion signals the religious issues (possibly contributing to the misleading sense that Hosea is concerned only about religion, Amos with justice). Discussion of gender issues focuses, perhaps overly, on the question of whether the marriage mentioned was actual or symbolic, though this is surely one topic to be addressed. The growth of the book is given as an explanation for some of the apparent confusion in the extant text, though the eighth-century context is the historical moment. Interpretations of the metaphor of Hosea's marriage are tracked into later prophetic material, which interprets and develops it diversely. Jeremiah as the longest prophetic book receives ten pages, which is scarcely adequate. Conversely, Joel and Obadiah together receive nine, which may be disproportional. On the other hand, the Minor Prophets are often neglected be in scholarship for beginning students and thus important to feature in an introduction.

The section on Writings (not quite seventy pages) is the least useful. For whatever reasons, the discussions are shorter, less interesting, more standard, and less distinctive. Qohelet can serve as a sample. There is a brief consideration of the problems raised by an uncertain context (what century or era, what context or framework, what particular topic is actually under discussion). Issues of language may be over the heads of beginning students, and in any case that discussion is too abstract. Cognate texts are mentioned, but unless the students know or are asked to consider these materials more fully, the space seems wasted. If readers don't know about Gilgamesh or about the “Dialogue between a Man and his Soul,” does a reference to them help? Maybe another assignment is sparked. The section concludes with mention of some of the “polar opposites” in the book. A chart of these would have been nice.

If I were writing an introduction, I would aim for a useful and consistent format, such as McKenzie and Kaltner have and use in their content/growth/context/interpretation frame. But I would also look for some “value-added” features, which would set my introduction apart from others. I know they will have had page limitations, so the value-added would need to be efficient: perhaps bringing up the most intriguing possibility in current scholarship in key places, or sampling more explicitly some of the interpretation modes found in various books' reception; perhaps something specifically archeologically useful. The bibliography is quite standard; perhaps the authors could promise to offer web-available supplements at five year intervals. What I am looking for is a compelling reason for those who teach introduction to OT/HB courses to select this book over others. There are some good reasons, which I mentioned here. But I want something additional to push me over the edge to adopt the book.

Barbara Green, Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Graduate Theological Union