Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Coogan, Michael D., A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in its Context (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Pp. xxiv+440, Softcover, US$54.95, ISBN 978-0-19-533272-8.

The purpose of Coogan’s new abbreviated version of his 2006 publication The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures is to provide an up-to-date, student-friendly introduction to the literature of the Jewish Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament. Like his preceding book, he follows a chronological approach, using the biblical chronology as his guide for Genesis to 2 Kings, and then using a chronology reconstructed from both internal evidence and historical-critical theory for the remaining books. The book is organized into six sections, made up of 24 chapters.

In Part One, Chapter 1, Coogan discusses the canonical process in Judaism, as well as in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant branches of Christianity. The second chapter deals with geography, history, and archaeology. Coogan recounts the history of ancient Israel with a maximalist perspective.

In Part Two the Genesis cosmogony and the universal history of the world till the time of Abram is explored. Chapter 3 focuses on Genesis 1–3. Coogan does a skilful job of setting the first three chapters of Genesis in their ancient Near Eastern context, comparing the similarities and differences of Genesis 1–3 with the Enuma Elish and the Gilgamesh Epic. In Chapter 4 he covers Genesis 4–11. He begins by giving a clear and concise history of the documentary hypothesis, how sources have been discerned in Genesis 1–11, as well as explaining other reading strategies and interpretations such as form, redaction, and canonical criticism. I found Coogan’s accessible and insightful explanations for traditional source theory and ANE parallels to the biblical stories to be the most valuable part of this section.

Part Three of the text consists of chapters 5–12. This is the first of the two largest sections of the book. Chronologically, it follows the Christian canon, covering Genesis 12 to the end of Ruth. In this section Coogan focuses on the origins of Israel. While Coogan is clearly committed to using source analysis, he is honest in admitting that source criticism alone cannot account for the meaning of all the material. At that point he introduces form criticism, tradition history, and redaction criticism. He gives an adequate explanation of form criticism, but unfortunately does not explain tradition history or redaction criticism.

Chapter 6 covers Exodus 1–15. He covers the issues surrounding the revealing of the name of Yahweh and the exodus miracles, giving typical historical-critical explanations for them. There is nothing new here except that not all will agree with his view that the meaning of Exod 1:22 is that all the Hebrew males of Moses generation were annihilated. Again, Coogan takes a maximalist position on the Exodus as a plausible historical event. A small amount of attention is given to the concerns of feminist criticism by providing a short section on the women of the Exodus.

Chapter 7 covers Exodus 16–24, Israel’s travel from Egypt to Sinai. Coogan covers the issue of covenant and the ANE suzerainty treaty forms. By placing the explanation of Hittite treaty forms alongside the discussion of the Sinai covenant, Coogan seems to imply that the Sinai covenant exhibits similarities closer to the older Hittite form. However, this is nowhere stated. He delays his discussion of Assyrian treaty forms till his treatment of the Deuteronomic Code. There he makes explicit his view that the covenant in Deuteronomy follows Assyrian treaty forms.

The final chapters of Part Three are straightforward. Chapter 8 covers the Covenant Code and Leviticus. Coogan parallels these with the Code of Hammurapi. He interprets the holiness laws through the various lenses of concerns for health, cultural differentiation, cultural definitions of order (à la Mary Douglas), and relationship to sex and death. In this chapter he includes another short section on how women were affected by Israelite law and ritual. He also deals with the ethics found in the laws regarding the openness and care to be given the foreigner. Chapters 9–12 cover Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges and Ruth. Each of these chapters covers the typical historical-critical issues found in each book and their ANE parallels are noted and compared.

In Part Four, chapters 13–19, the period of the monarchy to the exile are analyzed. In this section 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Psalm 89, Amos, Hosea, 2 Chronicles 29–36, Isaiah 1–39, Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah are surveyed.

In Part Five, chapters 20–21, the exile and return are treated. The life of the Jewish people in Judah and Babylon is the topic of chapter 20 and covers Lamentations, Psalm 137, Obadiah, and Ezekiel. The return of the remnant is the topic of chapter 21 and covers Ezra 1–2, Isaiah 34–35 and 40–55.

Part Six is the final section consisting of three chapters. Chapter 22 deals with Judah in the Persian period. It covers Ezra 3–10, Haggai, Zechariah, Isaiah 24–27 and 56–66, Joel, and Malachi. Chapter 24 covers all of 1–2 Chronicles, Psalms, and Proverbs. The last chapter examines the works considered anomalous: Job, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, Jonah, Esther, and Daniel. In handling this literature, he gives judicious summaries of a variety of critical opinions.

Coogan has organized his material well. Each chapter has key terms highlighted in the text, with an additional list of these terms appearing at the end of the chapter. The definitions for these terms are found in a six page glossary at the end of the book. He also discusses the apocryphal and deuterocanonical books in a nine page appendix at the end. There are a handful of study or discussion questions at the end of each chapter. The plentiful charts are useful and easy to understand. The panels and sidebars found on most pages break up the reading nicely and focus the reader on key background information or critical problems. The design of the book is very attractive, using two color printing, elegant graphic design, great black and white photos, and an eight page section of four color plates in the center of the book. There is also an instructor’s manual available on CD and hard copy as well as a companion website that includes a variety of pedagogical materials including lecture outlines, tests, quizzes, and web links.

There is not much to criticize. However, the greatest strength of the book is perhaps its greatest weakness. The concentration on literary sources chapter after chapter tends to focus the student on conflicting bits and pieces, preventing her from experiencing the literary qualities of the final form. Of course, this indicates an inherent tension between historical and final form readings. Similarly, Coogan gives little attention to the insights and methods of other current reading strategies used, whether New Literary or the variety of postmodern methods. So the student will need to look elsewhere to learn about these alternative reading strategies. In most chapters dealing with the narrative parts of the Hebrew Bible, Coogan does provide sections on the narrative, its main characters, and the “A Look Back and Ahead” summaries, which soften the impact of the sustained focus on sources.

All in all, this is a great undergraduate student text written by a masterful communicator. Coogan’s erudition and lucid style make him a worthy guide for the uninitiated. He packs a lot of valuable information in a short amount of space. Nothing is assumed and he is thorough and sensitive in explaining the Bible and historical-critical method to those who have not had prior exposure. He does not go into details of interest to graduate students and scholars. Therefore, I highly recommend this book for the classroom.

Glen A. Taylor, Tajikistan National University