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

Gravett, Sandra L., Karla G. Bohmbach, F.V. Greifenhagen, Donald C. Polaski, An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: A Thematic Approach (Louisville and London: Westminster/John Knox, 2008). Pp. xvii+486, Paperback, US$49.95, ISBN 9780664230302.

Gravett, Bohmbach, Greifenhagen, and Polaski, depart from the historical approach of the average introduction to the Hebrew Bible and offer a refreshing synchronic thematic approach based on various literary, sociological, and postmodern reading strategies. The book is a collaborative effort by two female and two male authors. The book consists of four major sections: discussion of 1) history and geography, 2) the biblical text, 3) the way the Hebrew Bible constructs identity, and 4) the way it constructs power. The book is divided further into 14 chapters, with the discussion of identity and power forming the lion’s share of the book.

Chapter 1 covers the history and geography of Israel. This is one of the most imaginative treatments of ancient Israelite history and geography that I have read. The authors skilfully impress the reader with the way that geography and time shape people’s culture and worldview. The reader is challenged to analyze the way she has been shaped by her geographical, temporal, and cultural situation and then make comparisons with how that happens in the Bible. They also bring geography alive by creatively weaving historical human interest elements through it. The parallels drawn from current situations internationally demonstrate astute cultural and global awareness.

Chapter 2 covers textual criticism and the various methods for reading the Hebrew Bible. This includes a section on Christian and Jewish theological readings, form criticism, source and redaction criticism, social scientific readings, narrative criticism, reader-response, deconstruction, and ideological criticism. In each of these readings a demonstration of the way it is used on a specific biblical text is given. The reader is encouraged to read critically and be aware of the ideology of authors.

Chapters 3–8 deal with identity. In chapter 3 the authors use Moses as an example of how the Hebrew Bible constructs the identity of the people of God. Then various sociological themes are given focus. “Family” is explored in chapter 4, while in chapter 5 “Gender” is the focus. In chapter 6 “The Body” centers on the physical body, social body, and bodily descriptions of God. “Ethnicity” is the topic of chapter 7 and “Class” deals with economic and social position in chapter 8.

Chapters 9–13 explore social power. In chapter 9 David is used as the exemplar of power. “The State” in chapter 10 centers on power organization during the periods of the united monarchy, divided monarchy, and after the fall of Jerusalem. “Ideology” in chapter 11 focuses on four power ideologies: King-Zion, Sinai-Nation, Sage-Order, and Empire-Colony. “Media” in chapter 12 deals with the way ideology is visualized in society. This includes institutions like the temple and the power wielding function of writing. “Deity” in chapter 13 covers the various ways God is presented in the Hebrew Bible. Chapter 14 analyzes Job through the lenses of identity, power, and their subcategories which have been explained in the previous chapters. This is the only biblical book given focused attention.

This book is lucid and rich in postmodern worldview. Vigorous and engaging in style, the authors encourage the reader to engage personally with the values presented in the Hebrew Bible. The authors deal seriously with the fact that the Hebrew Bible is a living ethical force in many societies currently. The thematic approach allows the authors to focus on powerful biblical themes (such as wealth and poverty) that are often marginalized in traditional introductions. Historical-critical issues are rarely discussed, but when they are a more skeptical minimalist perspective is apparent. At the end of each chapter are a number of provocative discussion questions. The book additionally provides syllabi, assignments, tests, and pedagogical aids by means of a companion website.

There are few criticisms. It is surprising that the authors overlook a key element in the promise to Abram that his descendants will bless all nations. It is a critical aspect of their identity and purpose. This would also seem to be an important element to include in the ‘Ethnicity’ chapter, but it is not mentioned there. Another criticism is that by focusing exclusively on themes, the reader loses the sense of narrative flow and development in the Hebrew Bible. Concerning the graphics and layout of the book, most of the photographs are too washed out to be helpful. One sentence is left incomplete midsentence (in the panel on p. 50). Page numbers appear at the top of the page but quite often are missing when photos or sidebars appear at the top. Regardless, I enjoyed the book and enthusiastically recommend it for those who want students to understand current strategies in reading the Hebrew Bible.

Glen A. Taylor, Tajikistan National University