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

Bridge, Steven L., Getting the Old Testament: What it Meant for Them, What it Means for Us (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2009). Pp. xx+227. Softcover. US$14.95. ISBN 9781598560459.

Getting the Old Testament: What it Meant to Them, What it Means for Us is an intermediate level study of selected narratives, topics, and individual books within the Old Testament. It is written primarily for an audience that has some knowledge of the Old Testament but does not seek to appeal to those beyond the graduate level.

For Bridge, it is important to understand the context of the Old Testament and its stories and to identify the meaning of selected texts both for ancient and contemporary audiences. He begins each chapter with an engaging and relevant modern story as an introduction to the particular topic. He chooses passages and topics that are controversial and difficult to understand such as the two creation accounts, the world-wide flood, the story of Jonah, and the unconventional wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes and Job.

Getting the Old Testament is divided into three major sections: (1) the Law (Torah), (2) the Prophets, and (3) the Writings. Bridge provides a brief introduction to each of these sections before proceeding to examine the material in the following chapters. Before delving into the first section on the Law, his introduction, entitled “Overhearing the Old Testament,” demonstrates the importance of understanding the Old Testament in its proper historical context. He provides a contemporary example from an episode of the television program The Simpsons about how eavesdropping on a portion of a conversation without knowing the full context can lead to misinterpretations and erroneous conclusions. He uses this example to demonstrate that some modern readers essentially eavesdrop on ancient texts and develop their own understanding which leads to errors in interpretation.

Chapter 1, entitled “The First Creation Story—Is It True?” explores the differences between the ancient and modern approaches to understanding history and illustrates that science and religion can exist together without contradicting each other. Bridge appeals to scholarship for the historical context of this first creation account which is generally thought to have been written by a Priestly author around the time of the Babylonian exile. He then examines the similarities and differences between the creation accounts of Genesis and the Babylonian tradition of the Enuma Elish.

Chapter 2, “The Second Creation Story—Internal Contradictions?” provides a comparison of the contradictory creation accounts as described in Genesis 1 and 2 and illustrates how truth can be present in both. Bridge appeals to the Yahwist and Priestly authors in order to explain the differences between these two narratives.

In Chapter 3, “The Great Flood—Revising History,” the author raises some challenging questions about the historicity of the flood and differences in the account that occur in Genesis 6–9. For example, Noah was given seven days to place the animals in the ark in Gen 7:4, 10 but one day in Gen 7:14–16. Bridge once again turns to the J and P sources to explain the contradictions in the details of the flood account. He provides a useful diagram that separates these two sources and outlines their individual accounts. He also compares the Mesopotamian flood accounts of the Gilgamesh Epic and Atrahasis with Genesis and provides an excellent comparison of the three perspectives (pp. 48–49).

In Chapter 4, entitled “The Abraham Narratives—Middle East Implications,” Bridge provides a brief background to the narratives in Genesis 12–21, including the covenant between God and Abraham. Bridge identifies the contradictions in the origins of the names of Isaac and Ishmael in Genesis and compares the two stories of Hagar and Ishmael being sent away from Abraham's household which are recorded in Gen 16:1–14 and 21:8–21. With an explanatory footnote on p. 60 he introduces the Elohist source in addition to the Yahwist and Priestly sources.

In Chapter 5, entitled “The Torah—Beyond the Ten Commandments,” Bridge provides a good overview of the Torah by dividing the 613 laws into 8 categories, which he briefly describes with references from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. However, on p. 74, it would have been helpful for his target audience if he had explained the term “holocausts” which he uses to identify one of the key types of sacrifices in Lev 1:1–17. Furthermore, he describes the tithe in Deut 14:22–29 as being consumed at the central sanctuary but did not explain the triennial tithe for the poor which occurs in vv. 27–29. Bridge concludes the chapter with an excellent summary of the Torah by listing the eight categories and providing a few examples beside each of them in a chart.

Bridge begins the second section of Getting the Old Testament, The Prophets, by providing a brief summary of the Former and Latter Prophets, stating that he will focus exclusively on the Latter Prophets. In Chapter 6, entitled “The Prophets—God's Spokepersons,” he describes the role of ancient prophecy and summarizes the messages of the Major and Minor Prophets into four main categories: (1) Call to Fidelity and Social Justice, (2) Indictment of Guilt, (3) Punishment, and (4) Mercy and Restoration. In addition to some scriptural references that are given in these sections, the footnotes are quite informative and provide additional references from other prophetic books so that more prophetic literature is represented in this chapter.

Chapter 7, “The Book of Jonah—Prophecy Parodied” begins with questions about the historicity of Jonah's encounter with the whale and then proceeds to uncover what truths and teachings can be learned from the story. The four chapters in Jonah are examined individually from a narrative perspective. Bridge provides a brief chart which summarizes and compares the events in chapters 1 and 2 with chapters 3 and 4. He concludes the chapter on Jonah with a helpful table which compares the experiences of the Old Testament prophets to Jonah. For example, the prophets' responses to God's instructions to his people are met with obedience, while Jonah seeks to flee from his assignment of bringing a message of repentance to the people of Nineveh who are perceived as God's enemies.

In Chapter 8, “The Book of Daniel—Prophecy of the End,” Bridge begins by briefly discussing Michael Drosnin's work, The Bible Code, to provide a modern example of prophecies, supposedly encoded in the Bible, that were not revealed until after the events occurred. He then transitions into Daniel, beginning with a very brief summary of the first 6 chapters, which he identifies closely with wisdom literature, and then proceeds with a more detailed study of Chapters 7–12. Bridge notes that there are similarities between the ex eventu prophecies in Drosnin's work and those that occur in the apocalyptic visions and prophecies in Daniel. The book of Maccabees is used to provide a good overview of the historical background of Daniel and the persecution of God's people which led to the book being written in coded language. Though Bridge focuses on the content and purpose of the book, he only mentions “the author of Daniel…” (p. 133), but does not expand on authorship in his discussions.

Bridge begins the third section of Getting the Old Testament by briefly identifying the books in the Writings of the Jewish canon and the differences in their location in the Christian canon. In Chapter 9, entitled “The Book of Proverbs—Conventional Wisdom,” Bridge begins by examining the results of surveys conducted on individuals to determine the conventional or popular wisdom that guides people's lives in today's context. He then transitions into the book of Proverbs to determine its conventional wisdom. He examines the way of the righteous and the way of the unrighteous in light of their characteristics, authority figures, behaviours, and consequences.

Chapter 10, “The Book of Ecclesiastes—Unconventional Wisdom I,” examines the meaning of life, initially from a modern perspective, and then through Qohelet's experiences with life which are documented in his writing. Bridge explains the Epilogue to the book (Eccl 12:9–14) as a later edition by another author because it is written in the third person and does not adhere to Qohelet's outlook (which did not explicitly mention God). However, it would have been helpful if Bridge provided a brief explanation of redaction criticism since he is employing it in this instance.

In Chapter 11, “The Book of Job—Unconventional Wisdom II,” Bridge provides a literary structure of the book, summarizes the story of Job, and discusses the conventional wisdom that Job's friends apply to his situation through the three cycles of poetic dialogues in Job 4–37. However, Bridge does not examine the dialogues between Job and God that occur in the concluding chapters of the book. Furthermore, it would have been informative for the reader if the author included an ancient Near Eastern parallel story of the suffering of a righteous person to illustrate the theological differences as Bridge did with the creation and flood accounts in the Law section.

In the conclusion of Getting the Old Testament, Bridge asserts that his readers “may well have held certain assumptions about various biblical notions” (p. 181) that developed by only hearing a portion of the ancient narratives, i.e. eavesdropping. However, he believes that through his study of some of these narratives, his readers now have a better understanding of the original context and the messages that the ancient authors intended to communicate. Furthermore, he reiterates from his introduction that his study is not exhaustive and he has excluded many narratives and books in the discussions. In the appendices, Bridge provides more detailed and advanced information, including comparison charts and time lines, to supplement the material in the eleven chapters. He concludes the book with a brief list of suggested readings relating to introductory Old Testament resources, ancient Near Eastern studies, and the topics in his book which are helpful to the reader for further studies.

In the introductory comments that precede Chapter 1, Bridge identifies the historical-critical method which he will employ to examine selected texts. However, he uses source criticism (J, P, and a small portion of E) to explain the contradictory accounts in the Torah section without explicitly stating or explaining this methodology to the reader. Furthermore, he does not mention the D source in Chapter 5 which would have been relevant because he cites texts from Deuteronomy. It would have been informative if Bridge had explained the JEDP theory since he frequently refers to the Yahwist and Priestly sources.

Despite the above criticisms, this book provides a good overview of the Old Testament content even though it intentionally does not include a study on literature such as the Former Prophets, Esther, Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, and the Psalms. However, the author makes mention of these books appropriately as he transitions into sections on the Prophets and the Writings. His style of writing is very engaging and draws the reader into the various sections of the Old Testament, bringing meaning and life into the ancient texts for his readers.

Shannon Baines, McMaster Divinity College