Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Steven L. McKenzie, How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature—Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference and What It Means for Faith Today (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).  Pp. 207.  Hardcover, US$26.00, CAN$35.00.  ISBN 0-19-516149-1.

In How to Read the Bible, Steven L. McKenzie invites a popular audience to read the Bible with new eyes and unexpected questions. McKenzie’s entry point to the subject of reading the Bible is an awareness of genre. From the outset, McKenzie displays a sensitivity to his audience and a passion for his subject that are the hallmarks of an engaging teacher. While many would begin a work of this kind with a discussion of form criticism, McKenzie defers, choosing instead to begin with an easy-going examination of Jonah from the perspective of literary technique and genre. The effect of this is to focus attention on the message of the book and how it is communicated and so to disarm readers who have been taught to read the story as history. Only once he has illustrated the value of recognizing genre does McKenzie turn to a discussion of form criticism. The rest of the book is structured around five chapters, each focusing on a different genre of biblical literature and each commencing with a common misconception regarding what this literature conveys or how it is to be understood. Pride of place is given to Old Testament genres and examples, not surprising given the author’s position as Professor of Hebrew Bible at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. The genres examined are history, prophecy, wisdom, apocalyptic, and epistles. 

On rare occasions, How to Read the Bible suffers from a limitation of interpretative options that comes when one reading strategy is privileged above all others.  In his discussion of history writing in the Bible, for example, McKenzie tends to emphasize the presence of etiology in a way that might limit the possibility of application in the present. At times, the emphasis on etiology has the effect of relativizing the meaning of the text and drawing attention away from the meaning conveyed by the overall shape of the narrative. An example of this is the treatment of the Tower of Babel incident (Gen 11:1-9) about which McKenzie concludes, “Its intent is to provide an explanation for the origins of the different human languages and cultures associated with them” (p. 39). While this is undoubtedly true, in the final form of the book of Genesis, this story is used differently—to demonstrate the extent to which sin had separated humans from God and each other.

In his chapter on prophecy (pp. 67-89), McKenzie explains how prophets encouraged covenant obedience through the use of predictions of blessing or chastisement set in the immediate future. Next, he leads readers through several passages, pointing out easily overlooked features of the text that are nonetheless vital to proper understanding. In one example he shows how the final verses of Amos reapply its message against Israel to exilic Judah (pp. 73-74). This same attention to detail is applied to an examination of how Old Testament prophecy is reinterpreted (often christologically) in the New Testament. Here the effect is to downplay such passages as intentional predictions of Christ. Next, he briefly shows how the New Testament authors appropriated these passages by seizing upon unexhausted meaning, making reapplication, and emphasizing what they regarded as a passage’s real intent (pp. 84-89). While McKenzie does an able job in the space allowed, a fuller treatment of the sample passages would be welcome, particularly given what many conservative readers are being asked to surrender at this point.

From its opening pages, How to Read the Bible reveals the touch of a master teacher at work. From his judicious use of illustrations drawn from popular culture to the way in which he surreptitiously introduces critical concepts, McKenzie has produced a work that has the potential to transform how many read the Bible. Although it is perhaps best suited for religious studies undergraduates with little or no biblical background, this book will also be of great use to Christian liberal arts or Bible College undergraduates as well as laypeople whose understanding of the Bible may be hampered by misconceptions about the text. Readers from a more conservative church setting might detect an anthrocentric tendency and wish for a greater emphasis on theological meaning than McKenzie sometimes allows. Nonetheless, what is most beneficial in this book is not the author’s interpretation of this or that specific passage, but rather the way in which he shows how an appreciation of genre helps guide a reader in approaching a text. 

In a work directed at a popular audience, periodic reference to further resources and summaries of reading strategies would have been a useful addition. The book concludes with endnotes—many of which elaborate on ideas introduced in the body of the work—as well as a bibliography and a subject index. In How to Read the Bible, Steven McKenzie has made genre analysis accessible to a wide audience and in so doing has provided readers with a useful way to read the Bible intelligently for personal enjoyment and spiritual benefit. 

Brian P. Irwin
Knox College
Toronto School of Theology