November 19, 2009

Old Testament narratives, historicity, and a new commentary

Deseret Book recently published a beautiful volume just in time for Christmas (and next year's Gospel Doctrine curriculum) called Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament. If you're anything like me you've struggled in the past to make much sense of some of the more miraculous or colorful Old Testament stories. This large photo-filled one-volume treatment of the OT has been a blast to read so far. It is more academic than homiletic. Rather than shoehorning the OT into an LDS paradigm, or using it just to teach some moral principles, the authors contextualize the narrative in history. Understanding the culture of the Old Testament helps us better understand the Old Testament. It's refreshing to see this sort of thing published by Deseret Book. I'm working on a full review, but for now here's a short excerpt from a sidebar in the book called "Interpreting Biblical Narratives." Hopefully this will give a sense of what to expect from this book. The information might seem obvious to many readers, but I believe many Latter-day Saints would benefit from a more realistic understanding of the Old Testament as described by these authors. They spend a good deal of time discussing the kind of "history" readers should expect from the OT, which obviously differs from modern academic standards.

Interpreting Biblical Narratives
Although many Bible students have read and enjoyed narrative texts in the Old Testament, the following five important principles help to facilitate more insight, enjoyment, and accurate interpretation.

1. None of these narratives tells the complete story, and there is always more we wish we knew. The authors and redactors consciously selected, emphasized, and arranged their materials in a particular way for a reason, generally theological. Thus, it is helpful to regularly ask, "Why was this information included?" and "What purpose(s) does it serve?" [In many instances the authors discuss historical problems, anachronisms, inflated numbers, and other aspects of the "history."]

2. Remarkably, Old Testament narratives present what actually happened, which means they often provide negative examples, rather than just the "right" way to live. [The authors contrast this with other Ancient Near Eastern texts that do not discuss failures of leaders, but only extol their power. See, for instance, pg. 210.]

3. Old Testament narratives rarely teach doctrinal principles explicitly. Rather, they illustrate them. Readers need to consider what principles are being represented.

4. Likewise, these narratives do not usually explicitly state the "moral" to the story (no written "and thus we see" insights). Readers must judge what was right and what was wrong in an account based on information contained elsewhere in scripture. [Throughout the book the authors describe some of the more gruesome biblical narratives including rape, incest, murder, and other things that might make modern readers squeamish.Sometimes the moral is not explicitly spelled out in the biblical text itself, leaving readers hanging in a way.]

5. As is often observed, Jehovah is the main character or figure in the Old Testament narrative. Whether he is depicted as actively intervening in human affairs or not, the Bible depicts him as always there, blessing, cursing, and bringing about his purposes. [Thus, history is viewed from a theological, not academic, perspective.]


See "Interpreting Biblical Narratives," Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Dana M. Pike, David Rolph Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, Deseret Book (2009), p. 172.


Loyd said...

Do the authors engage textual criticism at all, or do they, like the long history of LDS OT studies, remain completely oblivious to it?

BHodges said...

I'll talk about this more in the full review, but suffice it to say they do engage textual criticism. Though I world prefer more info than they give (length of the book had a to to do with that I gather), they directly engage textual criticism issues like the Documentary hypothesis, Deuteronomists, redaction, questions of provenance, and comparisons with other non-Biblical ANE texts that have similarities to the OT. This is a really neat thing to see from Deseret Book even though it isn;t as substantive as I would prefer. Check out Kevin Barney's take on it:

Anonymous said...

Just a quick note on your title- the authors disavow the term "commentary" for this volume, as it doesn't do what a typical commentary does: comment on a bok-by-book and chapter-by-chapter basis.

Loyd- I can't recall if they talk textual criticism, but that's never been terribly controversial. Do you mean literary criticism or source criticism perhaps?


BHodges said...

Anonymous: They don't "disavow the term commentary," they note that their book is "not a traditional commentary or overview of Old Testament doctrines, although it does include comments on many biblical passages. Nor is it a survey of daily life in ancient Israel or a comprehensive history of the ancient Near East, although it contains information relating to both of these topics."

They state that the volume "introduces and helps illuminate the Old Testament in its ancient Israelite and broader ancient Near Eastern world."

They note they were highly selective due to length. Their description of the format also says: "This volume contains summary narrations of the biblical text interspersed with information from and explanations of the world of the Old Testament," (this is all on p. 2).

So they don't disavow the name "commentary," they describe the contents and structure of the book, and though don't say what else it might be called other than referring to it repeatedly as a "volume."

In other words, I think "commentary" is fine because they are, in fact, providing commentary on the Old Testament. And the structure will be discussed in my full review, which is not done yet since I haven't yet finished reading the book. :)

Also: don't forget to employ a name or pseudonym of some sort when commenting, because "anonymous" gets confusing. Thanks for dropping in.

BHodges said...

LOL sorry Ben, I didn't see your signed name.

cinepro said...

So, global or local flood?

BHodges said...

haha your favorite thing. They don't say global or local, but the impression is the traditional reading of global. This will be mentioned in the review. The entire Noah story only gets 2 paragraphs on page 28.

BHodges said...

Cinepro, a clarification. They actually discuss various flood stories, including Gilgamesh's. This talks about different theories of dependence though, not the issue of the extent of the flood.

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