Reviewed by Adam Darbonne
Although the methodologies of higher criticism have encouraged readers to pay close attention to the details of biblical texts and better understand their formation, the result is often fragmentation, dissection, and loss of appreciation for their literary artistry. However Patricia Dutcher-Walls, professor of Hebrew scripture at Vancouver School of Theology, reminds the reader to appreciate the artistry of the authors (and redactors) of the historical books of the Old Testament and provides a helpful guide for engaging with the stories of the books as they stand.
The book has an introduction, five chapters on reading the historical books of the Old Testament (defined by Dutcher-Walls as Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah), and a conclusion. In the introduction Dutcher-Walls outlines her purpose and approach, which is to answer the question “How do we read the historical books in the Old Testament well?” Choosing to take an inductive approach to the text that “takes the text of Scripture seriously as the focus of attention” (xvi), she intends to help readers come to the texts more carefully and faithfully. In fact she states, “nothing [in the book] will be imposed on the text that a careful reader might not have already been able to discern” (xvi). Further, she assumes that readers of her book will have already read about standard introductory questions (authorship, dating, sources, canon, etc.) elsewhere. She also makes clear that her book does not take a stand on the historical reality of the texts, but focuses “on how the texts themselves remembered and recorded an account of the past.” (xvii). Finally, throughout the book Dutcher-Walls includes “Questions for Careful Readers” related to the particular aspect of storytelling she is discussing. These are questions a reader might ask as he or she reads the historical books to help them gain a better understanding of the story.
In Chapter One, Dutcher-Walls explores the contexts of the historical books. She begins the chapter highlighting three different contexts a reader should be aware of. First, readers must keep in mind the context of the events recorded, that is the social, geographical, political, religious, etc. setting of the place of which the text speaks (i.e. what Solomonic Israel was like). Second, readers must be aware of the context of the writer who is recording the events. Since the writing of historical events is necessarily done after the event occurs, the reader must pay attention to the realities of the context in which it was written, as well of the time the events actually occurred. Finally, readers must be aware of the context of the reader of the written events. Readers, just as historical figures, sit within a particular context and setting. Dutcher-Walls argues the reader must be reflective about his or her own context, so as not to impose something on the text. She then spends the rest of the chapter discussing important aspects of the context of the historical books including geographical, political, religious, and social realities that shape this part of Scripture.
Chapter Two is entitled, “Listening to the Story in the Text,” and is focused on the different ways authors tell a story. Using modern analogies followed by examples from the historical books (a pattern repeated throughout the book), the chapter shows how authors build a story using plot development, characterization, point of view, and time flow. For instance, in order to understand “plot development” Dutcher-Walls points to a modern TV drama. Each show has its own plot; however, each show also contributes to the plot of the whole season. She argues that the historical books function similarly. In another example, to explain “point of view” she notes that in a modern movie about aliens, “the audience might see what the earth forces are planning to do to fight off the aliens but never see what the aliens are planning” (62). In the same way, she says, authors of the historical books write from a particular point of view. Throughout the book she references everything from Facebook posts to the Batman trilogy to accounts of the JFK assassination to explain how history (in general) is written.
Chapter Three discusses how a reader can and should discern the interests of the text. Dutcher-Walls focuses on nine specific clues that help reveal where the author’s interests lie. She shows how authors build presence, establish authority, craft repetition, set up analogies, use direct evaluation, create patterns, set up models, create dramatic impact, and use detail.
In the final two chapters of her book, Dutcher-Walls focuses on the historical books as histories. Chapter Four begins this process by examining how ancient histories were written (focusing on the Ancient Near East, including Assyrian, Egyptian, and Hittite writings). After a brief discussion on historiography in general, Dutcher-Walls explains how ancient history writers used chronological structure, narrative content, past traditions, and direct speech to communicate histories through examples from other writings in the Ancient Near East. For instance, she draws a comparison between information given in Assyrian annals and the regnal formulas given in the book of Kings. Similarly, she points to a Hittite prayer against plagues that refers to another Hittite tablet in order to point to the fact that ancient authors commonly used other sources in their writing. She then shows how the historical books of the Bible do this too. In Chapter Five Dutcher-Walls also examines how the author shapes history. She discusses different tools biblical authors use including selectivity, patterns and causes, evaluations and interpretations, and addressing the present, to form the history for a particular purpose.
Dutcher-Walls concludes the book by giving a definition of biblical historiography, which recaps and draws together the previous chapters’ arguments into a cohesive statement. She then expands on the list of characteristics of the historical books included in her definition of biblical historiography by discussing narrative format, a range of interests, and literary techniques to recount the past. She concludes by providing questions for the reader to ask of the biblical texts to better understand it.
This book is focused and narrow – it does not deal with the theology of the historical books (other than the “religious context” they sit in), or the issues surrounding authorship and historicity. That said, it is a very good introduction to how to read the historical books of the Bible and can help any reader understand and appreciate the historical books as stories written by and for real people. The book is systematic and clear in its approach, and Dutcher-Walls does a masterful job taking an academically complex process and bringing it “down-to-earth” in an accessible way by connecting examples from the historical books with modern analogies. It is also highly practical; the “Questions for Careful Readers” sections throughout the book can make both “rookie” and “veteran” students of the Bible better exegetes and teachers of the text.
For these reasons, this book is a helpful introduction for any student of the Bible, but would be especially useful for college students, seminarians, pastors, and laypeople in the church who are interested in being attentive, for their own sake and for the sake of those they teach and lead, to the rich shape and depth of the choices the authors of the historical books have made in writing their histories.
Adam Darbonne is a third-year MDiv student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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Reading The Historical Books: A Student's Guide To Engaging The Biblical Text