Reviewed by Anna C. Rask
Tremper Longman III, the author of Old Testament Essentials, is the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He has authored and co-authored numerous books and articles in a variety of fields including biblical literary criticism, biblical commentaries, psychology, and history; he has also assisted as a Bible translation consultant. Longman sees that “Christians love the Bible, but they often do not know what to do with the Old Testament” (p.9). Longman emphasizes that the whole Bible is Scripture and authoritative for Christians, and that reading the Old Testament and not just the New Testament is worthy of one’s time and effort so as to further know God and how to live a life pleasing to Him. It was with this spirit Longman wrote Old Testament Essentials in order to “(1) acquaint you with the message of the Old Testament, (2) to show you how the Old Testament points to Jesus, and (3) to show you how the Old Testament is relevant to your life” (p.9).
Old Testament Essentials is divided into seventeen chapters focusing on the topics of Creation, the Fall, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, the Exodus, the Wilderness Wandering, the Law, the Priests, Holy Place and Sacrifices, the Conquest, the Judges, Saul, David and Solomon, the Psalms, Wisdom, the Divided Monarchy, the Prophets, and finally the Exile and Return. Each chapter can be easily used as a weekly study spanning seventeen weeks.
In the Introduction to Old Testament Essentials Longman explains how to use this book. He explains each of the seventeen chapters has the same structure, comprised of four different elements. The first element is Bible Study. Each chapter has an assigned reading from the Old Testament that corresponds with the theme for that chapter. Longman also suggests verses for memorization from either the Old or New Testament that capture the central theme of the chapter; he also suggests longer, parallel readings from the rest of the Bible where the theme is again mentioned. Following the assigned reading, questions regarding key issues from the text are listed and space is provided for readers to write their own answers. For example in chapter three, Abraham, Longman asks readers “What does Genesis 22 reveal about Abraham’s faith?”
The second element is Reading. This element is an essay written by Longman explaining in detail the biblical text of the assigned passage; these essays also provide many of Longman’s answers to the questions asked of the readers in the Bible Study section. For example, in answer to the question, “What does Genesis 22 reveal about Abraham’s faith?,” Longman writes that the main message of Genesis 22 is that Abraham has come to a point near the end of his life where he has complete trust in God and is willing to do what God has commanded him. The Reading element concludes with a Reading Study Guide in which further questions are asked so as to provoke deeper thinking about the text. For example, Longman asks readers to describe their emotional reaction to God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and he also asks readers if they can find any parallels between this narrative account and the cross of Jesus.
The third element is Anticipating the New Testament; this section seeks to reveal how Jesus is anticipated in the Old Testament. For example again in chapter three, Abraham, Longman explains the New Testament refers to Abraham “in order to teach important truths about Christian teaching and life” such as a relationship with God is based on faith not works (p.42). Additionally Longman shows that through Paul’s writings Jesus is revealed as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that he would have descendants, and that those who “are in a relationship with Jesus” are also “‘Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3:29)” (p.42). Notable in Old Testament Essentials is that Longman is careful to first explore the meaning and interpretation of the Old Testament text in its original context rather than immediately leaping to Jesus’ fulfillment of it.
Fourth and finally is The Ancient Story and Our Story, this element focuses on the important implications the Bible can have on life today. For example in chapter three, Abraham, Longman shows readers Abraham is not only the father of the faith of Israel, but is also the “father of the Christian faith as well” (p.43). Additionally Longman reveals how Abraham’s life can serve as a model of a life of faith to Christians today and reminder them that God indeed keeps His promises.
Old Testament Essentials would be ideal for interested non-believers, new believers, or even longtime believers needing further guidance on how to read the Old Testament or how to reconcile it with the New. A key strength of this book is its ability to be used for a personal or group Bible study. Each of the seventeen chapters is short and manageable and can function as a springboard for further discussion and study. The book is written in layman’s terms and Longman explains any unclear terminology, scholarly language, or Hebrew words which he uses.
In addition to recounting the plot of the Old Testament, Longman also incorporates Ancient Near Eastern historical, cultural and geographical background knowledge and explains why knowing this information is integral to understanding and interpreting the text. This additional information situates the Old Testament in context and reveals to readers who are new to reading the Old Testament how crucial it is to keep the Bible in its original context and to first search for its original meaning. For example in session six, the Exodus, Longman explains to readers that the signs and plagues God sends against Egypt actually are acts of war against specific Egyptian gods, thus revealing just how powerful the God of the Israelites is and how he is above all other gods. Longman includes theological information for readers as well such as when he states that although the Exodus narrative is showing the God of the Israelites is greater than all of Egypt’s gods, these gods are really no gods at all, but rather behind them lays spiritual powers which today would be called demons.
As is characteristic of an introductory book only so much material can be included and discussed. There is simply not room, nor is it Longman’s intent to present his entire interpretation of the Old Testament or highlight and debate controversial theological points. Thus, there are points in Old Testament Essentials in which Longman asserts his own opinions on theological or historical matters without explaining to readers that there may be other options or vast disagreement by other biblical scholars. Although theological controversies lie outside the scope of this work, Longman could have more clearly stated which assertions he makes are matters of his opinion, and then advised readers to do their own research to form their own conclusion.
In summary, Old Testament Essentials is a foundational tool for basic Bible study intended for small groups of interested non-believers or new believers. This book begins the study of the Old Testament; the questions and topics presented by Longman provoke the readers to do their own research on such topics so as to understand and make biblical and theological decisions for themselves.
Anna C. Rask is an M.Div. student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.