Reviewed by Michelle Knight
The discipline of biblical studies has exploded over the last century. Especially considering the tremendous impact that advances in archaeology, ancient Near Eastern historiography, and hermeneutics have had upon Old Testament studies, the shape of the field is entirely different than it was in decades past. Crucial for any serious student of Scripture is an initiation into the tumultuous waters of studying the Old Testament in the twenty-first century. Resources that reflect the depth and breadth of the contemporary field are necessary for the successful education of the next generation of biblical scholars. Richard Hess’ The Old Testament is designed to fill this void.
Hess is the Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Denver Seminary and a leading figure in the study of Old Testament history and archaeology. In a formidable volume, this seasoned professor uses his vast classroom experience and professional expertise to provide seminaries and graduate schools with a clear and exhaustive primer to the historical, theological, and critical study of the Old Testament. Hess successfully addresses some of the most complex issues in Old Testament studies while writing for a broad range of graduate-level students, assuming no previous knowledge of the Old Testament.
Structure and Contents
Hess’ textbook begins with an introduction that addresses the canonical shape of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, as well as its compositional history and manuscript evidence. Hess also includes a succinct initiation to the field of textual criticism, summarizing the contribution of each major textual tradition to Old Testament study.
The bulk of the volume is arranged in four parts, according to the divisions of the English canon: Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poetic Books, and Prophetic Books. Hess launches each section with a brief introduction to the corpus, addressing (as appropriate) issues of content, style, themes, authorship, and canonical function. He then addresses every biblical book in turn. Each chapter is arranged according to the following sections:
- Name, Text, and Outline: Hess explains the English title of the book, with reference to its traditional Greek and Hebrew labels. He also characterizes the quality of text preserved in the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, and notes any issues related to canonization. An outline of the book’s contents is also included.
- Overview: According to the aforementioned outline, Hess explains the book’s structure and summarizes its content and basic themes.
- Reading: The highlight of Hess’ volume is the “Reading” section of each chapter, which traces the text’s reception history and introduces students to different methods of interpretation. The section includes six categories:
- Premodern Readings: A surprisingly thorough (yet succinct) treatment of early Jewish and Christian interpretation, with clear references for further research.
- Higher Criticism: A review and assessment of major critical approaches to the book (i.e., source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, and tradition history). Because of the importance of source criticism and the study of tradition history in the last century of Pentateuchal scholarship, Hess devotes entire sections to these two interpretive approaches in the chapters on Genesis–Deuteronomy.
- Literary Readings: A literary (i.e., synchronic) account of the book in question, focusing on elements such as characterization, style, vocabulary, and themes.
- Gender and Ideological Criticism: A consideration of the text, “addressing some concerns of justice and equality among various peoples” (20). This section highlights how minority voices have affected interpretation of various passages (e.g., liberation theology in Exodus, feminist interpretation in Judges), while drawing attention to female characters and feminine metaphors throughout the Old Testament.
- Ancient Near Eastern Context: Critical background information related to the book’s original context. Hess discusses comparative material that has shaped the field for the last century, as well as important archaeological discoveries in recent decades that have shifted scholarly interpretation. (For an especially robust example, see the chapter on 1–2 Samuel, which spans 13 pages and addresses the rise of the monarchy and the historicity of the Davidic kingdom, with sidebars on Old Testament chronology and the text of the Tel Dan Stele.)
- Canonical Context: A brief exploration of the relationship between the book and the rest of the Old Testament. Hess addresses direct links to other texts in the canon, similar content and themes in other parts of the Old Testament, and the function of the book in the broader canonical presentation of Israel’s history.
- Theological Perspectives: This section surveys the text synthetically, highlighting major themes and addressing ethical issues as appropriate (e.g., genocide in Joshua). On occasion, Hess’ theological discussions extend into the New Testament and discuss the relevance of the text for understanding the gospel (e.g., the chapter on Esther).
- Key Commentaries and Studies: An annotated bibliography, generally comprising 6–10 sources.
Hess concludes the volume with a chapter named “Transition,” in which Hess reflects on the importance of the Old Testament for properly reading the New. He asserts that the Old Testament “provides the absolutely essential foundation for all that follows” (711).
Evaluation and Conclusion
Hess’ The Old Testament is an exhaustive and clearly-written primer to Old Testament study, from its contents and backgrounds to its academic reception. Students using Hess’ introduction will be prepared for contemporary academic and culturally-conditioned discussions of the biblical text in a way that few other textbooks provide.
Hess makes two contributions that are especially unique and timely. First, he robustly summarizes premodern interpretation of the text. Even within the confines of an introductory textbook, Hess avoids unfair generalizations and opts instead for something of an annotated catalogue. To illustrate: in his survey of the premodern Christian literature on Judges (201–202), he lists and very briefly describes the individual contributions of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Martin Luther, Richard Rogers, Jonathan Edwards, Matthew Henry, John Wesley, and Carl Friedrich Keil. Hess’ second unique contribution is to extend the field’s standard treatment of interpretive methods to minority voices on a global scale. To discuss gender-related and ideological approaches in an introductory textbook is to equip students to acknowledge and challenge their own interpretive horizons and prepare them to engage discussions dominating contemporary academic study of the Old Testament. This section is necessarily brief (a fact Hess acknowledges), but a welcome introduction to underrepresented interpretive voices.
The volume suffers only from the limitations of its genre; what Hess achieves in breadth, he occasionally sacrifices in depth. Hess admits as much, but reiterates his commitment to breadth by asserting that an introduction must not “ignore methods of Bible study that reflect the globalization of the discipline as well as the emergence of new literary, canonical, and history-of-interpretation approaches. Although a book of this length cannot adequately address every area of interest, it can introduce readers to these subjects and at least some of their major trajectories” (18–19). Students will flourish when instructors pick up where Hess leaves off, tracing the implications of interpretive methods and working toward a synthetic reading of the text using the vast array of tools Hess provides.
Michelle Knight is a Ph.D. student at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.
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The Old Testament: A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction