The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament
Here’s a new book review I wrote for rbecs.org:
Many thanks to B&H Academic for providing a review copy.
The World and the Word, by Eugene Merrill, Mark Rooker, and Michael Grisanti, is a textbook designed for use in undergraduate or seminary Old Testament introduction courses. The niche this book occupies among other OT introductions is found in the position held by the book’s authors toward the Bible, namely a conservative evangelical affirmation of biblical inerrancy and a generally literalistic hermeneutic. Rather than engage in critical dialogue with the theological position of the authors, I want to evaluate this book based on: 1) its success in achieving its own expressed aim, and 2) the degree and extent of its usefulness as an undergraduate Old Testament introductory textbook.
A bit of self-disclosure will help put this book review into perspective. I write as one who is sympathetic with traditional Christian supernaturalism (there is no good philosophical or scientific reason why the miracles in the Bible could not have happened) and who feels that the scholarly attitude toward biblical historicity has been, in general, unreasonably skeptical. While I grew up among Christian fundamentalists, I do not self-identify as a fundamentalist (my view of the Bible gives too much place to the human element in its creation). Neither, however, do I hold a grudge against fundamentalists. I wish them well and want them to be able articulate their views intelligently and convincingly.
The Book’s Expressed Aim
So what is the book’s intention? Merrill writes in the book’s Epilogue:
We have attempted to demonstrate an awareness of the latest and best scholarship in the realm of Old Testament criticism without slavishly aping it or polemically reacting to it. Our intention has been to examine objectively and abstractly the various themes and topics that constitute the genre and to employ all available evidence in as fair-minded and even-handed a manner as possible (p. 561).
Furthermore, Merrill writes (in a paragraph that sounds surprisingly post-modern), they have made this attempt from an admittedly confessional standpoint. What all of this means, it seems, is that the book has something a dual purpose: 1) to offer an intellectually honest and informed corrective to the general trend in works of this genre coming from conservative evangelical circles (characterized by Merrill, with justification, as “polemically reacting to” Old Testament critical scholarship); and 2) to offer a conservative evangelical alternative to the general trend in critical Old Testament introductions.
This is a worthy goal, in my opinion. Critical scholarship is only improved when it is forced to deal with a well-reasoned and informed conservative perspective, and conservative evangelicalism is certainly healthier for every effort by its leaders and teachers to engage scholarship of any sort with intellectual honesty, especially biblical scholarship.
Unfortunately, the noble intention expressed by Merrill in the Epilogue does not find a consistent echo throughout the book. Admittedly, some parts are better than others, but very often what one encounters in The World and The Word is essentially the same fundamentalist polemics, talking points, and ways of reasoning one has come to expect. It is not that the authors needed to have changed their positions on anything. Rather, my disappointment is specifically in the fact that little significant effort has been made to articulate conservative evangelical positions in new and creative ways. Almost all critical methods, including newer synchronic methods that are actually very friendly to fundamentalist exegesis, are almost summarily dismissed because of a perceived connection with “the Enlightenment” or with anti-supernaturalism (which is the unfair charge laid against any non-literalistic hermeneutic of any part of the Old Testament). While the authors engage with a good selection of secondary literature, new and old, the overall tone of voice one hears in their engagement is that of defensiveness.
A Dualistic View of Scholarship
The book clearly emerges from a polarized worldview, a mentality that has divided the world of biblical scholarship into two camps: on the one hand, the “evangelicals” (which is inappropriately used rather than “fundamentalist” in the book, hence the quotation marks), and on the other hand, all those who give place to any doubts whatsoever about the literal historicity of any part of the Old Testament. This “us vs. them” mentality directly and negatively impacts upon the general usefulness of the book as a textbook, and there is scarcely a section of this book where it is not very evident.
Related to this dualistic worldview, the authors continually use dual epistemological standards in their polemic against critical scholarship and their apologetic for conservative evangelical positions. The charge is frequently made (and justly, in my opinion) that many critical positions are excessively skeptical toward, say, biblical historicity or toward the probable antiquity of some parts of the Old Testament. Quite right. Those referred to by the book’s authors as “minimalists” do apply to the Old Testament evidential standards of historicity that are not routinely applied to most texts (“unless you can prove it, it isn’t true”), and then suggest, in place of what we find in the Old Testament texts, hypotheses and historical models that have little to no historical evidence to support them, just conjecture and impassioned argument. However, at the same time, the authors are quick to make sweeping statements that themselves have no supporting evidence. Gristanti writes, for example, “Although Genesis is one of five books that make up the Torah, these five were not originally regarded as separate, individual works.” But this is simply presupposing his conclusions. He cites the OT references to “the book of Moses”, “the book of the law of Moses”, and “this book” as evidence, but precisely what is being referred to by these phrases is not at all certain. Sometimes it might the Pentateuch as whole, sometimes it might be Deuteronomy or some other portion of the Pentateuch, and sometimes it may even refer to a document that we no longer have as such but which is substantially preserved within the Pentateuch. Quite a lot of macrostructural analysis furthermore supports original and intended strong subdivisions within the Pentateuch. This is just one example among many where the authors do not apply to themselves the same strict epistemological standards that they apply to critical scholars. Not only does this aspect cause the book not to succeed by its own standards (of fair-mindedness and even-handedness), it also makes this book less useful as a textbook, since I, as a teacher, would be in the awkward position of continually arguing against my class’s textbook.
Strengths and Weaknesses as an Textbook
Turning, now, more specifically to the usefulness of this book as a textbook, The World and The Word has some significant strengths. The layout and graphic design of the text is clear and uncluttered with very few images or charts. While some might criticize the text-intensiveness of the overall design, I, personally, appreciate it. Textbooks that clutter each page with sidebars, excerpts, tables, quotations, and images (as more and more textbooks seem to be doing) are too hyperactive and difficult to pay attention to. The simple, classic design of this book is a plus.
The writing is pretty well documented, providing students with a helpful beginning bibliography for further study. I was pleased to see that the sources cited were not overly weighted toward outdated conservative works, but included a good balance of old and new sources. As one might expect, the citations are somewhat weighted toward conservative secondary literature, but this is not really problematic. For one thing, some of the best commentaries and articles in the last thirty years relating to many parts of the Old Testament have been coming from conservative scholars. For another, these works by conservative scholars are often more accessible to non-specialists than are the highly technical monographs and articles one encounters in critical scholarship. While the quality of engagement with critical scholarship is somewhat mixed in the book, it very often reveals a deep and accurate understanding of classic works in historical-criticism. For example, other than a handful of points of contention, I found Merrill’s chapter on the history of historical criticism (chapter 8) well done and refreshingly light on fundamentalist polemic.
The way the material is laid out is a mixed bag. The book is divided into seven parts: 1) The World of the Old Testament (historical setting and background); 2) The Text of the Old Testament (composition, canonicity, and transmission), 3) Approaches to the Study of the Old Testament (essentially a history and assessment of the historical-critical method; 4) The Pentateuch; 5) The Historical Books; 6) The Prophetic Books; 7) The Poetic Books. As you can see, this divides the book into two unequal halves, the first being an introduction to the study of the Old Testament, the second being an introduction to the texts of the Old Testament. This is a standard format, and its implementation here is clear.
Some parts of the first half of the book (the introduction to the study of the Old Testament) deserve commendation. Merrill’s survey of Israelite and ancient Near Eastern history is concise and informative, as is Rooker’s following chapter on the culture and geography of the ancient Near East and of important archaeological sites. In chapter 5, Grisanti presents a conservative perspective on the composition of the Old Testament (“inspired textual updating”) that is, actually, an important step forward for many fundamentalists.
The arrangement of the second half of the book, the book-by-book surveys of biblical literature (parts four through seven), is rather odd. On the one hand, it does not follow any canonical order I know of, though it does bear a stronger resemblance to the Christian order of the books than to the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, however, neither does it strictly follow an organization of the biblical books by genre (even though I think this may have been the intention). “Pentateuch” is not a genre, but a canon designation. While Daniel comes between Ezekiel and Hosea in the Christian canon, it simply does not belong among “The Prophetic Books” based on the genre of the texts it contains (which would be narrative and apocalyptic, but not “prophetic”, at least not in the same sense as the other fifteen books). While it is not uncommon to speak of the books that are situated in the Christian canon between Esther and Isaiah as “poetic books” (for lack of a better designation), by moving Lamentations into this group (rather than leaving it after Jeremiah, as one finds it in the Christian canon) and by placing the entire group after “The Prophetic Books”, this book very strongly parts with the Christian canonical order, leaving me confused as to why the chapters are arranged as they are. I recognize the extreme difficulty of organizing the biblical books by genre, but that is precisely why it seems more advisable to stick with an exclusively canonical ordering, either the Christian or the standard Hebrew order. My aim here is not merely to be picky. When teaching an Old Testament introductory course, a very large portion of one’s students will have nothing but a very cursory familiarity with the subject matter. This ordering of the biblical books, which halfway emulates a canonical order and halfway attempts a genre arrangement, would very likely be confusing for such students. Some kind of consistency is preferable.
Organization aside, the book-by-book surveys do a consistently good job of laying out the structure and overall message of each biblical book. As one would expect, traditional authorship and very early dates of composition are affirmed after presenting the most important critical alternatives. The structure of each chapter is not rigidly consistent (meaning not all the same subheadings occur in each chapter or in the same order in each chapter), but that sort of consistency is not really necessary. Each text presents its own problems and invites its own unique questions. The study of one book will not necessarily be identical in form to the study of another book. The important thing is that the book-by-book surveys do a respectable job of covering the content of each book and the most important issues that undergraduate students would likely be capable of grappling with.
So is this book successful? Yes and no. As an introductory textbook for conservative evangelical colleges and seminaries it succeeds in introducing students to the content of the Old Testament, and it partially succeeds in introducing them to the scholarly study of the Old Testament. Unfortunately, the book is weighed down (and bloated, at times) by an underlying fundamentalist apologetic and an inaccurate dualistic view of biblical scholarship that consists of conservatives evangelicals who subscribe to a thoroughgoing literalistic biblical hermeneutic on the one hand and everyone else on the other. Moreover, this dualist worldview is consistently combined with a dual epistemological standard that privileges traditional opinions on matters like authorship without demanding of those traditional positions the same standard of evidence that it demands of critical scholarship. Ultimately, despite its expressed intentions, The World and the Word is not as even-handed or fair-minded as its authors perhaps wished it to be, and while it is a small step forward for conservative evangelical scholarship, it is only a very small step that could have been much bigger. Because of this, its usefulness as a textbook is limited. Many conservative evangelical colleges and seminaries may find in it a safe and useful option for their OT introductory courses. I cannot really see the book finding much use in most other contexts, however, including less conservative evangelical schools.
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The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament