Old Testament Introductions: A Brief Guide to the Hebrew Bible
A Brief Guide to the Hebrew Bible. Hans M. Barstad. Trans. Rannfrid Thelle. 1st English edition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780664233259
A Brief Guide to the Hebrew Bible introduces the reader to the literature of the Old Testament and the history of scholarship pertaining to it in an accessible and engaging way. The book is not organized according to Christian or Jewish canon order, but by scholarly categories. This book also functions as a primer in responsible hermeneutics with excurses on a variety of interesting and helpful topics. The end matter includes a glossary of historical, literary, and scholarly terms. While intended for undergraduate students, this book is useful for laypeople, pastors, non-specialist scholars, or graduate students in Old Testament who desire a quick overview of Old Testament literature and scholarship.
A Brief Guide to the Hebrew Bible by Hans Barstad is an introduction to the literature of the Old Testament and to the history of OT scholarship. While it is intended to function as an undergraduate textbook, because of its brevity combined with its special focus on the state of OT scholarship, its usefulness conceivably extends well beyond this.
Synopsis of the Book’s Content
One of the most significant ways Barstad’s book differs from other OT introductions and handbooks is in the way it is organized. Most Old Testament surveys are arranged either according to the order of the Christian canon or else according to the tripartite Hebrew organization of Torah, Prophets, and Writings. Barstad chooses to present the literature according to scholarly categories: the Priestly History (Genesis through Numbers), the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy through 2 Kings, excluding Ruth), the Chronicler history (1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah), Prophetic Literature, Poetry and Wisdom Literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs), and Novellas (Jonah, Ruth, Esther).
After a brief first chapter covering some preliminary issues (manuscript evidence, languages, the process of canonization), Barstad divides his treatment of historical narrative into three groups: the Priestly, Deuteronomistic, and Chronicler histories. In each chapter he not only summarizes the individual books as such, but more significantly he deals with them as groups. Though he discusses Genesis through Numbers as a unified work under the title “Priestly History”, he makes a distinction between this title and the P source of the Documentary Hypothesis, of which he is skeptical. He regards Genesis through Numbers as a unified “Priestly History” because the work as a whole seems to address priestly concerns. This chapter contains an excellent summary of Pentateuch scholarship since Wellhausen.
Chapters three and four deal, respectively, with the Deuteronomistic and Chronicler histories. The discussion of opinions pertaining to the Deuteronomistic History could, perhaps, have been a little more developed (although he disagrees with Noth’s single redactor theory, he discusses neither post-Noth theories nor the current skepticism over the very existence of a Deuteronomistic History), but entire books are written for just that purpose. Instead, he points out some of the most important themes that distinguish the Deuteronomistic History, like covenant and holy war. Similarly, his focus in chapter four is on what unifies and differentiates the Chronicler history (including Ezra and Nehemiah) from the Deuteronomistic history.
The chapter on the Prophets is particularly praiseworthy. Barstad, a leading expert in Israelite and comparative ancient Near Eastern prophetic literature, ably guides the reader through issues of form, content, dating and historicity in an accessible way. This chapter is also an especially good introduction to the relevance of non-Israelite prophetic literature. It should be noted that the book of Jonah is not dealt with here but in the final chapter dealing with narrative books not included in the grand historical narratives (chapters 2-4). Daniel, on the other hand, is dealt with here, keeping with the Christian order of OT books but departing from the Jewish order.
The chapter on Poetic and Wisdom Literature is, again, replete not only with up-to-date insights about the literature itself but also with a survey of the history of scholarly opinion. He is especially thorough in his treatment of the Psalms (23 pages). A short chapter covering Jonah, Ruth, and Esther finishes the book.
More than a mere survey of the books of the Old Testament, this book also functions as a primer in responsible hermeneutics. Throughout, Barstad argues that older critical methods, while still applicable and helpful, are insufficient in and of themselves. The current diversity of methods, including especially final form literary analysis, is a necessary and beneficial development. The book is sprinkled with helpful excurses (not so named) on topics like the “The Bible and Archaeology”, “The Deuteronomistic History and History”, and “Prophecy as a Phenomenon”, which correct common misunderstandings and misuses of the Old Testament. These are invariably fascinating. The end matter includes a glossary of historical, literary, and scholarly terms, which is a treasure in and of itself.
What Does This Mean For You?
If you are an advanced student of the Bible with some upper level training, this book is a useful overview of OT literature and scholarship. But how useful is this book for the average student of the Bible, the Christian or Jew on the street? Much in every way, as the Apostle Paul might say.
If you have read our page on Bible handbooks, you will have seen that there are specialized handbooks called “Introductions.” That is what A Brief Guide to the Hebrew Bible is. And as such it is designed to teach you things that a standard handbook typically does not. Specifically, this book will teach you to think maybe a little differently about how the books of the Bible naturally group themselves together. For example, the average Christian or Jewish reader of the Bible will typically group the first five books of the Bible together (the “Pentateuch”, “Torah”, or “Books of Moses”). However, it has long been noted among scholars that Deuteronomy seems to be fundamentally different on many levels from the first four books of the Pentateuch. At the same time, it shares concerns and themes with Joshua through 2 Kings (excluding Ruth). This observation can be a real shock to a believer coming at it for the first time, but once you have taken it in, it actually makes a lot of sense and helps you ask questions maybe a little more precisely. It also means that you are much more sensitive to places where the so-called “Deuteronomistic History” perhaps bears a closer resemblance to Exodus, Leviticus, or Numbers than it does to Deuteronomy.
A lot of believers who have advanced beyond basic Bible study often find themselves at a loss as to where to go next to grow their Bible knowledge. History is a natural subject to move into, but the problem here is that much of what is commonly sold on Christian bookstore shelves is pretty out-of-date and sometimes downright inaccurate. A Brief Guide to the Hebrew Bible provides not just an introduction to the Bible in its historical context that is literary in focus (which is exactly what it needs to be), but, just as important, a guide to how this historical context is relevant. At many points, the book focuses on teaching responsible hermeneutics, which is something that a person who is wanting to take their Bible reading to the next level needs to think about. So while this book might seem on the surface like it is irrelevant outside of the college classroom, in actual fact, it would be an outstanding addition to any serious Bible reader’s library.
While intended for undergraduate students, A Brief Guide to the Hebrew Bible contains an astounding amount of information in comparatively little space, making it useful for laypeople, pastors, scholars not specializing in Old Testament, or graduate students in Old Testament who are wanting a quick and accessible overview of Old Testament scholarship. Barstad manages to encompass and distill the bewildering diversity of contemporary scholarship and present it in a way that is both understandable and engaging for the non-specialist.
- Organized by scholarly category rather than either Christian or Jewish canon order
- Designed to teach a student how to approach the Hebrew Bible like a scholar
- Glossary of historical, literary, and scholarly terms
- Brief and easy to read
- A masterful summary of Old Testament scholarship
- End matter glossary is super helpful
- Not many entry-level OT intros contain information about the importance of other ancient Near Eastern prophecy for biblical interpretation
- Material is organized in a way that is not intuitive for the average reader
- Critical point-of-view may make conservative readers of the Bible a little uncomfortable, at first
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A Brief Guide to the Hebrew Bible