Review: “The Old Testament,” by Richard Hess

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Richard Hess is an Old Testament professor at Denver Seminary who has distinguished himself with a brace of high quality studies and commentaries. These include a notable Commentary on Joshua in the Tyndale series, and a book on Israelite Religions. This work of Old Testament introduction competes with the works of Hill & Walton, Longman & Dillard, Arnold & Beyer, as well as older books by Gleason Archer and R. K. Harrison.

In The Old Testament Hess reviews each book of the Hebrew Bible providing an outline, an overview of the contents, a helpful section on “Reading” each book, which is divided into “Premodern” and critical readings; the latter being particularly useful. There is then a section on “Gender and Ideological Criticism,” Ancient Near Eastern and Canonical context, Literary structure, Theological themes, and a brief annotated bibliography. Overall, the style is highly readable and informative. The chapters are enhanced with black and white charts, diagrams, maps, photos, and insets focusing on pertinent topics.

The author’s survey of the contents of each book provide a good summary of what one will find when reading through the Bible. This can serve as a reminder of the main events and persons, especially in the longer books. The section on “Reading…” will assist any student trying to pick their way through the way the different critical approaches have looked at the texts. What this does is give the gist of a critical approach, which may have some insight, while revealing its sometime basis in unbelief. This part of the introduction serves as a good check on one’s hermeneutics.

I shall bypass the “Gender” sections for the moment and move to the sections on context. These pull together the author’s long associations with cultural and archaeological backgrounds and present them in clear terms for the reader. Hess also shows an ability to fit each book into the wider canonical whole; a knack that will be appreciated by preachers.

For me the most useful parts of the book are the “Literary Readings” and “Theological Perspectives” sections. Hess discusses form and stylistic features, often noticing things in passages like the grouping of sayings around a theme or person, or the presence of a theme at strategic points. The theological units summarize both important authorial preoccupations (e.g. key themes, words, and persons, etc.), and developing motifs (although there is some crossover with other sections).

A good example of the book’s usefulness would be the chapter on Deuteronomy. As well as providing a history of the critical approaches to the book, Hess shows that Deuteronomy’s suzerain-vassal treaty format is integral to its interpretation, and he manages to do this without being boring! The pages covering “Theological Perspectives” are extremely good. Hess gives attention to the covenant, the Ten Commandments, and to the Shema while explaining how these influenced Jewish self-understanding thereafter. Deuteronomy is a book where issues such as gender and justice can be discussed, and the treatment of these issues is well done here.

This brings me to the sections entitled “Gender and Ideological Issues.” Sometimes (actually quite often) there is not much to say under this heading and we find the author dealing with apologetic matters (e.g. in tackling the Sheffield and Copenhagen schools in 1 & 2 Kings). In general I have to say that I found these sections heavy going. Is the Bible really concerned with the sort of gender identity politics and argumentation of the beginning part of the the 21st century? Feminist interpreters don’t read the Bible as a normative revelation from God to them. They read it for case studies and to find platforms for their worldly interpretations. The fact is that every book in the Bible was written by a man, not a woman. And although there are many women who are vital to its stories (e.g. Eve, Sarah, Hannah, Naomi, Esther, etc.), their stories are told by God through men of God. Hence, searching out women’s perspectives in a Book like the Bible seems to me to be both an exercise in futility and a distraction from the purpose of the revelation. The Old Testament comes to us all as persons, not as special identities.

All in all Richard Hess has given the evangelical world a very good book of Old Testament introduction. While using it extensively for several months it has grown on me more and more. I recommend it for its excellent presentation of a great deal of helpful conservative information and its economy of style. While I will not be throwing out my R. K. Harrison, I do think this is the best contemporary work on the subject I have encountered.

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