November 30, 2009

Review: "Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament"

Title: Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament
Authors: Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Dana M. Pike, and David Rolph Seely
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: Old Testament/Criticism, Interpretation
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 397
ISBN13: 9781606411360
Price: $45.95

Every fourth year the Sunday School curriculum covers the enigmatic books of the Old Testament. Official Church manuals generally take a homiletic approach, emphasizing lessons from the scriptures for members to apply in their daily lives. This method has the benefit of making the Old Testament more accessible to contemporary Latter-day Saints in terms of practical gospel living, but the drawback of overlooking its complex historical and cultural context. This can be especially problematic when the focus of study includes far-removed stories involving murder, a global flood, parting seas, God-directed plagues and literal fire from heaven. Moreover, official LDS publications generally shy away from the more problematic aspects of the text as described in academic analysis. This is one reason Deseret Book’s new volume Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament is so useful. Church manuals generally do not encourage the use of outside sources during Sunday School lessons. The Old Testament manual encourages teachers to be “judicious” in their use of “commentaries and other nonscriptural sources of information.”1 This direction carries both positive and negative side-effects, and it does not prevent the Deseret Book catalog from catering to Church curriculum each year. Though it may not be entirely appropriate for an average Sunday School lesson, this book has the potential to richly benefit many LDS students and teachers.

This beautiful volume is a large and graphically-rich introduction to the world of the Old Testament from an accessible academic perspective. Authors Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Dana M. Pike, and David Rolph Seely did not attempt to write a traditional commentary of Old Testament doctrine or a comprehensive survey of daily life in ancient Israel. Instead, their work "introduces and helps illuminate the Old Testament in its ancient Israelite and broader ancient Near Eastern world" (Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, p. 2). By making extensive use of the past two centuries of ancient Near East scholarship they examine two different “worlds” of the Old Testament. First: “the world within the Old Testament,” which includes the practices and beliefs outlined by the text itself. Second: the “historical world,” which included the Old Testament within it, “where political, social, and cultural connections and tensions developed among the Israelites and between the Israelites and their neighbors” (ibid.). Rather than shoe-horning the Old Testament into a Latter-day Saint paradigm or using it simply to teach some moral principles, the authors contextualize the narrative in history, drawing upon archeology, anthropology, and source criticism.2 

The format of the book is virtually identical to its predecessor, Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament.3 The chapters consist of summary narratives of biblical text interwoven with information and explanations of the cultural setting. Nearly every page includes beautiful photographs, original paintings,4 or an informative sidebar discussion. Cultural similarities are especially interesting to the authors, who draw comparisons to ancient Near East neighbors of the Israelites. The much-maligned Philistines are brought into sharper focus than the often-polemical Old Testament depiction allows. I was particularly struck by a small Philistine clay figurine of a woman mourning, her hands held together atop her head (244). The picture accompanies a discussion on Ancient Near Eastern signs of mourning and distress, shedding light on the meaning behind unfamiliar things like sackcloth, putting dust or ashes on one’s head, and the rending of clothing. All of this accompanies a thoughtful discussion of the Book of Job and the problem of evil, or why God allows suffering. Other Job-like stories from ancient Babylonian wisdom texts are described in another sidebar, humanizing the Israelite’s neighbors while describing their similarities and differences. Special sections of the book deal with specific topics like the Egyptians, Canaanites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Abrahamic Covenant, Mosaic Covenant, Temple ritual, animal sacrifice, Solomon’s Temple, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish ritual and holidays, the development of writing and the alphabet, Old Testament archaeology, and the story of how its books became canonized. 

The authors carefully navigate issues that may be sensitive for some Latter-day Saint readers, including theories on the textual development of the Old Testament and the implications the Joseph Smith Translation has on the Bible. They point out that Joseph Smith’s textual interaction was not mainly a restoration of lost Hebrew text, but an inspired commentary from a modern prophet’s perspective to help illuminate otherwise difficult or unclear passages. They also briefly discuss the implications of the Documentary Hypothesis, which holds that later redactors either wrote or heavily edited the five books of Moses, imposing certain views onto earlier Israelite history. Granted, many readers already familiar with these issues will likely find the treatment too brief, but the fact that a discussion is included at all is exciting, especially in a volume published by Deseret Book.5 A few instances where the text has implications upon the Book of Mormon are also included, including a profile of Lehi in contrast to his contemporary Jerusalem prophets before Jerusalem’s destruction (327-328). Frequent discussions of historicity and the nature of ancient record keeping will give readers more realistic expectations of the text. The authors explain: “None of these narratives tells the complete story, and there is always more we wish we knew. The authors and redactors consciously selected, emphasized, and arranged their materials in a particular way for a reason, generally theological” (172). This might seem obvious to some readers, but I believe many Latter-day Saints would benefit from a more realistic understanding of the Old Testament as described by these authors. They spend a good deal of time discussing the kind of "history" readers should expect, which obviously differs both from modern academic standards and popular conceptions of what “history” is. The discussion on the various names of God may be surprising to some readers as the authors demonstrate how “Elohim” and “Jehovah” function as titles rather than the precise names for the Father and the Son as has become the general practice of Latter-day Saints (16-19). The authors are careful to point out whenever they are relying on what they call “a Restoration reading,” or an interpretation of a scripture that is uniquely Latter-day Saint (such as the meaning of Ezekiel’s “stick of Ephraim, p. 346) or uniquely Christian (such as Isaiah’s prophecy that “a virgin shall conceive,” referring to a more contemporary circumstance, and foreshadowing the birth of Christ, pp. 296-297).

Frankly, there is too much excellent information in this book to hope to include in a short review (Goliath was likely shorter than what the King James Version claims? See p. 199). The approach of the book is expansive. It treats an astounding amount of information in a remarkably brief number of pages. However, this format also leads to a few drawbacks. For the sake of brevity the authors occasionally move too fast, leaving me hungry for more but without good advice on where to get it. This is understandable, but a few “for further reading” recommendations in the footnotes would have been useful. In fact, there are no footnotes. References are cited in the text. Again, this is understandable since the book is crafted for general readership. At times, the brevity leads the authors to side-step sticky issues without fuller treatment. Horrible death-by-fire as related in the book of Numbers is almost humorously referred to as “a swift object lesson” for Israelites who rejected Moses (130). Noah’s flood is treated in less than a page without mention of different theories of its scope—worldwide or local (28). The authors get bonus points for including information on other flood stories that might have influenced the Noah account, however, including the so-called Gilgamesh Epic (27). Similar discussions introduce readers to the Babylonian creation epic (22), Hammurabi’s code and the Law of Moses (97-98), and the Wisdom literature of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, which parallels aphorisms of other ancient Near Eastern groups (238). Understanding the culture of the Old Testament will help readers better understand the Old Testament. It is refreshing to see such an academic, attractive, accessible book published by Deseret Book. Understanding the culture of the Old Testament helps readers better understand the Old Testament. It is refreshing to see an academic, attractive, accessible book for average readers published by Deseret Book. 

“Helps for the Teacher,” Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, p. v directs teachers as follows: “During class, keep discussions focused on the scriptures. Be judicious in your use of commentaries and other nonscriptural sources of information. Class members should be taught to seek knowledge and inspiration from the scriptures and the words of the latter-day prophets.”

Strictly speaking, the volume is clearly written through a Christian or Latter-day Saint paradigm, but the authors are conscious of other perspectives on the text generally and give readers a general understanding of several lenses.

Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Thomas A. Wayment, Eric D. Huntsman, Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament (Deseret Book, 2006).

Many of the paintings were painted by Balage Balogh and were specifically commissioned for this volume. Attention to historical accuracy and detail was important, right down to the dark red blood smeared on temple alters.

Issues like the Documentary Hypothesis have been discussed in LDS publications elsewhere, including articles in the FARMS Review and Dialogue. One especially useful treatment is Kevin L. Barney, “Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 33 No. 1, Spring 2000: 57-99.


Randy B. said...

Nice job Blair.

Jeremy said...

I'm looking for a new OT commentary. Do you recommend this one, or is there another one that you are particularly fond of?

BHodges said...

This is the one I recommend right now as far as an LDS perspective is concerned. Keep in mind I am not an OT expert by any stretch. But I have talked to several people whose opinions I trust in that area who also warmly recommended it. I hope Ben Spackman comes around to offer his suggestion, I imagine there are some books by non-LDS authors we would greatly profit from. Still, this book is the one I recommend right now.

BHodges said...

Check out Ben's review here:

His footnotes have some references to other one-volume treatments.

WVS said...

Thanks Blair. Useful information.

Nitsav said...

Jeremy, check out the series I'm running over at FPR. I have a list of recommended books, including commentaries. I'll be doing a post on every category, I think.

My post on Bibles should be up within 24 hours, and I'll hit commentaries sometime next week, I think. See the list in the 2nd link.


BHodges said...

Excellent contributions, nitsav.

Jeff said...

I like the idea, and want to have a look through the book myself. But I worry that this might this be an example of "too little, too late."

What status will this book have as an accepted official viewpoint in the church? If the synopsis given above is correct, it would necessarily have to contradict various long-held myths within the doctrine of the church. Will ascribing to these new views make the readers of this book to be branded "heretic", or will it be accepted and integrated into the body of LDS theology?

From one who was driven out of the church for very similar reasons to the content of this book, I worry for others like myself who see this as a license to share these views with others.

BHodges said...

It's certainly not too little too late for me, Jeff.

What status will this book have as an accepted official viewpoint in the church?

None because it isn't an official position. The book makes it clear it represents the views of the authors.

Will ascribing to these new views make the readers of this book to be branded "heretic", or will it be accepted and integrated into the body of LDS theology?

Some of the views have long been accepted by various Latter-day Saints, including leaders. I certainly welcome it.

Eric Nielson said...

Thanks for this great review.

Aaron said...

Very interesting to see a book on Old Testament textual criticism in Desert Book stores. I have been taking an open course through Yale University on the Hebrew Bible (the 24 major books) and have been learning about the cultural parallels. Most take offense to the idea that the Laws of Moses are similar to the Code of Hammurabi or that many legends in other Near Eastern Traditions are found in the Bible with a monotheistic treatment to them. However, these kinds of studies make one realize that they were a product of their time (all though radically different in many cases) and certain actions by the people in the Old Testament make sense when compared to the cultures. I always feel the Biblical studies are increasingly important for LDS members when they enter dialogue with other Christians. While studies in the Book of Mormon, D & C, and Pearl of Great Price are equally important; saints look bad when they can't even remember where certain Biblical accounts can be found.

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