Update: I’ve put together a collection of samples from these books.
First, note that LDS Perspectives is beginning a string of Old Testament-related podcasts, today with Philip Barlow (Mormons and the Bible), Cory Crawford next week, and me on December 20th, talking about what’s going on in Genesis 1, Moses, and Abraham. I also have a post coming on the early chapters of Genesis, so stay tuned.
When we read the Old Testament, we need several things, like good translations and notes. We need lots of background information on the history and culture (topic of the next post.) But it’s not just data that matters. It’s also our approach, what we’re looking for, what we expect to find, what we think the Old Testament was for, both overall and in its various parts. I suspect many of us are just unaware of how much we bring to our reading and how it shapes our experience.
This is a list of paradigm changers and eye-openers. In some ways, having a paradigm shift is more important than simply having more data, because it completely changes how you view and use the data. Sometimes data alone can lead to a paradigm shift. In my BYU Studies article on atonement terminology in the Old Testament, I recount my discovery of Israelite names meaning “God is my father” (just fine), “God is my brother” (uh, Jesus as elder brother, maybe, kinda?) and then the paradigm-buster, “God is my uncle.” I simply couldn’t fit that into my narrow conceptions, and it pushed me into new territory. So these books don’t go verse-by-verse or even book by book; rather they reshape our general approach, assumptions, and expectations.
In my shortlist, I singled out Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes and Schlimm’s This Strange and Sacred Scripture as two must-reads, but in my ideal world, all the books below would be common reading among Mormons, even pre-mission. They’re mostly short (150-200 pages), inexpensive paperback, and aimed at non-specialists, so they’re meant to be accessible. Some longer/deeper volumes come at the end. As always, I neither fully agree with nor “endorse” any of these books, and with one exception, none of them are written by Latter-day Saints; they are fantastically helpful and thought-provoking.
- In terms of free and accessible, I’d point you first to my podcast last summer with LDS Perspectives about reading the Old Testament and genre. That kind of approach has become second nature for me, but it’s radically new for many Mormons. One friend posted the link to Facebook saying, “Read this transcript… then imagine how different your experience with LDS scripture would’ve been growing up if someone had explained this to you early on, if it had been integrated into the curriculum in a formal way — in seminary, in church, at BYU, wherever. It seems tragic to me that this has never happened. That generations of LDS students — even very smart and educated ones — fixate on the wrong questions and the wrong preoccupations about the text because they’ve never been taught to do differently”
- One of the books that pushed me in that genre direction early on was McKenzie’s How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature– Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference and What it Means for Faith Today (Oxford 2005). McKenzie introduced me to the idea of genre confusion, genre markers in Jonah, and Galaxy Quest as a modern fictional illustration of misreading genres. (Note that you can learn Hebrew and still know nothing about literary genres, as was the case for me as an undergrad.)
- Brent Strawn has some excellent Old Testament books, but it’s his short paper contribution found in few places, called “Genesis, Gilgamesh, and ‘Getting’ Jiggy wit It’ :Ancient Near Eastern Parallels, Scripture, and Hip-Hop Sampling.” Many of the works I point to will compare/contrast Biblical ideas or passages with ancient Near Eastern material that the Biblical writers knew, alluded to, drew on, or at least breathed the same cultural air. Indeed, the more we learn about the ancient Near East, the less unique the Bible appears, at least in its constituent parts. This kind of shared cultural element in revelation can be challenging to people who assume revelation comes in unique forms, or that it wears no cultural trappings. Strawn uses rap sampling in his classes to explain why inspired authors might use (consciously or not) other non-biblical and even “pagan” materials. His short article has been summarized by someone else in YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BVWXUIpTug
- Peter Enns’ books and podcast, but especially Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. An Evangelical trained at Harvard, Enns addresses three assumptions Evangelicals bring to the Old Testament that causes struggles with it, like the one above, that revelation is completely independent of culture. As it turns out, Mormons largely share these assumptions. Enns’ earlier books like this one are a little more academic; his later books like X often cover the same material have a more popular jovial tone. Enns has been on the Maxwell Institute podcast twice and spoken at BYU. I covered that small conference here, his published remarks behind the paywall here.
- Marc Zvi Brettler’s How to Read the (Jewish) Bible, (Jewish Publication Society, 2005) was also an influential read for me. He provides a short introduction to the major sections of the Hebrew Bible in terms of genre markers, ancient purposes, and modern assumptions. From Brettler I took the ideas of “competent reader” and the “rules of the game” evident in my presentations. (Barton covers these with more depth, but he’s not as accessible.) Brettler has also been on the Maxwell Institute podcast first talking about the conference book The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously (co-written by Enns and a Catholic author) and second with Amy-Jill Levine on editing the Jewish Annotated New Testament.
- James Kugel has been another influential Jewish author for me. His How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now opens with a history of modern Bible scholarship and its tensions. He then turns to the Hebrew Bible and goes through selectively and sequentially, explaining why Bible scholars today understand it the way they do, and why ancient interpreters might have understood it differently. I’ve likened Kugel to Richard Bushman at times. This is a wonderful but challenging (and long!) book, and Kugel explains at the end and elsewhere how he maintains his belief as an Orthodox Jew who taught Hebrew Bible at Harvard. Kugel has spoken at BYU on issues of faith and scholarship and been interviewed on the MI podcast.
- Although narrowly about Job, I include Michael Austin’s LDS Rereading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poembecause it illustrates paradigm change with a deep dive into a book we mostly ignore, and perfectly balances devotional reading, practical application, and academic study. I know a Stake President who bought copies of this for the entire High Council. One spouse who read it came back in tears to report how instrumental it had been during a lengthy and extremely difficult physical and emotional situation involving health, sex, children, family alienation, and death. There are depths to the Old Testament, if we can grasp them.
- Moving into deeper territory, Kenton Sparks’ two books God’s Word in Human Words and Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture. The first looks at ideas about revelation, scholarship, and the nature of scripture, within an Evangelical context. The second, written for a more general audience, expands on those topics to ask how Christians can accept a book as inspired (or even inerrant!) that is at times factually wrong, assumes the validity of slavery, misogynistic, genocide, etc. Both of these books have been highly influential on me.
Benjamin Sommer’s recent book Revelation and Authority gets into some of the same area as Sparks, but from a Jewish perspective. Sommer argues for a “participatory model of revelation” in which the human prophetic recipient shapes and influences the revelation, and the implications this has for Jewish law in the Hebrew Bible. As the Amazon blurb says, “Sommer’s book demonstrates why a law-observant religious Jew can be open to discoveries about the Bible that seem nontraditional or even antireligious.” Our conception of revelation contributes to our understanding of scripture, history, and tradition. (See also my presentation on “Truth, Scripture, and Interpretation: Some Precursors to Reading Genesis“)
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