Five Recommended books for Understanding the Old Testament

Five Recommended books for Understanding the Old Testament October 24, 2007

Five or so…

First, a good Bible or two, meant for understanding and personal study. Given only one choice, I’d recommend the Jewish Study Bible. The JPS translation is dynamic (thought-for-thought),the commentary is useful, and the essays included in the back are excellent. If I were to add a second Bible, I’d recommend the NIV Study Bible. It’s Evangelical and conservative, but I find it’s OT notes useful, the translation quite readable.

Second, it’s often difficult to locate onself in the text historically or understand where something fits in when one doesn’t have a good grasp on the big historical picture. Regardless of Jewish or Christian order, the books are not arranged chronologically, and multiple books overlap with each other. Chronicles starts over at the beginning with Adam, for example. Isaiah is contemporary with parts of Kings. A good history is useful for many things. I recommend the volume edited by Shanks, Ancient Israel. Other lengthier and more detailed histories I would recommend are Miller/Hayes’ History of Ancient Israel and The Oxford History of the Biblical World. These represent solid scholarship in the middle of the road.

Third, the nations, events, and peoples of the OT represent vastly different cultures than ours. Reading it in absence of understanding those differences results in confusion and dislike. We must read the OT on its own terms and in its own context. “We should judge the actions of our predecessors on the basis of the laws and commandments and circumstances of their day, not ours.” (Elder Oaks, Ensign May 1996.) We need a guide to Isralite culture and customs, something like Life in Biblical Israel, or de Vaux’s much older Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions.

As an extension of this principle, we need to understand the nature of the text(s) we’re reading in the Bible. We readily recognize today that we should read the front page differently than an editorial than a political cartoon, the difference between history/historiography, historical fiction, fiction, and science fiction, for example. The Old Testament has just as many different genres, and when we read it through modern eyes, not making mental adjustments for whatever Israelite genre the text is, we misread it. To get at this, I suggest Marc Brettler’s How to Read the (Jewish) Bible. (John Barton’s Reading the Old Testament also gets at this, but from the perspective of different schools of Biblical criticism. Not for the uninitiated.)

Lastly, Israelites and Jews conceived of, or mentally structured their beliefs and religion differently than we do in retrospect today. Many things that formed a mental foundation for their beliefs and actions are often not recognized as such today, things such as kinship or covenant. I recommend Jon Levenson’s Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible.

Beyond this, one gets into either textbooks of introductions to the OT (which give general introductions and overviews for each book) or commentaries which vary in quality and approach from volume to volume. We’ll leave them off the list.

I regret the following reality, but it is what it is. There’s nothing LDS that I’d recommend. I’m unaware of any good books treating the whole thing or large portions thereof. We’re beginning to get some useful introductory NT material, but the OT remains largely untouched. The reasons for this deserve their own post.


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