A Recent Book on the Bible You Really Oughta Read

A Recent Book on the Bible You Really Oughta Read June 12, 2012

I just read The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (HarperOne, November 2011) by Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, both of Vanderbilt University. I think it is a great resource for students of the Bible, I want to recommend it wholeheartedly.

Running about 450 pages, this book is best described as a balanced, succinct, and readable introduction to reading the Bible rooted in the broader historical-critical academic conversation, while also helping readers see the implications of that conversation for understanding what the Bible means.

In other words, what’s the payoff for everyday readers being down with modern biblical scholarship? The answer is a lot.

One can also describe the book as a wonderful resource for students asking what scholars are saying about any one of a number of issues pertaining to Old Testament scholarship.

Anyone abreast of the scholarly issues will read Knight and Levine’s assessment of, say, the exodus and the conquest, and see immediately that they are actually trying to help readers, not blast them. But by “helping” readers, they are not trying to defend the Bible–and equating helping and defending is a common mistake in the Evangelical mindset.

The alternative, likewise a caricature of Evangelicalism, is unbounded skepticism, but clearly our authors are not of that mold. Rather, they offer sober judgments and leave readers feeling like their Bible has been put in context, not deconstructed.

I can see that for conservative Evangelicals, the methodology and conclusions of the authors will pose obstacles, if not provide clear evidence of compromise with “unbelief,” but this book deserves much more serious attention.

If anything, I would hope that this book could provide a balance to the more apologetic treatments of Scripture that beset Evangelicalism, most recently Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture. I want to appeal especially to readers who might not be familiar with historical-critical scholarship, but who, after reading this book, might be tempted to conclude that non-Evangelical biblical scholarship is bankrupt, with little to offer the discerning faithful reader.

The Meaning of the Bible is divided into four parts and each of the fourteen chapters treats a particular theme. It is not immediately clear what function the four parts has, except perhaps to break up the content for readers.

The themes covered are:

The History of Ancient Israel (overview of the Old Testament and reconstructions of history)

The Literary Heritage of Israel (translation, literary conventions, authorship issues)

Land and Settlement (Israel’s environs, topography, settlement of the land)

Law and Justice (written and oral law, law in the ancient world)

The Divine (names of God, portraits of God, one God among many gods)

The Cultus (tabernacle, temple, priests, sacrifice)

Chaos and Creation (creation texts in ancient Near Eastern context)

Continuation and Contemplation (Israel’s search for a home and the birth of apocalyptic)

Self and Other (Israel’s identity vis-a-vis the surrounding peoples)

Sexuality (marriage, divorce, adultery, abortion, sexual abuse)

Politics and Economy (tribes, clans, households, cities, nation-states)

Diaspora (loss of the northern kingdom, exile of the southern, and their aftermath)

Critique and Reform (prophetic tradition and Israel’s historians as critics)

Wisdom and Theodicy (biblical and postbiblical wisdom traditions)

You can see a lot is packed in to these fourteen chapters.

Bottom line: If you read this book and grasp the issues, you will have a great working knowledge of reading the Old Testament in our modern world. If you are going to seminary, or just got out and didn’t pay attention, or if you’re just plain curious about the Old Testament, this is a book you will want to have.


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  • It’s also quite affordably priced for a Serious book. Thanks for the very useful pointer, Peter. (I’m also looking for a good introduction to the early Fathers, if you might have something to recommend?)

  • RJS

    Looks interesting.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Thanks for this tip Peter. How does this treatment compare with Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now”? I read Kugel a couple of years ago and really benefited from it – should read it again.

  • j. t. campbell

    Pete: Curious to know if you have written a response to Jerry Coyne’s review of your book (The Evolution of Adam) on the internet? If so…could you let me know how I can access it. (I’m curious to know what your overall opinion is of what he wrote.) Also…any reason you know of as to why “Click here to email Dr. Enns” does not produce any “connection” whatsoever???

    • peteenns

      Did how review the book? I didn’t see that.

      The link works for me….

      • j. t. campbell

        My apologies…but I don’t understand your answer.

        • peteenns

          Sorry. Mistyped.

          I didn’t know Coyne reviewed the book. I know he interacted with my Huff Post article from back in February.

          The email link on my website works for me (and others). I wonder if it’s a problem with your email program?

  • AnneG

    For a resource on the Fathers, you might try The Fathers and Church Fathers:Clement or Rome to Augustine by Joseph Ratzinger.

  • Mindi Godfrey

    Dr. Knight used this as one of the required texts in his Hebrew Bible class last fall at Vanderbilt Divinity School. As a second career student in that course, it was my favorite textbook for the course. I’ve grown up in scripture and have served in lay ministry for my whole adult life. This book, (and Dr. Knight’s class) helped me understand more deeply and richly the Old Testament. It brought it to life in new and particularly meaningful ways to me. I think it’s a “must read” for anyone remotely curious about the Old Testament!