Review: An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination

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Eminent Old Testament scholar Brueggemann (Theology of the Old Testament) offers a clear and eloquent introductory study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament that surpasses many older introductions such as Anderson’s Understanding the Old Testament and Bright’s A History of Israel. Focusing on the literature of the Old Testament rather than on the ways that such literature grows out of the history of Israel, he emphasizes that the development of the Old Testament was an act of imaginative remembering. It evolved through what he calls a “traditioning” process, whereby the texts grew dynamically out of a confluence of historical, ideological, political and religious forces in Israel. Brueggemann arranges his introduction in canonical order (Torah, prophets, writings) to demonstrate the ways that various themes built upon one another and how the texts reflect the ongoing development of Israel. For example, the “writings”-which include Proverbs, Psalms and Job as well as Esther and Daniel-reflect, in Brueggemann’s view, the diversity of life and faith characteristic of post-exilic Judaism. Brueggemann’s reading of the Old Testament makes it alive for us today. As we interpret the text in our own times, we engage in the “traditioning” process, for each time we read, new meanings are disclosed to us. Although Brueggemann sometimes veers off into territory for which a background in biblical studies is necessary, his crystal clear prose, lucid ways of telling stories and canny theological insights make this introduction a real gem.

My Review:

“Now it will occur to an attentive reader that these facts of the traditioning process- imagination, ideology, and inspiration -do not easily cohere with each other! Specifically the force of human ideology and the power of divine imagination seem to be definitionally at odds. Precisely! That causes the Old Testament, to be endlessly complex & problematic, endlessly interesting and compelling.” (pg11)

Brueggamann sets out to examine the Canon and Christian Imagination according to the Hebrew canon and often times, according Jewish interpretation rather than Christian. For the former, his order is: the Torah, the Prophets consisting of, The Former Prophets, – Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings; and the Latter Prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel. Then the scrolls of Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and the Song of Solomon. Finally, he examines what he considers the revisionist historical corpus of I & II Chronicles, Ezra & Nehemiah, with Daniel arriving last. For the latter, I can cite his rejection of Paul’s doctrine of the Fall, although he encourages a constant interpretative method akin to the New Perspectives (p38-39) and his insistence that the author of Hebrews ‘misread’ Jeremiah 31 and completely missed the author of Jeremiah’s intent (pg 189). On the other hand, Brueggamann deals especially well with Proverbs 8 as seen through the eyes of John’s Prologue. Overall, until it comes to his disavowing of anything remotely connected to supercessionism, he presents a balanced view of Christian use of the Hebrew Scriptures.

His path is not always what one would expect. While he uses historical criticism, his method involves the focus on what he calls the ‘end of the traditioning process.’ For the author, it is not greatly important how a book came together, but the theology of the book in final form. For him, the process is far from over and should continue now that the canon has been delivered to the ‘interpretive community of the church’. He makes a strong case that the bible contains more light than a simple ‘reportage’ view can give, and indeed, suddenly becomes a conservative Protestant as he makes his case that more study is needed. Further, he allows for God’s work to be unexplained in the manner of normalizing the text and thus the canon through ‘imagination.’

As he canvasses each book (the author splits Genesis into two sections), he moves always with the denial of the conservative position unsaid and instead launches into examining the completed structure with a mention of historical methods. Criticism is not his primary goal, but what the end theological statement is. In Deuternonomy (pg85-93) he starts with acknowledging the scholarly held theories of a priestly perspective in Genesis-Numbers and the Deuteronomic editors of the final book of the Torah allowing for compare and contrast of the two ‘voices.’ He then examines the intentional shaping of the book around the speeches of ‘Moses’ then proceeds to explore this option more thoroughly. He doesn’t deny the ‘old roots’ (pg91) of Tradition behind Deuteronomy but asserts that the final shape came to be no later than the 7th century. He does so by comparing this book to political treaties of the area at the time. As with each book, Brueggamann provides the reader with his own summary of the theological aspects of the work in review.

The book is well written with the author using many other authors to support his work. He attempts to allow for historical criticism but without pinning the Old Testament canon and the writers thereof to the views of modern scholars. He acknowledges that many times, those who engage in such things fail to see the intent of the process of the individual works, instead only searching for the how, never the why. While this book may not be to the liking for all, everyone can salvage, at the very least, the theological assessments of the author as something helpful in the theological study of the Hebrew Scriptures. This book does not support the history of the Old Testament, and should be seen rather as a corpus of the minimalist view, but for his purpose in exploring the theology of the books, he is comprehensive.

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