Studying the Old Testament

A Companion

by Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch

Abingdon Press (November 2007), 305 pp.
$19.14 (paperback)

Reviewed by Robin Gallaher Branch, PhD

Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch has written a student- and laity-friendly introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures entitled Studying the Old Testament: A Companion. The phrase A Companion is truly apt—if a student works with the accompanying CD and follows the exercises and sample test questions, he/she will truly do exceptionally well on exams and have a good overview of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Burnette-Bletsch, the Lucy H. Robertson Professor of Religion at Greensboro College in North Carolina, states that reading the “Biblical texts requires a willingness to venture into unfamiliar territory”; consequently, her textbook is “intended to serve as a traveling companion and guide for readers who are bold enough to undertake such a journey” (ix). She believes that an educated person in today’s world needs to recognize the importance of the Bible as “undoubtedly the most influential book in the history of Western civilization” (ix).

Her book is comprised largely of her selective literary summaries of the Old Testament. Her readable style offers a fine introduction to the Biblical texts. In addition to students, the book’s audience includes Christian and Jewish laity.

A reader hears Professor Burnette-Bletsch’s voice in every paragraph. Also present is this teacher’s tough love of her subject, and her continued study and knowledge of it. Naturally, her book presents her own views. James M. Efird, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Duke Divinity School and a blurb writer for A Companion, says that it “can be used with confidence by instructors even if one does not always agree with the conclusions presented.” Precisely. Many scholars will find many of Burnette-Bletsch’s conclusions and opinions different from theirs. Likewise, students and laity need to read additional sources on the Old Testament that provide other views and documentation of scholarly work.

Let me state up front my two objections to an otherwise fine book: First, Studying the Old Testament: A Companion lacks documentation. It states Burnette-Bletsch’s interpretations/views as facts; it mentions scholars frequently but only rarely names them and almost never cites their work. Granted, perhaps I belabor citing sources too much; but it is because I am so aware of the ease modern students have in cutting and pasting off the Internet and foregoing citation. To me, a textbook should be heavily cited and set an example for students’ papers by giving extensive credit to others.

Second, because this book is written to and for those with little background in the Bible, everything in it may be taken as indisputable. I feel that Burnette-Bletsch makes too many broad statements that she takes as true that others in the field of Old Testament studies may not. Some examples of these two objections will be noted throughout this review.

For instance, she writes that it was assumed that Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah were penned by the same hand, “but that assumption is now being challenged” (244). Well, who were the scholars saying the first part, and who are the scholars challenging this assumption? I wish she had included them.

However, there is much to commend in the book. Burnette-Bletsch frames her work in terms of journey—a fine literary tool that keeps a reader’s interest. In addition to an introduction, A Companion contains five chapters called “Preparing for the Journey”; “Torah: The Journey Begins”; “Former Prophets: A Nation’s Journey”; “Latter Prophets: Israel’s Moral Compass”; and “Writings: The Homeward Journey”. Her book concludes with a historical summary of the years between the testaments (295-299).

She notes that the Bible represents an anthology of religious texts (ix). A handy box visually portrays the ordering differences of the Jewish Bible, Protestant Old Testament and Catholic and Orthodox Old Testaments (xi-xii).

Another helpful tool is the CD-Rom with its sections on Internet resources, scholarly books for Further Reading, Test Your Knowledge sample quizzes, Questions for Review, links to the Glossary, Sample Topic sections, charts showing dates and kings, and video resources. A Special Topic on the CD for Chapter 4 that I found interesting was the discussion regarding Amos’ finances. Was this prophet a poor migrant worker or a wealthy, landed farmer whose holdings extended along the Mediterranean and into the Jordan River valley? If not poor, then Amos “spoke out of his moral and religious convictions rather than his own experience and self-interest,” Burnette-Bletsch writes. She leaves the financial question open, as does the Biblical text.

Likewise, her work entitled “Exegesis and Eisegesis of Genesis 2—3” on the CD for Chapter 2 is particularly thought-provoking because it breaks down the chapters with questions and makes a reader pause for reflection. Her work on the CD engages a reader in critical thinking skills.

An insight I particularly liked was her observation that “Joseph’s choice to forgive his brothers finally unites this dysfunctional family and resolves the betrayal-revenge pattern of the ancestral history” (61-62). However, she calls Joseph a patriarch (61), and most scholars limit the patriarchs to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

She writes in the CD for Chapter 5, “The Writings” that the “intense xenophobia of Ezra—Nehemiah is not the only survival strategy evident in Second Temple Judaism. The books of Jonah and Ruth envision a more inclusive covenant community, and the book of Esther accepts the necessity of cultural assimilation in the Jewish Diaspora. Although the ethnic, cultural, and religious intolerance of Ezra—Nehemiah may initially seem strange to modern readers, similar attitudes certainly exist in other cultures and in other texts. With this in mind, view John Ford’s 1954 film The Searchers starring John Wayne.” She then provides interactive questions. Her idea of combining Ezra-Nehemiah in a lecture with a classic Western truly provides the makings for a memorable class period. Yet I question her contentions of xenophobia and religious intolerance regarding Ezra-Nehemiah. Instead, I see both an intense sadness regarding the people’s choice of sin and its results in the covenant community and the necessity of communal obedience to the covenant’s obligations. Sadly, these drastic measures for the overall good involve the heartbreaking severance of families.

Now for some technical aspects: Burnett-Bletsch’s writing recognizes the lack of Biblical education of her audience. Although geared to undergraduates and laity, A Companion does not talk down to them. She writes in short sentences, uses the active voice, and favors three to four paragraphs per page, clearly an eye-pleasing technique.

The lightweight book is easy to hold, probably because so much material like maps and colored prints has been stored on the CD. Abingdon chose stark white pages and black type and ample margins. Bold face type highlights defined words, and a definition usually follows—the Glossary is on the CD. However, important words are not consistently cross-referenced in the index; vulgate made it but Fall, Yahwist and form criticism did not.

The hard copy contains several long boxes called Interludes. Examples are The Literary Origins of the Torah (35-46); The Social Origins of Prophecy and the Literary Origins of the Latter Prophets (188-196); and the Literary Origins of the Former Prophets (118-131).

Writing in the “Introduction: A Journey Worth Making” (ix-xiv), she acknowledges that, yes, the Biblical texts need to be read with their historical and cultural contexts in mind, but “it is equally imperative to focus on genre-appropriate questions, literary origins, and theological significance” (xiii). She focuses on genre issues quite well. Later she adds with insight that in “Deuteronomistic History, we are not dealing with objective historical reports but with partisan literature” (142).

Burnette-Bletsch acknowledges that devotional and academic approaches are not necessarily compatible. She reminds readers that the Bible is a collection of texts from the distant past that are often alien to modern readers (16). She strongly advises readers to read the Bible “on its own terms” (17). A devotional reading seeks a contemporary relevance for a Biblical text rather than looking at it first in its historical context.

Concerned that one’s method determines one’s results in Biblical studies, she outlines ten methods of looking at the Biblical text. She notes that criticism does not mean finding fault with the text but instead means a careful examination in an accepted and objective way (19).

As a scholar, she favors the idea that the Bible contains multiple literary traditions and its final editors either pieced the stories together or put them in one after the other. A case in point for the latter is the two stories of Creation in Genesis. She posits that the interpretation of the Fall story represents eisegesis rather than exegesis, for the words sin and fall do not appear in the text. Nevertheless, “the overall structure of Genesis 1-11 does suggest that for good or ill, the consequences of disobedience extend beyond the garden into life east of Eden” (31).

She sees the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) as being written and/or edited and/or compiled during the exile for an exilic audience (241). She sees Samuel’s speech (1 Sam.12) as one in which he seems to be retiring from public life, although his death is reported 13 chapters later (1 Sam. 25:1). “Like many other speeches in the Former Prophets, (Samuel’s) seems to have been composed by Deuteronomistic editors as an interpretive summary of Israel’s past and a glimpse into her future,” Burnette-Bletsch writes (140).

She argues that the Writings took shape after the exile too (241). She sees these common threads in the Writings: What does it mean to be a true Israelite? How should a Jewish identity be constructed? How could Jews, often a minority community, live among foreigners and resist assimilation? In addressing these and other concerns, the Writings often present multiple answers (241-242).

Pointing out how Kings and Chronicles differ, she notes that in Kings, Manasseh is the scapegoat for Judah’s fall (247), but in Chronicles, he becomes an example of how to humble oneself before the Lord. He becomes a model for repentance. Manasseh’s story in Chronicles shows that although retribution theology remains part of Deuteronomistic theology, disaster can be reversed by sincere repentance, Burnette-Bletsch writes (248).

She points out that the Satan in Job 1-2 is not the Satan of the Judo-Christian tradition. The Job character has the definite article before it making it a title rather than a name (277).

She writes that the authors of the books in the Writings tackle difficult questions and even rethink inherited doctrines (294). She believes the process continues as each new generation of Christians and Jews appropriates for itself the faith of its forbearers (294).

Constantly in her textbook she provides her insights on the editing process that took place in the formation of the canon. Regarding Joshua, she summarizes the book as one seeking to validate and portray Joshua as a Moses-in miniature (101). Concerning the Former Prophets, she summarizes that editors shaped the traditions found in the books “to suggest the guiding hand of a just and benevolent deity behind the all-too-human machinations that shaped Israelite statehood” (133).

Regarding the opening of 1 Samuel, she makes valid insight and interpretation regarding Eli the priest whom Hannah met: “Eli’s lack of perception, which allows him to mistake a pious gesture for drunkenness, hints that Israel’s current leaders are less capable than one might hope” (133).

She concludes that Deuteronomistic History was shaped by two competing theological traditions: Mosaic and Davidic. One assumes a perpetual reign of the Davidic line over Israel—even in times of occasional punishment of these kings. The other emphasizes God’s faithfulness to Israel and Israel’s responsibilities in keeping the covenant’s requirements (165).

I enjoyed Burnette-Bletsch’s re-telling of the history of the Israelite covenant community. She makes dark passages readable and understandable, and puts the text in a strong historical perspective.

Robin Gallaher Branch, PhD is a professor of Biblical Studies at Crichton College in Memphis, Tennessee.

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