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Saturday, November 3, 2012

"An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd edition" (Walter Brueggeman)

TITLE: An Introduction to the Old Testament, Second Edition: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Canon & Christian Imagination)
AUTHOR: Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, (504 pages).

This book is an invitation to read with normative eyes, and at the same time be "imaginatively playful," and still remain faithful to the venerable texts in the Old Testament. This is done using two main guidelines. The first is a "world-making narrative" in which we learn to appreciate the stories in their ancient contexts, and to let it story our lives in our present world. The second is joyful playing within the context of being in the house of God.

Brueggemann frames the book in four parts. The first part explains the way the books of the Old Testament will be looked at. It talks about the four observations to remember, when looking at the OT. The author bemoans the use of the word "old" as it fails to lift up the true nature of the first 39 books of the Bible. He points out the risks of seeing the OT as mere historical. He affirms the canonicity of the texts and the complexity in biblical interpretation. Brueggemann also argues that the ancient authors have also practised creative imagination in the writing of the texts, through retelling of the biblical story, the transitioning of narratives from one generation to the next, and how the imagination, the ideology, and the inspiration informs one another. Such an interplay is one reason why the OT is not only rich but complex.

In the Torah, while the author covers the first five books, namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, allocating two whole chapters on Genesis alone, he links the the first nine books of the OT by calling them a "Primary Narrative" (Genesis - 2 Kings) that begins with the creation of the world leading to the exile of the chosen nation Israel. This forces readers to probe deeper into the "extended narrative" which points to God's wider concern for the world, instead of a single-minded focus on Israel alone.  If the first five books are to be seen as Israel with the law (pre-land), the next four books (Joshua to Kings) describe Israel in the land. He considers the four critical scholarship of Julius Wellhausen, Hermann Gunkel, William Foxwell Albright, and Gerhard von Rad, that even with the best scholarship available at each era, the complexity is not something easily resolved. As the author engages these four, and other scholars like Brevard Childs and Norman Gottwald, he concludes that "theological intentionality" needs to be "woven through" the complex biblical material. Brueggemann is brilliant. He does not reject these scholars outright, but allows each of their "theological intentionality" to shed light for illuminating the possibilities of creative imagination when understanding the texts. It is not so much the authority of Moses that lends credence to the Torah, but the authoritativeness of the Torah that points to the source of it all: God. That said, with regards to the Torah, some key points are noted. The five interpretative themes are:
  1. There is a complex interplay of commandments and narratives, where solving the complexity is not the purpose; Gazing in wonder needs to be one of the interpretive keys;
  2. Each corpus of narratives are matched by complex corpus of commandments
  3. The Torah sustains the community of Israel, that the rightful response is obedience and gratitude; keeping it makes for a key identity for the community.
  4. Torah is aimed for intergenerational transmission, with an eye on teaching the young
  5. Torah allows to creative construction of a future hope, an alternative world where God eventually rules and governs totally.
What makes the Torah fascinating is the "historical transitioning process" that combines both oral and written materials, law and narrative, and inter-generational relevance for the hearers both then and now.

Part Two comprises the prophetic canon, namely the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. The Former Prophets are Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Brueggemann reminds readers again that we cannot narrow our understanding of prophetic as "prediction," but to expand it to include a "passionate engagement of justice" for society, from God's perspective. If the Torah has a "theological intentionality," the Prophets have a "theological testimony." The Latter Prophets comprises the four books, namely, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve minor prophets. Key to this distinction (instead of the conventional major and minor prophets demarcation) is the movement away from "prophetic personalities" to "prophetic books." This helps to keep readers mindful of God being the star, and not to unwittingly make each prophet the superstar. Throughout the prophets, two themes reverberate throughout: God's judgment and God's promise, that forms a continuum on what has first started in the Torah. In a nutshell, the Former Prophets is about "theological commentary" of the history of the Israel nation, while the Latter Prophets build "theological conviction." Brueggemann marries the three prophetic traditions, PDJ, (Priestly, Deuteronomic-History, and Yahwist) as being "coexisting advocacies for certain interpretive perspectives," where the books of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah are closely linked to the Priestly, the Deuteronomic, and the Yahwist traditions respectively.  With regards to the other Latter Prophets, instead of grouping them in chronological periods, like the 8th, late 7th, and Persian centuries, Brueggemann points to work that is based on themes (like judgment, crises-responses, restoration) rather than historical exploration. With "interpretive coherances," the objective is to see all the prophets as one whole canonical block rather than individual books.

Part Three covers the Writings (Psalms, Job, Proverbs, The Five Scrolls, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Chronicles), that there is a certain "miscellaneous quality" in them. In other words, there are many different themes sprinkled throughout the writings that reflect a pluralism in creativity and canonical expression. More crucially, it represents a dialogue with the Tora, the other Prophetical books, and the historical-cultural contexts through the ages. The plural nature of the writings, the interaction with both tradition as well as the conversations with the historical contexts and communities offers readers a rich and endless room for creative reading and imagination. It is interesting to note that brueggemann classifies Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther) as the Five Scrolls. Two reasons are given. The first is that the books have a historical chronological flow. Second, all of them are based on specific festive seasons, the Passover (Songs), Festival of Weeks (Ruth), Ninth of Ab (Lamentations), Festival of Booths (Ecclesiastes), and Festival of Purim (Esther). The diversity of these writings reflects the diversity of life and social contexts of the respective eras.

My Comments

Who says the Old Testament is outdated and boring? The first edition of this book already sheds new light to the way we can read the Old Testament. The second edition broadens the scope with a whole new chapter on the literary genres, the biblical narratives and the poetry. Along with "textboxes" to focus the reader on key material, it makes this book an interesting read too, with extra-biblical material to expand the understanding of the contexts, as well as a way to look closer at the texts.What makes this volume fascinating is the way it allows Christian imagination to bring alive the canon. Brueggemann's bird's-eye view of the Old Testament brings about some key important observations of the overall flow of the Old Testament. It speaks of God's creation plan that has an end in mind: bringing His people to the Promised Land. It is written in a way that appeals across generations. The movements of narratives from heaven to earth, from prologue to dialogues, from judgment to promise, and many more, forces the reader to sit up and grapple with the ancient texts with contemporary wakefulness. Not only is Brueggemann able to keep his feet within the canonical texts, and to expand his interpretive creativity to horizons beyond the ancient texts, he is able to balance the two through an acute understanding of three frames. The frames of theological intention of the writers, the theological significance of the entire canon, and the theological conviction that it builds in readers. With the Torah as the "clue to the future," the Prophets as the instilling upon the conscience of the people, and the Writings as a lively dialogue of the entire canon and the existing contexts, the entire Old Testament is one living Word that informs, that reforms, and that transforms lives, both then, now, and for future generations.

I find my curiosity piqued, my creativity energized, and my conscientiousness of the Old Testament refreshed. Readers will have a sense that the author does not only talk about, or simply enjoy writing about the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. He enjoys them all. For true enjoyment raises the passion for creativity, for creativity is a potent way to relate to our generation. This is what we all need. This is what all Bible students need. It is common to hear that exegesis and study of biblical texts is more of a science while hermeneutics and interpretation is more of an art.  Brueggemann shows us how all both science and art are bridged.

It is really hard to find a bone to pick in this brilliant book. Deep in scholarship, wise in applying the theological themes, and vibrant in interpretive creativity, this work will continue to be a top choice for courses and seminary classes on the Old Testament.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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