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Thursday, June 19, 2014

"Reading the Historical Books" (Patricia Dutcher-Walls)

TITLE: Reading the Historical Books: A Student's Guide to Engaging the Biblical Text
AUTHOR: Patricia Dutcher-Walls
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, (186 pages).

This book is a great find and a helpful companion guide to students wanting to read the biblical text more carefully and accurately. Written by a Professor of Hebrew Studies at Vancouver School of Theology, British Columbia, Dr Dutcher-Walls has put together her years of teaching biblical material and class notes into a book to help students and readers to engage the Old Testament text. Her central purpose is to enable modern readers to build bridges of understanding for modern readers to view the ancient documents. She takes the biblical texts seriously and adopts an inductive approach to let the Bible speak for itself. With keen insights into the time, setting, and social contexts of the historical texts, she hand-holds readers with her understanding of modern culture and how modern readers tend to look at all forms of history texts. In five chapters, she makes the study of history come alive in the minds of readers.

Chapter One is about discovering the biblical context and to understand at least three lenses: a) the original event; b) the hearing or the reporting of the original event; c) the way modern readers see it.  We learn about the sociology, political ideology, the anthropology, the geography, economics, archaelogy, and other disciplines which shine light on culture and context. Dutcher-Walls keeps close to the biblical texts using references to support her observations of the cultural contexts and vice versa. I especially appreciate her effort to keep the chapter relevant like the electronic text messaging lingo used by teens in an iPhone age.

Chapter Two trains us to listen to the story of the text through understanding plot development, narrative flows, story arcs, sequences, direct descriptions, various characterizations, and so on. The author places extra emphases on characterization to understand the meaning of the text through the way the characters dialogue; through plain direct description; through the narrator's point of view; for readers and students to tease out the overall thrusts of the text. I appreciate the segments "Questions for the Careful Reader" which by themselves are worth the price of the book.

Chapter Three helps us to discern what the texts are primarily interested in saying to us. Phrases, words, grammar, authority of the characters, repetition, analogies, patterns, and direct evaluations by the narrator or characters provide useful clues in doing that. We appreciate what biblical storytelling is about.

Chapter Four examines historiography, something the author excels in. She compares and contrasts the ancient historians with contemporary ones, and reminds us not to mix the two up. Ancient biblical writers are writing to a people who are not as literate as we are. They tend to adopt a chronological flow. They use narratives to craft the historical events. They utilize past traditions and sources. Their writing material includes chisels, stones, pottery, clay, leather, wood, wax, papyrus, brush, and primitive tools that assist in handwriting. The use of direct speech is also common.

Chapter Five looks at the shaping of history through the text. It is impossible to record everything so the early writers are highly selective on what to report. Through patterns and causes, events are strung together so that they do not appear random or disconnected. There are also evaluations and interpretations that guide us to understand the text. This chapter is especially relevant as the author gently encourages us by saying that we too can be a part of the shaping of history. Just like the way the ancient biblical writers were writing to a people of their times, we too can report and write to the people in our era.

So What?

Dutcher-Walls make the study of history very interesting. Her guide is very readable and equips students to study and research more on their own. In fact, the book does not just saturate readers with content and context. It energizes. It encourages. It enthuses one to study the text more inductively and to read the Word more carefully. This is a mark of a good book. Though the book deals largely with the historical sections of the Old Testament, such as the Torah, Kings, Chronicles, Samuel, the Prophets, and others, the suggested techniques and skills can be applied to many others. For scattered throughout the 66 books of the Old and New Testament are varying historical segments. Some are large chunks while others only a few verses. Nevertheless, all the writers are reporting with a particular interest and writing from a particular context for a particular audience. The more accurate we can understand the original contexts, the more valuable will be our understanding and our applications.

This is a great book for any student, pastor, teacher, professor to have in their library.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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