Reading the Historical Books
Written in a clear, nontechnical style, with an eye toward the modern young reader Reading the Historical Books: A Student’s Guide to Engaging the Biblical Text by Patricia Dutcher-Walls is an excellent introduction on reading the historical books of the Old Testament. For those who might wonder, the historical books include Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. Dutcher-Walls lays out her purpose as follows: “How do we read the historical books in the Old Testament well? What do we need to know about this part of Scripture in order to appreciate the beauty and meanings of the text? This small volume will introduce you to aspects of the genre of history writing in the Old Testament in order to make your further reading and study of Scripture more informed and sensitive” (p. xv).
Chapter 1 demonstrates the importance of understanding 3 historical contexts: 1) The context of the events; 2) the context of the one recounting the events (which is sometimes years after the events have happened); and 3) the context of the reader. Whenever people communicate with one another, common assumptions about language and culture leave certain things unspoken. Dutcher-Walls argues for the significance of understanding some of these background issues. For example, a reader of these Old Testament histories may be unfamiliar with the geography of the ancient Near East, or of the ancient nations mentioned in the text. Dutcher-Walls seeks to create a common ground for all her readers by surveying the story of the historical books while noting some of the important background information. She accomplishes this task utilizing the following subtitles: “Geographical and Political Context and the Story in Summary (Parts 1&2);” “Religious Context of the History Writing;” (e.g., writing with the assumption that God, or gods played a part in the story) and “Social Context of Biblical History Writing” (e.g., group mentality vs. individualistic outlook).
Anyone reading the historical books of the Old Testament quickly realizes that the accounts are related in story form. Dutcher-Walls spends chapter 2 focusing on important aspects of biblical story-telling such as “Plot Development,” “Characterization,” “Point of View,” and “Time Flow.” Dutcher-Walls’s discussion of plot development is very informative. She writes about how to discover “beginnings and endings,” how to detect “scenic structure,” the importance of following the “story arc,” and recognition of “sequences” (e.g., command-enactment-report). Other important observations include how, “biblical narrative art . . . prefers actions over long descriptions of a person” (p. 55), and how the most common point of view in the historical books is that of the “third-person narrator” (p. 62). While many of these observations are common-place for biblical scholars, they can be eye-opening for the beginning student.
Chapter 3 entitled, “Discerning the Interests of the Text,” is a helpful chapter that “examines the principal ways that the Old Testament passages convey the concepts and theology inherent in its writing” (p. xix). The ways that the historical books convey their interests include: “Building Presence” (repetitive emphasis on important points or people–e.g., the large amount of material focused on King David); “Establishing Authority” (e.g., the words of leaders or prophets); “Crafting Repetition” (the importance of repetition); “Setting Up Analogies Between Accounts” (defined as “an analogy between two stories, in which the story line in one passage closely resembles the situation in the other so that a comparison is set up, ” p. 80); “Using Direct Evaluation,” “Creating Patterns” (such as the formula for kings’ reigns); “Setting Up Models” (setting up one character to be compared against others); “Creating Dramatic Impact” (“using drama and intensity to focus an audience’s attention,” p. 91); and “Using Detail to Increase Presence.” For each of these sub-categories, Dutcher-Walls provides examples.
Chapters 4 and 5 are entitled: “Examining History in the Text,” and “Examining the Shape of History in the Text,” respectively. These two chapters focus on the following questions: “How do these biblical texts work as ancient history writing? When these texts tell us about the past, in what ways do they do this? What are the characteristics of how the texts write history, and how do those characteristics fit into the history writing done by other ancient cultures that surrounded ancient Israel and Judah?” (p. 103). Dutcher-Walls begins by noting that all historical writing is selective (p. 104). She also makes the important observation that “ancient history writing did not use the same standards and principles used in modern history writing, and it would be unfair to use modern standards to judge ancient history writing” (p. 106). According to Dutcher-Walls, the historical books follow certain conventions of ancient historical writing including: 1) a chronological structure; 2) use of narrative content; 3) the use of past traditions and archives as sources; 4) the use of direct speech; 5) a presentation of patterns or statement of causes behind various events; 6) providing evaluations and interpretations of the past; and 7) using past events to address the present.
Dutcher-Walls draws the essentials of her book together in a fine 10-page conclusion. This conclusion not only summarizes the important points of her book, it also gives a very useful outline of chapters 2 and 3 for anyone wanting to apply the principles of interpretation that she delineates in those chapters. These helpful outlines are typical of the book as a whole. Throughout the book Dutcher-Walls provides helpful panels with important information (e.g., a panel on “Writing Materials in the Ancient Near East,” p. 123; or a panel entitled “Perspectives and Interests in Modern History Writing,” p. 147). The book is also interspersed with questions for the thoughtful student throughout. Besides questions at the end of every chapter, she includes small panels entitled, “Questions for Careful Readers.” The questions add a note of authenticity to her desire to provide “A Student’s Guide,” as the subtitle of her book suggests.
I have a few minor disagreements with Dutcher-Walls. One being the implication that the historical books, as well as other ancient historical writings, follow a chronological approach. It is hard to disagree with this in the broad scope of things, however, the biblical historical books, as well as other ancient documents, often display a creativity of arrangement. The biblical histories are not averse to changing the chronological order if it helps to communicate a point (e.g., Judges 19-21; 2 Sam. 21-24), and it is important that the modern reader be aware of this as it can affect one’s interpretation. That being said, however, Dutcher-Walls has written a fine book for the beginning student who desires to read the historical books more profitably. I highly recommend it to beginning students and teachers of the biblical historical books.
For those of you who would like to read an interview with Patricia Dutcher-Walls, or see some short video clips of her talking about Reading the Historical Books, please click on the link here: https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2014/08/reading-the-bibles-historical-books-an-interview-with-patricia-dutcher-walls/
(My thanks to Baker Academic Books for providing a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.)