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Exploring the Old Testament: The Histories

Exploring the Old Testament: The Histories

Exploring the Old Testament: The Histories is available at Baker Academic.
Exploring the Old Testament: The Histories is available at SPCK.

Exploring the Old Testament: The Histories, vol. 2, by Philip Satterthwaite and Gordon McConville, continues the same excellent standard of evangelical scholarship found in volume 1 of this series on The Pentateuch. Having already given an overview of the purpose of this series (read my review on vol. 1 here), I will focus on the contents of The Histories. The Histories gives an overview of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ruth, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles. If you’re wondering about the order, the authors follow the Hebrew ordering of the biblical books, rather than the English ordering (which is based on the Septuagint = LXX). One of the purposes for this is so that the books that scholars frequently designate as “the Deuteronomistic History” (Joshua – Kings) can be treated consecutively.

Dr. Philip Satterthwaite is co-author of Exploring the Old Testament: The Histories, is responsible for the material in the Introduction through chapter 7.
Dr. Philip Satterthwaite is co-author of Exploring the Old Testament: The Histories, and is responsible for the material in the Introduction through chapter 7.

Following the Hebrew ordering of the books also allows the authors to make contrasting observations about the effect of each canonical ordering (Hebrew vs. English = the LXX) on the reader. For example, the order in English Bibles of the histories ends on somewhat of a downer with Nehemiah struggling to contain the Jewish community’s waywardness (Neh. 13) and Esther and Mordecai narrowly helping the Jews escape annihilation at the hands of the Persian Empire (Esther). McConville concludes that, “This unpromising end to the ‘history’ of Israel leaves an open question in English Bibles to which the prophetic section of the Old Testament gives an answer, with its predominant structure of judgment followed by salvation” (p. 288). Conversely, the order in the Hebrew Bible includes Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles in the last portion of the Canon known as “The Writings.” Notice that these books are also placed out of chronological order so that Chronicles comes after Ezra and Nehemiah. In fact, Chronicles is the last book of the Hebrew Bible. According to McConville, “This suggests that the Hebrew canonizers wished to allow Chronicles’ report of deliverance from exile (2 Chron. 36:22-23) to be the final word in the story of the post-exilic community” (p. 288).

Contents of Exploring the Old Testament: The Histories

Philip Satterthwaite begins this volume with a brief “Introduction” followed by chapter 1 which is entitled: “What are the Histories? A survey of recent scholarship,” which deals with such topics as “The Histories as literary texts,” “The Histories as Historical documents,” “The Histories as part of a larger story,” and the theology and ethics of the Histories. In this chapter, and throughout the volume as a whole, the authors are very fair in presenting various scholarly approaches and methods, while citing their own presuppositions and approaches. For example, Satterthwaite notes that he and McConville see the Histories as “artfully constructed texts,” and while understanding that various sources and hands may have played a part in the formation of the Histories, he states that, “Our interpretations of the Histories begin with an assumption of literary unity” (p. 25).

J. Gordon McConville is the co-author of Exploring the Old Testament: The Histories, vol. 2
J. Gordon McConville is the co-author of Exploring the Old Testament: The Histories, vol. 2 and is the author of chapters 8-11.

After a brief overview of ancient Near Eastern history in chapter 2, a survey of the biblical books, beginning with Joshua, starts in chapter 3. The chapters adhere to the following outline: 1) An outline of the book which includes a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the contents; 2) key themes of the book; 3) critical issues–dealing with various issues that have arisen in the scholarly study of the book; 4) historical issues; and 5) how the book is reflected throughout the rest of the biblical canon. Each chapter, like its predecessor (The Pentateuch, vol. 1), is also interspersed with boxes dealing with special issues or question boxes prompting students to “dig deeper.” Satterthwaite is responsible for the material in chapters 3-7, while McConville is the author of chapters 8-11. Because the review would be too long to include comments about each chapter, I have chosen a few chapters to illustrate the content.

Joshua is the first book of The Histories
Joshua is the first book of The Histories

Chapter 3: Joshua–Satterthwaite agrees with the general 4 point outline of Joshua’s structure found in other commentaries on Joshua. He notes that the law of Moses is “a particular unifying factor” (p. 41). The Book of Joshua is (in)famous for several knotty problems. One involves the utter destruction (kherem) of the Canaanites. Satterthwaite devotes a special two-page box discussing kherem, including that kherem involves “making a person or object entirely over to YHWH” (p. 46), and the relationship of kherem to holiness and sacrifice (pp. 46-47). A second problem, related to kherem is the inference in some passages that there were no survivors, while other passages indicate that survivors did exist (e,g., compare Josh. 10:28, 30, 35 with 15:13-16). One of the ways Satterthwaite explains this is by a helpful comparison of Joshua 1-12 with other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts. This comparison, found on p. 51 notes, among other similiarities, that hyperbole is “typical of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts” (a quote from K.L. Younger in his book, Ancient Conquest Accounts. A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing, pp. 226-228). Among other important issues, Satterthwaite argues for a 13th century B.C. date for the Exodus (p. 68), and that certain interpretations of the Book of Joshua (often used to argue that Joshua is a fictionalized account) are invalid when Joshua is examined more carefully.

king david
Satterthwaite concludes that the books of Samuel “remain our major source for Israel’s early monarchy,” and that the picture is “plausible, and the grounds urged for rejecting it are not compelling” (The Histories, p. 143).

Chapter 5: 1 and 2 Samuel–Satterthwaite follows the usual outline of the books of Samuel, except that he includes 2 Samuel 8 with chapters 9-20. Notable observations include connections between 1 Samuel 1-15 with the Book of Judges (pp. 105-106); the contrast between faithful and unfaithful leaders in 1 and 2 Samuel (p. 108); rather than “anti-monarchic” and “pro-monarchic” sources in 1 Samuel 8-12, both authors argue for a “unified but nuanced account of Saul’s rise…. The people were wrong to ask for a king, not because monarchy was intrinsically unsuitable for Israel, but because they asked with wrong motives; the result was that a wrong sort of king was chosen” (p. 112). Among some of the difficulties addressed, Satterthwaite discusses the evil spirit from the Lord sent upon Saul (p. 116); and two ways of looking at the execution of Saul’s sons by the Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21:1-14, p. 133). Other tough issues such as the question of double narratives in 1 Samuel 16-17 (p. 117), Saul’s seance (119), and whether Mephibosheth or Ziba was lying (p. 130), are left for students to chew over. Under “Key Themes” Satterthwaite lists the “Rise of monarchy: theological implications,” “Prophecy,” “Monarchy: politics, pragmatism and image?,” and “Divine-human interaction.” Under “Literary Critical Issues,” Satterthwaite discusses some of the usual sources proposed by scholars such as “The History of David’s Rise” (1 Sam. 16:14-2 Sam. 5:25) and the “Succession Narrative” (2 Sam. 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2), but concludes that, while there are undoubtedly different sources and traditions underlying the material, it is not easy to identify such sources in the present text of Samuel. Therefore he concludes, “In their present form, 1 and 2 Samuel are more or less a seamless robe” (p. 139). Satterthwaite accepts the picture laid out in the books of Samuel as historical. He also notes the famous Tel Dan Stela which provides archaeological evidence for the existence of the Davidic monarchy (p. 142).

"The Histories" also has a good introduction and discussion of the Deuteronomistic History.
“The Histories” also has a good introduction and discussion of the Deuteronomistic History, a theory first proposed by Martin Noth.

Before leaving a discussion of those books designated as “The Deuteronomistic History” (DH), I should note that Satterthwaite devotes an entire chapter (chapter 7) to the origins and history of this well entrenched scholarly dogma. He discusses the origins of the original proposal by Martin Noth in 1943, and presents an overview of Noth’s basic thesis. Satterthwaite follows this up by looking at the various ways in which Noth’s original proposal has been revised or altered. Satterthwaite proves himself capable of some literary humor when, after finishing this survey, he quips to the reader, “Are you still awake?” (p. 208). Actually, I found Satterthwaite’s (McConville should be included here as well. The author frequently refers to “we”) evaluation of the DH and its scholarly mutations interesting. The authors agree that there are significant links between the ending and beginning of the various books “which are often reinforced by verbal echoes (e.g., compare Josh. 1 and Deut. 31 and 34 … )” (p. 208). They also agree that “the perspective of Joshua-Kings is ultimately that of the sixth century BC, simply on the basis that 2 Kings ends its account in that century” (p. 209). However, Satterthwaite and McConville also have important objections to the DH theory. They believe that Joshua-Samuel “(or something close to them) might have come into existence much earlier than is often argued” (p. 210). The authors point out that “According to a standard view Deuteronomy in its present form is a largely seventh-century work, linked to Josiah’s reforms” (p. 211), but they argue, “This, of course, runs contrary to the testimony of Joshua-Kings, according to which something like Deuteronomy (‘the Book of the Law’) was current long before the seventh century” (p. 211). Furthermore Satterthwaite states, “… the theological framework of Deuteronomy (linking faithfulness with blessing, unfaithfulness with judgment), which is what scholars often have in view when they argue that a text in Joshua-Kings reflects Deuteronomic influence, is not properly Deuteronomic at all, but a theological commonplace of the ancient Near East” (p. 211). Along these lines, the authors also note that the theology of Joshua-Kings is more complex than the simple “faithfulness brings blessing, unfaithfulness judgment.” Satterthwaite states these books “do not always conform to that schema; on the contrary, there are many unforeseen twists in Israel’s history, and they almost all relate to unexpected displays of divine grace” (p. 214). Another valid objection presented is that Joshua-Kings not only shows evidence of the Book of Deuteronomy, but also “significant echoes of Genesis-Numbers (particularly Genesis and Exodus)” (p. 216). In conclusion both authors question “the viability of the whole DH enterprise” (p. 217). While admitting that their position is not necessarily stronger, they claim that it is no weaker. I find myself in agreement with much that the authors say in this chapter.

McConville notes the literary artistry of the Book of Esther, including its comedic element.
McConville notes the literary artistry of the Book of Esther, including its comedic element.

Chapter 9: Esther–McConville’s outline of Esther follows the chapter divisions. He notes that a serious consideration of the Book of Esther prompts some provocative questions. For example, while most post-exilic books focus on the return to Judah, “In Esther, Jewish life goes on at the heart of the empire itself, with no apparent sense that Jews ought to return there” (p. 231). Furthermore, what is the reader to make of Esther’s marriage to a foreign king and the fact that she eats the food given to her without making objections based on Jewish food laws? The books of Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah demonstrate other viewpoints on these important issues. McConville is keen to note the literary artisty of the Book of Esther, including its use of irony and perhaps comedy. He includes a “Think about” box which discusses the idea of the potential use of comedy in Esther (p. 241). McConville sees the “Key Themes” being, “God and events” (“The coincidences can be seen as evidence, not of randomness, but of God’s providential ordering of things”, p. 236); “Providence, prayer, and responsibility,” and “Retribution” (which prompts an important discussion about how such a theme should be viewed, p. 237). “Critical Issues” looks at the additions to Esther found in the Greek text. McConville points out where the additions occur and how these additions differ theologically from the other form of the book. One important feature of the additions is the explicit mention of God. As most are aware, the edition of Esther found in our English bibles never uses the word “God” or any form of God’s name.

Evaluation of Exploring the Old Testament: The Histories

Satterthwaite and McConville have written an excellent introduction to the Histories, geared toward the undergraduate student and interested lay person. Those who identify with these “learning labels” will surely find discussions of “Critical Issues,” and the chapter on “The Deuteronomistic History” deep wading, and perhaps as Satterthwaite jests, a bit difficult to keep one’s eyes open. Some might even object that such material could be dispensed with. I would disagree, however. Anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the Histories will inevitably seek out commentaries, dictionary articles, etc. to enhance their comprehension. In doing so, they will encounter all of the views (and many more) spelled out in this volume. Exploring the Old Testament: The Histories, gives the student a starting point of understanding concerning what the issues, presuppositions, and conclusions are of the scholarly literature that they will inevitably turn to. But more importantly, this volume is full of valuable information and insights. The content overviews of each biblical book is worth the price alone. The special boxes and charts enhance the learning process. Personally, I found myself in agreement with much of what Satterthwaite and McConville write, but I also found them fair in representing other approaches and scholarly positions. If you are interested in learning more about “The Histories,” then I would highly recommend this book as a well-written and informative introduction to them.

Buy Exploring the Old Testament Volume 2: The Histories at Amazon USA / UK or From SPCK Publishing


  • Paperback: 295 pages
  • Publisher: SPCK Publishing (21 Jun. 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0281054304
  • ISBN-13: 978-0281054305
  • Product Dimensions: 18.6 x 1.6 x 24 cm

(Many thanks to SPCK for providing this copy of Encountering the Old Testament: The Histories, in exchange for a fair and impartial review.)

Exploring the Old Testament: Vol. 1 The Pentateuch

Exploring the Old Testament: Vol. 1 The Pentateuch

Exploring the Old Testament: Volume 1 The Pentateuch, is available from Amazon USA / UK
Exploring the Old Testament: Volume 1 The Pentateuch, is available from Amazon USA / UK

The Exploring the Old Testament (as well as Exploring the New Testament) Series, has similar goals to the “Encountering Biblical Study Series” (see my review here on Encountering the Book of Genesis), and the “Teach the Text Series” (see my review here on 1&2 Samuel in the Teach the Text Series). Each of these series focuses on providing the beginning Bible student with an overview of a certain book or certain portion of Scripture. The goal is to introduce the reader to the main teachings and issues involved. The biggest difference with the Exploring the Old Testament Series is that it focuses on larger blocks of Scripture (The Pentateuch, the Historical Books, etc.). The author of this volume, Gordon Wenham is Senior Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at the University of Gloucestershire and is currently lecturing at Trinity College, Bristol. Ever since his commentary on Leviticus in the New International Commentary Series published in the late 70s, Wenham has been a favorite author and commentator of mine. You can always expect to learn something new. His books are always insightful and clearly written.

Contents of Exploring the Old Testament Vol 1: The Pentateuch

Gordon J. Wenham, author of "Exploring the Old Testament Vol 1: The Pentateuch."
Gordon J. Wenham, author of “Exploring the Old Testament Vol 1: The Pentateuch.”

For a book with only 199 pages of text, Wenham covers a lot of territory and packs in a lot of information! There are 11 chapters (including a 1 page “Epilogue”). Chapter 1 begins by asking, “What is the Pentateuch? Basic Features.” Wenham discusses the name, the genre, why there are 5 books, and other introductory questions. Chapters 2-7 present an overview of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Each chapter looks at particular issues and problems related to each book, and gives a chapter by chapter commentary over the entire book. The reason that it takes 6 chapters to discuss 5 books is because Wenham spends 2 chapters on Genesis (dividing his discussion between Genesis 1-11 and then 12-50). Like the “Encountering Biblical Studies” (EBS), each chapter of “Exploring the Old Testament” includes maps, charts and tables. This volume on the Pentateuch, however, unlike EBS, does not include photos, which I believe is a wise choice. As noted in my review of “Encountering the Book of Genesis” (see link above), the reproduction of black and white photos tends to come out very poorly. When Wenham has felt the need to reproduce a particular image, it has been drawn rather than photographically reproduced. All of the drawings, maps, charts, etc., have been done by Wenham’s son Christopher, who has done an admirable job. I found the charts to be particularly helpful. Wenham frequently includes charts to show parallels or demonstrate differences in the text. Wenham also includes text boxes. Some of these highlight special issues such as “Egypt in the Joseph Story,” in the Book of Genesis (p. 53), or “Further Reflection on the Census Results,” in the Book of Numbers (p. 106). Many of the boxes are labeled “Digging Deeper.” Wenham explains these boxes to the reader by stating, “I want you to get out of the tourist bus and explore the terrain for yourself before you move on to the next issue” (p. xiv). These boxes are designed to present thought provoking questions and assignments that allow readers to do some “digging” for themselves. Here are a few sample topics: “Ancient Marriage Customs” (p. 48), “Making Sense of Sacrifice” (p. 86), “The Chosen Place of Worship in Deuteronomy” (p. 134), and “Claims of Mosaic Authorship” (p. 160).

The final chapters of Exploring the Old Testament Vol. 1: The Pentateuch (chaps. 8-10, not counting the “Epilogue”), include 3 important areas of discussion. Chapter 8 looks at the “Theme of the Pentateuch.” This chapter is a wonderful example of how this series seeks to present the Big Picture. Wenham approaches the theme of the Pentateuch with a  brief historical survey of what recent scholarship thinks. This not only gives the reader ideas on the main theme, it also introduces him or her to modern scholars and their thoughts on the Pentateuch (By the way, every chapter ends with a select bibliography for further reading and study). Wenham evaluates the various positions presented and then concludes with his own view of the theme of the Pentateuch. His conclusion is: “The theme of the Pentateuch is the fulfilment of the promises to the patriarchs, which are a reaffirmation of God’s original intentions for the human race, through God’s mercy and the collaboration of Moses” (p. 157).

Exploring the Old Testament is available in both hardback and softcover editions.
Exploring the Old Testament is available in both hardback and softcover editions.

In chapter 9, Wenham deals with the “Composition of the Pentateuch.” Some readers may be tempted to skip this section because it deals with the history of how scholars think the Pentateuch came into existence. I was tempted to skim it very quickly, not because I find this subject uninteresting, but because I have read many other summaries on this topic. However, I found Wenham’s treatment to be the best survey on this subject that I have ever read. He seeks to present each position clearly and fairly, allowing the reader to judge and evaluate the various theories and approaches. As in the previous chapter, Wenham also shares some of his thoughts on the production of the Pentateuch.

Chapter 10 entitled, “The Rhetoric of the Pentateuch,” is closely connected to chapter 9. Here the focus is not on how the Pentateuch came to be, but when. Based on the theories from the previous chapter, Wenham walks the reader through the various historical periods of Israel’s history asking the question “What would the original readers have learned if the Pentateuch had been written in this particular historical period?” The periods include the time of Joshua, the united monarchy (David and Solomon), the time of Josiah (7th century B.C.), and the post-exilic period (5th century B.C.). Wenham states the values of each historical situation and allows readers an opportunity to decide for themselves. Although Wenham doesn’t seek to prejudice the reader by naming a particular historical period that he thinks the Pentateuch was completed by, it seems (by reading between the lines, and being familiar with his commentary on Genesis!), that he would opt for an earlier period rather than a later one.

Evaluation: Exploring the Old Testament Volume 1

This volume concludes with an Epilogue, a short glossary of terms, and a subject index. As noted at the outset, Wenham has done a masterful job of packing a lot of information into a thin volume. This is an excellent text for anyone seeking to gain basic knowledge about the first 5 books of the Bible. Given the purpose, I cannot note any particular weakness. I would only say that if someone was looking for a little more indepth treatment of a particular book (such as Genesis), the EBS series, or the “Teach the Text” series would be better (although there is no Genesis commentary in the “Teach the Text” series yet). But if the Big Picture is what you’re after (and in my opinion getting the Big Picture is the best way to begin), then you can’t go wrong with this volume. As a teacher, it is exciting to see publishing companies coming out with excellent introductory series for the beginning Bible student. All 3 series mentioned in this article (EBS, Teach the Text, and the Exploring series) are well worth the investment of the student’s time and money. In conclusion, I highly recommend Exploring the Old Testament Volume 1: The Pentateuch.

Buy Exploring the Old Testament Volume 1: The Pentateuch at Amazon USA / UK or From IVP Academic

  • Series: Exploring the Old Testament (Book 1)
  • Hardcover: 223 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (September 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 083082541X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830825417
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.9 x 10 inches

(Special thanks to IVP for providing this review copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review!)