Tag Archives: Samuel

Reading the Historical Books

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).

Reading the Historical Books by Patricia Dutcher-Walls is available from Baker Academic and Amazon USA / UK
Reading the Historical Books by Patricia Dutcher-Walls is available from Baker Academic and Amazon USA / UK

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.

Patricia Dutcher-Walls, author of Reading the Historical Books.
Patricia Dutcher-Walls, author of Reading the Historical Books.

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/

Reading the Historical Books is also available at Amazon USA / UK

(My thanks to Baker Academic Books for providing a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.)

Mind the Gap: Guidelines for Gaps in Biblical Narratives

Mind the Gap: Guidelines for Gaps in Biblical Narratives

gapNo matter what the story is, or who the storyteller is, it is impossible to give every detail of an event.  This means that there are inevitably “gaps” in every story. It’s great when the person relating the story is there with you because you can always ask questions that help to fill in the gaps. But if the story is written down and it is not possible to contact the author, gaps become more challenging. This is especially true of biblical stories which were written centuries ago in another language with a different cultural setting than ours. Some of the gaps we find in biblical narrative are a result of the distance between ancient times and the 21st century. As Robert Chisholm states, “Many of the gaps we perceive in a story would not have been present for an ancient Israelite audience, for ancient readers would have intuitively understood nuances of their language and aspects of their culture better than we do” (Interpreting the Historical Books, p. 69). However, sometimes the author deliberately left a gap in a story, and it is these intentional gaps that I am focusing on in this article.

Intentional Gaps in Biblical Narrative

Probably the Bible's most famous gap concerns Cain's wife.
Probably the Bible’s most famous gap concerns Cain’s wife.

There can be a number of reasons for intentional gaps in a story. First it is important to remember that writing in the ancient world was an expensive process and writing materials were not as readily available as they are today. Furthermore, space was limited. Books were not in use and only so much material would fit on a scroll. All of this means that a biblical author had to be selective about what to include and what to omit. One reason then for a gap in the story is that the detail was not considered important enough to include. Sometimes a gap occurs because the writer has left enough evidence in the text for us to figure out the obvious answer. This is probably the reason for one of the most famous gaps in the Old Testament. It seems that everyone who reads Genesis 4:17 asks the obvious question, “Where did Cain get his wife?” The author asserts that Adam and Eve are the first human beings and that all humanity is descended from them (e.g., Gen. 3:20; 5:1ff.). If the author’s story is taken at face value, then Cain’s wife must be a relative (either a sister or niece, etc.). It would be a waste of precious space for the author to explain this “obvious” detail.

There is a large gap in the story of Samuel
There is a large gap in the story of Samuel

Another reason for gaps may involve the literary artistry of the biblical author. Gaps in the narrative may lead to surprises later in the story. For example, 2 Samuel 21:5-8 reveals that there are other living descendants of Saul besides Mephibosheth and his son (see 2 Sam. 9). Gaps naturally create curiosity and, at times, the author may use gaps to encourage the reader to investigate the text more carefully. The disappearance of Samuel from 1 Samuel 4-6 is an example. In 1 Samuel 3 Samuel is a young man who receives the word of the Lord. However, when Israel is defeated by the Philistines and the ark of God is captured (1 Sam. 4), Samuel appears nowhere in the story! When Samuel finally reappears in 1 Samuel 7, he is a much older man. Why are so many years of Samuel’s life blanked by the author? We may presume that some of the material was irrelevant, as we have already discussed, but any reader must wonder how such an important figure can disappear from the story at one of the most critical moments, with no explanation of his whereabouts! The writer seems to be using this gap in the story of Samuel’s life to make an important point. Chapter 3 ends by telling us that the Lord let none of Samuel’s words “fall to the ground” and that all Israel knew that Samuel was a prophet of the Lord (2 Sam. 3:19-20). In fact, the statement made immediately before the battle with the Philistines is “And the word of Samuel came to all Israel” (2 Sam. 4:1). If Samuel was indeed God’s prophet, and his word never failed, then his absence in chapter 4 further emphasizes Israel’s apostasy. When the Israelites met the Philistines in battle they did not consult God’s word through Samuel. All we learn is that after an initial defeat, they put their trust in a religious relic–the ark (1 Sam. 4:2-5), rather than in God Himself. By removing Samuel from the narrative, the author subtly comments on Israel’s faithlessness without directly commenting on it! This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that when Samuel reappears in the narrative (1 Sam. 7:3), he is calling on the people to “return to the Lord” and to “put away” their foreign gods. In other words, it appears that when the crisis of 2 Samuel 4 happened, rather than turn to the Lord and Samuel, Israel turned to false gods! This technique of gapping used by the author causes the thoughtful reader to question Samuel’s absence and to read 2 Samuel 7 in light of the comments in 2 Samuel 3:19-21 and 2 Samuel 4:1.

The Danger of Interpreting Gaps in Biblical Narrative

The danger of gaps!
Gaps can be dangerous!

Because gaps naturally create curiosity, it is always tempting to provide an explanation for them. Before attempting to explain a gap we should ask several important questions. First, is the gap due to our lack of historical or cultural knowledge? If so, it is not an intentional gap created by the biblical author and we should be cautious about offering explanations for something we don’t have enough information on.

Second, is the gap important to the story, or is it there because the details would be superfluous to the story? In other words, does the gap exist because the author has no interest in pursuing that particular aspect or detail? If this is the case, then we must consider that it may be a waste of our time to pursue something that the biblical author did not care to illuminate. Some bible studies fall into the habit of attempting to answer questions that the Bible itself is not concerned about, and that ultimately we can never know the answer to. This is a great waste of time and energy because we can miss what the author is really wanting to communicate and chase rabbit trails that, in the long run, are meaningless.

Third, if we discern that the author has intentionally left a gap so that we will dig deeper into the text, we must still be careful to ask the right questions. Using the example above about Samuel is a case in point. While we can observe that there is a gap in Samuel’s life story, the questions we ask about this observation are important. If we ask, “Where was Samuel all those years?” and then seek to answer that question by making guesses about his whereabouts (maybe he went to prophet school, etc.), we miss the point. The important question is not, “Where was Samuel?”, a question we can never answer, but “Why does the author choose to omit Samuel from the story?” When we ask the correct question about a gap, we then have the opportunity to go deeper into the text.

Speculation vs. interpretation of facts
Speculation vs. interpretation of facts

How do we know if we are asking the right questions? The real test as to whether the question is helpful or not is to ask where it leads. Does the question lead us back to the text to search for clues that will provide an answer, or does the question cause us to speculate about what “might have happened” without anyway of proving it one way or the other? If we are seeking to understand the Bible, then questions that lead us to investigate the text and find answers in the text, are good questions. Conversely, questions that lead us away from the text and prompt us to come up with imaginary solutions (even if the solutions are reasonable), are not good “Bible study” questions. The difference can be summed up in two words: interpretation vs. speculation. Interpretation involves filling in gaps by looking at clues in the text. Speculation involves our imagination about what might have happened. To give an example of speculation that leads to bad biblical interpretation, I once read a Genesis commentary that blamed Sarah for Abram’s trip to Egypt (Gen. 12:10)! The text gives absolutely no indication that Sarah prompted Abram to move to Egypt because of the famine in Canaan. Now we might speculate that Sarah did so, but that is just our imagination at work. Whether Sarah did or didn’t can never be known. All we know is what the text says and it only focuses on Abram. It seems to me that a great injustice is done to Sarah by blaming her for what the text infers was Abram’s mistake! This same kind of mistake happens frequently in bible-study groups and Sunday school classes. We often drift from the text and end up discussing endless possibilities of what “might have happened.”

Rocky Balboa was Right!

"She's got gaps, I've got gaps, together we fill gaps."
“She’s got gaps, I’ve got gaps, together we fill gaps.”

One of Rocky’s famous lines is, “She’s got gaps, I’ve got gaps, together we fill gaps.” Gaps are indeed a fact of life, especially when it comes to telling a story! My hope is that this article helps us to appreciate the gaps that exist in biblical narrative and provides a constructive approach to them. There are different kinds of gaps–some intentional, some unintentional. Together we can “fill gaps” but it is important to ask the right kinds of questions if we desire a deeper understanding of biblical stories.

(For further information on gaps, see my book Family Portraits. For an example of gap-filling that attempts to follow biblical clues, see my treatment of Abiathar in chapter 8 pp. 92-94.)

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel
Available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press, and other sites

The following interview on my book “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel” was conducted by my friend and colleague Lindsay Kennedy who is a teacher at Calvary Chapel Bible College York, and an active blogger of all things biblical. You can find his blogs and book reviews, as well as other information, at http://www.mydigitalseminary.com

1. You (almost) exclusively teach OT history (Genesis, Josh-Kings) at CCBCY (Calvary Chapel Bible College York). What first sparked your interest in the Old Testament?

When I was doing my undergraduate degree in biblical studies, a man by the name of Gerald Vinther came to teach during my junior and senior years at the bible college I was attending. He taught OT and the Hebrew language. His classes totally revolutionized my view of God and of the OT. Whether looking at Genesis or the Prophets, he demonstrated the consistency of God’s character between the Old and New Testaments. I discovered a God of grace and love in the OT who desired to have a relationship with His people, just like the God of the NT. My particular church tradition had emphasized the judgmental nature of the God of the OT and de-emphasized the significance of the OT. When we saw the character of God revealed in the pages of the OT, one of my classmates described it as being born-again…again! Since then I have fallen in love with the study of the OT and the God revealed in its pages. Because many Christians don’t know the OT and often have misconceptions about it, and the God revealed in its pages, I have found great joy in assisting others in seeing its beauty and truth, much like I was introduced to it years ago. By the way, this is why I give a special “thank you” in the preface of Family Portraits to Gerald Vinther, and also to my graduate professor in OT, John T. Willis who also had an important influence on me.

2. For as long as I’ve known you, you have been working on this book. What drove you to write Family Portraits?

I was drawn to the books of Samuel in graduate school and have continued to study them for many years. One of the things I noticed in my study was the theme of family and the prominence of four families within 1&2 Samuel (Samuel’s, Eli’s, Saul’s, and David’s). None of the studies or commentaries I have read bring out the significance of this particular theme.  Also, although many character studies have been done on David, Saul, and Samuel, few have been done on the other members of their family, and no book has sought to tackle them all as I do in Family Portraits.

I was also intrigued by the fact that character studies, if done correctly, can assist the student of 1&2 Samuel in understanding its characters in a way that a commentary approach can’t. The sustained reflection on a certain character, noting all the places where they appear in the text, often reveals insights that can be overlooked in a commentary. This approach actually modified my understanding of certain characters like Abner and Joab.

3. This is a book of character studies in 1&2 Samuel, yet surprisingly you have omitted sections on Samuel, Saul, and David. What can we learn from investigating the supporting cast in this story?

As I mentioned in the last question, a number of studies have been done on these three major characters, but very little has been done on other members of the “supporting cast”. In the Preface to Family Portraits, I compare character studies with an artist who paints a portrait. Although the artist may seek to focus attention on a certain person or object within the painting in order to convey his or her message, the person or object is enhanced by everything else in the painting, which might include various colors, shapes, objects, or people. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, is an example of this. While Christ is the focal point of the painting, the expressions and actions of the 12 disciples surrounding him add depth and detail to the portrait and meaning of the painting.

One of the techniques that the author(s) of 1&2 Samuel uses is contrasting various characters with other characters. For example, Hannah is contrasted with Peninnah as well as Eli. Samuel is contrasted with Eli and his sons. Jonathan is contrasted with Saul, and David is contrasted with Saul and Absalom. These are only a few examples of the many comparisons and contrasts made between characters in 1&2 Samuel. By studying the lesser known characters and their interaction with God and the major characters, we are able to discern some of the important messages that the author(s) was seeking to convey to his readers.

4. Family Portraits is unique because it incorporates both academic and devotional material in one place. Who did you have in mind when writing this book?

First let me say that I believe it is extremely important to combine an academic and devotional approach (by which I mean making practical application to our daily lives). I am glad to see that this approach is beginning to catch on in evangelical circles. Far too often books are either academic in nature with no application, or devotional with no solid scholarly foundation. The academic approach runs the risk of being irrelevant and a pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, while at the same time making the Bible appear irrelevant to a modern reader. The devotional/applicational approach can run the risk of a passage meaning whatever a particular author wants or thinks it means, if not backed up with solid research and exegesis.

To answer your question more directly, Family Portraits is written for the pastor, teacher, Bible College or seminary student, and Christian who is interested in a more in-depth treatment of 1&2 Samuel. While some pastors and Bible college students may be familiar with Hebrew and some of the more technical aspects of Bible study, I have tried to be aware of those who don’t have this expertise.  I seek to explain unfamiliar terms and methods and refer to the Hebrew only when it illuminates an important point in the text. Admittedly this can, at times, be a delicate balancing act. Part of my desire is to introduce ideas and methods that the average layperson is unfamiliar with, in hopes that they will be challenged to go to the next level in their own study of the Bible.

5. What do you hope your readers will take away from Family Portraits?

First, and foremost, I hope that Family Portraits helps people to develop a closer relationship with, and greater understanding of, the God of the Bible. Character studies are an excellent vehicle for helping us to see ourselves and how the Word of God applies to our lives. In the characters of 1&2 Samuel we find traits that we admire and abhor, and hopefully learning (or being reminded of) these truths causes us to examine our own lives and seek God’s help in becoming the people He desires us to be.

Second, there are a lot of great books that deal with various aspects of 1&2 Samuel that the average Christian layperson will never to exposed to. In fact, the average layperson may never even know that these resources exist! Some of these Bible study methods and scholars provide wonderful insights into God’s Word. I hope that Family Portraits, in some small way, introduces them to these resources and scholars and encourages them to pursue a deeper study of the Scripture.

Finally, I am hopeful that Family Portraits helps to provide a model for studying Scripture with an academic rigor, but at the same time, with a pastoral heart. As I mentioned in the previous question, and also emphasize in my Preface and Introduction, I believe it is imperative that academic research and devotional application go together. Having said this, I admit my own inadequacy in combining these approaches and don’t pretend to have achieved complete success. I certainly need to continue to grow in both of these areas. Yet it is my hope that Family Portraits is at least an attempt that demonstrates the fruitfulness of this kind of approach.

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press, and various internet outlets.