An Orientation to the Old Testament
Last month I posted about Brent Strawn’s book Is the Old Testament Dying? I suggested that the critical condition of the Old Testament in many churches is not because we don’t believe the Old Testament is important, but because we lack confidence in how to handle it well. And so, to complement Andrew’s post on his favourite Old Testament commentaries, I thought I would tell you about my favourite series on how to read the Old Testament.
Commentaries are great. I love them (probably too much). A good commentary is like a good guidebook. It gives you a map of the whole area and detailed information about the individual landmarks. But a guidebook is nothing compared to exploring the city or country yourself. And a guidebook doesn’t always show you how it got its information. In the same way, a commentary is never as good as exploring the biblical text yourself, and, though a good commentary sets a good example of how to handle the text, they don’t always show you how they reached their conclusions. If we are always relying solely on commentaries, we’ll miss out on the joy of exploring the text ourselves, and we’ll always be dependent on other people’s conclusions.
Commentaries are great for the end of the reading journey. You get to the landmark; you’ve explored it a bit yourself and have made some tentative conclusions about its history and purpose, and then you turn to the guidebook to check your conclusions and be directed to the bits you’d overlooked. If you turn straight to the guidebook, you might as well have just stayed at home and read it there. Before reaching for the guidebook you need a bit of an orientation.
Enter the Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series from Kregel. If you want a bit of orientation so you feel more confident handling the Old Testament, these books are a great place to start.
The series is designed to help readers to better understand the different genres found in the Old Testament and how to read each one well. Each volume follows the same six-part structure:
- The Nature of the Genres – An introduction to the key genre(s) found in that part of the Old Testament, including common features and their significance.
- Viewing the Whole – An introduction to the key themes of the relevant books of the Old Testament.
- Preparing for Interpretation – Relevant historical background, discussion of issues of text and translation. (The series is aimed at those with a bit of Hebrew knowledge, but has been designed to be accessible to those without. Don’t let that put you off!)
- Interpreting the Text – A discussion of interpretative issues and different approaches to the text, sometimes including invaluable step-by-step guides to tackling a text.
- Proclaiming the Text – Advice on how to go from understanding the text to communicating it to others.
- Pitting It All Together – Ties all the preceding sections together, as the name suggests. Often contains substantial worked examples to show the entire journey from text to interpretation to proclamation.
Why am I such a fan of this series? Let me give you just three reasons:
- The volumes are accessible, full of examples, and not too long. They’re the kind of book a busy preacher can actually hope to find (or make) the time to read.
- The handbooks not only show you how to find the meaning of a text but also how to think through its application and how to communicate it to others. They are basically the perfect training manual for preparing good sermons from the Old Testament.
- They tackle the real nuts and bolts of handling and communicating the Old Testament well. You’ll find answers to the questions you’ve never dared to ask for fear that they’re too obvious and be introduced to a whole load of useful questions of which you’d never even thought before.
So, if you’re conscious that the Old Testament feels like very foreign terrain to you, but you don’t want to always rely on someone else’s work in a guidebook, pick up some of these volumes to get an orientation which will allow you to explore the Old Testament yourself.
The series contains six volumes:
Peter T. Vogt, Interpreting the Pentateuch: An Exegetical Handbook (2009)
Robert B. Chisholm Jr., Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook (2006)
Edward M. Curtis, Interpreting the Wisdom Literature: An Exegetical Handbook (2017)
Mark D. Futato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (2007)
Garry V. Smith, Interpreting the Prophetic Books: An Exegetical Handbook (2014)
Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook (2016)