Introduction to the Historical Books: Strategies for Reading

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Steven McKenzie here surveys the historical books of the Old Testament — Joshua through Ezra-Nehemiah — for their historical context, contents, form, and themes, communicating them clearly and succinctly for an introductory audience. / By providing a better understanding of biblical history writing in its ancient context, McKenzie helps readers come to terms with tensions between the Bible's account and modern historical analyses. Rather than denying the results of historical research or dismissing its practitioners as wrongly motivated, he suggests that the source of the perceived discrepancy may lie not with the Bible but with the way in which it has been read. He also calls into question whether the genre of the Bible's historical books has been properly understood.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802828774
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 1/15/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 184
  • Sales rank: 1,206,595
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven L. McKenzie is professor of Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author and editor of 18 books, including King David: A Biography, How to Read the Bible, and (with John Kaltner and Joel Kilpatrick) The Uncensored Bible: The Bawdy and Naughty Bits of the Good Book.
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Table of Contents

1. In Search of the Historical Books....................1
2. The Works behind the Historical Books....................13
3. Methods and Approaches to the Historical Books....................25
4. Joshua....................39
5. Judges....................57
6. 1-2 Samuel....................72
7. 1-2 Kings....................91
8. 1-2 Chronicles....................113
9. Ezra-Nehemiah....................142
Index of Names and Subjects....................165
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First Chapter


Strategies for Reading
By Steven L. McKenzie

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2010 Steven L. McKenzie
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-2877-4

Chapter One

In Search of the Historical Books

Canons and Communities

The term "Historical Books" in reference to a portion or portions of the Bible is unfortunate. It is unfortunate, first of all, because it is difficult to determine which books fall into this category and why. In fact, different books are placed in this category by different faith communities and by different scholars with roots in the different faith communities. The designation Historical Books is a distinctly Christian one, appearing first in the writings of Christian leaders of the fourth century C.E. There is a good chance that Jewish readers will not even find the category of Historical Books in their Bibles. Instead, the books of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings are grouped among the Prophets, in the Jewish canon, possibly as a subunit entitled Former Prophets. Other books sometimes included in this category—Ruth, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1-2 Chronicles (usually in that order)—are all found in the third major section of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings.

Among Christians, Protestants can open their Bibles and find a canonical unit of the Old Testament under the heading Historical Books that encompasses the works of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther. Roman Catholic readers can find the same heading with the same entries but supplemented with Tobit, Judith, and 1-2 Maccabees. Protestants do not consider the latter books to be Scripture, but relegate them to the Apocrypha. Greek Orthodox Christians' Bibles include not only Tobit, Judith, and 1-2 Maccabees in this category but 1 Esdras and 3 Maccabees as well.

Scholarly treatments of the Historical Books add a further variation. While some follow one of the canonical divisions noted above, usually reflecting the religious stance or background of the author or publication, others bracket Ruth and Esther from consideration as well as the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books, though not always with explanations of their reasons for so doing.

The present volume follows this latter scholarly convention by treating the books of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah. This choice is based partly on canon. My focus is materials within the Hebrew Bible, which does not include Tobit, Judith, 1 Esdras, or 1-4 Maccabees, and which indicates that Ruth and Esther were completely distinct from the Former Prophets and from Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah. The choice is also based partly on genre. None of the books treated here — or any other books in the Bible, for that matter — refer to themselves or their content as "history." That would be virtually impossible, since the word "history" is Greek in origin. (In the next chapter we will explore in detail both the significance and definition of the literary genre of history writing in the Bible.) But the books of Joshua–Kings as a canonical unit have long been recognized as comprising, either at the authorial or the editorial level, a running history of Israel. Similarly, the works of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are another such history, again at least editorially. Ruth and Esther, in contrast, are examples of short stories or novellas rather than of history writing. At most, one might refer to Ruth and Esther as historiography rather than history writing (see below on the distinction).

It should be noted that one might legitimately include the books of the Torah or Pentateuch — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy — within the genre of history writing and in the category of "Historical Books." Here, however, pragmatic considerations influence my decision (and that of the publisher) not to include them. As is typical of series such as this, the Pentateuchal books are dealt with in another volume.

The Significance of Genre

"Genre," a term borrowed from French, means "type" and is used to refer to categories of literature, as well as music, film, and the like. Literature has many different genres and subgenres. Broadly, we think of two major genres: fiction and nonfiction. But then there are different genres within each of those two categories: e.g., novel and romance as examples of fiction; biography and poetry as instances of nonfiction. Genres are fluid rather than fixed, so that one work can incorporate many genres. Thus, a textbook (nonfiction) might incorporate several short stories (fiction). A novel could contain poems or other nonfictional pieces. Alice Walker's The Color Purple, for instance, is a novel (fiction) that includes letters (a nonfiction category), which are, nonetheless, fictional.

Mutual recognition of genre, including the changing of genres and variations within a genre, are an integral part of the communication process between authors and readers. Proper recognition of genre is crucial for understanding a literary work. All readers make assumptions about genre as they approach a literary work. These assumptions, in turn, lead to expectations. Mistaken assumptions and expectations cause confusion and misunderstanding. Imagine, for instance, the confusion of someone who reads science fiction as history (as is the premise of the movie Galaxy Quest) or the even more disastrous consequences that would ensue if a surgeon were to construe the instruction manual for a new surgical instrument as fiction.

Such a disastrous scenario is unlikely to take place precisely because authors and readers usually share the same culture. Recognizing genre is largely a function of culture. Like learning a language, it is something that a person absorbs or learns subconsciously while growing up in a particular culture. Literary works rarely identify their genre. Rather, a person learns "automatically" to recognize the genre of a given literary work produced within his/her own culture simply by virtue of having grown up in that culture, without really thinking about it or necessarily being able to explain how or why the recognition took place.

It can be much harder for people outside of a culture to recognize that culture's literary genres. However, just as a language has grammatical rules, so there are guidelines and clues for discerning genre. Such clues sometimes come in the different physical forms of literary works. We can easily distinguish newspapers, magazines, and books from one another, even if they are in an unfamiliar language. In antiquity, letters, inscriptions, royal decrees, and other documents were also presented in different physical forms. But these physical differences disappeared in the process of the Bible's formation, and readers now have to rely on clues within the text to determine genre.

The clues about genre typically come in the form of specific features within a text — often at its beginning or end — that signal its genre and lead the reader to adopt a set of assumptions and expectations about the text's content. Consider the following phrases: "Dateline Tokyo," "Dear Sir/Madam," and "Once upon a time." In these three simple phrases the beginnings of three different genres of literature are easily recognizable: a newspaper article, a business letter, and a fairy tale, respectively. We would recognize them quite apart from their physical form, for instance, if they were sent electronically. Each raises a set of expectations within us as readers. For "Dateline Tokyo" we expect to read a report about recent events in Japan, not a fairy tale. For "Dear Sir/Madam" we expect the document to end with "Sincerely" rather than "They lived happily ever after."

However, literature is an art form, and creative writers can vary and mix genres, playing with readers' expectations, for creative ends. The use of a nonfictional genre for fictional ends in The Color Purple is one example. But on a more mundane level, imagine parents who want to make a point about not having heard from their son, who is away at college. They might write a personal letter in the guise of a business letter, beginning "Dear Sir" and ending "Sincerely." The young man's girlfriend in the same situation might make a not-too-subtle point about their relationship by composing a fairy tale beginning "Once upon a time" but without the typical "They lived happily ever after." Thus, an author can convey a message simply through the creative use of genre.

Genre and the Bible

As an integral element in the process of communication, properly discerning the genres in the Bible is just as crucial to understanding it as comprehending the languages in which it was written and its cultural and historical background. Yet, serious consideration of genre is often neglected when it comes to the Bible. As a result, modern readers frequently approach portions of the Bible with an incorrect set of assumptions and expectations. This typically occurs in two respects — readers either incorrectly identify the genre of the biblical work or text they are reading or, more commonly, they assume that the ancient Israelite genre is the same as the modern Western one.

The book of Jonah is a good illustration of the first problem. Like the books of Ruth and Esther, Jonah is a short story that is often misconstrued as history. But unlike Ruth and Esther, Jonah is best characterized as satire or parody. This is apparent upon close reading from a number of features in the book, including its ubiquitous use of hyperbole and the overall ludicrous nature of the story: Jonah, the prophet, is the only character in the book who disobeys God. He tries to run away, despite his confession that Yahweh is the maker of sea and dry land. His reason for fleeing is fear of his potential success, for he does not want the people of Nineveh to repent and save themselves from destruction. And succeed he does, more than any other prophet in the Bible. After being returned to his mission in the belly of a divinely-appointed fish, Jonah's curt, one-sentence threat (presumably in Hebrew) induces all one hundred thousand people of Nineveh (who do not speak Hebrew) — along with their animals! — to change their wicked ways. Instead of being pleased at this success, as one would expect a prophet to be, Jonah is upset. A divinely-provided object lesson reveals that he cares more about a plant than he does about the myriad of inhabitants in Nineveh.

As with most biblical literature, there is nothing in Jonah that explicitly identifies its genre. Hence, every reader makes an assumption about its genre, and the decision to read it as history is every bit as much an assumption as the decision to read it as satire. Moreover, the features described above — exaggeration, portrait of Jonah as a ridiculous figure, and the like — are strong indications that the book was intended as something other than straightforward reporting of the past. Its intent seems to be to teach a lesson against prejudice and the hatred of non-Israelites by ridiculing Jonah (whose name means "dove," a possible symbol of Israel) as a negative example of just such attitudes. Interpreting the book as history is like reading science fiction or fantasy as history and actually undermines its richness, creativity, and purpose!

History and History Writing

The second incorrect assumption — assuming that an ancient genre is identical to a modern one — is more complicated. This is another reason that the designation "Historical Books" is unfortunate. It tends to arouse false expectations on the part of readers, especially modern Western readers, about the nature of the literature. History, for most modern Westerners, is what happened in the past, pure and simple, and writing history means recounting exactly what happened in the past. The discipline of history is viewed as a kind of journalism and the historian as a courtroom witness, who is under oath to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" about the past — or at least that is the objective. Most people, especially these days, would probably admit that historians, like journalists, may be biased. After all, no one is completely objective. If they thought about it, most people would also likely recognize that writing history involves interpretation and that it is impossible to know every detail about what happened in the past. Further reflection might lead to the conclusion that all history is in fact interpretation, at least in some sense, since it is impossible to know or completely understand any event of the past in all its details and with all its complex causes. Still, we do not generally contemplate these things when looking for information about a particular event or episode of the past. History remains for us the "facts of the past," and history writing is the reporting of those facts.

This is all the more true when it comes to the Bible's account of history. It is, after all, the Bible — sacred literature, holy Scripture, the inspired word of God. Surely God knows all history, so the Bible's "Historical Books"should be historically accurate. Only, that does not appear to be the case — at least not according to the leading biblical and archaeological scholarship. Most biblical scholars and archaeologists believe that major events recounted in the Bible, such as the flood, the exodus from Egypt, and the conquest of Canaan either never occurred or did not happen in the way the Bible describes them.


Excerpted from INTRODUCTION TO THE HISTORICAL BOOKS by Steven L. McKenzie Copyright © 2010 by Steven L. McKenzie. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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