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The Oxford Handbook of The Historical Books of the Hebrew Bible, edited by Brad E. Kelle and Brent A. Strawn

02 July 2021

Katharine Dell reviews an up-to-date account of OT scholarship

THE Oxford Handbook series is a new venture for Oxford University Press, seeking to offer in each volume a state-of-the-art survey of current thinking and research by using an international cast of scholars who specialise in the given area. This particular volume on the historical books provides resources for the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, but with an eye to uniting the individual book treatments to questions of how the topic relates to, and helps to interpret, the “historical books” as a group.

Questions of the relationship of these books to the wider Ancient Near Eastern world are also of concern, as well as issues of history — settlement, state formation, monarchy, forced migration, and return — and of literary redaction and reception, not to mention theological reflection on texts, traditions, and culture. This volume, though, also brings in many and varied readings of texts from post-biblical communities of all shades, and its interest in readerly approaches and reception history gives it a very modern twist.

After an editorial introduction that mentions the diversity that a range of scholars bring to an increasingly delimited set of interpretative parameters, the volume opens with a section on contexts. In a review of this length, I will look at this section in the most depth. The first entry on historiography and history writing in the ancient world raises broad issues of the nature of “history” and of its writing across the ancient world, recognising that it is led by faith, influenced by social and political systems, and often used to generate a sense of common ethnic identity.

Richard Nelson has confidence in the face of increasing scepticism that a legitimate history can be written and summarises as follows: “Biblical historians sought to claim Israel’s ancestral lands in the face of opposition (Joshua), urged loyalty to Yhwh (Judges), legitimated the dynasty of David (Samuel), and tried to explain defeat and exile (Kings). Chronicles communicated a message of legitimate identity and encouragement, and Ezra-Nehemiah added to this a call for community purity.” This seems a good summary for the literary scope of the whole volume.

The wider Ancient Near East context is then explored by Martti Nissinen in a survey of Assyrian and Babylonian sources that shed light on the social circumstances and living conditions of the exilic generation in Babylon in the sixth-fifth centuries BCE. This is followed by an article by Amélie Kuhrt on Achaemenid (Persian) political history and sources, emphasising the administrative power of that empire with high ideals of kingship at its core. The next two chapters are on text-critical aspects first of Samuel-Kings and second of Ezra-Nehemiah and I Esdras.

This is followed by an ethnographic study of the earliest origins of Israelite settlement and society by Ann Killebrew. She opts for a “mixed multitude theory” which sees the biblical and archaeological evidence as “reflecting a non-homogeneous, multifaceted and complex process of Israelite formation and crystallization”.

This is followed by a more biblically orientated essay on the formation of the Israelite state and early monarchy by Walter Dietrich. He notes that the biblical picture is less socio-political than theological and that the weight given to it across the historical books reflects its significance for the Israelite nation rather than its importance historically. A similar treatment is then given of the later monarchical period, comparing the accounts in Kings and Chronicles.

We are next taken by Laurie Pearce into the realm of cuneiform texts from Babylonian and Achaemenid courtly circles as a fresh extra-biblical background for interpreting the Israelite exile. They prove helpful in augmenting aspects of chronology, identity, intellectual transmission, and social and economic standing.

This is followed by a focus on the situation immediately after the return from exile, including Persian sources, by Mary Joan Winn Leith. It is clear that even within this first section there is a good deal of diversity, both in perspective given by each of the authors and their methodologies, as well as some overlap and some gaps.

The editors mention in the introduction that they are aware of these factors that always emerge in a multi-author volume, and so in that sense each article has to be seen as a scholarly viewpoint, to be placed alongside others, but not flattened out to form an exhaustive survey. This is true of other sections of the book, too.

The next parts are 2, “Content”, which includes “society and economy, political theory, violence studies, and the roles and portrayals of women”. When it comes to part 3, “Approaches”, the doors are opened to “readings”, some more traditional, others more exploratory. Essays on orality, feminism, post-colonialism, and trauma theory bring the volume right up to date with some of the latest developments in biblical studies featured.

This leads on to an interest in Part 4 in “Reception”, which opens the interpretative doors even wider to include readings from scholars young and old, of different religious affiliations and none, of different genders and ethnicities. This section gives us fascinating insight into characters such as Joshua, Deborah, Solomon, and so on, and how they have been evaluated across the centuries through the texts that reveal their personalities.

There are 36 entries, more than one third by women, and reflecting a truly international range, scholars with many different religious and cultural affinities. There has clearly been an attempt by the editors to diversify and there is a richness to the volume as a result. This volume is a worthy start to what will no doubt prove to be an exciting new series.

Dr Katharine Dell is Reader in Old Testament Literature and Theology in the Divinity Faculty in the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of St Catharine’s College.


The Oxford Handbook of The Historical Books of the Hebrew Bible
Brad E. Kelle and Brent A. Strawn, editors
OUP £97
Church Times Bookshop £87.30

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