Five Recommended books for Understanding the Old Testament

Five or so…

First, a good Bible or two, meant for understanding and personal study. Given only one choice, I’d recommend the Jewish Study Bible. The JPS translation is dynamic (thought-for-thought),the commentary is useful, and the essays included in the back are excellent. If I were to add a second Bible, I’d recommend the NIV Study Bible. It’s Evangelical and conservative, but I find it’s OT notes useful, the translation quite readable.

Second, it’s often difficult to locate onself in the text historically or understand where something fits in when one doesn’t have a good grasp on the big historical picture. Regardless of Jewish or Christian order, the books are not arranged chronologically, and multiple books overlap with each other. Chronicles starts over at the beginning with Adam, for example. Isaiah is contemporary with parts of Kings. A good history is useful for many things. I recommend the volume edited by Shanks, Ancient Israel. Other lengthier and more detailed histories I would recommend are Miller/Hayes’ History of Ancient Israel and The Oxford History of the Biblical World. These represent solid scholarship in the middle of the road.

Third, the nations, events, and peoples of the OT represent vastly different cultures than ours. Reading it in absence of understanding those differences results in confusion and dislike. We must read the OT on its own terms and in its own context. “We should judge the actions of our predecessors on the basis of the laws and commandments and circumstances of their day, not ours.” (Elder Oaks, Ensign May 1996.) We need a guide to Isralite culture and customs, something like Life in Biblical Israel, or de Vaux’s much older Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions.

As an extension of this principle, we need to understand the nature of the text(s) we’re reading in the Bible. We readily recognize today that we should read the front page differently than an editorial than a political cartoon, the difference between history/historiography, historical fiction, fiction, and science fiction, for example. The Old Testament has just as many different genres, and when we read it through modern eyes, not making mental adjustments for whatever Israelite genre the text is, we misread it. To get at this, I suggest Marc Brettler’s How to Read the (Jewish) Bible. (John Barton’s Reading the Old Testament also gets at this, but from the perspective of different schools of Biblical criticism. Not for the uninitiated.)

Lastly, Israelites and Jews conceived of, or mentally structured their beliefs and religion differently than we do in retrospect today. Many things that formed a mental foundation for their beliefs and actions are often not recognized as such today, things such as kinship or covenant. I recommend Jon Levenson’s Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible.

Beyond this, one gets into either textbooks of introductions to the OT (which give general introductions and overviews for each book) or commentaries which vary in quality and approach from volume to volume. We’ll leave them off the list.

I regret the following reality, but it is what it is. There’s nothing LDS that I’d recommend. I’m unaware of any good books treating the whole thing or large portions thereof. We’re beginning to get some useful introductory NT material, but the OT remains largely untouched. The reasons for this deserve their own post.

15 Replies to “Five Recommended books for Understanding the Old Testament”

  1. The Jewish Study Bible is highly intriguing. I would also add the Dead Sea Scrolls Bible. I utilize both in our church’s Wednesday inductive study in Isaiah.

    And I would be interested in reading that next post, deserving some separate attention.

  2. What about Skousen’s book on the Old Testament? I have read all of them to accompany my understanding of the OT, and they have been really enlightening both for understanding the context of all of the stories and “connecting some of the scriptural dots”, so to speak.

  3. Bryan,

    Skousen’s books on the OT shed about as much light on the scriptures as his writings on Civil Rights shed on African Americans.

  4. Nitsav – Do you have any opinions of Mark Smith’s The Memoirs of God ? I found it to be fascinating, although I don’t know much about OT scholarship.

  5. I have enjoyed the Anchor Bible Dictionary. It has relatively brief articles and each conatins a mini-commentary as well.

  6. What do you think about Robert Alter’s work? I’m thinking of his translation and commentaries on the five books of Moses and the David story. Also, his and Frank Kermode’s edited volume. Lastly, what about Jack Miles’ God: A Biography.
    As for history, I’m a fan of Amelie Kuhrt’s The Ancient Near East, in two volumes.

  7. One could check out Dave Seely’s bibliographies of LDS work on the OT, the first one in 1998 and the supplement in 45/1 (2006), both in BYU Studies.

  8. Brian: I would not recommend Skousen’s books.

    David: I haven’t read that particular book of Smith, but I like the others. A bit dry, sometimes, but I know they have been well-received.

    Gilgamesh- I second the ABD, although it might be too much information or too scholarly for someone just jumping in. It’s expensive too. Perhaps something like the Oxford Companion to the Bible. We used Kuhrt in a history class, good stuff. More, perhaps, for a second stage of reading than an intro.

    Ronan: I know Friedman took some criticism, and revised some ideas (which he discusses in The Bible with Sources Revealed), but still find it very useful. There’s nothing else that explains narratively how OT source criticism came about.

    That said, parts of it really bug me, when he seems to be working backwards. I feel that he commits some of the same errors he warns others against.

    BRad: I think Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative was on my original list of 5 (which I made in Sacrament mtg. a few weeks back.) It’s extremely useful for understanding why the stories are told as they are, what details are included, etc. I cn’t comment on his other work, since I haven’t read it, but it’s probably worth reading. I’m not familiar with Jack Miles at all

  9. I bought my Dad Alter’s Art of Biblical Poetry a couple of years back. My Dad’s an English teacher, so knows a thing or two about poetry, but he found it to be a fascinating yet complex work that could not be skimmed through by a beginner.

  10. Thank you to all those who’ve added their thoughts here. At FUTW I have a tandem post going re: all books on all LDS cannonized scripture.

    In teaching GD last year with an OT focus, I found *Scripture Study, James E. Faulconer to be helpful, especially the two appendix in the back re: Greek vs. Jewish thought. I know this is only the tip of the iceburg on this issue and found it remarkably interesting and enlightening, esp. re: temple experiences. If anyone can point me to a book following Jim’s springboard, I’d appreciate it.

    I LOVE the Old Testament and I don’t think that’s a common sentiment in the LDS church. Too often we cop out with the “as far as it’s translated correctly” disclaimer and put all that we don’t immediately understand in this box as being mis-translated or mis-copied. I think a lot of our misunderstanding stems from the issues Jim brings up in his book. I am excited to read Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative. This book appears to be something that will help me appreciate and understand the OT better.

  11. Nitsav, I’m in total agreement with each one. I especially liked the Oxford History of the Biblical World and de Veaux’s book (albeit somewhat outdated in spots).

    Using a DSS commentary for OT study (#1)? Did you say that just to sound cool or do you really think it helps? I have found that there’s hardly any variation between the BHS and the DSSs, outside of the “secular” texts, and your BHS apparatus makes notes of DSS variations anyway.

    And Nitsav, I liked your first comment: the most helpful OT study tool – PUT DOWN YOUR KJV AND PICK UP A TRANSLATION THAT ACTUALLY MAKES SOME SENSE. I use the NRSV and NASB for English translations.

  12. A few more books of interest not mentioned include:

    Ben-Tor, Ammon, ed. The Archaeology of Ancient Israel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

    Dorsey, David A. The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999.

    Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Prophets: An Introduction. 2 vols. New York: Harper and Row, 1969 71.

    Bray, Gerald. Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

    As far as an overall LDS Old Testament commentary or history goes I might agree. However for single books in OT I think Abraham Gileadi’s Isaiah Decoded: Ascending the Ladder to Heaven is a particularly insightful treatment. I believe our buddy Dave Seeley gave it a nice plug in FARMS a while back. Although I don’t jump on the Gileadi bandwagon he does good work. The two Parry boys handled Isaiah well although I wouldn’t put it up there with others. Martin Buber also did a nice job covering the prophets unfortunately it was written in German.

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