This semester, my students in the Introduction to Hebrew Bible/Old Testament class at LTS are working with new textbooks: John Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 2007) and Johanna van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). We also read from other sources (the Global Bible Commentary, the Women’s Bible Commentary, the Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, and some internet pieces), but Collins and Bos have been our primary introductions to the Pentateuch.
I always liked Frick, but a few aspects of the book kept tripping students up. (1) The cost. The volume is now over $100, a price harder and harder to justify to economically-stretched students. (2) Its synthetic nature. While one of the things I like best about Frick is that he includes historical, literary, feminist, and occasional global perspectives in his treatments of biblical books, students struggle to recognize when he switches methods or perspectives. Because Frick speaks all the parts, they can’t easily hear the difference between interpretative voices. This became the most clear to me when students didn’t catch that the feminist critique of Hosea that Frick makes in the body of his text is contradicted by the Frederick Buechner piece he quotes in the sidebar. (3) Its non-theological tone. Because the book is written for college students, it doesn’t directly address the questions theological students have.
My rationale in turning to Collins and Bos was that they speak with distinct voices. Collins would present the essential historical aspects of the text, and Bos would offer one consistent theological interpretation. Other readings would provide additional diversity.
We’re finishing with Bos, since we’re turning to Joshua-Kings and she only treats the Pentateuch. That’s prompted my evaluation of the textbook choice; I’ll get student assessments later.
(1) Students have kept up with these readings better than previous students did with Frick. I assume that’s because both books are relatively short and readable. Due to their small size, they are both selective and don’t aim for the breadth that Frick does. That’s helped us focus on fewer things in greater depth.
(2) We have found it easier to distinguish voices and approaches from one another. Students do hear the difference between historical and theological engagement, and they can recognize that Bos’ theological perspective is one of many possible.
(1) Because the textbooks don’t cover as much ground as Frick, I’ve found that I need to supplement information more than in the past. Neither do as good of a job as Frick, for example, on the mulitiple law codes of the Pentateuch.
(2) Bos has reminded me of why I’ve stayed away from theologically-oriented textbooks in the past: usually, they are so eager to help readers appreciate the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament that they don’t deal honestly with its difficulties. While Bos starts out raising some difficult questions about the text (feminist, post-Holocaust, etc), she invariably finds a positive message worth celebrating. For Bos, the main theme of the HB/OT is care for the stranger, and she finds this message throughout the Pentateuch. Of course, she doesn’t address how the Canaanite or queer stranger fares in the text. One of the questions I asked in my book Challenging Prophetic Metaphor is whether is it possible to love the HB/OT and be honest about it at the same time.
In Bos, I see the love but not what I consider sufficient honesty about the text’s participation in problematic ideologies. In her discussion of the Mosaic covenant, for example, she radically downplays its conditional nature in order to claim that God’s grace is not conditional.
In Bos and most theologically-interested biblical studies, I see an even bigger problem: most writers can’t raise theological questions without trying to answer them. They can’t invite readers into theological reflection without telling them the correct theological conclusions to make. They preach rather than challenge readers to think theologically.
Obviously, before I decide whether or not to use Bos again, I’ll get student input. And, I’ll see what happens during our discussion of the historical books when we don’t have a consistent theological voice to push against.