A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Can a Theological Textbook be Too Theological?

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.

collins Making_Wise_the_Simple6

For years, I’d used Frank Frick’s A Journey through the Hebrew Scriptures (Thomson Wadsworth, Second edition,  2003).


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.

The positive:

(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.

The negative:

(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.

8 Responses to Can a Theological Textbook be Too Theological?

  • Check out our textbook issued last year. It is a thematic approach, but not necessarily theological. I have used it with students for years as it developed (and in the design for my course). I find it engages them in thinking about the connections of the biblical material to the contemporary environment, without jettisoning the important things about respecting the history and the social world that produced these documents.

  • Sandie,
    I’ll look again, but it was the thematic approach that had given me pause before. One of my goals is for students to “get” the differences between different parts of the canon and to think about the distinctions between them.

  • Hi Julia, great post! Thanks for reviewing the experience.

    I have a lingering question based on a minor point in your post: “queer strangers.” I have done a good bit of research on same-sex behavior in biblical texts, but have not really engaged queer studies, so this question comes out of my ignorance on that front. I assume you are referring to homosexual orientation by using the term “queer.” How could any character in the Bible be thought of as “queer” (in the sense of how it’s generally used today) when such a social identity would have been non-existent at the time? It’s a question of vocabulary. I may not fully understand what is meant by the term.

    Sorry to major on the minors.


  • I painted that one with bold strokes rather than clarifying my point. Thanks for asking me to clarify. Yes, I’m using “queer” in a positive way to refer to folks who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. My piece of Joseph in my Reading the Bible as an Adult section explains that label further. You are right, of course, that the biblical world wouldn’t have used this category or thought about people having “orientation” of any variety. Nonetheless, Leviticus and Deuteronomy do forbid any activity not oriented toward procreation. When modern people read these laws, I think it’s important to notice the difference between the ancient and modern understandings of sexuality and human personhood. When Bos sees only care for the stranger in the HB/OT, she’s ignoring the way its worldview actually makes some people (in this case, queer folks) into strangers.

  • Julia, these lines in your post say it for me too: “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.” To the problem you name, that students don’t have the opportunity to wrestle with the questions, I would add that this positions students to adopt an identity as consumers of theological interpretations from “experts,” rather than as the constructors of theological interpretations themselves and (especially!) as the facilitators of community theological conversations. Now I think it’s important to help people be educated consumers, and I wouldn’t want them to be producers of interpretations that others are expected to consume either. However, if one’s voice is to join the interpretive conversation in a real way, one needs to be able to construct one’s own interpretation, so that shift in identity seems critical to me. From my perspective it’s not just a matter of skill development, but also of the implicit curriculum, what students absorb subconsciously by the way things are taught.

  • My First Comment Carried Over from Julia’s FB Page

    At the same time, before there can be facilitation of a theological discussion, students, congregations must be taught how to think theologically about the Bible. In some simple way before we can bring in those other rich discussions from say a feminist perspective. Basic questions such as Who is God or what is God doing in this passage? and What … Read Moreis the human condition? I know everyone has a theology, but I think we assume they know how to articulate it beyond the Sunday School answer, and from some students to some congregations, they can’t nor can they address the idea that their theology might change over time. Without at least some simple way to teach understanding the Bible theologically, this is why you end up with discussions in Bible Studies about the “facts” of the passage–how many animals were on the ark kind of thing…

    My Second Comment Carried Over From Julia’s FB Page

    I agree there is no neutral or innocent pedagogical enterprise. Questions themselves can be set ups for particular answers. At the same time, I just believe that theologically inquiry must be taught and can be taught. A long time ago in the history of teaching writing, the thinking was that you cannot teach writing–writing is some kind of natural… Read More gift that certain people are born with. These days, we don’t exactly think that, though we certainly know that some people lean toward linguistic expression as opposed to visual expression. The same can be said of theological inquiry. I think it’s something that can be taught and learned and developed…this is important. Seminary students cannot take the same questions they’ve been hearing and asking in seminary to their congregations–they have to return to some basic–though I know there is nothing basic about speaking of God–questions and discussions because their congregations have not been taught how to think theologically and articulate their theology and then they need to be taught how to share that theology and let it bump up against other understandings. So perhaps say the pastor’s role or the educator’s must be a bit more directive at first– more of teaching and modeling, and then with time, that role changes, shifts to that of facilitator and then to a true discussion partner. In other words, students, congregations, faithful people must be formed to be theologians–not just consumers of facts about the Bible or consumers of propositions that supposedly arise from scripture. And I don’t know if the church has done such a good job at forming her people into theologians–into proposition reciters and platitude givers yes–but theologians and careful readers of the text….?

    My Third Comment…

    The only thing I would add on a practical note–one thing you could do is make the theological inquiry in the class transparent–note what exactly you are doing at a particular point in time–that you are beginning at this level of theological inquiry as opposed to another level–where you are beginning and where you are going–this way the … Read Morestudents will be aware that they “hearing good questions” and “interrogating texts”…Do you see what I’m getting at? Teachers make a lot of assumptions about students. I did and I made a lot of assumptions about Christian congregations.

  • What has bothered me about the more overtly theolological OT/HB textbooks is the “shooting fish in a well” issue. It is as if the author says, “Here is a morally or theologically troubling facet of the text…but wait! here is my own, idiosyncratic hermeneutical solution to that problem, thrown to you like a lifeline! You can accept it or, you know, drown.”

  • Well said. And the result of that strategy is that readers think there really are no problems in the text, just failures of interpretation. And they never have to alter their assumption that the Bible is a trouble-free text.

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