Take & read: Old Testament

An annotated list of the best new titles

The Old Testament Is Dying: A Diag­nosis and Recommended Treat­ment, by Brent A. Strawn. The Old Testament’s “deep language” is being spoken by fewer and fewer people, and when that happens to a language, it dies. The implications are serious (and hold for the New Testament as well). Brent Strawn’s incisive diagnosis includes a critique of the New Atheists as readers of the Bible—for their literary tone deafness, their simpleminded literalism, and their interpretations of biblical texts that resemble closely the interpretations of fundamentalists. (The difference lies in the divine authority each group ascribes to their readings.) The treatments Strawn prescribes for us are helpful, because in the end it is not so much the Old Testament that is dying—it is us, from lack of the sustenance it offers.

A Handbook to Old Testament Exegesis, by William P. Brown. Even if you learned exegesis in college or seminary, or perhaps especially if you did, William Brown’s guide will open new ways of reading scripture that nourish the soul. Urging a “hermeneutic of wonder” when engaging in the “practiced art” of reading biblical texts, he includes crucial sections on self-exegesis and issues we face today (including science, ecology, and gender). Instead of regarding exegesis as akin to prepping for a colon­oscopy, readers will feel refreshed and inspired for the task.

How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Inter­pre­tation of Scripture, by David A. Lambert. What if our most treasured ideas are invented? David Lambert argues that repentance, as a concept, postdates the Bible. If Lambert is right, the consequences are many. The creation and imposition of a concept—especially one as powerful as penitence in the Western religious traditions—is a colonizing act that suppresses difference and asserts a false universality. Examining the language of sin, prayer, and fasting in diverse parts of the canon, Lambert finds that the apparent language of repentance does not mean what we think it means. The pervasive idea of the interiority of the penitential self says more about us than it does about the biblical texts. It’s not only the Bible that needs to be historicized, but “also its readers.”