Recent Books on Biblical Interpretation

sparksI’ve read a number of interesting books about how to interpret the Bible recently. Most recently I spent an intense few weeks in Kenton Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words. I have a review which will appear in the May 2010 issue of Kesher Theological Journal (see Kesher online here).

Sparks’ book was one of the more negative books about the Bible I have read. I am not reviewing it on the blog since I agreed to do so for a journal. But I can say a few things about the book. Sparks wants to hold on to the authority of the Bible and at the same time accept the results of critical study of the Bible. I share the goal, but it seems to me that along the way Sparks lost his way. I appreciate another take I read recently, in Provan, Long, and Longman’s A Biblical History of Israel. They talk about reading tradition optimistically, giving it a benefit of the doubt. Sparks, it seems to me, has not done this. In his book, any time the Bible could be wrong, he assumes it is.

Readers unfamiliar with critical Biblical scholarship would be shocked to read Sparks’ views on many topics. In fact, many critical scholars take a more tradition-friendly tack than Sparks did. Results of his scrutiny of the Bible include:

–The Pentateuch is an anthology conflicting theologies from Israel’s different periods and schools and should not be read as a unity (p. 218ff).
–Samuel-Kings is theological-historical fiction embellishing an unknowable legendary core (p. 202).
–The Chronicler invents episodes to affirm the doctrine of reward and retribution in this life (pp. 221-2).
–Daniel’s “failed prophecies” are a genre of apocalyptic meant to communicate God’s control but not be taken seriously as prophecy (pp.223-4).
–John’s gospel uses invented chronology to strengthen the theological theme of Yeshua as Passover lamb (pp. 222-3).

Perhaps the worst example of negativity in Sparks’ book is his handling of the Canaanite genocide issue. God commanded Israel to expel and/or exterminate the Canaanites from the land. Sparks claims this is nothing more than the bigotry of the Ancient Near East and yet it is somehow included and accommodated into the Bible (pp. 297-298).

Needless to say, my review of Sparks will be about what I think he missed, theologically speaking, as he sought to deal with a constructive view of the Bible (one that integrates faith and critical reading).

Another recent book: Blue Parakeet
mcknight-blue-parakeet-4By contrast, I read and reviewed on Messianic Jewish Musings Scot McKnight’s Blue Parakeet. I so appreciated two principles for reading the Bible which McKnight not only expounded, but also illustrated with examples.

First, he said we need to read the Bible as story. Much of the Bible is, literally, narrative. And the non-narrative parts can be read as part of the ongoing story. This may seem a simple principle, but you can easily get confused since various traditions have not read the Bible as story. McKnight lists other methods including the following:

–Morsels of law: the way of reading the Bible that sees it as a rulebook and rather without consideration for context or development within the Bible isolates rules here and there. Fallacies abound in this approach.
–Morsels of promise: same thing, but with promises instead of rules.
–”Puzzling together the pieces to map God’s mind”: turning the Bible into a system of coded clues which all fit into one grand theory of theology. This method fails to recognize that the Bible includes varying viewpoints on the multi-faceted complexity of life and faith. Sometimes the Bible even seems to be contradictory as it expands our view of the multivalent reality of life (look up multivalent–it is a good word).
–Reading for the maestros: McKnight’s term for people who focus on one or two personalities in the Bible and read all through the lens of their words. Paul is the maestro of evangelicalism, for example, and would never approve of the way the rest of the Bible is shelved in evangelical churches (every time I bring this up, people deny it–but if you attend such a church pay attention to the way even other Bible texts have to in the end get vetted by Paul).

Second, I appreciate the way McKnight pushes Bible readers to see it as a developing story, or a wiki. Just as a wiki (an internet phenomenon–look it up if you don’t know what I mean) is updated and renewed by later writers, so it is with the Bible. The Bible is constantly in conversation with itself. Later parts look back on earlier parts and reexamine and tweak what was said earlier.

You can read my earlier review of Blue Parakeet here.

Speaking of Wiki: Subversive Sequels
sequelsIf McKnight clued us in to the wiki nature of inner Biblical conversation (later parts referring back to earlier parts and expanding or even undermining what was said earlier), Judy Klitsner takes the task further, exploring in depth some of the relationships between two or more parts of the Bible that are in conversation.

Klitsner’s new book, which JPS was kind enough to send me as a review copy (note: FCC, I disclosed that I got a free book–new rules in case readers didn’t know), Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other will be the subject for a soon-coming review on Messianic Jewish Musings.

Klitsner’s topic is the way certain ideas taken up in older Biblical passages are then recast in a new light in later Biblical passages. One that I am most interested in is the comparison between Noah and Jonah. If you think about it, you should be going, “Ahhh, I see it now.” One is God judging the world and saving one man. The other is God sending a man to save a city from judgment and the man doesn’t want them to be saved. Hmmm. Can Klitsner persuade that the connection is deliberate? Is it a reflection in the inner Biblical conversation about the nature of God’s judgment and of his mercy?

I will enjoy soaking it all up. But most of all, I keep reading and rereading the supreme text itself: the Bible. The rich spiritual and intellectual insights come slowly but surely. I believe in Torah lish’ma, Torah for its own sake. It is the idea that the very process of reading and studying the Bible enriches us, whether we get some deep insight or not.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Book Reviews, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Recent Books on Biblical Interpretation

  1. tiqun says:

    Thank you for those interesting short reviews of those books – you certainly made me curious – if i can lay my hands on them, i feel like reading the two latter ones.

    unfortunately i have to say that what you write about Spark’s book is the stardard “stuff” we learn at seminary (reformed i.e. calvinist seminary). as much as i love biblical studies or “sciences bibliques” as it is called here, this is one point that irks me. i appreciate a certain dose of historical-critical analysis and the “Sitz im Leben”, i believe that it is vital to replace the writings in their historical and cultural context before trying to appropriate them for today, but, at least in our seminary, it is pushed far too far. There seems to be nothing besides critical scholarship, and we end up with claims such as Sparks.

    i try to go through those classes, learning and taking the good stuff that is there, taking note of the (overly) critical scholarship, and try forging my own opinion. it is not always an easy one however, as the one who takes Torah and its claims serious often gets smiled upon. i just and an interesting few verses from 2 Kepha this morning, and will see if i can whip up something english-french-german before shabbos.

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