The English-speaking world is spoiled with a wealth of Old Testament introductions. Such introductions range from concise volumes aimed at undergraduate students to more comprehensive treatments aimed at graduate students and otherwise serious readers. This volume belongs to the latter category, including more than 800 pages of content, with indices of ancient writings, Scripture, and subjects, as well as a 45-page bibliography. In length, Hess’s volume resembles the introductions by R. K. Harrison and Brevard Childs but brings readers up to speed with the rapid changes in biblical scholarship we have seen in the 40–50 years since those older introductions were published.
While Harrison and Childs addressed many of the concerns of modernity, Hess’s introduction covers both the concerns of modernity and postmodernity. He analyzes each Old Testament book for its place in the canon, theological message, literary characteristics, ancient Near Eastern context, and history of interpretation. All 39 books in the Christian canon are treated in 35 chapters, with 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah treated in four chapters. Each chapter includes an outline of the book and a select bibliography of commentaries and key studies with one-sentence annotations. However, unlike Harrison and Childs, Hess has written this book without assuming readers are very familiar with the content of the Old Testament. His occasional pop-culture references but especially his overviews of each biblical book testify to this. This decision about audience is curious because more advanced students, who would appreciate the learned summaries of historical critical views and ancient Near Eastern backgrounds, may find the tone frustrating or the overviews superfluous, while beginners may find the sheer length of the book daunting. Then again, it may simply reflect the fact that seminary students today come with much less general biblical knowledge than they did half a century ago.
The introductory chapter covers three areas: the definition and structure of the Old Testament, the composition and manuscripts of the Old Testament, and comments on the study of the Old Testament. He proposes a model for understanding the formation of the canon that is neither simplistic about the history of canon formation nor accepting of the idea that the text was in serious flux in the first century AD. The final section includes a link to a bibliography on the Denver Seminary website and a brief orientation to the structure of the book.
Space prohibits a summary of this work. Instead, I will examine a few features we would expect of an introduction and then summarize the unique contributions of this book, followed by a brief evaluation.
As we would expect, Hess covers the traditional areas of historical criticism, literary approaches, and theological themes. Evangelicals often wonder how an author will handle the composition of the Pentateuch, the historicity of the exodus and conquest, or the authorship of Isaiah. For most of these historical issues, Hess provides a few arguments in a gentle way and moves on. For example, on the authorship of the Pentateuch, Hess only notes that the text does not tell us who the author is and that the Pentateuch is associated with Moses in Deut 31:9 and several other texts (p. 24). On a post-exilic dating of Genesis, Hess remains skeptical, suggesting that Genesis 12–36 bears little resemblance to the world of returnees from exile in the sixth century (p. 36). Hess, however, spends considerably more time discussing the formation of Israel. He cautions against absolute conclusions about the nature of the conquest and yet argues for the antiquity of Joshua based on the descriptions from the Jericho story, personal and people group names, and the vassal-treaty structure found in Joshua 24, among other evidence (pp. 181–82). On the conquest and the question of genocide, Hess argues that Joshua and the Israelites were attacking forts rather than large population centers, meaning that few civilians would have been killed (pp. 190–91). More novel is his argument regarding Isaiah, that the name Cyrus was known in the eighth century (p. 525).
Hess’s literary and theological treatment is as we would expect. In several cases he provides helpful guides for reading a particular corpus, such as poetry for the Psalms (pp. 432–36), wisdom literature for Proverbs (pp. 460–64), and apocalyptic literature in Daniel (p. 592). For shorter books like Ruth he is able to do more complete literary analysis. Between his Canonical Context and Theological Perspectives sections, he handles the relationship between each book not only with the New Testament but also with the rest of the Old Testament.
What sets this volume apart is the variety of perspectives with which he approaches each biblical book. Hess consistently summarizes premodern readings. Often this involves describing allegorical readings in the early church and the turn to more literal readings in the Reformation. However, Hess also mentions Rabbinic perspectives, such as the Mishnah’s explanation of the Feast of Purim in connection with Esther (pp. 375–76). For all but a handful of books, Hess comments on some issue related to the portrayal of women or feminist interpretation. He rightly notes the significance of Hannah in 1 Samuel (p. 254) and helpfully responds to misogynistic interpretations of Ecclesiastes (pp. 486–87). However, at times this emphasis seems pedantic, as in Obadiah where Hess gives three lines to state that the book is focused on men (p. 634). This emphasis is consistent with his egalitarian perspective on women in ministry (p. 711). Hess also briefly summarizes various readings from China, Indonesia, India, Africa, and Brazil. At times he questions these readings, but they provide a refreshing look at how Christians around the world encounter the Old Testament. Finally, Hess summarizes ancient Near Eastern connections in history and archaeology. His section on the kingdom of David is helpful in light of recent debate about the 10th century (pp. 260–68). Maps and photographs throughout the book help readers get their historical bearings. In addition, Hess includes English translations of numerous ancient texts, including a small excerpt from the Mesha of Moab Stele (p. 309) and the Instruction of Amenemope (p. 467).
Hess is to be commended for this learned introduction. He attempts to cover a massive and diverse scope of material. This strength also leads to its greatest weakness, namely, that the book is rather fragmented, perhaps reflecting the complex and often mutually exclusive streams of Old Testament studies today. Readers could pick up one section and read it without needing to read the others. Although each chapter begins with a sentence or two drawing attention to a key issue in the book being covered or point of connection with modern audiences, these rarely provide an orientation to the whole. Jonah is the best example, in which he poses the question, “Is God’s love only for me and my friends?” (p. 637). The least helpful introduction is his question at the start of the Leviticus chapter about whether sacrifices show God hates animals (p. 79). After raising this question, he never returns to it, though he could have emphasized God’s sacrifice of his own son. In most chapters, the diverse sections stand alone without an attempt to relate them to each other. This weakness is not fatal as long as the book is used as a textbook for a class in which the professor guides students in a holistic reading, which ties together various approaches into a coherent interpretation. For that reason I recommend this book as a textbook for Old Testament survey courses in graduate schools and seminaries.