Interpreting the Historical Books, Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series, by Robert B. Chisholm, Jr

INTERPRETING THE HISTORICAL BOOKS, Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series, vol. 1. By Robert B. Chisholm, Jr. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006. 232 pages. Paper. $19.99.

Reviewed by Thomas Egger

Joshua at Jericho, Gideon and his three hundred men, Samuel anointing the boy David to be king—any pastor, teacher, or Sunday School child may come up with profitable insights from these stories simply by asking, “What happened here? What does this mean?” In fact, the mere hearing of these stories, even without secondary reflection on their “meaning,” powerfully shapes faith. The hearer’s view of the world is transformed, deepened, clarified. These stories invite hearers to live in the world they portray – a world in which God has worked out his saving purposes in the past and in which he is still working today.

At the same time, the call to “rightly handle” the Word of Truth challenges servants of the word to labor with self-reflection and sensitivity in interpreting these stories. There are depths to be plumbed here.

This is the impetus for Chisholm’s recent “exegetical handbook” on the historical books of the Old Testament, one of six volumes in the Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series edited by David M. Howard, Jr. Rather than following the familiar format of discussing date and authorship, history of scholarship, and major theological emphases in the introduction, these handbooks “are designed to serve a twofold purpose: to present the reader with a better understanding of the different Old Testament genres (principles) and provide strategies for preaching and teaching these genres (methods)” (17). The guide never ascends far into theoretical clouds before returning for a walk on the solid ground of actual texts – a major strength of this series. Thus, the hermeneutical approach tailored to each genre can be seen in its functioning fruitfulness.

In Chapter 1, Chisholm describes several dimensions of narrative literature, each with implications for interpretation. Chapter 2 summarizes the primary theme and overall purpose of each of the target books (Joshua through Esther, in English ordering). Chapters 3 through 5 then discuss the interpretive task under the rubrics of preparation, interpretation, and proclamation/application, respectively. Finally, in Chapter 6, Chisholm exegetes two sample passages “from text to application,” embodying the methods and illustrating the concerns established in the preceding chapters.

Chapter 1, “What is Narrative Literature?” comprises more than one third of the book. The breadth of material here precludes concise summary. I will make a few brief and somewhat random observations, focusing on the payoff of Chisholm’s approach in terms of specific textual insights.

His approach to analyzing discourse structure is simple and practical, though perhaps a bit oversimplified. Chisholm assigns each clause (sometimes each phrase) in a narrative to one of three categories: the main line of the narrative, offline constructions, and quotations. He makes these identifications strictly according to formal criteria. If the Hebrew clause begins with a wayyiqtol form (waw-consecutive imperfect), it belongs to the main storyline. Other constructions indicate “offline” material, which may serve an introductory, parenthetical, circumstantial, contrastive, dramatic focus shifting, or conclusive function.

Chisholm applies these rubrics to a line-by-line discourse analysis of Judges 4, revealing a main story line interrupted by four offline clauses. These offline constructions serve to dramatically shift the focus back and forth between Barak (4:16a; 4:22a) and Sisera (4:17a; 4:22g), which reinforces the content of the narrative: Barak is pursuing the defeated Sisera, eventually to the tent of Jael. In the end, however, it is the woman Jael— not the warrior Barak —who kills Sisera, as foretold in 4:9b. The discourse structure, by highlighting Barak’s pursuit of Sisera, heightens the surprising climax: “the glory of killing the Canaanite general escapes him…despite his earnest efforts” (45).

Under intertextuality, Chisholm encourages attention to foreshadowing, narrative typology (“parallelism at the level of the macroplot and macrostructure”), allusion, echoing, and repetition of keywords (79-87). The Gibeahites’ rape of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 contains several verbal allusions to the story of Sodom in Genesis 19, with which the audience of the story would have been familiar. “The point of the allusion is clear – Gibeah has become the new Sodom, populated by thugs who are morally blind. From the narrator’s perspective, this is what can and did happen when ‘each man did what he considered to be right’ (Judg. 17:6; 21:25)” (82).

The narrative device of echoing is illustrated by the two accounts of Abraham attempting to pass off Sarah as his sister. Understanding this story pair as a literary convention not only assists in answering source critics’ charge of multiple and conflicting literary sources behind Genesis, but also adds dramatic force: “The narrator includes the second story to show that just prior to Isaac’s birth, Abraham’s character is still flawed and his faith is still incomplete, despite all that transpired during the intervening twenty-four years. This heightens the tension of the story….It sets the stage for the ultimate test, which Abraham passes with flying colors (22:1-17)” (84).

Chisholm’s Chapter 1 discussion of the literary dimensions of narrative consummates in seven summary guidelines for interpretation:

  1. Analyze the basic elements of the story (setting, characterization, plot) and determine how they contribute to its message.
  2. Identify a text’s discourse structure, dramatic structure, and other structural features and explain how they contribute to the story’s message and impact.
  3. Analyze the narrative’s quotations and dialogues with respect to their discourse types and speech function.
  4. Avoid excesses when filling gaps, but attempt to resolve ambiguity in a cautious manner that is sensitive to context and utilizes common sense.
  5. Respect the authority of the narrator and attempt to identify his assessment of events and characters. However, also be alert for the rhetorical use of a limited or idealized point of view.
  6. Relate individual stories to their macroplot and explain how the various genres within a book contribute to its overall message.
  7. Be sensitive to matters of intertextuality and how they contribute to the message of the narrative (87).

In Chapter 2, Chisholm gives a brief overview of each of the historical books under the headings “Primary Themes” and “Overall Purpose.” In this chapter, more than the others, the Lutheran reader will chafe a bit. While Chisholm’s summaries are helpful, the majority of themes distilled are what Lutherans would characterize as Law. For example, from the ark narrative in 1 Sam. 4-7, Chisholm proposes four themes:

  1. When God decrees judgment, judgment will fall.
  2. God cannot be manipulated into helping his people….
  3. Even when God appears to be defeated, he remains sovereign and invincible.
  4. God expects people to respect his holiness; failure to do so can be dangerous to one’s health (103).

Chisholm’s earlier attention to intertextuality should have been employed here. The narrative reappearance of the ark in 1 Samuel 3 transports the reader back to more hopeful times for God’s people in the land – prior to Judges, where the ark is all but unmentioned – back to the early chapters of Joshua when the ark of God preceded them in the conquest of Canaan and God fulfilled his promises. Also evoked is the Exodus narrative (whence the ark originated), where the crux of the conflict was, “How can a holy God go in the midst of a stiff-necked people without destroying them?” At that time, the mercy of God (Ex 34:6–7) and atonement for sin (cf. Ex 25:17–22 and Lv 16) had made a way for the holy God to go up with sinful Israel into the land of promise.

While the threatening notes which Chisholm highlights in 1 Samuel 1-7 are certainly present, reading these chapters against the preceding Biblical narratives suggests another theme as well: God’s merciful, powerful tenacity in fulfilling his promise to dwell in the midst of his people. The toppled Dagon and the plagues on the Philistines recall the Exodus power of God (even to the Philistines!—1 Sam 6:6). Instead of leading his people out and bringing them to himself (Exod. 19:6), God now works mightily to “bring Himself out” from Ashdod and Gath to be with his own people. The ark of God must return “to its own place” (1 Sam 5:11), for, in spite of their unfaithfulness, Yahweh is the God of Israel (1 Sam 5:8,10,11; 6:3,5). Chisholm overlooks several such Gospel themes in his summaries.

Chapter 3, “Preparing for Interpretation,” encourages the exegete to “place the text in its historical context, determine what the text is [textual criticism] and what it says [semantics], and consult the work of others” (132). Israel’s and ANE history is summarized from 1400 B.C. to the return from exile, with political and military highlights at center-stage. Little is offered in terms of the economic, cultural, literary, or religious dimensions of the Old Testament world. Several pages of this chapter are devoted to partially-annotated bibliographies, mostly representing conservative/evangelical scholarship.

Chapter 4, “Interpreting Narrative Texts” offers little beyond the extensive first chapter in terms of method. Here, Chisholm situates his holistic, literary, synchronic approach over against the diachronic approach of traditional historical criticism. At the same time, he cautions that the author’s authority must be respected (over against radical reader-response approaches).

Chapter 5 addresses “Proclaiming Narrative Texts,” while Chapter 6 presents two case studies (2 Kgs 2:23–25 and Ruth 1). In both chapters, although there are many helpful observations, the lack of a focus on Christ and the Gospel yield an insufficient template for Lutheran exegesis and preaching. The reader is left scratching his head a bit on this point, since Chisholm’s fourth of four guiding questions for theological application is: “How should the story be evaluated in light of the Christological emphasis and themes of the Bible?” (190, 198). While the other three guiding questions are unpacked in Chapter 5, this fourth question is neither explained nor illustrated. That it has largely fallen by the wayside is apparent again in the treatment of the two sample texts in Chapter 6. Between the two texts, the answers to this fourth Christological question amount to 12 words: “Ruth’s sacrificial love foreshadows Christ’s sacrificial love, which we are to emulate” (223). As mentioned above, the very approach Chisholm lays out in this book could and should have yielded more profound insights into God’s saving Gospel.

On the whole, Chisholm offers a wealth of exegetical tools, clarifications, insights, and encouragement in just two hundred pages of text. This book will find profitable use in seminary hermeneutics classes and in classes devoted to Old Testament historical books. It will also reward pastors who patiently engage it, opening up new dimensions of the rich biblical narratives which are the stuff of so many Bible classes and Sunday School lessons.






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