Review of Dell, Opening the Old Testament

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Dell, Katherine J. Opening the Old Testament (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008). Paper. US$84.95. ISBN 978-1-4051-2501-7.

Blackwell Publishing has commissioned Katherine Dell (Senior Lecturer in Old Testament in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and Fellow, Tutor and Director of Studies in Theology at St Catherine's College) to write this relatively brief introduction as a help to show readers how to ‘open’ and appreciate the Old Testament. The book is intended for those with little experience or knowledge of the Old Testament and its character, as a first step before turning to more lengthy introductions and commentaries.

Since Dell is primarily an expert in Poetic and Wisdom Literature, it is not surprising that she begins ‘opening' the Old Testament with a psalm (the much loved Psalm 23). This is not done only because she loves the psalms, but also because she argues that the ‘centre’ of the Old Testament is to be found in the book of Psalms - “which is kind of a watershed for all the different types of material produced by different social groups and for all the theological themes that we encounter elsewhere in the Old Testament” (5).

The book has five chapters: “What is the Old Testament” (1-54)[1], “How to ‘Open’ the Old Testament” (55-99), “How to ‘Open’ the Old Testament for Ethical Guidance” (100-134), “Opening the Old Testament Theologically” (135172), and “Opening Difficult or Liberating Texts” (173-210). It ends with a section that contains a useful bibliography for further readings (211-214) and with an index (215-214). Throughout the book, the reader finds very useful scattered definitions (simple and clear) of key terms and relevant photos (surprisingly in black and white).

The following are some of the more important themes discussed throughout these chapters: canons and versions, scholarship on the Psalms, kingship in Israel, the diversity of the Old Testament, history and story, archaeology and social history, scholarly views on early Israelite history and religion, Deuteronomy and Deuteronomistic History, oral tradition and narrative art, history and faith, historical and literary concerns, the Ten Commandments, wisdom and law, the themes of covenant and creation, the prophets as theologians, the relationship of the Old and New Testaments, Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and feminist and liberationist approaches. Dell manages to sneak in brief presentations of Abraham and Sarah, David, Job, Solomon, Isaiah, Moses, and Ruth. Scattered throughout the five chapters are some brief evaluations of texts such as Psalms 2, 19, 23, 105, 137; Exodus 20; Proverbs 20; Job 14; Isaiah 6-9.

Considering the limited amount of pages and the great number of issues discussed, it is no wonder that most of the sections seem to be a sort of ‘scanning’ of the texts, persons, and issues addressed. She also omits important Old Testament figures and even genres (e.g. the apocalyptic), but she acknowledges this and notes that the book is an attempt to give the reader only “a taste of the Old Testament in its richness and diversity” (136). She challenges her readers not only “to dip into the Old Testament, but to go on and study it in more depth” (208). This is indeed something that would have to be done by every reader of this book for a clearer understanding of the Old Testament, and to really learn how to ‘open’ it.

Dell's presentation and approach is clearly and openly postmodern. She repeatedly mentions the richness and variety that is found in the Old Testament, tensions and contradictions, differing viewpoints and theologies, and what she calls “unpalatable presentations of God” (202). In the Old Testament there are numerous stories which may contain “nuggets of ‘historical' fact” (72-73).[2] These stories and the rest of the Old Testament should be ‘opened’ by taking into account literary, historical and most of all theological considerations (25, 73 etc.).

Also, in typical postmodern fashion, she is unclear on how these problems and inconsistencies should be solved (or if they should be solved at all). One should wrestle with the problematic texts as Brueggemann advocates (201), but this is not stressed enough, and no consistent guidelines or examples are given for this. To be sure (as pointed out above) Dell interprets texts from various genres of the Old Testament, but most of these examples are sketchy and (sometimes) perhaps crammed with too many critical issues to really ‘open’ the particular text to a person with little experience or knowledge of the Old Testament.

The writer of this textbook writes as a Christian (she is a vicar's daughter) who is also an Old Testament scholar. She succeeds in writing as a scholar who is not willing to deny all of the historicity of the Old Testament, who still finds this ancient text meaningful for her personal life, and as one who believes in most of the God found there (less the ‘unpalatable’ presentations of him).

Dell has written a challenging introduction to the Old Testament which will give the beginning student a good taste of some of the most important terms, issues and themes found in it. It also has the potential of opening the eyes of its readers to the riches, and especially to the critical issues associated with the Old Testament.

Cristian Rata