Review of R. Burnette-Bletsch, Studying the Old Testament

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

Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, Studying the Old Testament: A Companion (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007). Pp. xiv+305+CD-ROM. Paper, US$29.00, UK£16.99. ISBN 978-0-687-64623-4.

With the many introductory textbooks to the Old Testament, it is difficult to stand out from the crowd. In this new textbook, Studying the Old Testament: A Companion, the author Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch introduces more than a standard textbook. There is of course the normal print textbook but an additional CD-ROM is also included. A wealth of information including study questions, charts, maps, in-depth articles, internet resources and a glossary are all found on this digital media which totals 802 pages of material. This format of both print and digital media allows Burnette-Bletsch to go beyond the standard textbook fare and to explore newer methodologies and the use of the Old Testament in popular culture that are usually not featured.

Burnette-Bletsch divides the textbook into five chapters following the Jewish division rather than the Christian division. Despite this, the textbook is not geared towards any one religious tradition and Burnette-Bletsch outlines in her introduction the importance of the Old Testament not only for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but also for understanding modern culture. Throughout the textbook, Burnette-Bletsch employs the concept of a journey as a metaphor for readers who are about to venture into unknown territory.

According to Burnette-Bletsch, the aim of this textbook is not necessarily to reconstruct what happened but to discover why these texts were preserved. She argues that many standard introductions to the Old Testament spend too much time looking at the historical origins of the text without engaging in the literature itself. The guiding question for Burnette-Bletsch is the following: “Why did ancient Israel create and preserve these particular traditions?” (xvi). On a minor note, her decision to use the nomenclature of Hebrew Bible/scripture is confusing since the textbook title uses the term Old Testament (xii).

The first chapter, entitled “Preparing for the Journey,” introduces the reader to the biblical world, the formation, transmission and canonization of the biblical text and outlines various biblical criticisms. The second chapter “Torah: The Journey Begins” broadly describes the main sections of the Pentateuch, spending more time on Genesis and Exodus. In the third chapter, Burnette-Bletsch introduces the reader to the former prophets and focuses on the beginnings of the nation of Israel. Although much of the focus is on the final form of the text, Burnette-Bletsch also highlights the literary origins and the role of the Deuteronomistic Historian. The latter prophets, labelled “Israel's Moral Compass,” are featured in the fourth chapter. The chapter is divided into historical time periods (Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian) and both the major and minor prophets receive close attention. The fifth chapter entitled “Writings: The Homeward Journey” is divided into three “paths”: worship, wisdom and apocalyptic. Burnette-Bletsch acknowledges the arbitrariness of her division of the writings but argues that they represent “major interpretive trajectories within Second Temple Judaism” (294).

A distinguishing feature of this book is the focus on relating the Old Testament to a modern audience. This is particularly valuable for instructors who are seeking new ways to connect with their students. A good example is Burnette-Bletsch's comparison of modern day “prophets” like Martin Luther King Jr. with the eighth-century prophets of Israel. The focus on popular culture, demonstrated by her discussion of the movies Pleasantville and The Truman Show in relation to the Gen 2:4b-3:24, helps readers to see the lasting influence of biblical motifs. The textbook pays close attention to a variety of learning styles and the CD-ROM contains many visual elements including paintings and charts. Instructors will also find this textbook a valuable resource in the classroom as it provides many different questions and exercises designed to actively engage the reader in the Old Testament. Finally, Burnette-Bletsch outlines the standard approaches to the biblical text such as text criticism, historical criticism, form criticism and source criticism. However, she also draws attention to other approaches like social-scientific criticism, reader-response criticism, and feminist criticism among others. Throughout the textbook, Burnette-Bletsch highlights the role of women in the Old Testament, which is a welcome adjustment to their often neglected role in other introductory textbooks.

A few areas of study are somewhat underdeveloped in this textbook. Although there are select articles scattered throughout the print book and the CD-ROM, there is little focus on the religion of ancient Israel. Readers come away with little understanding of the divine council, the high places, the development of monotheism, or the Ugaritic background. Another area that lacks some attention and nuance is that of the Babylonian captivity and the exilic situation. The focus for Burnette-Bletsch is on the texts of the exilic prophets but very little discussion of the captivity itself (or its contemporary relevance) finds its way into this book.

This introductory textbook is a welcome addition to the many introductions to the Old Testament. Burnette-Bletsch has done an admirable job of seeking to produce not only informed readers of the Old Testament but also engaged readers.

Heather Macumber, University of St. Michael's College