Enjoying the Old Testament, Eric A. Seibert. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.
Summary: Seibert deals with the confusing, troubling, or uninteresting experience of many, suggesting the value of reading the Old Testament, and reading strategies for engagement with the text bring life and interest to the Old Testament scriptures.
Have you ever tried reading through the Old Testament and gotten lost in Leviticus or numbed by Numbers and given up the whole project? Sure, at times you read selected texts, maybe from Psalms and Proverbs, or some narratives like Ruth or Jonah (a kids favorite but with important relevance to the rest of us!). Mostly, you confine yourself to the New Testament, which you consider the most relevant portion of the Bible for Christians. But sadly, when we lose the Old Testament, we lose three-quarters of the Bible.
Until a course with an inspiring professor who helped him enjoy reading the Old Testament, Eric Seibert was in much the same place. And that is the object of this book, to pass along ways of reading the Old Testament that are enjoyable, as well as good for us. Most of what he proposes don’t involve more than a Bible, a comfortable chair, paper and pencil.
He begins by laying the groundwork for reading the Old Testament. He acknowledges that there are parts that are boring, or baffling, or even theologically troubling, and then, given that, why we should bother. He actually discounts the standard answer of needing to read the Old Testament to understand the New. He explores the relevance of the Old Testament on its own terms: fascinating stories, models of gutsy faith, resources for worship and prayer, a revelation of a God of lavish love, and God’s concern for justice. He deals with expectations, both unrealistic ones such as the Old Testament all being readily understandable and more realistic ones like a variety of genres, theological perspectives, a worldview different than our own, passages written for many reasons, and the presence of violence and other troubling texts. He invites us to adopt a mindset of carefully observing, of expectancy, of humility and respect, and honest engagement.
He then turns to our enjoyment of Old Testament texts. He starts by inviting us to read favorite stories all the way through, offering tips to understand their significance. He particularly calls attention to repetition, using the tabernacle instructions as an example. He invites us to be curious and ask lots of questions of the text. He sets aside a chapter to focus on reading the prophets, understanding their roles as God’s messengers, and their use of various persuasive techniques. He draws the distinction between judgement and salvation oracles.
He discusses approaches to the boring parts using Leviticus 1-7 as a case study. He encourages slowing down and looking at laws to see if there is a principle that may apply (e.g. the negligent owner of the ox known to gore). Then he returns to the matter of troubling texts, which he encourages us to be honest about and to hang in with them and bring them into conversation with other texts on the same topic that are not troublesome, observing that skeptics only focus on the former. Seibert also recognizes that one might need to take a break from troubling texts in difficult seasons of life.
The final section of the book focuses on a number of different activities that can help one read through books or even the whole Old Testament. He encourages drawing maps, creating simple charts that outline a book or portion, memorizing passages, listening audibly, or reading from a different perspective–for example as a Canaanite the passages about the Israelite invasion. He commends topical, artistic, and reflective approaches. He discusses surveying a book and breaking it into major thought blocks. As he concludes, he invites us to be balanced, use variety and flexibility, to preserve what we learn, and to join with others.
What is delightful about this book is that the author resists the temptation to write an Old Testament introduction but rather gives the reader tools to make his or her own discoveries. Without minimizing the challenges of the Old Testament, Seibert offers lots of hope that we can read through the Old Testament, read whole books of the Old Testament and find substantial enjoyment and spiritual benefit. On the troubling passages, he doesn’t offer easy answers or answers at all, but rather approaches that imply we may live with troubling passages in some cases but this does not need to distract us from other other more enjoyable texts. This is a great resource for an adult class in a church or a college class in a Christian college context.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
2 thoughts on “Review: Enjoying the Old Testament”
In the Jewish tradition, Torah, the Old Testament is the source of everything. The other books are all mere commentary and interpretation. So, there’s enough in it. It needs to be read in Hebrew, though. The grammar and tone is just very different in translation.
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