Review: Enjoying the Old Testament

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.

Review: Jesus’s Final Week

Jesus’s Final Week, William F. Cook III. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2022.

Summary: A day-by-day discussion of the events in Jesus’s life from the triumphal entry until the empty tomb, using a “harmony of the gospels” approach.

The final week of the life of Jesus before the resurrection occupies a disproportionate part of each of our four gospels. In fact, some observers have described the gospels as “Passion narratives with long introductions.”

We often read these accounts in different gospels, which can be confusing as we try to imagine how events mentioned in one gospel mesh with those of another. Scholars use these differences to highlight the unique emphases of each gospel writer. Cook takes a different approach, which he describes as “horizontal,” using a “harmony of the gospels” resource to arrange all the events into a day-by-day chronological account that begins with the triumphal entry and ends with the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances.

For each day, he offers concise discussions that offer helpful background, explain any Old Testament scripture quoted or otherwise relevant, summarize key points in the day’s events and their significance, and then offers concluding reflections, often offering applications for our lives. For example, Cook concludes his chapter on The Triumphal Entry with this:

” We should ask ourselves how often we are overcome with emotion when we consider that many people we love and care about are on the precipice of God’s judgment. I fear we sometimes get used to loved ones and friends not knowing Jesus. We need to shed more tears and pray more passionate prayers for their salvation.”

Cook, p. 12.

We often overlook the temple controversies on Tuesday. I thought Cook’s discussion quite helpful of the four questions asked of Jesus and the final question Jesus asks of the religious leaders. The events of Thursday and Friday are given more space with a chapter each devoted to the last supper, including Jesus’s prayer in John, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Jewish Trial, The Roman Trial, and the crucifixion and death of Jesus. The final chapter discusses the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and evidence for the resurrection.

One of the nice features of each chapter was to include a hymn related to the material in the chapter. I often found myself at least mentally singing through the hymn. One of the things this ought suggest is that this is a wonderful devotional resource as one prepares to remember Passion Week. It also makes for a good Lenten study and includes a study guide for groups. There’s still time to get this for this year or to have on hand for the next.


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.

Review: Interpreting the God-Breathed Word

Interpreting the God-Breathed Word, Robbie F. Castleman. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: A book for all who want to be students of scripture focusing on how to study and understand the texts employing inductive study, speech-act theory, and canonical interpretation.

Robbie Castleman, not unlike this reviewer, discovered the joys of studying and understanding the meaning of scripture through what is known as inductive Bible study. She eventually became a biblical studies professor at John Brown University. This book reflects both her joy of discovering scripture and additional practices that address some of the ways inductive study may go off the rails in interpretation unrelated to what the passage meant for its intended audience, interpretation that fails to account for the rest of scripture and the framework of biblical theology.

Castleman begins with one of the great strengths of inductive study–careful observation of the text. She speaks of the attentive disciplines involved in hearing the God-breathed Word. Reading it over and over (including aloud!), printing out and marking up the text, asking questions of genre, setting, who, what, when, where, and how, and using our senses. One is looking for what the text says and how it says it. She shows the difference between exegesis and eisegesis–reading out of rather than into the text. I love the image of being careful to not cast our own shadows onto the text. She offers another image–that of studying as a surgeon rather than a pathologist, studying something alive to which we are attentive rather than something dead over which we assert mastery.

Castleman addresses the story or narrative character of much of scripture, and how important the particularities of time and space are. It is vital to grasp the “there and then” before we consider “here and now.” Drawing upon speech-act theory, she calls our attention that scripture is a God-breathed record of how God has spoken and acted out his will in those particularities of space and time. But something else is at work as well. Through God’s Spirit this Word of scripture speaks into our present, accomplishing God’s intentions in our lives as well.

The next three chapters further develop this idea of the three voices. The first is the actual event in which God speaks and acts that we only know indirectly through the biblical record, a voice we must listen to by faith, as we attend to the details of the text. The second voice then is the voice of the writers of the text, the time, and the circumstances in which they wrote as God breathed upon them. She uses the four gospels to illustrate this idea, accounting for both the distinctive voices and the one Lord to whom they attest. With the third voice, we step into the story as we grasp through the Spirit’s illumining work the “here and now” implications in the second voice’s “there and then.” She also shows how “third voice” dynamics work within the canon as later Old Testament writers act upon earlier material, and likewise, as the New Testament writers reflect on the Old Testament voice in light of Messiah come. Using the language of theatre, we must pay careful attention to our lines, and then step up onto the stage, loving the one who has spoken so much that we even risk “flubbing our lines.”

In the final chapter, Castleman advocates the importance of canonical interpretation, speaking of the centrality of creation, the gospel of Christ, and biblical theology as shaping how we read all of scripture. She uses C. S. Lewis image from “Meditation in a Tool Shed” to speak of how we look both at the light cast by a passage of scripture and along it, seeing how it is connected to the whole story of scripture. She then concludes with an epilogue reminding us that the God who has spoken is a fire before whom we take off our shoes and bow and listen, that scripture is not a vending machine to dispense the answers we want, and that our interpretation of scripture is music best made as we play in sync with the rest of the orchestra, stretching back to the earliest fathers, not a solo act.

There are several features that make this book a valuable resource for the person wanting to grow in reading and understanding scripture. One is the author’s warm love of scripture, that breathes in the pages. Second is the distillation and integration of some of the best practices of good hermeneutics into a brief, 120 page text. Finally, she offers numerous examples and praxis exercises that show and then allow us to practice what we are learning. This is both a good introduction for the student learning to study scripture and as well as the Bible teacher who wants to review and sharpen his or her understanding of how to lead those instructed, not only to understand the God-breathed Word but to heed and obey the One who has spoken and is speaking.

Review: The Basic Bible Atlas

The Basic Bible Atlas

The Basic Bible AtlasJohn A. Beck. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020.

Summary: An introductory Bible atlas that combines an overview of the biblical narrative and colorful and detailed maps, with an emphasis on the significance of the geography to the unfolding plan of God.

Has this happened to you? You are reading a biblical narrative and come across a place name. You think you’ve heard of it before and that that might be significant. Or you wonder about the different places where Jesus and the disciples ministered, or where were the places where Paul traveled.

This book is a great companion to reading the Bible. After a satellite view of the Bible lands observing the major features of the Fertile Crescent, the land bridge of international travel from Babylon and Assyria running through the Promised Land and south to Egypt, and the land of Israel with the Jordan River valley between Galilee and the Dead Sea, the spiny ridgeline running through the center of the country, and the fertile shorelands, often occupied by Israel’s enemies.

Beck then offers a narrative of the biblical story with an emphasis on the places where events occur and the movements of people. We discover that Shechem is the place where God shows Abram that Canaan is the land of promise, where Israel renewed its covenant with God, and that served as gathering place for the ten breakaway tribes of the northern kingdom. Under the name Sychar, it was the place where Jesus disclosed to an outcast Samaritan woman that, in him, the promises of God, and the longings of a thirsty heart, were filled.

Full color maps are interspersed with text, showing locations, routes traveled, and topography. From Jacob’s flight to Egypt, wilderness wandering, conquest of Canaan, the losses and battle of Judges, the expansion and division of the kingdom under David, Solomon and successors, and the exilic journeys. As the narrative progresses, we have maps of the development of Jerusalem, from David’s fortress capital, to the temple city of Solomon, to the religious, political and occupation center of the time of Jesus. Beck helps us trace the early forays of Philip and Peter out of Jerusalem, Paul’s Damascus journey, and each of Paul’s mission journeys and final journey to Rome. We conclude with the Seven Churches of John’s Revelation, and the hope of the new Eden, the garden city with the tree of life.

The book also offers name and scripture indexes that help in finding pertinent maps. If I could make two suggestions, some maps identified locations of events, but no indication of chronology–numbers might help here. Also maps were overleaf, or occasionally separated by several pages from the narrative references to places.

Aside from these minor considerations, this is a great companion for one’s Bible study with far more and larger maps than most study Bibles. The color renderings accompanied by the text that illuminates the significance of places transforms the reading of biblical texts from bewildering references to obscure place names to enhanced understanding of how places were important in the outworking of God’s plans.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Basics for Believers


Basics for Believers, D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018 (Re-packaged edition, originally published in 1996).

Summary: Expositions of the Letter to the Philippians focusing on the core concerns of Christian faith and life.

This work is part of a series of expository studies by D. A. Carson originally published from the late 1970’s to the mid-1990’s being re-issued in a reasonably priced, re-packaged form. In this case, Carson exposits the Letter to the Philippians. These messages are lightly edited versions of four messages given during Holy Week of 1994 at the “Word Alive” conference in Skegness England. The second message has been broken into two messages.

The title of the work, Basics for Believers, might give the impression that this is a book for new believers. The subtitle actually helps us see the importance of the book for all believers: “The Core of Christian Faith and Life.” He draws this from his study of Philippians, in which he sees a church perhaps ten years old, challenged in various ways, and needing encouragement to re-focus and maintain their commitment to the core of the Christian faith, centering around the gospel of Christ crucified and raised, and a life lived worthily of that gospel. I suspect we all can use this, kind of like an annual physical that reminds us of essentials of healthy physical life.

The five messages address the following themes:

  1. Put the Gospel First (Philippians 1:1-26)
  2. Focus on the Cross (Philippians 1:27-2:18, focus on 2:5-11)
  3. Adopt Jesus’s Death as a Test of Your Outlook (Philippians 1:27-2:18, focus on 1:27-2:4, 2:12-18)
  4. Emulate Worthy Christian Leaders (Philippians 2:19-3:21)
  5. Never Give Up the Christian Walk (Philippians 4:1-23)

Several qualities about these messages stood out to me. I appreciated the gracious and clearly articulated explanation of the propitiatory work of Christ in his chapter on the cross. This is not a popular idea in contemporary discusses, often caricatured. Those who would oppose propitiation ought to consider and engage Carson’s articulation of this doctrine. Carson carefully connects doctrine and life throughout.

While these are not exegetical commentaries, but rather expository studies, it is very clear that Carson’s messages reflect disciplined exegesis and that his preaching outline arises from careful textual study and reflection. An example I particularly appreciated was in his fourth message, “Emulate Worthy Christian Leaders.”

  1. Emulate those who are interested in the well-being of others, not in their own (Philippians 2:19-21)
  2. Emulate those who have proved themselves in hardship, not the untested upstart and the self-promoting peacock(!) (Philippians 2:22-30)
  3. Emulate those whose constant confidence and boast is in Jesus Christ and in nothing else (Philippians 3:1-9)
  4. Emulate those who are continuing to grow spiritually, not those who are stagnating (Philippians 3:10-16)
  5. Emulate those who eagerly await Jesus’s return, not those whose mind is on earthly things (Philippians 3:17-21)

The outline elaborates both the basic theme of the text (“emulate worthy Christian leaders”) and summarizes the content of each section in memorable form. The outline alone gives much grist for reflecting on the question of, after whom we are modeling our lives.

The other mark of good exposition evident in this work is incisive application. Once again, I will give but one example from the first message on putting the gospel first. He has just cited a scholar who traced the course of a movement who in one generation believed the gospel and advanced certain social, economic, and political entailments, the next generation assumed the gospel and identified with the entailments, and the third denied the gospel and made the entailments everything. Then he asks:

“What we must ask one another is this: What is it in the Christian faith that excites you? What consumes your time? What turns you on? Today there are endless subgroups of confessing Christians who invest enormous quantities of time and energy in one issue or another: abortion, pornography, homeschooling, women’s ordination (for or against), economic justice, a certain style of worship, the defense of a particular Bible version, and much more….Not for a moment am I suggesting that we should not think about such matters or throw our weight behind some of them. But when such matters devour most of our time and passion, each of us must ask: In what fashion am I confessing the centrality of the gospel?” (pp. 31-32).

Theological acuity, exegetical and expository clarity, and searching application. All of these challenge the reader to join the Apostle Paul in his aspiration: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Reviews of other D. A. Carson books in this series:

The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus

The Cross and Christian Ministry

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World

Review: Jesus, Beginnings, and Science

Jesus, Science and Beginnings

Jesus, Beginnings, and Science, David A. Vosburg and Kate Vosburg. Farmville, VA: Pier Press, 2017.

Summary: A guide for group discussions on the Bible and beginnings, human origins, and science co-written by a scientist and a campus minister.

Many people think there is a war between Christian faith and science, and one must “choose up sides.” Sadly, many committed to science have thus rejected faith, and many committed Christians either distrust science or distort it to conform to their faith. The husband and wife team of David and Kate Vosburg, a chemistry professor and campus minister, respectively, represent a marriage of science and faith. Investigation of the physical world deepens their appreciation for the work of God, and embrace of a biblical world and life view enhances their love of the scientific enterprise.

In this group discussion guide, they provide a series of twelve discussions around three main areas where tension may arise: the Bible and creation, the Bible and human origins, and the Bible and science more broadly. Part One looks at the Bible and creation and in four studies looks at Jesus’ role in creating and sustaining the world, praise to God for the majesty of creation, the creation account of Genesis 1 as a liturgy of creation, and the new creation of Revelation 21-22.

Part Two turns to what is often more controversial, the origins of human beings. This portion begins with considering the authority of the Bible and how we read the Bible, then turns to the Genesis 2 narrative of the creation of the first couple. The third study in this section considers this disagreements among Christians on origins, how we talk about these with each other and provides a very helpful table outlining the major positions. The fourth study focuses on Psalm 139, and how the wonder of God’s involvement with us from conception ought temper our disagreements.

Part Three is more broadly concerned with Christians and the scientific enterprise. The first study looks at some of the descriptions of the physical world in scripture and how these might not be so much about the science of creation but the Creator of science. The second study explores the limits of human knowledge and how this ought temper our statements about what we learn from science and conclusions about what role God does or does not have in the world. The third study was particularly helpful in showing the compatibility of foundational beliefs of science and Christianity. The last discussion concerns how pondering God’s deeds in the world is a way of loving God and opens the doors for Christian involvement in science.

Each study begins with review of the previous session or an activity between sessions, then offers an opening question followed by biblical texts with time for personal study and questions for group discussion. The discussion closes with a Share. Pray. and Reflect question. This is followed by a “Scientist’s Reflection” written by David, song suggestions if groups incorporate music, and further readings. Each of the three parts ends with a summary of that part. The book also includes an extensive bibliography at the end.

At the end of the guide, David and Kate reflect on their journeys. I appreciated what Kate has written here, which parallels my own journey in exploring these questions:

“In studying Scripture and combatting my biases against science based on fear, I’ve realized how much more Scripture tells me about God and the world and how much less it tells me about science. I’ve come to trust scripture much more deeply and become less defensive and nervous when people raise questions or issues. For example, I used to read Genesis 1 and be disturbed by conflicting scientific creation accounts. Now when I read Genesis 1, I see a beautiful poetic description of God’s creating. I see how the Lord is shown to be good, powerful, and creative. I see the incredible relationship God established with humanity. And it leads me to worship” (p.85).

The studies encourage respectful dialogue, and the Vosburgs don’t expect everyone to agree with them or each other. Rather, what they have come up with is a great set of discussions meant to facilitate thoughtful conversation around the Bible and what it does and doesn’t say, and how it bears on scientific findings and work. I think this could be used equally well by a group of Christians, or Christians and seriously seeking friends wondering about Christianity and science (I might skip the songs in that context). There is a great need for a better conversation about Christianity and science than what we often see in our media and in some of our churches. This is a great resource toward such conversations.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Connecting the Dots

By User:Caesar (Edges traced in Inkscape using a self-taken photo.) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:Caesar (Edges traced in Inkscape using a self-taken photo.) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I just created a Twitter account. I’ve already discovered that to an even greater degree than Facebook, one sees snippets of everything from local weather conditions to a celebrity plane crash to updates on China’s economy. One wonders whether it is possible out of all of this to have any coherent sense of the world.

This came up yesterday in a conversation with one of my grad students as we talked about the “faith formation” of people in a Bible discussion he facilitates. Each week they meet to discuss a different passage of scripture and gain a great deal from their interaction with the text as well as each other. They study “inductively” going from specific observations in the text to more general conclusions and applications of these conclusions to their own context. What we both noticed though was how easy it was for each week’s discussion to stand alone like a single “dot” on a paper without forming a bigger picture of, in this case, the Christian faith.

I was reminded then of a colleague who taught me a great deal about leading Bible discussions of a step he often included that he called “formulation.” We found that in studying a book of the Bible (or another piece of literature for that matter) the writers didn’t simply give us a series of disconnected stories but often traced and developed various themes or motifs through their work. For example, in Mark Jesus speaks of himself as “the son of man”, a term that could mean “a human being” or perhaps something more. Formulation might look at what we observe Jesus saying about “the son of man” throughout Mark. My friend is studying the book of Acts with his group and it contains a number of “sermons” by various figures (probably summaries because most could be read aloud in a minute or so and were probably longer). We talked about how one could develop an idea of these earliest believers grasp of the Christian message by looking for both unique and recurring elements in the sermons.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I write book reviews. What I find I am trying to do is boil down works of 100,000 words or more to an 800 word or less summary that “connects the dots” of the main ideas of a work and my reaction to those ideas. I used to be daunted by this task as a grade school-er assigned a book review. I actually think all those Bible study experiences of formulation, of looking for patterns, has helped with that process.

The more challenging task for me, at least, is to do the same thing with life. It’s easy for life to simply feel like a jumble of “experience dots” on a piece of paper. A steady stream of emails, texts, tweets, and posts on news feeds only accentuates this. Periodically I take retreat days. Sometimes I use the practice of examen to review the day. As a Christian I describe my aspiration in life as “following Jesus.” I have to admit that it is not always clear every day where that is taking me. Sometimes these practices of looking back seem crucial to begin to “connect the dots”. I begin to trace some of the patterns of the unique ways Christ is working in my life while other things still seem murky. It doesn’t all make sense, but this reflection gives me enough to see that there is One who is making sense of my life as I go forward.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Steve Jobs said something similar in his Stanford Commencement address in 2005:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.”

As a Christian, I think that “something” is the Jesus I follow and that it is a life lived pursuing him that “connects the dots”into something that is not a chaotic jumble. Those times of looking back teach me to trust him as a good guide as well as deepening my self-understanding. But each day faces me afresh with the choice to venture forth into the unknown trusting that it is one more dot in the picture.