A few weeks back Michael Whitenton tagged me in a meme to name the five most vexing books I have read. Here is the description from Loren Rosson, who started the meme:
“How about the five biblical studies books or essays you think have made extremely important and necessary contributions to the field, yet heavily disagree with in spite of this? I have in mind scholarship you find yourself burning to agree with, or a closet fan of, envying the author’s critical acumen, applauding the fact that all the right (and perhaps long-overdue) questions are being asked, but regretfully finding most of the conclusions just plain unpersuasive.”
Loren goes on to clarify, saying these are books for which I have “enthusiasm, albeit frustrated enthusiasm.” A tall order. Here goes:
1. Hermann Gunkel, Introduction to Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel
Despite the great importance of this book to the field, which I recognize and greatly respect, this is a tortuous volume to read cover to cover. I am appreciative for what Gunkel was reacting against . . . . the ‘personal/historical’ approach to the Psalter, which he saw as having very few controls from the biblical text . . . . but I am not convinced Gunkel’s contribution has stood the test of time. Form critcism is still a vital component of Psalms scholarship, yet it is no longer the only starting place with approaches emphasizing the macrocanonical or overarching metanarrative of the Psalter. In the end, I think Gunkel overstates his case, claiming that a psalm can only be classified by type when it meets certain strict criteria, yet nearly no psalm is a pure and complete representation of any given form. Gunkel has made a great contribution to the guild, but his conclusions have an air of over-confidence and are almost certainly dated. BTW, Baylor’s own James Nogalski is the one who translated this volume into English!
2. Brevard Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context
Let me begin by saying I am very amenable to the work Childs has done. I think his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture and Biblical Theology in Crisis are groundbreaking volumes that inaugurate a sort of paradigm shift in the discipline. That said, however, the volume under discussion here disappoints. After a wonderful first 20 or so pages that outline his canonical methodology, the rest of the volume is a little light on the ‘meat.’ For me also, at least in this particular work, the canonical method is far more persuasive in its description than it is in actual practice. I know Childs’ canonical method is much more than an intertextual exercise, but that is largely what one finds in this work. In the end, for such a wonderful description of method, the application is disappointing.
3. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry
While Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative ranks as one of the most influential volumes on my scholarship, his The Art of Biblical Poetry under-delivers in my view. It is not that this book does not contribute anything to the understanding of Hebrew poetry–it does!–but it struggles to compete with the success and convincing nature of the book on narrative.
4. W. Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal
(See my review here). This volume makes a great contribution to Genesis in that it is one of the very few ones focusing specifically on God as a character. For this, and for its literary approach, I am very thankful and very much on board. In fact, I have taken very much from it. However, I have great frustration with this book; its methodological presuppositions–namely on matters of what constitutes a reliable characterization (Humphreys claims those things shared about a character by others are less trustworthy than what a character says of him/herself, or of a character’s internal thoughts; I disagree entirely). This has led, I think, to many problematic and erroneous conclusions that are tethered to Humphreys’ presuppositions and method rather than an actual reading of the text. This book is probably the one on the list about which my feelings are most mixed. A great contribution, but vexing indeed.
5. Gerhard von Rad, “The Form-Critical Problem of the Hexateuch”
This 70+ page essay is one of the most creative and thoughtful essays I’ve read in a while, and very insightful for its time. At bottom, von Rad argues that the formation of the Hexateuch is comprised of a variety of separate traditions, the two primary ones being settlement and Sinai (evidenced by the absence of Sinai in the kleine Credo of Deut 26 and Josh 24), which are first joined together by a “J” author during the United Monarchy. J also adds the Primeval History and the Ancestral Narratives, forming for von Rad the first master narrative of salvation history. Von Rad was asking the right questions (i.e., noting already that Pentateuchal scholarship had gotten wildly out of hand) and sought a grounding in the text. And while his notice that Sinai is absent in these kleine Credo or brief statements of faith is a striking one that is still puzzling, I–along with other scholars–no longer hold the view that the kleine Credo are ancient; they rather seem to be later distillations of a larger narrative rather than a base out of which traditions grew and expanded. Von Rad’s affirmation of a 10th century “J” author is also problematic by contemporary standards.
There you have it. With what volumes on the list are you familiar? What’s your view?