Five Vexing Books: Meme Response

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?


7 thoughts on “Five Vexing Books: Meme Response

  1. Jill says:

    This might be more related to your God post, but I’d be interested in your take on articles that compare Bruggemann and Childs, such as:

    Jon Levenson, “Is Bruggemaan really a Pluralist?” HTR 93 (2000): 265-94.

    Dennis Olson, “Biblical Theology as Provisional Monogization,” BI 6 (1998): 162-180.

    As far as I can tell, they really seem to question Brueggemann’s picture of Childs. Do you, or any readers of your blog, know of these authors? I’d be curious to know what others think of these pieces.

  2. John Anderson says:


    I am not familiar with either of these articles, but I do have great respect for Jon Levenson and his work. He is a Jewish voice that seeks to take Christianity seriously as, in a way, in ‘continuity’ with Judaism. I would be interested in taking a peek at this piece when time permits.

    What specifically do they challenge re: Brueggemann’s take on Childs?

  3. Jill says:

    I can’t do full justice to the articles, but they question Brueggemann on Childs and Judaism. Levenson notes that while Brueggemann claims openness to Judaism, his work doesn’t engage classical Jewish sources much, especially in comparison to what Childs was doing already in his early 1970’s Exodus commentary. “Unlike Brueggemann, Child’s respect for Judaism is rooted in his Christian faith and not in some hypothetical vantagepoint that is nutural as between the two traditions and therefore able to pronounce them of equal worth. By forthrightly owning his own particularism as a Christian, Childs is able to respect and learn from the particular tradition that is Judaism” (p. 279). Levenson points out that while midrash on narrative materials may be playful at points, “midrash of halakkah (law), traditionally the center of Talmudic discourse, drives towards normative judgements… The ‘oddness; of Jewish texts that Brueggemann admiresmay be a function of unfamiliarity” (p. 291). Levenson also takes on Brueggemann’s claim that Levenson does not leave room for Christian interpretation and violates that character of the text (Brueggemann’s Theology, p. 95).

    I don’t have easy access to Olson’s article, but, if I recall correctly, he anticipates Levenson by questioning Brueggemann’s claim, that while “there is nothing definitively Jewish about them” (Theology, p. 111) ambiguity and openness “contrast sharply with Christian modes of theology that are characteristically settling and closing” (same page). Olson argues that this is a generalization of both Jewish and Christian interpretive traditions that cannot be defended historically. Olson goes on to show that “closing and settling” are not what Child’s theology does either. If I’m reading them correctly, both Levenson and Olson imply that, unlike Childs, Brueggemann’s understanding of Jewish interpretations is a somewhat romantic stereotype of Jewish interpretation instead of a serious engagement. I think whereas Olson defends Childs more, Levenson calls into question how much Brueggemann can actually help interfaith dialogue. However, if you read these articles, you may have a different understanding of them.


  4. Rob Kashow says:


    Though I’m a big fan of Childs, I have to admit that he could be a bit clearer in articulating his views. For this reason, I’m sure Levenson and Olson take issue with Brueggeman because he likely misunderstands Childs on various issues. Note that Olson and Levenson were both students of Childs and so would exactly understand his inquiry. If anything, hopefully they showed Brueggeman a clearer picture of what Childs is saying.


    I can resonate with what you’re saying about Childs IOTT. The framework and inquiry he begins with is worth the price of the book, but your right, the rest of it is a bit ordinary. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to remember what he’s trying to do. It seems to me that He has simply had enough of people not disecting the Bible and construing it in new ways other than looking at its canonical shaping. If anything, his defense gives justification and provides a safe place for men and women of the Christian faith to do Old Testament Theology by using the Old Testament Scriptures (wow now there’s an idea!). So yeah, it’s a bit basic after his introductory inquiry, but I think it helps say, oh okay, if Childs can do this then men and women of the faith can feel free to think about the Scriptures in this way.

    I imagine we agree on all of this. BTW, I really like Baylor, I want to visit sometime soon. Let me know if you have any free time to host me for 3-4 hours one afternoon.

  5. John Anderson says:


    Correction made.

    You know I am a sympathetic reader of Childs . . . . I say so above. OTTICC, though, is quite light save for the introductory material. You may be right on what he tries to do with it, but, to be terribly blunt, as excited as I was about his methodological description, it was quite . . . . boring . . . . in practice. I have said in the past that it is quite rabbinic/midrashic. I’ve read Midrash plenty, and I find it beautiful and fascinating. But Childs is a bit more simplistic here.

    I’ll be glad to get together sometime when you come to Baylor for a visit. There will be some logistical things (picking my son up, my teaching schedule) that will need to be avoided, but when you get to a point you are thinking about coming shoot me an email or post on here and i’ll get in touch, if you give me enough forewarning. How far away are you from applying to programs?

  6. Jill says:

    I agree with Rob about Childs. I find Steiz to be helpful in terms of his students explaining him, but Olson is helpful as well. Not that it matters, but I’m pretty sure that Levenson did his training with Cross at Harvard. For some reason, I find these scholarly family trees interesting. However, to trace it forward, I don’t know of any students of Levenson or Olson. Maybe in a few years…

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