Reading the Old Testament Anew

Biblical Perspectives on Today's Issues

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John Kaltner
  • Winona, MN: 
    Anselm Academic
    , July
     2017.
     284 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781599827742.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

I have been waiting for an innovative and creative textbook on the academic study of the Hebrew Bible for decades. When I saw the title of the present book, Reading the Old Testament Anew: Biblical Perspectives on Today’s Issues, written by John Kaltner, I hoped my wait would be over. For textbook standards, this volume of 284 pages is slim. It is also very reasonably priced. On top of that, the author has published many books on the relationship of the Bible and the Qur’an and he even co-edited a volume on contemporary approaches to the academic study of the Bible. So I had my hopes up when I volunteered to review Kaltner’s 2017 introduction to Old Testament literature.

The book offers many good things. Kaltner demonstrates again that he is a good writer. His prose is accessibly written, and he has mastered the skill to simplify complicated exegetical-intellectual matters for lay audiences. He is also a thoughtful teacher, and the layout and special sections (called “Implications and Applications”) at the end of each chapter reflect his pedagogical expertise. The book consists of six chapters that feature central themes of the Hebrew Bible. They are: 1. Perspectives on Creation, 2. Perspectives on Covenant, 3. Perspectives on Liberation, 4. Perspectives on the Human Condition, 5. Perspectives on the Other, and 6. Perspectives on Social Justice. To the uninitiated Bible student, these themes do not communicate that, in truth, they follow the conventional and predictable order of the Christian Old Testament canon.

In other words, Kaltner’s descriptions begin with the book of Genesis and end with the prophetic literature. Accordingly, chapter 1 opens with lengthy summaries of the first and second creation stories that include references to the Documentary Hypothesis and ancient Near Eastern creation myths. The chapter ends with short sections on “Feminist Interpretation” (63-65), “Psychological Interpretation” (65-66), and “Ecological Interpretation” (66-68), as if those approaches were secondary to the understanding of the creation narratives. In fact, Kaltner states that all three approaches have “their limitations and some are more beneficial than others” (68), and proceeds to never mention them again in any of the following chapters. In chapter 2, the canonical journey of the Old Testament turns to biblical tales in which God makes covenants with people such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. In chapter 3, the introductory survey continues with the book of Exodus, focusing on passages that depict the people of Israel’s “liberation” from Egypt. The chapter also includes a brief treatment of the historical problems of the Exodus event and a fleeting account on the “Exodus in Modern Times” (144-46).

In chapter 4, the journey through the Christian biblical canon presents the wisdom books of Job and Qohelet, similar to traditional Old Testament textbooks. Central are the questions, “What is the good life?” and “What is life?,” and the chapter focuses on the nature of knowledge, God, and life. The discussion also features ancient wisdom texts from Egypt, and it asks students to come up with “modern works of literature or art that address human mortality” (178). In chapter 5, the textbook progresses to other “wisdom books,” especially the books of Ruth and Jonah. Kaltner finds them exceptionally relevant for tackling issues of “otherness” because they portray people moving to foreign lands and living as strangers.

In chapter 6, the Christian biblical journey culminates in an exploration of social justice, with special consideration of selected prophetic texts. Among these are 1 Kings 21 about Elijah’s conflict with Ahab and Jezebel, as well as prophetic texts admired in the Christian tradition, such as Amos, Micah, and Joel. A section on “Identifying Poverty and How to Address It” (250-52) suggests that social justice refers mainly to poor people in general, missing the opportunity to state that most poor people in today’s world are women and children. The chapter touches sketchily on Hebrew terminology for poverty and quickly shifts to the Hebrew terms mishpat (justice) and tsedaqah (righteousness) (251-52). Neither feminist work on the prophets nor intersectional insights about the relationship of class and gender appear in Kaltner’s explanations.

Interestingly, Kaltner is not the exclusive author of the book. Two additional writers contribute relatively brief segments at the end of three chapters. Linda S. Schearing outlines “Images of Adam and Eve” in art history (70-78) in the chapter on biblical creation narratives. Ellen White elaborates on films and movies about the devil (182-89) at the end of the chapter on Job and Qohelet. She also offers a discussion on the connections between social justice and the movie, “The Hunger Games” (257-63). It is unclear why no additional segments appear after Kaltner’s chapters on covenant, liberation, and otherness.

In sum, Kaltner’s textbook offers a conventional introductory approach to the Old Testament, with a few innovative characteristics. It does not keep its promise to present new ways of bringing “biblical perspectives” to “today’s issues,” and thus stands firmly in the conformist strictures of biblical studies. My wait for an innovative and creative textbook in Hebrew Bible studies will have to continue.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susanne Scholz is Professor of Old Testament at SMU Perkins School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Kaltner is associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

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