Why another Introduction to the Hebrew Bible?

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By: Bill T. Arnold

Cambridge University Press just released my new book, Introduction to the Old Testament. I am grateful to the editor of The ANE Today for the invitation to reflect on the question, “Why another Introduction to the Hebrew Bible?” With so many introductory textbooks available today, why add another now?

1arnoldIn truth, I was not planning to add another introduction to the multitude of options already available. When the publisher asked me to consider it, my response was to try something different. From the beginning, this volume was conceptualized as an attempt to introduce the Hebrew Bible by highlighting the legacy of monotheism emerging from its pages in order to emphasize the immediate relevance of the Hebrew Bible for today.

In the Preface I differentiate this volume from those taking a historical approach to the Hebrew Bible because, although history is essential to the task, I believe acquiring an understanding of ancient history is not the same thing as learning what the text says. This volume certainly contains a great deal of history and archaeology, as it must. Yet the didactic strategy is larger than this.

A theological approach cannot be effective in a nonsectarian setting because the message of the Hebrew Bible has been taken in different ways in the various faith traditions. And such an approach would leave out the secularist, the uncertain, or the inquiring reader. An approach focused on comparative religions would be useful, to a degree, but ultimately distracting; much of the Hebrew Bible has little connection with non-Abrahamic religions, such as Buddhism. In contrast, I adopted a literary approach in order to introduce the student to the Hebrew Bible’s “content, structure, and central messages.”

Along the way, the volume also focuses on what the text says about God. It acknowledges that an entrée into the literature of ancient Israel must necessarily also consider the Hebrew Bible’s unique contributions to the history of religious ideas in human civilization. Thus the volume introduces the text as literature by tracing its single most important contribution to the history of ideas – that of monotheism. The book contains the usual features of a textbook on the Hebrew Bible, but does so with monotheism as a subtheme running alongside and parallel to the general discussion. Because the Hebrew Bible is not uniform in its understanding of the singularity of God, only certain chapters deal directly with the subtheme in order to highlight its enduring legacy.

Of course, Biblical Studies has not come to a consensus about when or how monotheism first emerged. Nor are we agreed on whether the religious impulses we see in Egyptian Atenism of the Amarna Period or the Mesopotamian worship of Marduk or Ashur during the second and first millennia BCE reflect the origins of monotheism, or even whether the Israelite articulation of its beliefs in the Hebrew Bible is real monotheism at all. I certainly make no claim to settle these controverted questions.

On the other hand, I believe the Hebrew Bible has specific texts that can only be understood as expressing genuine monotheism. So, for example, the assertion that there is “no other” Deity besides Yahweh seems clear enough as practical monotheism (Deuteronomy 4:35,39; and 32:39). Similar expressions are found in the various speeches, such as the blessing of Solomon (1 Kings 8:60) and Ezra’s prayer on a day of national confession (Nehemiah 9:6).

The Psalter has a few such explicit references (Psalms 86:10; 96:4–5; and perhaps 82:6–7, and others), and we have implicit monotheism in the assertions of God’s incomparability in the Psalms (Psalms 18:31; 35:9–10; 89:5–8; 113:5–6). Among the prophets, Jeremiah denies the reality of other gods (Jeremiah 16:19–20), and with Isaiah of the Exile, we find the most explicit statements yet, as in verse 44:6, “Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer the LORD of hosts: I am the first, and I am the last, and beside Me there is no God” (see also 43:11; 44:8; 45:5–7,18,21–22, along with Joel 2:27).

Bill T. Arnold

Bill T. Arnold

In this textbook, I used the text’s explicit denials of the reality of other deities to invite the reader to imagine two sides of the same coin. One side, “heads,” represents positive assertions about the unique qualities and attributes of Israel’s God, Yhwh. The other side, “tails,” represents the explicit denial that other gods exist at all. A flip of the Hebrew Bible’s coin almost always lands on “heads,” but the coin is still real. These are Israel’s monotheizing texts. Its message is more than a philosophical formulation of monotheism, although these occasional statements scattered throughout are clear enough. Rather, the Hebrew Bible is more interested in understanding what it means to live in covenant relationship with this singular deity, Yhwh, the God of Israel.

To those of us who have devoted ourselves to the study and interpretation of these fascinating texts, the idea of centering the message of the Hebrew Bible around monotheism may seem like a particularly low-order objective. But my conviction is that students acquiring a liberal arts education today need to learn more than a general appreciation of the overall content of the Hebrew Scriptures. They also need to understand the contribution of the Hebrew Bible to the history of human philosophy and theology, especially as this relates now to the religious climate of the early twenty-first century.

In this way, I tried to demonstrate in this textbook that the Hebrew Bible is not a uniformly monotheistic book but rather a monotheizing document. And the resultant monotheism enthroned in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam changed the world. For this reason, a basic understanding of the Hebrew Bible is critical for understanding the world in which we live today.

Dr. Bill T. Arnold is Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary.

The first chapter considers the different names used for ancient Israel’s library: Hebrew Bible, The First Testament, the Older Testament, Hebrew Scriptures, Israel’s Scriptures, Tanak, Miqra, etc. The publisher wanted to use the long-standing “Old Testament” because of this label’s convenience as a conventional designation across the English-speaking world.

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