Saturday, January 21, 2017

Book Write-Up: Companion to the Old Testament, by Ted Leach

Ted Leach.  Companion to the Old Testament: For the Interpreter Within Each of Us.  Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

Ted Leach was a United Methodist pastor for four decades.  His book, Companion to the Old Testament, is a survey of the contents and historical context of the Hebrew Bible, as well as various issues surrounding it.

Here are some thoughts about the book:

A.  Leach is sensitive to the different interpretations of the Hebrew Bible among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and even the different interpretations within each religion.  His discussion of different ideas on Messianism within Judaism was impressive, as he surveyed different modern Jewish ideas on Messianism and also talked about Maimonides’ views on the Messiah, as well as the concept of a suffering Messiah in rabbinic passages.  In my opinion, an introduction or a companion to the Hebrew Bible should make readers aware that different communities interpret the Hebrew Bible in different ways, since that can help them to understand the world around them.  Leach did not discuss every issue that pertains to this, but his book can serve as a friendly introduction.

B.  A point that Leach makes more than once is that a Christian need not interpret all of the biblical stories as historical to receive spiritual edification from them.  Leach did well to share how this is the case in his own spiritual life, especially when he discussed his personal interaction with the story of Moses’ rod becoming a serpent.  The book would have been better, perhaps, had Leach addressed the question of whether the biblical stories’ writers deemed their stories to be historical.  There are things that Leach says that intersect with this question: he echoes scholarly arguments, for example, that the priestly author of Genesis 1 interacted with a Babylonian creation story and transformed the Babylonian concept of the Sabbath.  Leach also refers to some of the biblical stories as camp-fire stories, which may imply that the ancients saw the stories as just that, stories.  Still, one can easily get the impression in reading the Hebrew Bible that its authors believed that its narratives  represented God’s activity in history, or historically accounted for how the Israelites arrived at their current state (i.e., exile).  By wrestling more with this issue, Leach could have reinforced his argument that the Bible is not just about our concerns and preconceptions but reflects an ancient mindset.

C.  The book is an effective introduction and companion to the Hebrew Bible because it makes readers aware that modern biblical scholarship has questioned the historicity of certain narratives in the Bible, while also explaining why.  Conservatives may consider Leach’s use of scholarship to be one-sided, in that it primarily refers to scholars whom conservatives would consider to be liberal, and that would be a valid point.  Leach should have mentioned that there are scholars who believe differently, while also saying that he himself accepts certain conclusions.  In some instances, Leach fails to integrate or reconcile his conclusions.  For instance, Leach says that there may have been some sort of Exodus from Egypt, yet he also appears to agree with the scholarly idea that the Israelites were originally native Canaanites.  On this issue, some scholars have suggested that ancient Israel may have consisted of different groups of people: Semites who came from Egypt and also native Canaanites, who moved to the central hills from Canaanite cities.  According to these scholars, the Semites from Egypt contributed to ancient Israel the Exodus story, even though many Israelites did not descend from those who came from Egypt.  Similarly, the Pilgrim story became part of the founding tradition of the United States, even though most Americans do not descend from the Pilgrims.  Leach’s inclusion of such a point would have held together his arguments about the Exodus and the Conquest.

D.  In one place, Leach proposes that the Ten Commandments may not have been from the mouth of God, but were a Midianite priestly document discovered by Moses at what was previously a Midianite holy place.  Leach states that “This kind of miracle, rather than deMille’s magic, seems more in keeping with the way God works in human history.”  Readers may wonder why we should entertain such an idea about the Ten Commandments: is there any reason to believe that it was a Midianite priestly document?  Leach tossed that out as a possibility, but he did not explain the grounds for the possibility.  Leach could have strengthened his argument by mentioning the Kenite hypothesis, by showing how Moses or Sinai in the Bible relates to the Midianites, or by arguing that the view that all of the Torah was spoken by God on Mount Sinai is problematic, since the laws sometimes contradict each other.  There are ways for Leach to do this without writing an extensive, distracting thesis: perhaps he could introduce his discussion by mentioning Moses’ interaction with the Midianites, or include a brief discussion of the Kenite hypothesis in an endnote.

E.  Related to (D.), Leach should have attempted, in some manner, to offer a model of divine revelation.  People reading his book may wonder how exactly the Bible is a revelation from God, if it reflects different human viewpoints, as Leach sometimes argues.  Is the Bible the word of God, the word of human beings, or both?  Leach was exploring this territory, somewhat, when he contrasted the deMille version of divine revelation with the possibility that the Ten Commandments were a Midianite priestly document that Moses found.  But more could have been said.  Perhaps Leach could have said that God is with God’s people and guides them, even if it’s not through a dictation model of divine revelation.  This is a thorny and a difficult issue, and it would probably have been difficult for Leach to do complete justice to it in a book that had other goals: to introduce people to the Old Testament, for example.  Still, some discussion of the issue would have been helpful, even if that discussion would have been imperfect.

E. Leach was effective in placing many of the stories of the Hebrew Bible within their historical context and the geo-political situation of their time.

F.  Leach’s discussion of Second Isaiah and Isaiah 53 was intriguing, yet I was unclear about how certain details held together.  For Leach, Second Isaiah was written in Judah during the exile, not in Babylon.  The prophet in Judah was proclaiming the coming return of the Jews from exile, and his preaching of repentance was alienating fellow Jews in Judah.  That was why this prophet suffered, as is depicted in Isaiah 53.  In my opinion, R.N. Whybray’s view on Isaiah 53 makes more sense: the Servant was a prophet in Babylon proclaiming that the Persians would conquer Babylon and the Jews would return to their land, and that upset the Babylonians.  I have difficulty envisioning why the prophet in Judah would be persecuted.  I do not casually dismiss what Leach is saying, though, for some scholars have embraced the idea that Second Isaiah originated in Judah.

My critiques notwithstanding, I am still giving this book five stars.  It had a clear and friendly tone.  Its occasional pop-cultural references (i.e., to Superman, and how he fit the time of the Great Depression) made the book more relatable.  It models how a person can embrace critical scholarship of the Bible, while still being a person of faith.  It can also be a helpful introduction to the Hebrew Bible: its contents, its historical context, the development of biblical ideas throughout history, the diverse interpretations and applications of the Hebrew Bible, and the questions many scholars have had about its historicity.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers.  My review is honest!

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