Old Testament Narrative: A Guide to Interpretation
Book review by Dr. Scott Wenig
Walsh, Jerome. Old Testament Narrative: A Guide to Interpretation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. xiii + 208 pp. including 3 Appendices. Paperback, $29.95. ISBN 978-0-664-23464-5.
The word evocative means to draw out a response, often one that is highly emotional in nature. While it’s not commonly used in our contemporary culture, evocative is the exact right adjective for describing the narratives of the Old Testament. Whether it’s the story of David’s seduction of Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah, Daniel’s long night in the lion’s den of Babylon or Elijah’s vehement challenge to the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, the stories of the Old Testament capture our imaginations and bring laughter, tears and feelings of awe to our lives. Over the centuries these inspired tales of God’s people have inspired millions and shaped the development not only of the Christian Church but also of Western Civilization itself.
As a professor of Old Testament, Dr. Jerome Walsh has devoted over thirty years to the study of these stories. This book is the culmination of his life’s work and it shows through on almost every page. Building on a variety of prior literary approaches to the Bible by other scholars, Walsh now lends his own distinctive skill to the interpretative process of these powerful portions of Scripture. Through his careful explanation of plot, characterization, setting, tempo and time, he carefully leads the reader into both the depth and the breadth of Old Testament narratives.
Walsh begins by laying out two ground rules for any accurate and useful interpretation of narrative literature. First, these texts were not given to provide just information; they were intentionally composed to move the reader beyond the intellect to an emotional response. In his opinion, the Scriptural narratives are evocative by design. Second, readers must open themselves up to the biblical text allowing it, in Walsh’s words, ‘to reveal us to ourselves’ (p. xiii). Only by following these guidelines can we, as modern interpreters, get further inside the minds of the biblical authors in order to gain a fuller understanding of their stories.
Having set the stage, Walsh moves on to lay out in systematic fashion his scheme of interpretation. The first three chapters address the nature of story, focusing primarily on character and plot development. Chapters 4 through 8 concentrate on how the narrator tells his story. Here Walsh reveals many of the techniques that the biblical authors used to communicate with their intended readers. The ninth chapter analyzes the narrator’s voice and how that influences exactly what he was attempting to communicate. Then, in the final two chapters, Walsh introduces some authorial elements within the written text itself and how narratives, in all their illustrious complexity, should draw forth a response from the reader.
One of the many strengths of this fine work is a list of questions posed at the end of each chapter related to three prominent Old Testament narratives. Specifically, these are the stories of Jeroboam (I Kings 11:26-14:18), Elijah (I Kings 17:1-19:21) and Ahab (I Kings 20:1-22:40). In addition, Walsh provides an in-depth discussion of each one that composes the three appendices. Along with an ongoing analysis of the Succession of Solomon to the Throne (I Kings 1-2) in each chapter, these various texts provide the reader with an opportunity to practice the interpretative skills that Walsh is teaching. And as the reader works through his different questions, it quickly becomes obvious how intricate, brilliant – and evocative – these respective narratives are. Here we discover that there is no simplistic meaning inherent in the stories of the Bible because the lives of biblical characters and their world, like our own lives and world, were far too complex for trivial interpretive drivel.
In addition to this self-guided work, let me mention a few other strengths of this fine book. First, one does not have to be a Hebrew scholar to profit from its pages. Walsh writes for the informed and eager reader who is willing to subject himself or herself to the biblical text and let it speak in an authoritative fashion. Moreover, he shows us exactly how this can be done in a wonderfully nuanced manner. Second, when the interpretative tools that the author provides are utilized by the reader it makes the stories literally come to life! I’ve spent a significant amount of time reading and analyzing the narrative of I Kings 1-2 and, as I followed Walsh’s interpretative framework, I discovered that there is far more going on in that story than I ever thought or imagined.
While I highly recommend this outstanding work, a caution must be given to both its potential readers and purchasers. Textual analysis that is derived from all the respective literary techniques that Walsh readily leverages can sometimes feel a bit tedious. As much as I enjoyed reading the book and discovering new ways of looking at different narratives, I sometimes wondered if the author wasn’t seeing more in the passages than was really there. But that criticism may derive from the fact that I’m a preacher at heart who is always motivated to move from the study to the pulpit.
Given that caveat, I commend this book to those interested in biblical studies in general, Old Testament narratives in particular, and those (like me) who love to preach these stories. Professor Walsh’s intense and loving labor on these texts has borne much fruit. Scholars of his stature who have given their lives to show the brilliance and evocative nature of Old Testament narratives deserve a wide reading. I would also add that they deserve our unqualified thanks.
Scott Wenig, PhD.