An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books
By David M. Howard, Jr
5.1 (Spring 1994) : 104-107
David Howard is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His present work invites the reading of the OT historical books and purposes to serve as a guide in elucidating their contents and messages (16).
The author's purpose in guiding the reader is very deliberate. He does not wish the present work to be used in place of Scripture, but wants it to facilitate the reading of Scripture. In following its guidelines, the reader must pay attention both to microscopic details and to macrosopic structures, because "it is in the details as well as the large-scale sweeps, that we learn about the messages of the biblical books and, ultimately, about God" (16). The details are more important for interpretation than is the overall message. The focus on God is evident if the reading exercise proceeds along the lines that the Bible's authors intended: "A reading from start to finish will yield the most coherent picture of the biblical books" (16). The reading of each book in one sitting opens up the messages simply because the authors intended them to be read as coherent wholes (17).
Howard carefully articulates the use and abuse of history in Bible interpretation. History, though a legitimate study in and of itself, does not yield the theological messages that writers of historical books intended to convey. Further, historical reconstructions are, at best, only hypothetical. "Thus, the Scriptures themselves are the proper focus of our study, not the hypothetical re-creations of the events behind these Scriptures" (38).
Is the Bible historical, theological, or literary? It is all three, but the theological message is attainable only if both the historical and the literary character of Scripture exercise their proper hermeneutical control. The tendency to over-historicize brings the focus of the book's message down to human heros and their great examples and exploits in the Bible's history. Either an emphasis on history behind the text or a neglect to take the book in its entire context leads to distortions of the message`the spotlight comes to be on God's instruments rather than on God Himself. Conversely, Howard believes that the messages tend to focus on God rather than on His servants:
They [God's servants] are an important repository of God's revelation of Himself. In the details of the stories, as well as (or perhaps especially) at the higher levels of groups of stories, we see great themes unfolded`themes that tell us about God and His love for His people and the world, His holiness, His worthiness, and His unfolding plans for His people and the world. In the end, these things are much more important than the fortunes or foibles of individual characters. These larger themes bring the OT historical books into proper focus and into harmony with the other books of the Bible (15-16).
Reading the book for its entire message not only will focus the reader's attention on the unifying major themes, but also will help him avoid getting bogged down in minute details instead of capturing the larger theological message.
Above all we must remember that the Bible is a "theological" work, i.e., it deals with God. In the end, God is the subject and the hero of the Bible. Even in works that emphasize human individuals, such as 1 and 2 Samuel, which highlight David, these individuals are important only as they are instruments in God's plan. . . . David is much more important as a theological symbol`as one whom God chose and blessed and as one who was attuned to God`than he ever was a "historical" figure`one who was, say, a great military leader, administrator, and musician (48; cf. also the author entry "David" in vol. 2 of the AB).
It is all too easy to strip the narrative of its God-honoring, even doxological character in order to build popular "how to be" or "how to do" sermons and biblical lessons. This practice has the effect on God's people of reinforcing the "me-centered" (anthropocentric) approach to the Christian life and of robbing them of another opportunity to hear "the mighty acts of God" (Acts 2:11). It exchanges attention to God's mighty deeds for a focus upon the spiritually heroic deeds of men. Howard illustrates his method with several examples from Ruth and Ezra-Nehemiah.
It is tempting to interpret the message of Ruth by highlighting the virtues of the woman from whom the book takes its name or those of her kinsman-redeemer Boaz (exacerbated by typological presightings of Christ). But in the narratives even these characters focus the story on God.
There is a special focus on God Himself in the book, particularly by the characters. Of its eight-five verses, twenty-three mention God; of these, only two are the narrator's comments (1:6 and 4:13 bracket the book); the rest are from the mouths of the protagonists. The characters themselves are conscious that God sovereignly orders events, and they depend on Him to do so (133).
The focus on God's steadfast nature is also maintained in that "He is seen as acting continually throughout the book" (ibid.) and "in His refusal to abandon them, and in His rewarding their faithfulness to Him" (ibid.).
In another account of OT characters, Ezra and Nehemiah must yield the spotlight to the Lord of the second Exodus. The purpose of Ezra-Nehemiah is clear:
They are written . . . to show that God was still faithful and gracious to His people and that this people, who had their origins centuries earlier, still was alive and attempting to continue in the faithful traditions laid down by Moses (274). From the standpoint of human agency, gifted (by God) men led the second Exodus. Yet like Moses their prototype, they pale into insignificance as God shines through; thus, whatever giftedness the characters Ezra or Nehemiah demonstrated in the books is itself subsumed under God's character and mighty acts: God was still faithful and gracious to His people, even to the extent of using Persian rulers to help His people. To demonstrate God's control, the biblical author uses the expressions "good hand" or "mighty hand" six times in Ezra (7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31) and three times in Nehemiah (1:10; 2:8, 18). Howard aptly summarizes,
The references to God's good hand would then function as a low-key reminder that God himself is still King and that the Persian kings' bounty was in reality the bounty coming from the "king of kings" to His people (310).
Howard has written a helpful tool in a challenging portion of Scripture, the historical books. Pastors and Bible teachers will find it a source of informative discussions on each of the historical books as well as a guide for interpreting these important but often neglected or misunderstood portions of Scripture.