Handbook on the Historical Books

By Victor P. Hamilton
Grand Rapids : Baker (2001). 557 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Grisanti
14.2 (Fall 2003) : 335-337

Hamilton has made another fine contribution to Old Testament studies with this volume. Alongside his earlier Handbook on the Pentateuch (Baker, 1982) and Robert Chisholm’s Handbook on the Prophets (Baker, 2002), this volume introduces readers to a treatment of the OT historical books that will supplement a “history” textbook and will offer different emphases than a commentary on a given book or set of OT books.

Hamilton uses the principles of such disciplines as rhetorical criticism and inductive Bible study to get at and uncover the thrust and message of these OT books (14). He seeks to relate the structure of a given biblical book to its message. Like the rest of the series of which the work is a part, the volume’s target audience is the undergraduate college student just beginning advanced biblical studies (14).

Hamilton divides the historical literature into 10 sections, treating Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, and Esther with a chapter apiece, combining 1-2 Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah in a chapter each, and dividing 1-2 Kings between 2 chapters (1 Kings 1–11, 1 Kings 12–2 Kings 25). He begins each chapter with brief introductory comments and an outline for the book. The rest of the chapter deals with key interpretive, rhetorical, and historical issues in accordance with that analytical outline. Although Hamilton avoids footnotes, he provides a helpful bibliography at the end of each chapter, divided into sections (commentaries-major studies and shorter studies). He has intentionally limited his bibliography to more recent books and those in English. He divides the longer bibliographies according to the section of the biblical book to which a set of references relates. He does refer to certain key resources in the body of the chapter (within parentheses, by name, date, and page number [with full information at the end of the chapter or with full information to those sources not referenced elsewhere]). The volume ends with a brief subject index (7 pages).

This volume has several interesting features. Hamilton provides a helpful overview of kh-r-m (Hamilton’s designation) or “to devote to destruction” (33-37), a good overview chart of judges (114), a nice chart for the structure of Ruth (189), and a helpful overview of oaths (“oaths of purgation” and “promissory oaths”; 246- 47). He provides a clear and concise overview of the debate over the historicity of the Conquest (58-66). In the end, he accepts it as a historical event. According to Hamilton, Joshua’s conquest represents an initial sweep throughout the land of Canaan with the subsequent occupation of the land left to the individual tribes. He also includes a number of beneficial charts. For example, he gives several that show inner-biblical thematic/content parallels (e.g., within Samuel; 110-11, 217-18) as well as a chart comparing Chronicles with Samuel–Kings (480-81; cf. 406-7). At several points he provides charts comparing four dating systems for the Divided Monarchy (Bright, Galil, Hayes/Hooker, and Thiele) with reference to a certain set of kings (417, 426, 448-49, 456-57, 463). As examples of some specific conclusions, he identifies Thutmose III as the pharaoh of the Exodus (62), contends that Jephthah sacrificed/killed his daughter (144-46), and suggests that the Egyptian ruler So is to be regarded as Tefnakht I (740-718 B .C.) (454-55).

Hamilton provides a helpful overview on several issues, but never takes a clear position. After discussing various proposaals concerning Joshua’s long day, he contends that the language favors the stoppage of the sun rather than an eclipse, but does not affirm whether it actually happened or whether the passage represents a poetical description (52-55). With regard to the textual questions about Goliath’s height (257) and about 1 Samuel 17 (259-61), Hamilton provides a concise overview of the options, but does not make a case for any position. He asks key questions about David’s demands of Solomon when the rule over Israel was changing hands, but gives no answers (356). He offers primary positions concerning the chronological priority of Ezra and Nehemiah, but ends the discussion on an ambiguous note. A number of these issues are not “iron-clad” (i.e., they have no simple answer); however, they merit at least a general answer since the author raised the question in the first place.

Oddly, Hamilton places significant emphasis on the judges who do not receive the Spirit of God. He highlights this reality and presents it as something significant, but does not make an ultimate point (116, 119), leaving the reader somewhat confused. Contra Hamilton, the expression “whose young woman is that” is a common Hebrew idiom for “belonging,” but it may not mean that Boaz viewed a young woman as a man’s possession (194). By identifying the location of the “Mount Sinai” to which Elijah fled as Arabia (435), Hamilton implies that he might regard the “Mount Sinai” of the Pentateuch as a location on the Arabian peninsula as well. Unfortunately, he uses the casual phrase “goes to church” to describe Hezekiah’s visit to the Israelite Temple to pray (459).

The volume, as most written works do, has a few errors that escaped the editorial process. On page 15, a space is needed before “[see Num. 13:8….”, an incorrect year is given for a work (72, the book by Schaeffer), Jehosheba hid her nephew Joash, not her brother (449), and David purchased the threshing floor of Araunah, not of “Ornan” (487).

In spite of the concerns cited above, Hamilton’s volume makes a significant contribution to the “big picture” of historical literature. He is to be commended for his many charts, attention to inner-biblical coherence, and sensitivity to rhetorical structure. The volume could use an index for the various charts Hamilton includes throughout the book. Hamilton does an admirable job of introducing his readers to the flow of OT historical literature, pursuing certain specific issues along the way.