Exploring the Old Testament, Volume 2: A Guide to the Historical Books

By Philip Satterthwaite and Gordon McConville
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2007). xvi + 295 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
20.1 (Spring 2009) : 120-121

This is the fourth and final volume released in the Exploring the Old Testament (EOT) series edited by Gordon McConville. All of the volumes were written by British OT scholars “to help the beginning student understand the writings of the Old Testament” (xi). EOT is a companion series to Exploring the New Testament which was written by British NT scholars for the same purpose (see TMSJ, 2004, 132-34). As its NT counterpart, EOT seeks to engage the reader by interspersing interactive panels with the main narrative. EOT also incorporates canonical and rhetorical criticism along with the traditional historical interpretive approach to the OT text.

The second volume of EOT, A Guide to the Historical Books is a joint writing venture of Philip Satterthwaite and McConville. Satterwaite, a professor of OT at the Biblical Graduate School of Theology in Singapore, planned the volume, wrote the first seven chapters, and edited all the chapters into their present form. McConville, Senior Lecturer in OT at the University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham, England, wrote chapters 8-11 (xv). In the first chapter, Satterthwaite introduces the reader to the OT histories, the books which follow the Pentateuch in the English Bible (1-28). The main burden of the chapter is to describe the present approaches to the histories as literary texts and historical documents. Satterthwaite concludes, “Our interpretation of the Histories begin with the assumption of literary unity. . . . Usually, having investigated contrary viewpoints, we conclude that our initial, working assumption of literary unity may be allowed to stand” (25). The author is also cautious of undo skepticism concerning the historical accuracy of the books, although he asks pointed questions of the critical approach (17) rather than declaring a beginning premise of inerrancy or even the general historical trustworthiness of the OT text. However, when the individual OT books are discussed, the authors usually conclude that they are historically based, except for Esther. The second chapter overviews the history of the Ancient Near East from 1550 to 63 B.C. since it is the context of the histories (29-40).

The central part of the volume is devoted to an introduction to the individual OT books (41-198, 220-90). The strength of chapters 3-6 and 8-11 is the discussion of the structure of each book. The authors clearly show the reader the literary unity of the texts. This discussion will be of immense help to exegetes and expositors of Scripture, not just the beginning reader. The two weaknesses of these chapters are both historical. First, Satterthwaite opts for a late dating for the conquest and about 160 years for the period of the Judges (101). Second, McConville expresses serious reservations concerning the historicity of the events recorded in Esther. He views the genre of the book as comedy, a fictional work that might get the local color right, and thus give an appearance of historical accuracy, but whose narration of its central events, a plot to kill all Jews, foiled by the actions of a queen, and the slaughter of 75,00 Jewish enemies, is improbable (239-42). In chapter seven, Satterthwaite introduces the reader to the contemporary discussion of the “Deuteronomistic History,” i.e., Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (199-219). He questions the assumptions of a Deuteronomistic History, noting that the Former Prophets have significant echoes of all of the Pentateuch, not just Deuteronomy. He concludes, “The points in favour of our position are not necessarily stronger than those underlying the consensus position: all we claim is that they are no weaker” (217). The volume ends with a subject index (291-95).

In the estimation of the present reviewer, A Guide to the Historical Books is the most beneficial of the four volumes in EOT. Volume 1, A Guide to the Pentateuch (2003) by Gordon Wenham is a valuable roadmap to the structure of the Pentateuch, but doubts about the historicity of the text at points mar the presentation. Volume 3, A Guide to the Psalms & Wisdom Literature (2003) by Ernest Lucas, raises questions concerning the Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs and gives the reader little support for the traditional position. In volume 4, A Guide to the Prophets (2002), McConville concedes much to the non-evangelical scholarship on these books, especially Isaiah and Daniel. As with their NT counterparts, EOT are valuable in orienting the beginning OT student to the issues he will face in his continuing studies. However, the answers supplied are not always reliable. Volume 2 comes the closest to giving the reader the best answers.