Old Testament Today: A Journey from Original Meaning to Contemporary Significance

By John H. Walton and Andrew E. Hill
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2004). xx + 412 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
17.1 (Spring 2006) : 131-133

John Walton and Andrew Hill are both teachers of Old Testament at Wheaton College. They previously collaborated on the well-received A Survey of the Old Testament [see TMSJ 14 (2003):338-40]. Both have contributed to the NIV Application Commentary Series, Walton penning the commentary on Genesis and Hill on 1 & 2 Chronicles. The authors claim that this commentary series has established an approach to the biblical text that has received wide appreciation and acclaim. In the commentaries, the Bible is approached from three perspectives: original meaning, bridging contexts, and contemporary significance. The writers state, “Using these headings, the [biblical] text’s meaning and significance could be traced from the original author and audience to our contemporary setting. This approach allows us to understand the content of the Bible as well as its message, theology, and relevance for today” (xi). Therefore, in this textbook Walton and Hill have decided to use that threefold process as their way to communicate the story of the OT to beginning students. They write, “Our vision for this book is that we would be able to introduce students to the Old Testament by going beyond the basic content to help them know just what they are supposed to do with it and what it is supposed to mean to them” (xiii). The authors have written this book as the foundation of a semester course in OT (xvi-xviii).

The main content of the text begins with a unit on “Fundamentals” (2-23). The reader is oriented to the story line (i.e., the content) of the OT from the Garden of Eden to the post-exilic period as the basis of the plot line (i.e., the message to be believed). The Bible is God’s story intended to help people know Him and, as God’s revelation, is to be accepted as authoritative. The reader of the OT must become acquainted with both the historical and cultural background of the texts and the methodical approaches to the study of the texts in order to understand the face value of the text, that is, the way the author wanted to be understood by his audience. The three principle factors in determining face value are literary genre, cultural background, and the exact revelatory focus of the text at hand. The authors make clear that the principles of hermeneutics are to guide the exegetical process in seeking to arrive at a proper interpretation of an OT text (17). However, this seems to be contradicted in the glossary where hermeneutics is defined as “The application of rules and procedures for determining the meaning of written texts” (402). The unit concludes with an overview of how the OT text came to be written, with confidence in the OT text validated by its acceptance and use by Jesus.

The heart of the volume is found in the next five units that are broken down into three chapters each (24-380). Each unit is focused on one of the main sections of OT literature: Pentateuch, Historical Literature, Prophets, Wisdom Literature, and Psalms. The units begin with a summary of basic orientation, the revelation of God given, key verses, unit outline, and key terms. The first chapter of each unit discusses original meaning. The threefold focus of those chapters is the story line, historical background, and literary parallels from the ANE. A unit’s second chapter presents bridging contexts. Here, the focus is the purpose of the individual biblical books, their theological perspectives as seen in their major themes, and the resulting plotline or message. It is here that overarching principles are articulated that will be the basis for contemporary application. The third chapter of each unit interacts with the contemporary significance. The chapters begin with a contemporary scenario that leads into a recapitulation of the timeless principles that can be applied to the case study. Then other principles and their present relevance are presented. Throughout the chapters in each unit, time lines, maps, pictures, sidebars, and callouts have been used. Each unit concludes with study questions and resources for further study.

The final unit of the text is the epilogue (382-97). Here the authors summarize some important issues: how the plot line of the OT is continued in the NT, how the OT and NT relate to and interpret each other, and the salvation of the OT Israelite. Three important resources conclude the volume. First, there is an appendix for reading through the OT (398-99). The authors here present what they believe are 150 of the most significant chapters of the OT. The student is to presume that these are the particular chapters to read if he does not have time to read the whole of the OT in a semester course. Second, a glossary of key terms with their definitions is presented (401-4). Finally, an index provides information on where in the text the discussion of different subjects is found (405-12).

Walton and Hill are to be commended for distilling and summarizing so much information germane to the study and application of the O T. However, it seems that the sheer volume of material makes the textbook impractical for a beginning student not already acquainted with the OT, the very reader for whom the authors have prepared this work. Can a beginning reader really master the content (i.e., story line) of the OT in 35-40 hours of classroom instruction, along with the historical background, the AN E literature, the purpose and themes of each OT book, and the principles to be applied to the contemporary Christian? This volume seems best suited for the reader who already has a good understanding of the OT and seeks to think through the big picture again as a prelude to personal application and expository ministry of the OT.