Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form and Background of the Old Testament

By William Sanford LaSor
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1996). xvii + 860 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
9.2 (Fall 1998) : 241-243

The widespread use of the first edition of Old Testament Survey (1982) encouraged the authors to make the work even more serviceable in this second edition (x). The writers, all associated with Fuller Theological Seminary, have designed this volume as a basic text for college and seminary students in Old Testament survey courses (xiii). During the revision process, LaSor (1991) and Hubbard (1996) died. However, LaSor’s suggestions and queries were used in this revision and Hubbard carried the complete editorial responsibility for the second edition (x-xi). Evangelical biblical scholars Leslie C. Allen, James R. Battenfield, John E. Hartley, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., John E. McKenna, and William B. Nelson, Jr., made further contributions to the work.

Building upon the form and content of the first edition, this new textbook is a thorough revision of the earlier work. First, much of the text is rewritten in simpler, shorter sentences. For instance, “In these documents, which shaped the understanding of their life, faith and destiny, they recognized the word of the one Lord whom they knew to be the only true God” (1982, 2) becomes “These documents shaped the understanding of their life, faith, and destiny. They recognized in them the word of the one Lord whom they knew to be the only true God” (1996, 586). Second, additional charts, illustrations, and maps are added. Further, previous illustrative material is sharpened and much of it colorized. Third, the background material now appears after the discussion of the biblical content and not before as previously. This allows the reader to plunge immediately into the biblical material. A new chapter of 47 pages on archaeology is part of the background section. Fourth, the updated footnotes are now placed at the end of the volume (743-840) instead of at the bottom of the page. Because many of the endnotes give more information, particularly for the seminary student, rather than only cite sources, the reader would be better served to have them on the same page as the material they elucidate. Fifth, the updated suggestions for further reading appear together (699-742) rather then at the end of each chapter as in the previous edition.

The ordering of the text follows broadly the progression of the Jewish canon. Part One discusses the Torah (1-127). Part Two deals with the Prophets (129-422). However, the Latter Prophets are discussed according to the authors’ perceived historical progression and not by their canonical order. Part Three overviews the Writings (423-582). Again, the canonical pattern is not strictly followed. Part Four looks at the Background of the OT (583-694). Here, discussions of the authority, inspiration, canonicity, and formation of the OT precede chapters on geography, chronology, and archaeology. A final chapter looks at messianic prophecy where the assertion is, “[W]e can acknowledge as ‘messianic’ any prophecy which ties the present with God’s ultimate purposes” (690).

The volume exhibits strengths as an introductory survey of the OT in a number of ways. First, it clearly and succinctly presents the historical background to the OT as the text progresses. Second, it handles well the literary features and structure of both the major sections (i.e., Torah, Former Prophets, Latter Prophets, and Writings) and the individual books of the OT. Third, it isolates and discusses at length the major themes of each book. Fourth, it introduces the reader to contemporary OT scholarship from a broadly evangelical perspective.

To mine the treasures of this work, the student has to read with discernment. Although the authors affirm the divine inspiration of the Scripture, they state that “. . . it is not necessary to infer from the fact of inspiration a doctrine of inerrancy, which tends to build a fence of protective arguments around the Bible” (596). For them, the OT is the result of a long process of work on the part of editors and arrangers and circles who preserved oral traditions and presented them to later generations of God’s people. Thus, as an example, “it is unlikely that Moses wrote the Pentateuch as it exists in its final form” (9). The authors declare, “To speak of inspiration, as one must to be true to the Bible, there has to be an acknowledgment of God’s inspiring providence so that the written word eventually reflected the divine intention” (595). The result of this viewpoint is the questioning of the historical veracity of Scripture. Thus, Genesis 1–11 makes no claim to objective description, but conveys “theological truths about events, portrayed in a largely symbolic, pictorial style” (20-21), and “. . . Daniel’s main purpose is not to record detailed history but to use stories and symbols to demonstrate God’s control of history” (567).

Though a discerning OT survey teacher can find some helpful material in this textbook, the beginning OT student should consult other works instead.