The Oxford Handbook of The Historical Books of the Hebrew Bible, edited by Brad E. Kelle and Brent A. Strawn

The Oxford Handbook Series is a new venture from Oxford University Press, seeking to provide in each volume a cutting-edge inquiry into current thinking and research using an international group of scholars in the given field. This particular volume on historical books provides resources for the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, but with the aim of unifying the individual treatments of the books with questions of how the subject relates. and help interpret, “historical books” as a group.

Questions of the relationship of these books to the wider ancient Near Eastern world are also of concern, as are questions of history – establishment, state formation, monarchy, forced migration and return – and of writing and literary reception, not to mention theology. reflection on texts, traditions and culture. This volume, however, also brings many and varied readings of texts from post-biblical communities of all shades, and its interest in reading approaches and the history of reception gives it a very modern touch.

After an editorial introduction that mentions the diversity that a range of scholars bring to an increasingly narrow set of interpretive parameters, the volume opens with a section on contexts. In a review of this length, I’ll take a closer look at this section. The first entry on the historiography and writing of history in the ancient world raises vast questions about the nature of “history” and its writing throughout the ancient world, recognizing that it is led by the faith, influenced by social and political systems, and often used to generate a sense of common ethnic identity.

Richard Nelson is confident in the face of growing skepticism that a legitimate history can be written and can be summarized as follows: Dynasty of David (Samuel), and attempted to explain defeat and exile (Kings). The chronicles conveyed a message of legitimate identity and encouragement, and Ezra-Nehemiah added to this a call for purity of the community. Sounds like a good summary for the literary scope of the whole volume.

The broader context of the ancient Near East is then explored by Martti Nissinen in a study of Assyrian and Babylonian sources which shed light on the social circumstances and living conditions of the exile generation in Babylon in the 6th-5th centuries BCE. This is followed by an article by Amélie Kuhrt on Achaemenid (Persian) history and political sources, emphasizing the administrative power of this empire with high ideals of royalty at its heart. The next two chapters deal with critical aspects of the text, the first from Samuel-Kings and the second from Ezra-Nehemiah and I Ezra.

This is followed by an ethnographic study of the early origins of Israelite colonization and society by Ann Killebrew. She opts for a “mixed multitude theory” which views biblical and archaeological evidence as “a reflection of a non-homogeneous, multifaceted and complex process of Israelite formation and crystallization.”

This is followed by a more biblical essay on the formation of the Israelite state and the first monarchy by Walter Dietrich. He notes that the biblical image is less socio-political than theological and that the weight given to it in historical books reflects its significance for the Israelite nation rather than its historical significance. A similar treatment is then given to the subsequent monarchical period, comparing the accounts of Kings and Chronicles.

We are then taken by Laurie Pearce into the field of cuneiform texts of Babylonian and Achaemenid courtly circles as a new extra-biblical background to interpret the Israelite exile. They are useful in augmenting aspects of chronology, identity, intellectual transmission, and social and economic status.

This is followed by a focus on the situation immediately after returning from exile, including Persian sources, by Mary Joan Winn Leith. It is clear that even within this first section there is great diversity, both in the perspective given by each of the authors and their methodologies, as well as overlaps and gaps.

The editors mention in the introduction that they are aware of these factors which always emerge in a multi-author volume, and therefore in this sense, each article should be considered as a scientific point of view, to be placed next to the others, but not flattened to constitute a comprehensive survey. This is also true for other sections of the book.

The following parts are 2, “Content”, which includes “society and economy, political theory, studies on violence and the roles and representations of women”. When it comes to Part 3, “Approaches”, the doors are open to “readings”, some more traditional, others more exploratory. Essays on orality, feminism, post-colonialism, and trauma theory update the volume with some of the latest developments in the Bible studies presented.

This leads to an interest in Part 4 of “Reception”, which opens the doors of interpretation even wider to include readings from young and old academics, from different religious affiliations and none, from genders and ethnicities. different. This section gives us a fascinating insight into figures such as Joshua, Deborah, Solomon, etc., and how they have been valued through the centuries through the texts that reveal their personalities.

There are 36 entries, over a third by women, and reflecting a truly international range, from academics with many different religious and cultural affinities. There has clearly been an attempt at diversification on the part of publishers and the result is volume richness. This volume is a good start to what will undoubtedly prove to be an exciting new series.


Dr Katharine Dell is Lecturer in Old Testament Literature and Theology at Cambridge University Theological Faculty and Fellow of St Catharine’s College.

The Oxford Handbook of Historical Books of the Hebrew Bible
Brad E. Kelle and Brent A. Strawn, editors
OUP £ 97
(978-0-19-026116-0)
Church Times Bookstore € 87.30


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