Dictionary of Biblical Imagery

Article excerpt

Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Edited by Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998, xxi + 1058, $39.99.

Initially one finds some irony in the fact that an inherently left-brained genre-the dictionary--was chosen to promote a right-brained approach to the Bible, the very approach consciously taken by this new and highly touted reference work from InterVarsity (henceforth DBI). The book contains a number of attractive features, but it retains significant weaknesses that may threaten its longevity as "an indispensable reference tool" (in the words of the preface). More on these shortly.

According to the editors, the purview of the DBI is "the imagery, metaphors and archetypes of the Bible," terms for which the introduction gives extensive definitions. There is a wide spectrum of topics, including each book of the Bible, most major Biblical characters, many topics that one would find in standard Bible dictionaries (e.g. heaven, sacrifice), as well as a number with a literary flavor (e.g. plot motifs, travel stories). Happily, most of the articles possess an appropriate and readable length. Irksomely, all of them are unsigned la list of contributors resides at the front), since the editors, we discover in the preface, had to revise "the vast majority" of them and leave their own mark upon many of the entries, sometimes at the expense of the original author's.

The book's attractive features start with its title. The rising interest on the part of Biblical scholars in things literary combined with the current appeal of Bible dictionaries could hardly have made InterVarsity's timing with this volume any better. Three other items are sure to catch the attention of someone casually leafing through the book: fli the well-written introduction with its discussion and differentiation of images, symbols, metaphors, similes, motifs, literary conventions and archetypesdefinitely worth reading; (2) the handful of intriguing topics scattered throughout the dictionary, such as cheat the oracle, eavesdropper, giantesque motif, mythical animals, quest, taunt: and weather; and (3) the extensive Scripture and subject indexes craved by those with paper and sermon deadlines.

But these features are peripheral to the book's core-namely, the content of the approximately 850 articles, the quality of which varies remarkably. It will be helpful at this point to separate those topics that might be considered standard fare for Bible dictionaries from those related to literary ideas. For the standard topics, despite all claims to the contrary, a sizable number of the articles contain little more than what one can find in a general Bible dictionary. Most of the "Angel" article, for example, simply traces certain activities of angels throughout Scripture and offers nothing to show that it belongs in the DBI. An article like "David," however, succeeds by structuring itself according to literary categories (character types, to be specific) and thereby maintains a sharp focus on the book's intended purpose. There are, to be sure, a few gems scattered throughout, but the DBI has too many "Angels" and not enough "Davids." One could argue that many of the articles on standard topics contain at least one paragraph devoted to talk of imagery, but this is a mere tip of the hat to the book's theme and only reinforces the point that the article's basic content is lackluster. …