Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch

By Schmutzer, Andrew J. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch


Schmutzer, Andrew J., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch. Vol. 1. By Gordon J. Wenham. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003, xv + 207 pp., $25.00.

With commentaries on Genesis, Leviticus, and Numbers, it is hard to think of another leading light better suited to write on the Pentateuch in IVP's new Exploring the Old Testament (EOT) series. With a NT counterpart, volume one of EOT "is designed to help the beginning student understand the writings of the Old Testament" (p. xi) as a quasi-introduction. Interactive questions and "breakout" boxes "aim to make the volumes useful either for independent study or as a class text" (p. xi). In the end, this is neither a commentary nor a traditional survey of the Pentateuch, but a well-packaged compendium of crucial elements necessary for understanding both the content of the Pentateuch and significant trends in Pentateuchal studies today.

Refreshingly, the introduction states that one goal, among others, is that the student "appreciate what [the text] was trying to say to its first readers"-this, along with an introduction to the social world of the Bible, customs, festivals, and legal ideals (p. xiii). Such goals are important for this kind of text, and Wenham sets out to illuminate the following: (1) the relationship between Israel and the surrounding cultures; (2) literary techniques and rhetorical devices; (3) God and his relationship to Israel as mediated through Moses; and (4) and biblical theology as borne out in the religious practices and concepts of faith (p. xiv).

The table of contents (pp. v-vi) reveals creativity in approach and an up-to-date grasp of core material. With eleven chapters, the focus is as much on broaching scholarly issues as engaging the biblical text of Genesis through Deuteronomy. Chapter 1 defines the "Basic Features" that make up the Pentateuch by addressing genre, biography of Moses, national history, "Torah or Law," and canonical issues. Wenham believes that "Genesis provides the background to the law-giving" (p. 2). Noting the established canonical authority of the Pentateuch in Ezra's time (Ezra 3:2; Neh 8:14), Wenham concludes, "Within the Pentateuch itself there are hints that it is supposed to be understood canonically from its inception . . . from the time it was composed" (p. 7). However, when discussing such issues as "setting," Wenham consistently states that he wants the reader to think through the options and wrestle with their implications (p. 187).

Chapter 2 delves into Genesis 1-11, acknowledging this portion is often so contentious that "even mild-mannered scholars have been known to damn opposing interpreters" (p. 9). Arguably correct, Wenham sees the debate swirling around the question of genre. (On the issue of ethical reading and the biblical author's use of rhetorical technique to persuade, readers may wish to consult the chapters "Critical Methodology" and "The Rhetorical Function of Genesis" in Wenham's book: Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narratives Ethically [Baker, 2000] 5-15, 17-43.) Inasmuch as this chapter addresses ancient Near Eastern parallels, comparative religious literature, and the relationship of Genesis 1-11 to 12-50, it is understandable why this is the longest "expositional" chapter (26 pp.). Here Wenham's creativity and pedagogical concern emerge. To navigate these biblical books, a battery of tables, diagrams, and maps engage the reader. Most significant are boxes entitled "Digging Deeper" where particular topics are raised for the reader, usually without giving the answer (e.g. "cosmology," "name of God," "clean and unclean," and "war in Deuteronomy"). Forty-four of these span the book, conveniently catalogued in a "Key to Panels" (pp. viii-ix). In addition, each of the six "expositional" chapters contains a segment on the NT use of that biblical portion. …

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