Full disclosure, I did receive a free copy of the product being reviewed in exchange for my honest review.
Whatever else the Bible is, it is literature. In its stories, wisdom, commandments, and songs the Old Testament shapes the theological identity of God’s people, and the different books of the Bible are designed to communicate a certain way for readers to see themselves as part of the story. Every passage of Scripture doesn’t contain the same type of literature, nor is there one over-arching approach to the Old Testament texts which can bypass the nature of the text itself. To do so divorces Scripture from it’s task to tell the story of a people who are in relationship with God.
This is where The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, from Eerdmans, comes in. This 19 Volume series is an ambitious attempt to provide a form critical commentary on the entirety of the Old Testament, opening readers up to an exploration of the different biblical books as literature. Unlike a typical commentary, which tends to examine the Biblical text verse by verse while breaking down the language of individual sentences, The Forms of Old Testament Literature concerns itself with genre, contextual purpose, and setting as a way to discuss meaning. As such, it’s a wonderful companion for anyone who teaches Sunday School or preaches. Read alongside traditional commentaries, this series broadens the field of view by giving students some different information for pondering.
While it may be tempting for students to link this volume to their current text and use it like any other commentary, I do recommend first reading the excellent essay which is found in the volume on Genesis, “Introduction to Narrative Literature.” This essay describes the purpose behind the discipline of form criticism, and discusses the language which the discipline uses. In an appreciated bit of self-awareness, this essay also deals with some of the difficulties which arise when applying form criticism language to the Biblical text—as the language was created to describe literature which came into existence long after the Biblical text. Being familiar with the language of form criticism, especially the typology it uses to describe texts, is necessary to grasp its commentary on the Old Testament books. Other volumes which deal with a new genere of literature, such as the first volume on Psalms or the volume on Wisdom Literature, also have introductory essays on how form criticism applies to their subject matter. As users encounter each of these generes in their studies, it’s a very good idea to read the appropriate introductory essay. This is a good incentive to purchase the entire series, rather than piecemeal volumes.
To grasp the basic setup of this series, I read the aforementioned essay “Introduction to Narrative Literature,” as well as the introduction on the Book of Lamentations. The latter is included in the second Psalms volume and it treated as a literary genre in its own right. As I will soon be preaching a sermon which will emerge, in part, from 2 Samuel 12:1-12, I also read the section on 2 Samuel 11-20. In each section, I appreciated the breadth of material which each essay covers.
The section which reflects on the passages with David’s middle years, for example, posed a question I’d not before considered because I’ve always tended to read the stories in 2 Samuel episodically,
Clearly David is at the center of the stories, but the statistics provide both a surprise and a stimulus to thought. David is named some 94 times in 82 verses; “the king” is mentioned 382 times in 126 verses. The question is unavoidable: Is the narrative more concerned with the office of king than with its present incumbent 1?
Because the The Forms of Old Testament Literature is more focused on the arc of the literature than each individual story, its perspective offered insight I would have otherwise missed.
If you are interested in exploring the Old Testament from a literary angle, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature is an excellent starting point. As stated in the above review, it works best alongside more traditional commentaries. The interplay between deep dives into specific verses and literary structure is what gives this series such unique value.
At the time of writing, this 19 volume set is on sale for $179.00 at the Accordance website. The sale ends September 28.