Reading the Old Testament: An Inductive Introduction. By Michael B. Dick


Pp xxii, 367 , Peabody, MA : Hendrickson , 2008 , £16.00 .

Dick sets out a fairly standard historical-critical introduction to the Old Testament, and in so far as it offers something new it is in its ‘inductive’ approach, which means that a large number of questions are interspersed through the text requiring the student to interact with the material and think for themselves. An accompanying CD-Rom offers approximately 150 pages of a pdf file formatted to allow spaces for the student to write answers to all these questions and then email them to their professor. This will deserve comment below.

The book is beautifully produced: a well-bound hardback with copious illustrations (line-drawings and photographs), which is surely a must for any introductory text these days. It is aimed squarely at the college market, though perhaps inevitably written with that familiar sense that scholarly colleagues looking over the author's shoulder have to be kept happy. It is probably way too detailed for any British introductory course. I have my doubts about its value as an American introductory text too: partly because ‘inductive’ is a strange concept when transposed into being apprenticed to the tradition of Old Testament scholarship, leading to some rather directive so-called ‘inductive’ questions, and partly because of the oddities of its coverage.

Chapter 1 offers some 50 pages of background material, but prevaricates immediately on whether it is looking at the ‘Old Testament’ or ‘Hebrew Bible’, as if this were a marginal question about appropriate perspectives. It notes the apocrypha as a Catholic sub-collection, but then proceeds to ignore it all the way until the very last chapter where, for reasons entirely unclear, the book of Judith is allotted four pages of notes and questions. Chapter 2 then offers ‘Exercises in Reading and Exegesis’ relating to Jonathan Swift (reproduced at length) and the book of Jonah, where the inductive student is given very strong hints about how to read it (rightly) as a satire. Chapter 3 then delivers the student straight into the midst of Ezra-Nehemiah, complex historiographical questions and all, apparently because ‘the remainder of this textbook follows the basic narrative outline presented in Neh 9.’ (p. 99) This works, I suppose, but I couldn't help but feel that the average beginning student might feel a bit mystified by this angle of approach.

The remaining chapters then trot through the standard issues in a standard order, but the level of presentation swings wildly across the ‘inductive’ spectrum. Thus chapter 4 works through Genesis 1–11 with an epic 88 questions, many of them long and multi-part, in its 36 pages. This is intense and (I think) optimistic. On Genesis 3, the student is offered (among many others): ‘Is this a ‘coming of age’ story? Explain your response’ and on Gen 4 we find ‘Why does [some interpreters'] perplexity reflect a failure to appreciate the myth genre?’. These two questions model, in many ways, the extraordinary ambition of some of these questions (will a college student cruise past the best of Augustine, Aquinas, Barth … on their way to knowing whether this is a ‘coming of age’ story?) and the ways in which the book constantly has to find ways to lead its student in the right path while giving the appearance of offering ‘inductive’ (i.e. self-discovery-type questions). Other questions in the book rely on ‘You can see that … why is this significant?’ or even ‘Can you now see that …?’

Reading on, however, I began to wonder whether Dick himself thought the approach was flawed. Emerging from 88 detailed questions in 36 pages on Genesis 1–11, we arrive at the 59 pages of chapter 5, ‘The Thesis of the Pentateuch and its Development’, and this contains all of two questions, one on Judges 9 and one on a synoptic comparison of Samuel and Chronicles. It would seem that the mysteries of Pentateuchal criticism simply have to be laid out for the student after all, not ‘inductively’ explored. In one sense, I agree. Part of the art of learning a subject is to let the teacher teach you things you don't know, and if there is a balance to be sought between heavy-handed didacticism and more inter-active learning (which is entirely believable) this book does not in fact find it. Ultimately, it makes too eager an attempt to bridge the gap between text-book and resource which a teacher might with profit recommend for reading in a class. The average OT teacher may indeed profit from sending students to a book which includes lengthy extracts of ANE texts, pictures and diagrams, and so forth, but in general the same average teacher, starting with a class who know nothing (as the book seems to assume), will be puzzled about why some sessions devolve into heavy question answering while others offer scarcely any room for interaction at all.

Much of the material here is fine (though the unevenness of coverage is genuinely striking, more so than is usually the case with such products), but it is hard to see that the book succeeds on its own terms.