Saturday, 8 October 2011

Review of "The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction" by Michael Coogan

This is a useful introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) from OUP's 'Very Short Introduction' series.  It is written by the American biblical scholar Michael Coogan.

Coogan spends some time on the relationship between the Old Testament and history.  He sets out the documentary hypothesis regarding the authorship of the Pentateuch, while noting that it no longer enjoys the status of unchallenged orthodoxy among critics.  He observes that the historical evidence of the Bible, other ancient texts and archeology fit together tolerably well but not especially neatly.  He accepts the historicity of King David, and goes with the consensus view that the first character in the Bible whose existence can be verified from external sources is the Egyptian pharaoh Shishak, or Sheshonq (reigned c.943-922 BC).  He goes on to refer to other examples of intersection between the Old Testament and the extrabiblical evidence, such as the Mesha Stele (c.840 BC), which gives the Moabite side of a conflict against Israel which is recounted in 2 Kings 3, and the various biblical and extra-biblical materials relating to King Sennacherib of Assyria's attack on Judah (701 BC).

Before history, there is myth.  Coogan notes that the Old Testament contains traces of the widespread Near-Eastern myths of a great flood, and, before that, a primaeval battle between a storm-god and a deity of the chaotic ocean.  He indicates that the traditional Near Eastern religious ideas preserved in parts of the biblical text developed over time, via the exclusive worship of Yahweh, into the strict monotheism that is found in the later parts of the Old Testament and in the subsequent Jewish tradition.

Coogan devotes a chapter to biblical law, concentrating specifically on the 'Covenant Code' in Exodus 20-23.  He says of the code:
The society that these laws depict is primarily a rural, agricultural one....  The crops grown include grain, grapes, and olives, and the domesticated animals mentioned are oxen, donkeys, sheep, goats and dogs....  Judicial procedures were probably handled at a local level....  Men - fathers and husbands - were the heads of the family, with absolute authority over their households.  They controlled women, especially daughters, who could be sold as slaves, and whose value was dependent upon their virginity....  It was also a society in which slavery was an accepted institution....  In this society, primary horizontal relationships concerned the neighbor... a neighbor was a fellow Israelite, not necessarily one living nearby.  Distinguished from the neighbor was the stranger or (resident) alien, not a full member of the community but one who nevertheless also had rights....
There is a further chapter on festivals.  Ancient Israel celebrated three principal sacred holidays: the Passover (to which was joined the festival of Unleavened Bread), Shavuot and Sukkoth.  Coogan paints a picture of what the public celebrations must have been like:
As the worshippers approach the shrine, they sing hymns, punctuated by the bleating of sheep and goats that will be sacrificed.  They present them to a priest wearing colorful vestments.  He burns an incense offering, whose aromatic smoke fills the air....  Throughout the ceremony, more hymns are sung, accompanied by all sorts of musical instruments.  The mood is joyful, and as the ritual takes place there are sights and sounds that make for a lively, even chaotic scene.
Coogan also provides a fairly detailed analysis of the Exodus narrative and of the theodicies of Ecclesiastes and Job.  Among the various other subjects that he deals with are iconic biblical figures like Abraham and David, and the phenomenon of prophecy, which he notes ultimately gave birth to the genre of apocalyptic literature.  He concludes with some reflections on the Old Testament's impact on later culture.  He stresses the dense, polyphonic nature of the biblical text and is suspicious of attempts to assert that "the Bible says" X or Y.

In all, this is a rather good little book.  There are perhaps a few omissions, and not every scholar would agree with Coogan's views on various matters.  On the whole, though, it is informative, and succeeds in covering a large amount of ground in its 124 pages.