Books about the Old Testament continue to roll off presses in both the U.S. and abroad in large numbers—and that is good news. The current crop is again characterized by great variety in subject matter, theological perspective, and depth of insight.

Significant Books

It is always difficult to select which books should be designated the “most significant books of the year,” especially when the quality is often so nearly equal. Five were chosen, however, from several categories that should be on the “must” list for all evangelicals. This is not to say that evangelicals will agree with everything that is said in these books, but that they will profit by reading them.

Appearing last month just in time for inclusion in this survey, was the long-awaited, two-volume Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Moody). Edited by R. Laird Harris, Gleason Archer, and Bruce Waltke, the Wordbook contains the contributions of 46 evangelical Old Testament scholars. Less exhaustive than the multi volume Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament being published by Eerdmans, the Wordbook could prove to be of more practical help to students and pastors. Its entries include all the significant theological words of the Hebrew Bible. Further, every Old Testament word not chosen for essay treatment is listed with a one-line definition. Words from the same Hebrew root are both listed by root and cross listed in alphabetical order. An index correlates the numbers of the Hebrew words as given in Strong’s Concordance with the numbers as given in the Wordbook, making its contents readily accessible to the reader who knows little or no Hebrew. The bibliographies alone are worth the price of the two volumes. Despite numerous typographical errors (which doubtless will be corrected in future printings), the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament stands at the top of this year’s five most important books.

In second place is Michael O’Connor’s remarkable study of Hebrew Verse Structure (Eisenbrauns). It applies the tools of modern linguistic research to Old Testament poetry in a comprehensive way for the first time. Although somewhat technical, this important work is packed with all sorts of useful information. In addition to including a Scripture index at the end of the book, the author uses an internal cross-indexing system to help the reader quickly find relevant comments on the passage in question. Useful as well as a reference work for many of the most ancient poems in the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Verse Structure is a landmark volume that will be required reading for students of Hebrew poetry.

Two unusually fine commentaries share third and fourth places on this list, both of them coming from the pens of Australian scholars. The latest addition to the New International Commentary on the Old Testament, J. A. Thompson’s The Book of Jeremiah (Eerdmans), rivals John Bright’s Anchor Bible commentary as the best in English on Jeremiah. Unlike Bright, Thompson follows the text in its canonical order. His highly competent treatment lends itself to use by scholars and teachers as well as for sermon preparation and personal study. Unwilling to commit himself on the question of who put the book of Jeremiah into its final form. Thompson is nevertheless certain it represents “the authentic history and preaching” of the prophet.

Australian Francis I. Andersen, in collaboration with David Noel Freedman, has produced the best critical commentary on Hosea (Doubleday) in the English language. Although Hosea contains many passages that are virtually unintelligible. Andersen and Freedman decided to stick to the Masoretic text while admitting that many textual problems remain unsolved. Hosca’s setting, in their judgment, is the eighth century for the most part, the initial compilation having taken place early in the seventh. Although the book’s final form was shaped during the Babylonian exile, there is very little evidence of altering of the text to update the material. This most recent addition to the Anchor Bible tends to be somewhat repetitive, but that is a minor point. Students of Old Testament prophecy will turn frequently to this book.

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Rounding out the five best Old Testament books of 1980 is a slim paperback by Douglas Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis (Westminster). Helpful without being overly technical, its goal is to bring serious Old Testament exegesis back into the life of the average seminary student and working pastor. It explains the procedures and aims of exegesis, tells how to use the tools of exegesis, and emphasizes preaching and teaching values. Its excellent bibliographies are supplemented by four do’s and fourdon’ts in application at the very end of the volume.

Text And Language

John Kohlenberger is editor of The NIV Interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament (Zondervan); the first volume covers Genesis through Deuteronomy. Although the book does not quite deliver what its introductory sections promise, it may nonetheless prove helpful to those who have minimal knowledge of Hebrew. Somewhat more useful as an aid to rapid reading of the Hebrew Bible is Volume 1 (also covering Genesis through Deuteronomy) of A Reader’s Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Zondervan), by Terry Armstrong, Douglas Busby, and Cyril Carr. Words that occur in the Old Testament 50 times or less are listed verse by verse in the order of their occurrence, and a well-written preface sets the parameters for using the book most effectively. Nelson’s Expository Dictionary of the Old Testament (Nelson), edited by William White, Jr., and the late Merrill Unger, assisted by 12 contributors, treats over 500 of the most important terms in the Hebrew Bible, arranged in alphabetical order by their English equivalents. Although marred by a large number of errors, repetitions, and contradictions, all of which fail to inspire confidence, it will be a helpful volume if used critically.

Erroll Rhodes’s translation of Ernst Wiirthwein’s fourth edition of his classic The Text of the Old Testament (Eerdmans) does for the Stuttgart Biblia Hebraica what Peter Ackroyd’s 1957 translation did for the third edition of Kittel’s. Although Rhodes’s translation is neither as felicitous nor accurate as Ackroyd’s, updating of footnotes and a discussion of the Qumran Cave II Psalms scroll are welcome. A few additional plates have been added and most of the plates are clearer than in the earlier edition, but numbers 32 and 34 are upside down—and number 4 has been printed backwards as well as upside down! Despite these flaws, however. Würthwein’s is still the best brief work available on the subject.

Introduction And Survey

Alice Parmelee’s moderately liberal Guide to the Old Testament and Apocrypha (Morehouse-Barlow) includes numerous little-known bits of information such as the origin of the word “mugwump” and the fact that General Allenby used Jonathan’s tactics to defeat the Turks at Michmash. A helpful appendix discusses “Prayer in the Old Testament and in the Apocrypha.” Opening the Old Testament (Christian Publications), by H. Robert Cowles, has 13 chapters and would be suitable for a Sunday school quarterly class format. W. Lee Humphrey’s Crisis and Story (Mayfield) introduces the Old Testament in terms of reshaping the basic Moses-Sinai and David-Zion accounts. Although intended as an introductory volume for college students, those readers should look first at a more traditional approach. Using a fascinating pastiche of quotations, photos, and commentary, Mark Link has produced a brief survey: These Stones Will Shout (revised edition; Argus Communications). The book adopts a polemic stance from the outset, and it is certainly questionable whether “most scholars agree” (page 21) with its somewhat liberal ideas.

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In Highlights of the Bible: Genesis-Nehemiah (G/L Regal), Ray Stedman provides a topical summary overview for laymen of Genesis through Esther. Picking up where Stedman leaves off is William MacDonald’s Old Testament Digest (Walterick), a brief summary of Job through Malachi written from a pretribulational perspective. For some reason, the author decided to include a verse-by-verse paraphrase of the Song of Solomon.


As usual, commentaries constitute the largest single grouping in this year’s Old Testament selections. For the sake of convenience we have divided these into four subsections.

Pentateuch. The chief feature of Exploring Genesis (Moody), by John Phillips, is its overuse of alliteration, which is amply demonstrated in its 23-page outline of Genesis. When an author writes that Genesis “begins with a blaze of brightness in heaven and ends with a box of bones in Egypt” (page 379), alliteration has become an end in itself. For all that, however, the book has homiletical helps, interesting illustrations—and sometimes erroneous etymologies. Up from Chaos (Standard), by LeRoy Lawson, is a sketchy, 13-chapter commentary on selected Genesis passages. In How It All Began (G/L Regal). Ronald Youngblood offers a 13-chapter commentary for laymen on the first 11 chapters of Genesis. Harold Shaw Publishers has issued revised editions of two slender volumes entitled Genesis 1–25: Walking with God and Genesis 26–50: Called by God, both by Margaret Fromer and Sharrel Keyes, and intended for Bible study groups. In The Promises to the Fathers (Fortress), Claus Westermann looks into the preliterary history of the present patriarchal narratives as background in determining their theology. He distributes the Abrahamic promise narratives into six distinct motifs: descendants alone, the land alone, land and descendants together, a son alone, descendants and a son, and a blessing combined with various other promises.

Spiritual Greatness: Studies in Exodus (BMH) is a brief, 13-chapter laymen’s commentary by Tom Julien. It does not include the book of the covenant (chapters 21–23) or the chapters on the tabernacle (25–31; 35–40). Louis Goldberg has written a brief study guide and commentary on Leviticus (Zondervan), with questions at the end of each chapter. Longer and therefore more substantial is R. K. Harrison’s Leviticus (InterVarsity), the latest addition to the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries series. It attempts to make Leviticus clear in its original setting and relevant for today, and is especially helpful in relating holiness to obedience and faith. Hans Jochen Boecker’s Laws and the Administration of Justice in the Old Testament and Ancient East (Augsburg) is a fascinating analysis of the book of the covenant, the Law of Holiness (Leviticus 17–26), and Deuteronomy, against the background of ancient Near Eastern law (especially the Code of Hammurabi), stressing law as the basis of numerous theological concepts in Old Testament times. Moses and the Deuteronomist (Seabury), by Robert Polzin, which treats only Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges, emphasizes the priority of literary analysis of texts over historical analysis but takes the narrative aspects of the Deuteronomic history seriously.

Historical Books. James Noonan provides a laymen’s commentary on Ruth. For the Love of Man (Dorrance). Boaz is a Christ figure, redeeming Naomi’s debts and then redeeming Ruth from her precarious situation in society by marrying her. A worthy addition to the Anchor Bible is I Samuel (Doubleday) by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. Although it goes too far in reconstructing I Samuel and denigrating the Masoretic text, it is instructive, meaty, and up-to-date. David (Christian Herald), by Norman Archer, gives equal time to the successes and failures of Israel’s greatest king. Practical, chatty comments on the life of Elijah are offered by William Petersen in Meet Me on the Mountain (Victor). In Understanding Chronicles One & Two (Walterick), John Heading surveys their contents with application to Christian worship and fellowship. Brief comments on selected chapters from Nehemiah with extended references to the potential for revival today are contained in When Revival Comes (Broadman), by Jack Taylor and O. S. Hawkins. Esther: Courage in Crisis (Victor), by Margaret Hess, is well researched and contains numerous helpful personal touches.

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Poetry and Wisdom. Heading this section is Pottery, Poetry, and Prophecy (Eisenbrauns), by the prolific David Noel Freedman. It is a collection of recent articles (some of them already classics) on the poetry of the Hebrew Bible. The validity of Freedman’s emphasis on syllable counting remains debatable, but the essays themselves are nevertheless helpful and thought provoking. Mildred Tengbom gives insight and comfort from selected portions of Job in Sometimes I Hurt (Nelson). A cut above most brief commentaries in application as well as interpretation is Job Speaks to Us Today (John Knox), by the patriarch’s namesake, John Job. Stressing wisdom as a major Joban theme is My Servant Job (Baker), a topically oriented discussion guide by Morris Inch. Out of the Whirlwind (Baker), by Andrew Blackwood, Jr., is a brief but perceptive commentary for laymen first issued 20 years ago as Devotional Introduction to Job. Laura Pleming’s Triumph of Job (Robert H. Sommer) provides a flash of helpful insight here and there, but it also contains many decidedly unhelpful and erroneous statements.

Claus Westermann’s The Psalms (Augsburg) uses a modified form of Hermann Gunkel’s classification of the Psalms according to form and assumed life setting rather than proposed historical setting. Westermann redefines “thanksgiving” as “narrative/declarative praise” (generally voiced by individuals) and distinguishes it from “descriptive praise” (generally voiced by the congregation). Praise: A Matter of Life and Breath (Nelson), by Ronald Allen, is a thematic commentary on selected psalms, stressing praise as an important and neglected element in worship. Eugene Peterson offers A Year with the Psalms (Word), a series of 365 brief devotional thoughts and prayers covering the entire Psalter. Peterson is especially sensitive on Psalm 137:7–9, but the whole is quite satisfying devotionally. The Lord Is My Shepherd (Westminster), by well-known New Testament scholar William Barclay, was in progress at the time of his death and therefore never completed. Devotional as well as exegetical, it covers only five psalms (1, 2, 8, 19, 104). A reprint of a 1979 BMH book, The Perfect Shepherd (Baker), by John Davis, is a detailed commentary relating Psalm 23 to Davis’s experiences among modern Bedouin in the Middle East. A Thirst for God (Zondervan), by Sherwood Wirt, is a sensitive series of reflections on Psalms 42 and 43. Those looking for guidance in difficulty will find help here.

Prophets. Written for students and lay people, Yesterday’s Prophets for Today’s World (Broadman), by F. B. Huey, Jr., treats such questions as the conditional nature of some prophetic passages and the ways the New Testament handles Old Testament prophecies. The approach is topical rather than book by book. Robert Wilson, in Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Fortress), uses modern anthropological methodology to demonstrate that not all the prophets were related to their societies in the same way. His chapter on “Prophecy in the Ancient Near East” outside the Bible is one of the strong points of the book, and his stimulating analysis of what he calls “millenarian movements” will be of special interest to many evangelicals.

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Published originally in German 60 years ago, August Pieper’s masterful exposition of Isaiah 40–66 has finally been translated into English as Isaiah II (Northwestern Publishing). He divides the latter part of Isaiah into three sections of nine chapters apiece and claims each section is composed of three triads of three chapters apiece. E. John Hamlin, who teaches in Singapore, has written Comfort My People (John Knox), a study guide to Isaiah 40–66 with application both to people living in the West and in the Third World. The Histories and Prophecies of Daniel (BMH), by Robert Culver, is a down-to-earth commentary that does not dodge difficult problems of interpretation, and also admits uncertainty where there are no ready solutions.

A Baker Book House reprint of The Twelve Minor Prophets, by Ebenezer Henderson, originally published in 1845, is an excellent example of a classical orthodox commentary, giving the state of the art as practiced more than a century ago. Henderson lashes out against double/multiple meanings in Scripture, and his exegesis of the messianic passages is crisp and satisfactory. Manford Gutzke’s Plain Talk on the Minor Prophets (Zondervan) is a brief survey of each prophet, with practical application for today. Jonah: Living in Rebellion (Tyndale), by James Draper, Jr., is a commentary based on the Living Bible and provides an alliterative outline in each of nine chapters. Denise Adler has written Jonah: Lessons in Obedience and Repentance (Tyndale), a short discussion guide with spaces in which to write answers to questions. Although lay oriented. Just Living by Faith (InterVarsity), by Andrew and Phyllis Le Peau and John Stewart, does not talk down to lay people from the scholar’s ivory tower. And it shows excellent understanding of Habakkuk and his message.

Concluding the survey of commentaries is a slim volume in the Study Bible Commentary series. Malachi (Zondervan). Its author, Charles Isbell, is a competent Old Testament scholar, who pleads for “a doctrine of inspiration that is broad enough to include all of the people who were involved in the making of the biblical books at every point along the line” (page 21). An excellent study of prophets (life and ministry) is Yesterday’s Prophets for Today’s World (Broadman), by F. B. Huey, Jr.

Archaeology And History

A survey of Israelite history for college-level courses, Israel in Ancient Near Eastern Setting (University Microfilms), by Christopher Hong, suffers from a certain imbalance because of its stress on Israel’s earlier history as opposed to the monarchy. It also tends to be overly polemic. Alice Parmelee, A History of the People of Israel (Morehouse-Barlow), offers a retelling of the history of Israel from the patriarchs to the present—from Abraham ben Terah to Menahem Begin. Wonders in the Midst (Standard Publishing), by Ward Patterson, is a brief, 13-chapter volume covering the historical period from Moses to Samuel. John Davis and John Whitcomb offer A History of Israel from Conquest to Exile (Baker), a revised composite of three earlier works (two by Davis, one by Whitcomb) originally published 10 years ago. Judging from the footnotes and bibliography, the revision did not include updating. Israel’s United Monarchy (Baker), by the late Leon Wood, is a massive and perceptive scholarly study of the reigns of Saul. David, and Solomon, with characteristic application from the heart of a pastor.

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Kenneth Barker provides a brief introduction and bibliographical update to Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus (Baker), a welcome reprint of a volume first published in 1957 by the late Merrill Unger. Scriptures, Sects and Visions (Collins/Fortress), by Michael Stone, is a survey of the intertestamental (“second temple”) period written from a Jewish perspective. The author stresses elements of continuity between the Israelites of the preexilic period and the Jews of the postexilic period. Martin Hengel, in Jews, Greeks and Barbarians (Fortress), concentrates on the political and social history of Palestine from Alexander the Great to Antiochus III, emphasizing the effects of Hellenization on the Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora. The Land of the Bible (Westminster), by Yohanan Aharoni, is a revised and enlarged paperback edition of this important historical geography, brought up to date by his friend and translator, Anson Rainey, after the author’s untimely death.


God at Work in Israel (Abingdon), by Gerhard von Rad, is an English translation of a 1974 volume of lectures delivered by the late Old Testament theologian. Written in nontechnical language, they consist of “critical paraphrases” of biblical passages and studies of biblical themes. As one might expect, they are extremely perceptive and thoroughly Christocentric. The Hebrew Republic (American Presbyterian Press), by E. C. Wines, is a reprint of a nineteenth-century volume. Originally published as Book II of Commentary on the Laws of the Ancient Hebrews, its thesis is that the American republic was established on the divine wisdom and eternal principles of truth and justice found in the laws of Moses, not on principles derived from Greek or Roman paganism. Millard Lind, a Mennonite author, has written Yahweh Is a Warrior (Herald), a theological treatment of Genesis through Kings (the so-called primary history). According to the author, the Old Testament teaches that the ultimate warrior is the Lord, downplays human might in warfare, and emphasizes divine intervention.

Liberating Limits (Word), by John Huffman. Jr., has 10 crisp, helpful chapters, one on each of the Ten Commandments. These are sandwiched in-between a thoughtful, introductory chapter and a concluding chapter that ties together everything in Christ in an unusually satisfying way. Meredith G. Kline has given us another thought-provoking book, Images of the Spirit (Baker). His thesis is that “the theophanic Glory was present at the creation and was the specific divine model or referent in view in the creating of man in the image of God” (page 13). Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel (Fortress) is a revised edition of a 1964 volume deriving from H. Wheeler Robinson’s seminal essays written in 1935–1937. Gene Tucker’s introduction asserts that “corporate responsibility” is a better explanation than “corporate personality” for the Old Testament phenomenon under consideration. Ronald Hals’s Grace and Faith in the Old Testament (Augsburg) is evangelical in presentation if not in presupposition. Hals insists that “the presentation of the grace of God in the Old Testament and the understanding of his people’s response of faith are essentially similar to the way the same two realities are described in the New Testament” (page 85).

Two volumes on messianism round out the theology sections. The Messiah Texts (Avon), by Raphael Patai, brings together a great deal of fascinating material about the Messiah from extra-biblical, traditional Jewish sources. Interestingly enough, it is arranged in such a way as to make it possible to see Jesus as its referent and/or fulfillment—though that is not what the author intends (for Patai, Jesus was “one of many Jews who claimed to be divinely inspired redeemers”). In Messianic Expectation in the Old Testament (Fortress), Joachim Becker nicely summarizes the various aspects of the problem of relating New Testament messianism with Old Testament restorative monarchism. Although written from a literary-critical and traditional-historical perspective, in its final chapter the book betrays its author’s basically Christian presupposition—that after all is said and done, Jesus Christ is the messianic theme of Holy Scripture.

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Heading this section is 540 Little Known Facts About the Bible (Doubleday), edited by Robert Tuck. First published over a century ago as Biblical Things Not Generally Known, this welcome reprint is a quaint volume, providing fascinating information on biblical names, places, customs, traditions, and teachings. By contrast. The Book of the Bible (Morrow), by Eunice Riedel, Thomas Tracy, and Barbara Moskowitz, is a strange mixture of good insights and bad exegesis. Self-contradictory at numerous points, it is poorly edited and filled with cliches that sometimes border on blasphemy. An imaginative retelling of several Old Testament stories is offered in Peter Dickinson’s City of Gold (Pantheon). Though sometimes taking liberties with the biblical text, its style is engrossing and its original color illustrations are powerful.

In And They Took Themselves Wives (Harper & Row), David Bakan rewrites ancient history on the basis of the documentary hypothesis in an attempt to show that the earlier norms were matriarchal. His exotic methods of interpretation are nothing more than allegory at its worst (Noah was originally a female figure, baptism is salvation from drowning, and so on). Five Women, by Denis Adler, is a Tyndale House study guide that asks for answers to questions about the five women in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. A series of personal reflections on Moses’ encounter with God as recorded in Exodus 33 and 34 is the subject of The Back of God (Tyndale), by Bill Austin. In Chosen Days (Doubleday), David Rosenberg celebrates eight Jewish festivals and holy days (including Holocaust Day in the modern period). He includes free renderings of the pertinent biblical passages as well as imaginative art work contributed by Leonard Baskin. Loosely organized around the Ten Commandments, Sabbatical Reflections (Fortress), by Brita Stendahl, contains a wealth of sensitive and personal insights.

The final volume in this survey is Reclaiming the Old Testament for the Christian Pulpit (John Knox), by Donald Gowan. It is a manual on the use of form and traditional-historical criticism as techniques for discovering what to preach from the Old Testament and how to preach it most effectively, and includes examples of brief sermons. Readers can learn a great deal about preaching from the Old Testament without buying into everything Gowan says.

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