Backwards through the Hebrew Bible

It started as a joke.

Every year, while I take my introductory students through the Torah and the Former Prophets, I find myself saying to my TA, “If only they had already done the Writings. If they had read Job and Ecclesiastes and the Complaint Psalms, they would have such broader expectations about the Bible. They wouldn’t be so prone to expect only a series of flat morality tales with easy closure and platitudinous ‘messages’: ‘Be like Abraham’; ‘Don’t be like Canaanites.’ If only they’d already done the Writings!”

By last year, I wasn’t joking.

So this year, we are doing the Writings first, then Latter Prophets, then Former Prophets, then Torah. This means that we’ll be doing history backwards: they’ll get the post-exilic period (Writings), then the 8th century to the early post-exilic years (Latter Prophets), then the “settlement” through the monarchies with review of exile (Former Prophets), then the pre-“settlement” period with review of the monarchies and exile (Torah).

What advantages do I imagine?

  • Beginning with the Writings, they will get to become accustomed to literary criticism without too much intrusion of adjusting to historical inquiry.
  • Their first readings will demonstrate that the Bible revels in dissonance and ambiguity, what Brueggemann once called “testimony and counter-testimony.” The obvious ambiguities in the Writings will prepare them for the subtler ambiguities of the more historical-seeming books of the Former Prophets and Torah.
  • Working through history backwards might be a nice opportunity: with each period, they’ll already know where things are going. And, each period will raise questions about how it got to be the way it was: learning the post-exilic period will raise questions about the late Judean monarchy and the Babylonian exile; reading the 8th century forward will raise questions about the early Judean monarchy and the northern kingdom of Israel; reading the “settlement” and monarchies will get them prepared for the long journey of the Torah toward Mt. Nebo.
  • By the time we get to Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis (with which we usually slap them upside the head in the first week of the term), we will 1) have had time to establish trust between the instructor and the students, and among the students; and 2) already have learned about P and D (which is where Wellhausen himself started anyway, and concerning which there remains the most certainty even now).

Of course, revising the syllabus is quite simply killing me.

What do you think? Ever heard of anyone doing something similar? Any suggestions on how to make the most of such an experiment? Any concerns to raise before the starting gun goes off around Labor Day?

13 Responses

  1. I’m very curious to see how your class goes. The only thing I wonder is whether or not your students will have a good sense of something like the traditional retribution theology before Qohelet and Job demolish it?

    • That’s right. I think this is one of dozens of trade-offs that I’ll be learning to contend with. What has bothered me in the past is exposing them to “the traditional retributional theology” in the absence of the demolition work of Qohelet and Job. Now, I’ll have the reverse difficulty, showing the demolition before the tradition.

      It does occur to me, though, that both Qohelet and Job do a good job of sketching out the tradition, even if only as a foil. I often talk about how the dissenting wisdom “sets the bait” of the conventional wisdom, before “springing the trap” of counter-testimony and dissent. So, the students will see the traditional retributional theology, if initially as the foil laid out by the dissenters.

      A challenge for me will be to *document* the dozens of little difficulties that arise week by week, along with how I address them and what sorts of results I perceive.

  2. The Intro to Judaism class that I TA used to go chronologically through Jewish history, starting with the biblical history and finishing with the present world. But Michael Satlow’s curriculum, which my boss, Jordan Rosenblum, uses, begins with the present: the first chapter of Satlow’s textbook compares American and Israeli Jewish communities, and Jordan also has them read an article on Sandy Koufax and an article on NY Jews and Chinese food. THEN we do the Bible, 2nd Temple, Rabbis, etc etc. I think it works splendidly.

    As for doing the Bible backwards: I certainly think that doing the Writings first is wise. The Writings, for the most part, are divorced from their historical circumstances, or at the very least they can be read profitably without a deep understanding of their historical contexts. It makes great sense to start there. As you say, it introduces students to the great questions that drive discourse in the Torah and Prophets.

    As for doing the rest backwards: when you do the Latter Prophets, how much historical context will you give them? I’m concerned that, if your students read the writing prophets without a firm grounding in contemporaneous events, they’ll be that much more apt to go straight for Christological understandings–they’ll never realize how relevant most of these writings were to their immediate contexts.

    • Good question, Chris. With every part of the course, I always go over (and over) the historical context. So, since the Latter Prophets get rolling in the 8th century, they’ll be coming into the middle of *two concurrent stories.* Internationally, there’s the rise of Assyrian hegemony and the anti-Assyrian coalitions among the kingdoms. Domestically, there’s the differences in how Judah and Israel theologize the concept of monarchy, and the differences in how their economies are changing, with Israel being more urbanized and stratified.

      I think I can broad-brush the backgrounds in terms of “rapid change as context for the writing prophets,” and bullet a small handful of interrelated points under that umbrella.

  3. One more thing: since Wellhausen’s hypothesis is rooted in comparing the Torah to the rest of the Hebrew Bible, it makes GREAT sense to introduce it only after they’ve read the rest of the Hebrew Bible. I can imagine the experience of reading the Former Prophets, and THEN reading the Torah and wondering, “where were all these law codes? holidays? traditions?”

  4. Brooke,

    Some canonical theologians (only some) think through the Bible this way. I heard John Sailhamer a while back thinking through the entire Tanak through the lense of the post-exile, since the final redactor seems to shape and updated the text in a theological manner. Also, those living in the post exile would have viewed Torah and the Prophets differently, especially Genesis.

    For this reason, I think there is merit in your approach. Follow up if you’d like.


  5. I think Rob raises a good point. Most, if not all, this literature is finalized post-exile. I would argue, for instance, that Genesis began to be formulated in exile and was set in its final form in the Persian era. Even Documentarians no longer hold to a preexilic J (of course, no one should be holding to a J nowadays anyways!). So that puts an interesting spin on things.

    It also seems this would be a good strategy to having students realize, as you say, the Bible is not a bunch of happy-clappy, whitewashed ancient tales. I’m trying to do this in my course by having them read some ‘troubling texts’ along the way and seeing how they react. Of course, my reading of Genesis may be a little unsettling to them also!

  6. @Rob and @John,
    Thanks for the resources (I’ll look at Sailhamer) and encouragement.

    Yes, I like the idea of exposing them to the pentateuchal sources as “moments in history” before actually dealing with the pentateuch. So, for example, they’ll learn about P when I lecture on “Responses to Exile.”

    I’m sure you’ll see plenty of updates once we get rolling (provided I have time to blog them!).

  7. […] methods of the course, which is pretty standard “Intro to Hebrew Bible” stuff except that we did the Writings first, and are now on Latter Prophets. Coming up yet are Former Prophets and only then the […]

  8. […] work is in progress, and is weighted toward Writings and Latter Prophets. (This is all they’ve learned yet: in fact, they were learning the wiki during the Writings, and so Job, for example, never got in). […]

  9. […] to get a handle on many of the references that are made in our readings (thanks for taking us backwards through the Tanak Dr. Lester), but there had to have been a reference to monotheism before this… Then I checked it […]

  10. […] to the Old Testament”: yes, we are reading backwards again. We’ll also continue with viewing lectures as pre-recorded downloads outside of class. New […]

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