Historical Interpretation of the OT: Three Requirements (Long)

 V. Philips Long wrote a helpful article for the NIDOTTE called “Old Testament History: A Hermeneutical Perspective.”  It’s a very level-headed discussion about interpreting the history recorded in the OT.  One section of the article gives three requirements for the interpreter of OT history.  Here’s a summary of those three requirements:

  1. Literary competence.  It may seem surprising to begin this section on requirements for historical interpretation with an emphasis on literary competence, but any who wish to include the OT among their sources for the history of ancient Israel or, for that matter, those who may wish to dismiss it, must at least recognize that competent literary reading of the OT with a view to discovering its truth claims (historical or otherwise) is a necessary first step….  By ‘literary competence’ I mean a developed awareness of the conventions and workings of a given literary corpus and a consequent ability to discern what kinds of claims a given text within that corpus may be making (cf. Barton, esp. 8–19; Baron, 93). When one is learning a foreign language, one studies the grammar of that language (i.e., the linguistic principles by which it communicates) so as to increase linguistic competence and the ability rightly to interpret individual utterances. By the same token, when one’s aim is to understand individual passages of a “foreign” literary corpus such as the OT (which originated at a time and place far removed from our own), it is immensely useful to learn what one can of the “grammar” of that literature (i.e., the literary principles by which it operates).  …One of the best ways to improve one’s literary competence is to read as much of the literature under consideration as possible….
  2. Theological comprehension.  A second requirement for those who would interpret the OT historically is theological comprehension. Again, just as it may have seemed odd in the preceding section to highlight literary competence as a requirement for historical interpretation, so it may seem odd to stress theological comprehension as a requirement for those who would use the OT responsibly in historical reconstruction. But the fact is that in the narratives of the OT God is a central character, not only present behind the scenes but occasionally intervening directly in the action of the story—e.g., sending plagues, parting seas and rivers, destroying city walls, appearing in visions, throwing enemies into panic, protecting his people, speaking through his prophets, fulfilling their words, and so forth. In short, the God depicted in the OT is not only transcendent but is also immanent in human (historical) affairs. As G. B. Caird succinctly puts it, “the most important item in the framework within which the people of biblical times interpreted their history was the conviction that God was the Lord of history” (217–18; cf. Westermann, 210; Wolff).

  3. Historical criticismThe core story of the OT presents itself as a true story, and not just in the sense that it is “true to life.” The central events of the sweep of redemptive history are presented as real events that happened in the lives of real people (cf. Arnold, 99; Halpern, 1988; Licht, 212–16). Whatever artistic traits may be present in the narratives of the OT (and they are many), it remains the case that most of these narratives present themselves as more than just art for art’s sake. They present themselves not merely as realistic narratives but as referential narratives, as the verbal equivalent of portraits, not just generic paintings. Therefore, unless it can be demonstrated that this assessment of the character of the narratives is incorrect—and there are some who think so (e.g., Smelik, Thompson)—then any legitimate literary reading must take their historical truth claims seriously, whatever one may believe about the truth value of the claims.

    It is necessary to acknowledge the Bible’s historical truth claims not only for literary reasons, but for theological reasons as well. For “in point of fact, the Bible consistently presents theological truth as intrinsically bound to historical events” (Arnold, 99). The religious faith propagated in the OT is dependent not simply on some “story world” but on the real world about which the stories are told. As noted earlier, the God of the OT is the Lord of history, and his self-disclosure and salvific actions are accomplished in both event and word (see Long, 1994, 88–119).

 Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), chapter 4.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015