The Brute Historical Facts of the OT?(Provan)

 Iain Provan’s essay, “Hearing the HIstorical Books” in Hearing the Old Testament is an excellent, helpful, and thought-provoking read.  I really appreciate it and I highly recommend it.

One of the main points Provan makes in this article is that the OT is not just a depository of historical facts.  Typically we think of history as a recounting of brute facts; some people approach the OT in such a manner.  Here’s Provan:

This is simply nonsense. We have no access to brute historical facts. To the extent that we know about the past at all, we know about it primarily through the testimony of other people. There is no way of writing historiography that does not involve such testimony or “story-telling.” Because this is so, interpretation is integral to all historiography as well. All testimony about the past is also interpretation of the past. It has its ideology or theology; it has its presuppositions and its point of view; it has its narrative structure; and (if at all interesting to read or listen to) it has its narrative art, its rhetoric.

Later Provan writes this:

The historical books of the Old Testament likewise address their readers through their rhetorical art. They are of course profoundly interested in the past… but they are not interested in it for its own sake. They tell the story of the past, selecting their material and interpreting it, in order to persuade their readership of certain truths and to advocate certain ways of living. We miss the point if we dwell on the facts themselves—no matter how important it may be to defend the idea that these texts are indeed rooted in real events. We shall only get the point if we are able to overcome false modern notions about the nature of historiography that lead to false expectations as to what our biblical historical texts should be able to do for us. We shall only get the point if we pay attention to the story itself that our biblical authors have woven out of the facts, which is also the story (interpreted properly within the context of the whole biblical story) through which God addresses the church. That should be the focus of our attention: the story itself, in all of its artfulness, through which God speaks.

Provan then goes on to give examples from the OT that show aspects of its story, including rhetoric, literary forms, subtlety, the big picture, and so on.  Again, this is a very helpful article when thinking about the OT from a Christian/NT  point of view.

Iain Provan, “Hearing the Historical Books,” in Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew and David J. H. Beldman (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 258.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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