Interpreting the Historical Books

An Exegetical Handbook (Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis) 

Chisholm, Robert B., Jr. Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook. Handbooks for Old Testament. Edited by David M. Howard, Jr. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006. 231 pp. $19.99.

One of my assigned readings this weekend for my “Hebrew Exegesis of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth” class was Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook, by Robert B. Chisholm, Jr. His chief goal is to help students of the “Historical Books” of the Old Testament (Josh, Judg, Ruth, 1-2 Sam, 1-2 Kgs, 1-2 Chr, Ezr, Neh, Est) comprehend the nature of their narrative literature, derive theological conclusions from such discourse by using various interpretive tools, and apply the books’ authoritative truth to the contemporary covenant community.

He divides his book into six chapters each of which build upon the other. Chapter one answers the question, “What is narrative literature?” Here, he discusses how the narrative genre works in communicating God’s redemptive purposes through his people, Israel. Steps for the interpreter include (1) analyzing the basic elements of the story such as setting, characters, and plot; (2) identifying the text’s discourse and dramatic structures; (3) paying attention to the kind of discourse and the varying speech function(s) within each; (4) respecting the narrator’s authoritative interpretation of the events; (5) observing each story within its larger canonical “macroplot”; and (6) being sensitive to matters of meaningful intertextuality.

Having explained the function of narrative literature in chapter one, Chisholm then provides a thematic and theological overview of each Historical Book and their own contribution to the macroplot of the Old Testament in chapter two. Chapter three attempts to set the Historical Books within their proper historical situation in the Ancient Near East, while also giving direction to the exegete in difficult matters of textual criticism. On the latter, Chisholm offers two basic principles: (1) “One should not automatically assume that the traditional Masoretic text preserves the original text;” and (2) “One should base text critical decisions primarily on internal considerations” (146-48). Scattered throughout chapter three is also a helpful selected bibliography for the interpretation of each Historical Book.

Chapter four addresses the question of whether interpretation of the Historical Books should be more diachronic (i.e. focused on the origins, sources, and development of the text [167]) or synchronic (i.e. focused on the meaning of the text in its final canonical form [178]). His conclusion seems fair: “We propose an interpretive method that is essentially synchronic, but that is also sensitive to the historical and cultural background of the text and respectful of the narrator’s authority. …we prefer to focus on the text in the form in which we have it and to assume an editorial unity.” (184). For the most part, Chisholm encourages interpretation that is sensitive to macroplot and canonical context.

Included in his synchronic approach is also the identification of the “implied readers”, that is, the audience the author envisioned to be impacted by his books’ message (181). Since the Historical Books span the pre- and post-Exilic periods, and the corpus eventually was considered in its final canonical form, Chisholm concludes that both communities are in mind. Such a conclusion allows him to make an easy jump in chapter five to how one should handle proclaiming the narrative texts to the community of faith. In his words, “The text is Scripture and has meaning and relevance beyond its original context” (187, emphasis mine). Communicating the truth of the Scripture’s historical narratives in a contemporary setting, therefore, means allowing the text to establish the interpreter’s theological foundation, upon which he or she must make “homiletical trajectories” that will provide personal application. Chisholm himself then provides two examples of such a task in chapter six, one from 2 Kings and another from Ruth.

Chisholm’s book is helpful overall because it provides the exegete of the Historical Books with the right questions to ask in interpreting a narrative, at least initially. He does a good job summarizing the themes of the Historical Books, and better enables one to understand the Books’ theological relevance to the covenant community, both then and now. Chisholm does offer an interpretation of the Historical Books that ultimately points us to Christ through his understanding of the promise to David’s throne and the testimony of the entire canon. I would have liked to see how more of this Christological (yes, Christological) emphasis played out in his exegesis, especially within his discussion of the implied readers/covenant community, but this would be hard to elaborate much more in so few pages. In the end, I have found much of Chisholm’s interpretive method very useful and would recommend it as a guide to those in the beginning stages of exegesis and interpretation of Old Testament narrative.


4 Responses to “Interpreting the Historical Books”

  1. Billy Marsh Says:

    What is Chisolm’s definition of the “macroplot”? Is it synonymous with what is sometimes referred to as “the grand metanarrative”? Also, when you talk about the “implied readers,” does Chisholm presume that the implied readers of the Historical books include readers beyond the original audience since he does affirm that the texts have meaning beyond their original intention and significance? Sounds like a good book, thanks for a good and succint breakdown of it. You’re so smart!

  2. Bret Rogers Says:

    Ultimately, Chisholm’s definition of “macroplot” does include the so-called “grand metanarrative” idea. It may better function, however, as a subject underneath such an umbrella term. For much of his purpose in this book he is more concerned with people not losing sight of the narrative forest for the trees of literary units. He wants the exegete to interpret the literary units (e.g. Abraham’s call or Joseph’s captivity in Egypt) in light of the larger narrative picture (e.g. Book of Genesis or Pentateuch).

    By implied readers Chisholm does include readers beyond the original audience. However, in his book he only takes this to mean Exilic and post-Exilic covenant community. So, for example, the book of Judges may have been written as “an apology for the Lord, whose reputation was jeopardized by Israel’s failure”, and done so for a pre-Exilic audience; nevertheless, in light of the function of Deuteronomic History, it also serves the Exilic and post-Exilic communities, whose recent behavior reflected Israel’s earlier history (i.e. in the time of the Judges), in the same manner (see Chisholm, 180-83).

    I hope these answers help. Blessings!


  3. ronjourlocke Says:

    Thanks for the review, Bret. I’ve read his Handbook to the Prophetic Books, and I am reading his From Exegesis to Exposition. We need some good guys in the Historical Books/OT Narrative part of the scholarly world. Thanks for volunteering!

  4. Bret & Rachel Says:

    Ronjour, thanks for stopping by! I wish we could fellowship more. I am not sure what you mean by “volunteering” 🙂 And, then again, maybe I do, especially since I am heading into the field of New Testament studies. Nevertheless, I would love to continue growing in this field. It is so very crucial for good Christian scholarship. I have found great help in Bruce Waltke’s OT Theology as well.

    Blessings, my brother.


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