2019.03.12. Brown, A Handbook to Old Testament Exegesis

William P. Brown, A Handbook to Old Testament Exegesis
Reviewed by Douglas Stuart


  1. I am grateful for Dr. Douglas Stuart’s review of my introductory textbook, A Handbook to Old Testament Exegesis (henceforth HOTE), in so far that it identifies major differences between our approaches to teaching exegesis, not to mention our two handbooks, both published by WJK (Douglas A. Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 4th ed., 2009). Some of these differences, however, exist in his misunderstanding of my handbook. Stuart categorically condemns HOTE as a “promotion of subjectivism” or “eisegesis,” by which one “inserts one’s self” into the process of interpretation. But HOTE is anything but that, even if it does not adhere entirely to the other extreme, namely, “objectivism.” Such a binary view of biblical interpretation (exegesis vs. eisegesis or objectivism vs. subjectivism) is both inaccurate and unfair to what I attempt to do in HOTE and to the complexities of exegesis in general. If subjectivism were the aim, then there would be no place for the analytical methods that constitute over half of the book. If eisegesis were the goal, there would be no room for text criticism, translation theory, prosody, form criticism, and historical criticism, all explicated with appreciative depth in HOTE.
    No, the aim of HOTE is to facilitate a multifaceted dialogue with the biblical text. Contrary to Stuart’s critique, the biblical text remains central throughout my discussion of various approaches, from structural analysis to womanist interpretation. It is a gross misreading to claim that the biblical text in my treatment is merely “one element in a multisided dialogue.” What Stuart fails to mention is that every chapter, each exploring a particular method, concludes with a “hands-on” analysis of a common biblical text. The biblical text remains the central partner in the dialogue, even as other dialogue partners multiply. Stuart has mistaken such multiplicity with marginalization of the text. Case in point: he sees in my early chapter on “first impressions” a list of questions offered to the reader that only “concentrate on one’s personal, subjective interest in the context of the texts.” But how does such a generalization account for such prompts as “Do you notice any gaps in the text?” Or “State in two or three sentences what you consider to be the central message of the text.” Or “Compare your version of the text with another translation that you are not so familiar with. Note any discrepancies between them” (22). How do these prompts wallow in subjective interest? Stuart, moreover, fails to see the pedagogical value of articulating first impressions before engaging in critical study. In doing so, the exegete can be more fully aware of the trajectory of transformation that unfolds as one gains new understandings of the text through critical study that complexify, revise, and even counter one’s initial impressions. The point of the exercise is to become self-critically aware of how one’s mind can change from those first impressions, not to champion subjectivism.
    Here lies the basic problem. For Stuart, I’m afraid, any constructive acknowledgement of personal and cultural factors involved in the exegetical enterprise is thought “a promotion of subjectivism.” I fully acknowledge that striving toward objectivity is a necessary goal of exegesis, without which the text becomes nothing more than a Rorschach Test in the eye of the reader. But the certainty of attaining complete objectivity is impossible, which can lead to hubris and abusive interpretations. Ask any postcolonial critic. On the other hand, I consider the acknowledgement of subjectivity in the craft of exegesis to be a mark of necessary transparency and humility, not self-assertive egoism. The traditional exegesis that Stuart favors is integral to the exegetical process as I see it, but it is only half the story. The other half involves exploring how the text can engage the complex, intersecting realities in which contemporary readers live and move.

  2. Stuart also misses the book’s pedagogical arc. Exegesis is a journey of discovery and transformation, and to trace that journey one must know where one begins with the text (i.e., first impressions) and, in turn, where one comes out with the text (communicating the text). Stuart sees only subjectivism in what I perceive as a movement toward greater understanding and engagement on the part of the exegete. What Stuart sees as eisegesis, I see as process by which readers are transformed through self-aware dialogue with the text. The kind of exegesis I present in the book is not about inserting one’s preconceptions into the text; it is about changing one’s preconceptions regarding the text. The movement from first impressions to final understandings is a journey of discernment that is never final.
    The hermeneutical assumption of HOTE is that textual meaning emerges from interaction with the text. A text without a reader remains meaningless, but an exegete without a text is pointless. Meaning is not lodged exclusively in the text, from which it must be extracted, any more than it is confined solely within the mind of the reader, simply to be imagined. The context of the text matters, so also the context of the interpreter. It is the fusion of these contexts that yields life-changing, life-giving meaning. The exegete is not an intruder but a participant in the text’s meaning that requires not only analytical scrutiny but also ethical and theological judgment. That is why communicating the text marks the culmination of the exegetical venture, not a mere afterthought.
    With these misunderstandings, I hope, clarified, I want to acknowledge that Stuart and I share something in common: we both teach at free-standing seminaries. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Columbia Theological Seminary, admittedly, are cut from different cloths. Nevertheless, I would wager that both of us face a common challenge: helping students pay closer attention to the biblical text and its contexts. Whether they are “conservative” or “liberal” (labels that I detest), many students tend to read the biblical text instrumentally and/or devotionally. Many read a text to find something “useful,” such as an individualized life lesson, a homiletical point, ammunition for an argument, or a confirmation of one’s convictions. The challenge is to teach students how to slow down and study the text for its own sake: for all its historical depth and rhetorical nuance, for all its aesthetic contours and compositional complexities, for all its compelling claims and inner tensions, for all its mira profunditas. Exegesis explores how the text was a word on target for its day as well as for subsequent days, and how it can be so today. In so doing, exegesis enables readers to inhabit the biblical text more fully so that they can inhabit the world more wisely and with a clearer sense of God at work in the world. Theologically, exegetical engagement with the text reveals just how intersectional “knowledge of God” is with “knowledge of the self” (thank you, John Calvin) and, I would add, knowledge of the world. For theological education, I don’t see that as a liability.

    William P. Brown
    Columbia Theological Seminary

  3. John Carroll15 March, 2019

    Thank you, Bill, for this vigorous and articulate response. I am with you!

  4. I fully agree with William P. Brown's response. Brown's work has been a key influence in my own scholarship and I greatly appreciate his dynamic and engaging approach to interpretation and look forward to the arrival of my copy HOTE. His approach goes a long way in making the Bible relevant for contemporary readers--including, of course, the college students we teach.
    All biblical interpretation involves a "subjective" element. What Stuart calls "traditional" is unclear and seems rigid and limiting. The interpretive process ought to be liberating and creative.
    Thanks Dr. Brown. I look forward to your book.
    Steven Dunn

  5. I, likewise, have found Brown’s work extremely helpful for my own study and teaching of the Bible. One has only to look at his actual reading of biblical texts, whether it is his sustained attention to creation accounts in The Seven Pillars of Creation or shorter pieces on various biblical texts, to see that while there is an ineluctable subjective element in interpretation (anyone who thinks otherwise is selling something), this is by no means equivalent to subjectivism.

    I view Brown as practicing a form of theological interpretation. This does not mean (as it does for some theological interpreters) that the biblical text is made to conform to a set of preordained theological categories. Rather the text’s own conceptual patterns are engaged by bringing the interpreter’s starting point into conversation with relevant literary details and historical context (to the extent this can be surmised), in order that the claims of the text might be heard in the contemporary situation.

    An earlier programmatic statement of what constitutes good theological interpretation of Scripture (that is very close to my own), along with an example of such interpretation, can be found in Brown’s essay “Theological Interpretation: A Proposal,” in Method Matters: Essays on the Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David L. Petersen (ed. Joel M. LeMon and Kent Harold Richards; SBL Resources for Biblical Study 26; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 387–405.


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