Review: Interpreting Biblical Literature by Michael R. Cosby (Stony Run Publishing, 2009)

Interpreting Biblical Literature: An Introduction to Biblical Studies by Michael R. Cosby (Stony Run Publishing, 2009)

As I prepared to teach a section of Baylor’s Christian Scriptures course, I spent a day or two examining the available introductory textbooks. While it is not a survey course, Baylor’s Christian Scriptures course does cover both Testaments in a single semester. In a survey course, I would feel more compelled to say something about every book of the Bible. Such courses often leave little room for actually modeling and teaching exegetical (or interpretive) practices. So, while I teach the students about the synoptic problem, etc., I give greater attention to knowing the stories, reading and interpreting the text. Rather than teach every gospel, we do a closer reading of one of the Gospels, usually Luke.

While I certainly wanted to give my students some idea of the how the Bible was composed, when, and by whom, I wanted to place particular emphasis on how to read the Bible and its various genres.

For the most part, introductory textbooks to the Bible are heavy on the who, what, where and when and give little attention to interpretive methods. Here, as the title suggests, is where Cosby’s book, Interpreting Biblical Literature, sets itself apart from the crowd.

In chapters 1-3, Cosby lays a foundation for understanding ancient near eastern culture and geography. In chapter 4-5, he addresses what type of text the Bible is and how it comes to us. Yet, the rest of the text is organized according to genre.

cosbyHere is another feature that makes Cosby’s book distinct and something that appealed to me. I had already decided that unlike most presentations of Scripture, I did not want to start with Genesis. As is evident from many of my posts up to this point, the early chapters of Genesis are steeped in controversy and variously interpreted. Unlike the Book of Haggai, for instance, students already come with presuppositions and often strong opinions about what Genesis 1-11 must say. Moreover, institutions like Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis and the equally vocal New Atheists have convinced many students that any reading that suggests that Ham and his ilk have misunderstood the genre of Genesis 1 is part of the secularist strategy to undermine their faith. In my opinion and experience, freshmen do not have the skills needed to understand and properly interpret most of Scripture and Genesis 1, in particular.

In addition to these cultural issues, Genesis is a hotbed for scholarly theories about sources, genre, and narrative techniques. It also raises questions about the relation of Israel’s story to similar stories in the Ancient Near East (ANE). Is this not a lot for students to take in in the first week? Even if it is pushed off to the second week of school, they are not ready nor are they interested in history of the history of interpretation. Who cares about JEPD! What does the Bible say?

So, if not Genesis 1, then where does Cosby begin? Cosby begins with Proverbs and Wisdom Literature . He then moves to the Psalms and Hebrew Poetry. Then, building on these foundations he teaches his reader how to read narrative by looking closely at the “short stories” of Jonah and Ruth.

By thinking outside the box, Cosby presents a less incendiary and more interesting way of introducing students to insights of scholarship that in the context of Genesis 1 tend to raise hackles and place students in a defensive posture. Taking this approach to teaching Scripture, by the time we actually get to Genesis (and my colleagues and their friends are discussing David), my students have been introduced to source and form criticism (Proverbs and Psalms) and they have had practice identifying and interpreting Hebrew literary and poetic techniques in Jonah and Ruth. They can see that, while Ruth is “fictionalized history,” Jonah with its exaggerative techniques and known “historical inaccuracies” was most likely intended to be read as a parable. At this point, most students are then comfortable saying, “Okay, there doesn’t need to be an actual giant fish in Jonah for this book to be valuable and speak to Judah and the Church.” Now they are in a much better position to interpret Genesis 1 and following.images

I further prepare them for understanding how Genesis borrows from and responds to ANE myths by having them read Psalms in which God rips open sea monsters and where Exodus imagery and creation imagery are inextricably intertwined. Thus, they have already encountered alternative Creation accounts in Scripture before they are told about other similar ANE myths. In this way, I seek work with the trust in the Bible that many of my students already have. They do not first sea “chaos monsters” in Babylonian myth but in the Bible itself. Yet, they do not think they ought to take it literally that God ripped open a sea serpent and fed the people in the desert with it corpse.

In each of his chapters, Cosby gives the students a list of suggestions for interpreting the genre under discussion. In the midst of this process and from this point on, the students are being taken chronologically through the bible with the beginning skills they need to read these difficult texts.

In the classroom setting, while I am teaching the history of Israel, I highlight significant texts and we exegete them together as a class.

Cosby’s prose style is witting and engaging. He uses many anecdotes and stories that help to convey complex concepts to his readers.

If I could add one thing to this book, it would be a comprehensive list of key terms at the end of the book instead of simply at the end of the chapter.

I highly recommend this book and I encourage anyone who is teaching an introductory course on the Bible to at least review it. Moreover, and, perhaps, more importantly, I encourage Bible teachers to think outside the box. Why start at Genesis 1 just because it is located there in the Canon?

I welcome comments on my blog. Please share your teaching strategies. What have you found that works? What have you tried that failed miserably? What other resources would you recommend?

Or, if you have questions about teaching Scriptures, designing a syllabus, or developing a course of study, by all means post those questions here and I will do my best to respond to them.

Interpreting Biblical Literature: An Introduction to Biblical Studies by Michael R. Cosby (Stony Run Publishing, 2009)


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