Book Review: Old Testament Exegesis

Douglas Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).

Within the Christian academic community, there are many resources for the aspiring Bible student. A cursory glance at the resource section of a Christian bookstore will show myriad concordances, Bible handbooks, commentaries, Bible translations, and more. Even with these resources, bridging Bible reading and Biblical interpretation can be difficult for all involved. For this reason, some of the most beneficial resources available are volumes on how to do proper exegesis. Douglas Stuart has written one such handbook.

In his book, Stuart focuses specifically on Old Testament exegesis, offering a needed perspective. Stuart seeks to “present a step-by-step guide to OT exegesis that will be nontechnical and simplewithout being simplistic” (xi). In this review, I will summarize and assess the quality of Stuart’s Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors.

Stuart describes his work as a “primer” (1, 4); he expects it to be neither exhaustive in all aspects of hermeneutics nor overly technical. His book is separated into four main chapters, with an introduction and two appendices. Stuart’s hope is that the handbook will “serve you well if your reason for learning exegesis is eventually to apply its benefits in Christian preaching or teaching” (1).

What may set Stuart’s volume apart from other similar works is what he describes as “certain conscious biases” (xi). Most notable is his “insistence that exegesis should include guidelines for application of the passage being studied.” (xi). Stuart’s conviction is rooted in the ideas that all exegesis is theological and that all theology should be applied to the life of the believer (xi-xii). Because of this, certain exegetical elements are deemphasized: most notably, that includes the higher Biblical criticism method. Likewise, Stuart avoids hermeneutical methods that are more “ethnic-based, gender based, or life-status based” (xii). Additionally, because Old Testament Exegesis is in its fourth addition, Stuart has made a variety of revisions from his previous work.

A brief word must be said about the process that Stuart employs. As stated later in this review, Stuart uses an exegetical process that he then mirrors across each chapter of his book. While the process does not generally divert too strongly from other hermeneutical procedures, the differences are worth noting. Largely, Stuart keeps the basic tenets of an evangelical hermeneutic, depending heavily on a historical-grammatical understanding of the text, and thus seeking to understand authorial intent for meaning. However, Stuart does make a few slight changes that are noteworthy.

First, Stuart keeps historical, grammatical, and Biblical context near the conclusion of his exegetical method. While this practice certainly does not hurt his interpretation, other scholars often perform these elements to earlier in the method.[1] Likely, this slight change is appropriate given Stuart’s emphasis on the original language of Hebrew and his focus on understanding the original language first.

Another noteworthy element of Stuart’s process is his intentional inclusion of application. He notes that “making decisions about application is more an art than a science, it is qualitative, not quantitative” (25). Even so, he asserts that the application process should be just as rigorous and analytical as any other element of the exegetical method (25). Stuart goes so far as to say that exegesis without application is “unsatisfactory” and provides reasons for this thesis: (1) it ignores the ultimate reason for exegesis, (2) it only addresses the historical meaning of a passage, and (3) it allows the personal/existential interpretation to be overly subjective (25). His focus on application synthesizes well with his purpose for the book.

As Stuart states explicitly and conveys in the book’s subtitle, Old Testament Exegesis is a volume intended for the pastor and/or student. That is, the book is not intended specifically for the advanced academic community. Therefore, while Stuart uses some technical language form time to time (though he seems to avoid it when possible), he does give helpful definitions when he does (e.g., 7, 18, 80). This helps in his task of building a bridge between those who may be intellectually curious and those who have some understanding of academic engagement. Stuart also deals well with important areas of exegesis: word-study/exegetical fallacies (see appendix 2), semantical domains (40), forms within genres (49), structures such as chiasm (51), the importance of context, among many other areas.

A remarkable strength of this book is the fourth chapter. Stuart has given readers a treasure trove of resources to accomplish exegetical work. Not only has he produced an excellent bibliography of resources and aids, but he also gives helpful assessments and notes with each category and often with each book and resource. Instead of receiving a long bibliography of good resources that a reader must then weed through, for example, Stuart gives the readers helpful clarifications, often noting which books are more dense or accessible to the novice student and/or pastor. Stuart also often compares books within a given category, explaining why a given book or resource is slightly better than another.

Another strength, specifically for those in vocational ministry, appears in chapter three. Stuart notes, “[F]ew have been shown how to make the transition from the exegetical labor and skills required for a full term paper to those required for a sermon” (63). He explains that the exegetical process for sermons is often not as stringent as the process involved in a more academic exercise (64). His chapter reflects this proposition. For example, under text and translation here, he asks only that the reader read the Hebrew out loud and put together a very rough translation; this stands in contrast to his instructions of chapters one and two. Likewise, he consistently exhorts his reader to cut exegetical material that “is not central to the needs of your sermon” (69).

While Old Testament Exegesis is full of helpful instruction and information, a reader may run into some difficulty when utilizing it. One challenge is assessing the organization of the volume. One can see how the organization, for some, may be extremely helpful but for others more perplexing. The reason for this is Stuart’s categorization of his units. In chapter one, the author includes twelve distinct categories: (1.1) Text, (1.2) Translation, (1.3) Grammatical Data, (1.4) Lexical Data, (1.5) Form, (1.6) Structure, (1.7) Historical Context, (1.8) Literary Context, (1.9) Biblical Context, (1.10) Theology, and (1.11) Application.

What readers might find either helpful or not is that Stuart then categorizes each of the following three chapters by this same order. In chapter one, he assesses these twelve issues in full exegesis and then mirrors the process with with the original text, sermon preparation, and resources. In his own words, this is “for convenience” (33). Tension may arise with how a reader uses this volume. If it is primarily a reference tool, then this organization becomes quite helpful. However, one can see the benefit of organizing the volume by the twelve categories (one per chapter) as stated above.

Another possible area of confusion within this volume is Stuart’s use of Hebrew and the extent to which the reader must share his or her knowledge. In his preface, he notes that this book is “written for those who cannot read a Hebrew psalm at sight” (xi). He adds, “Those aspiring OT exegetes who know no Hebrew should still be able to make good use of the guidance given here” (xii).

While this sentiment is certainly true, Stuart may confuse his targeted reader with his use of Hebrew later in the volume. This becomes specifically difficult in the first two chapters under the task of “translation” (7-9, 39-42). He notes that purposes of his illustrations in the second chapter are “to encourage you to produce your own translation of a passage rather than relying on translations found in major modern versions” (39). While he notes that each illustration is relatively simple Hebrew, the reader may still be confused as to whether he or she must know the ancient language.

In conclusion, whether someone finds this book helpful may depend on how they understand its use. As noted earlier, Stuart refers to this volume as a “primer,” assuming it to be a book that will introduce the readers to a deeper level of exegesis. While the book seems to accomplish this purpose, introducing students to Old Testament exegesis does not seem to be its main task. The book, instead, may work better as a handbook. Though these two terms are not mutually exclusive, Old Testament Exegesis seems to be best utilized as a reference tool, easily accessible in the way it is organized for use. It is concise and organized for quick reference. For this reason, it would work wonderfully for students, pastors, and the curious Bible-reader as they seek to engage with Scripture at a deeper level.


[1] For example, see Henry A. Virkler and Karelynne Ayayo, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007); Howard G. Henricks and William D. Henrdricks, Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible (Chicago: Moody, 2007); and J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting and Applying God’s Word (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2012).

Author: Chris Talbot

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