Book Reviews Historical Books (OT) Old Testament OT Prophets Pentateuch Wisdom Literature (OT)

Book Review: The Old Testament (Richard Hess)

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Studying the languages in seminary, I quickly discovered that I enjoyed working on Hebrew for more than I did on Greek. But I have far fewer OT introductions than I do NT introductions. Baker Academic graciously sent me a copy of Richard Hess’ new book The Old Testament: A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction. Hess begins by describing how the name “Old Testament” began being used. He surveys different manuscript evidences of the OT, textual criticism, and how to find the right tools to study the OT (which he actually does by listing a link to the Denver Seminary website). He divides his book into four parts:

  1. Pentateuch
  2. Historical Books
  3. Poetic Books
  4. Prophetic Books

Each chapter of Hess’ introduction is laid out in this way:

  • Name, Text, and Outline
    • Hess explains why the book has its name, some differences between the Masoretic text (MT) and the Septuagint (LXX), and gives an outline for the book.
  • Overview
    • Hess spends a few pages going through each chapter (or section) of the book.
  • Reading Exodus
    • Premodern Reading
      • Hess surveys how Judaism and early Christians interpreted parts of the book. Exodus was allegorized by Philo and rationalized by Josephus. Judaism read God’s law as means to justice and proper worship. Christians read them as somehow prefiguring Jesus Christ. Or in Isaiah, Hess notes that Luther found contrasts between the earthly and heavenly kingdoms in the book of Isaiah by reading Christ and the gospel into the book.
    • Source Criticism
      • Hess briefly survey what source critics have thought about the text.
    • Tradition History
      • The concern here is on the sources that (possibly) make up the larger text. Is Deuteronomy a collection of smaller texts written at different times and put together in the exile? (In the section on ANE Context, Hess concludes that that theory on Deuteronomy doesn’t fit the evidence. Deuteronomy (along with Exodus and Joshua) is most similar to pre-twelfth century BC Hittite treaties.)
    • Literary Readings
      • Literary approaches to the text looks at how the story functions. They analyze books for their twists and turns, their repetition of characters and their actions, how they develop, and how some events precipitate other events to occur (David seizes Bathsheba, and his son Amnon seizes his own half-sister Tamar. David gives a weak response to Amnon’s actions, which “echoes David’s own issues when it comes to sexual ethics and anticipates his weak response to the vengeance of Absolom as well as the full blown coup that emerges in the following chapters,” 253).
    • Gender and Ideological Criticism
      • Hess surveys how others have written about female characters in particular and how they are either oppressed or rise above the status quo. Other concerns covered would be liberation theology, the slaughter of Israel’s enemies, and a focus on countries from around the world.
    • Ancient Near Eastern Context
      • Here, Hess compares and contrasts the biblical book from other writings in the ANE. There are numerous connections between the Song of Songs and Egyptian love poetry, helping scholars to better understand the terse enigmatic Hebrew of the biblical Song.
    • Canonical Context
      • Hess notes how the book contributes to the canon of Scripture. Isaiah 40-45 references creation (40:26; 42:5; 45:7, 12, 18). We find “the judgments of the flood and of Sodom and Gomorrah” mostly in the earlier part of the book (1:9-10; 3:9; 13:19; 24:18; 54:9; p. 533).
  • Theological Perspectives
    • Hess looks at the theology of each OT book. Ecclesiastes tells us that life’s worth is only found by looking to and fearing our Creator. All is vain and worthless if we are not in union with our God.

Hess ends with three pages on the “transition” from the OT to the NT. Throughout the book, Hess provides charts, pictures, illustrations, and sidebars (or side-boxes) that give attention to topics of interest (“Egyptian Pessimism” in Ecclesiastes, the “Instruction of Amenemope” in Proverbs, “The Signet Ring” in Haggai, “The West Semitic Storm-God and the Sea” in Habakkuk, and more). Each chapter ends with a short survey of key commentaries and studies on the book. Hess offers a short note on the strengths of each commentary.


Overall this is a solid contribution from a long-time OT scholar. The amount of information put into this book is staggering, especially how one man could remember all this. But because the book is only one volume, it limits Hess’ coverage. However, this is only meant to be a survey. Hess is generous in his coverage of so many different interpreters, inviting his readers to a wide swath of different interpretive methods from these different scholars. Hess excels in organization. Though written for seminarians and scholars, his book is clear and accessible. If you’re looking for an OT introduction that looks carefully at how each OT book has been read throughout history and today while not neglecting the book’s own content and theology, you should really consider picking up Hess’ book.

If you’re looking for other book-by-book approaches, combine Hess with Van Pelt’s A Biblical Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, which focuses on the content and theology of each book. For a thematic approach, combine Hess with Robin Routledge’s Old Testament Theology.


  • Author: Richard Hess
  • Hardcover: 816 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (November 15, 2016)

Buy it on Amazon or from Baker Academic!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255


  1. I had Dr. Hess as a professor when I was in seminary. The man is brilliant, a walking encyclopedia of all things Ancient Near East. Once some of us students asked several of our professors who the smartest person at the seminary was. All of them, without exception or hesitation, said, “Dr. Hess.”

    Thanks for the review, I will have to put this on my to-read list.


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