Review of The Pentateuch by Terrence Fretheim

Terrence Fretheim’s, The Pentateuch, is a good introduction to the critical study of the Pentateuch exploring the text from a scholarly, well-informed, and faith building perspective. Fretheim points out that the Pentateuch is an important work.  Fretheim’s work is brief, and yet full of information. He begins his work with a general overview of how the Pentateuch functions in the canon of Scripture as well as treating each of the five Pentatuechal books individually. As an introduction to the rest of the story of God, the Pentateuch deserves to be heard and read to help shape how one will read the story of God’s reclaiming mission that follows on through Joshua to Malachi.

Fretheim is no doubt a scholar, and writes comfortably with the critical issues surround Pentatuechal interpretation. While, Fretheim is no stranger to academia,  citing the importance of source criticism to the study of the Pentateuch, he also writes from a deep and rich faith perspective that serious students of the Old Testament would do well to be as comfortable from a dual position. Fretheim sees the opening of the Pentateuch as instrumental and informative to proper engagement with what follows. Pointing out the importance of creational motifs and humanity’s proper place in that ongoing creation, Fretheim sees the Pentateuch as having an ongoing and active voice in our world today. Basic to this story line, and seen throughout the Pentateuch is God’s work to reclaim the earth and humanity.

I think for a long time as a Christian, I have been afraid of Biblical criticism thinking that Biblical criticism’s various methodologies takes away from the power of the Biblical text. Fretheim helps his readers to see that the realm of biblical criticism can be a valuable tool to gain insight into the text. One of the strengths of Fretheim’s work is that he uses a variety of biblical criticism methodologies to engage his readers. Fretheim notes that central to Pentateuchal studies has been source criticism, but one also encounters other literary approaches, acknowledging literary unity, and episodic narrative plot and character development, as well as discussions on the implied readers of these texts.  Each of one of the disciplines he employs can aid Biblical interpreters, church leaders, and lay readers of the Bible. Faith does not have to be derailed by employing the interpretative tools such as source criticism at a student’s disposal. Fretheim acknowledges that the Bible is first and foremost a book of faith, not just a historical record of the people known as Israel. While, no doubt historical in the sense that the Bible claims to tell a story of these people, this is a story of a religious community with a profound and lasting faith in a God that is believed to have created the universe, and is actively engaged in the world still. Fretheim asks tough questions of the text, for instance Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is widely denied among scholarly circles, and yet there is a sense in which this understanding only adds to the richness of the Pentateuch. While Moses was most likely a historical figure, the overwhelming evidence of authorship is that the Pentateuch developed overtime, woven together by different editors and yet continues the trajectory started by the earliest of the sources. Faith in the Bible’s stories, and principles can be adhered to today despite a radical reorientation to the Bible as a composite and practical word from God. While the Bible is critiqued from a quite a variety of different methods it is important to remember, that is different from other books, and yet it is itself a book of faith that seeks to do something to its readers. Books tell stories, the Pentateuch, strictly speaking, seeks to not just share information but aims to move its readers to action, faithfulness and to live out the high calling of the Edenic task to “rule,” and “subdue the earth.” For serious students of the Bible, and especially for an insightful introduction to the Old Testament, Fretheim’s, The Pentateuch is a must read.

About Jason Retherford

The random musings of a youth minister.
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