Backwards through the Hebrew Bible

Posted on by Brooke

It started as a joke.

Every year, while I take my introductory students through the Torah and the Former Prophets, I find myself saying to my TA, “If only they had already done the Writings. If they had read Job and Ecclesiastes and the Complaint Psalms, they would have such broader expectations about the Bible. They wouldn’t be so prone to expect only a series of flat morality tales with easy closure and platitudinous ‘messages’: ‘Be like Abraham’; ‘Don’t be like Canaanites.’ If only they’d already done the Writings!”

By last year, I wasn’t joking.

So this year, we are doing the Writings first, then Latter Prophets, then Former Prophets, then Torah. This means that we’ll be doing history backwards: they’ll get the post-exilic period (Writings), then the 8th century to the early post-exilic years (Latter Prophets), then the “settlement” through the monarchies with review of exile (Former Prophets), then the pre-“settlement” period with review of the monarchies and exile (Torah).

What advantages do I imagine?

  • Beginning with the Writings, they will get to become accustomed to literary criticism without too much intrusion of adjusting to historical inquiry.

  • Their first readings will demonstrate that the Bible revels in dissonance and ambiguity, what Brueggemann once called “testimony and counter-testimony.” The obvious ambiguities in the Writings will prepare them for the subtler ambiguities of the more historical-seeming books of the Former Prophets and Torah.

  • Working through history backwards might be a nice opportunity: with each period, they’ll already know where things are going. And, each period will raise questions about how it got to be the way it was: learning the post-exilic period will raise questions about the late Judean monarchy and the Babylonian exile; reading the 8th century forward will raise questions about the early Judean monarchy and the northern kingdom of Israel; reading the “settlement” and monarchies will get them prepared for the long journey of the Torah toward Mt. Nebo.

  • By the time we get to Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis (with which we usually slap them upside the head in the first week of the term), we will 1) have had time to establish trust between the instructor and the students, and among the students; and 2) already have learned about P and D (which is where Wellhausen himself started anyway, and concerning which there remains the most certainty even now).

Of course, revising the syllabus is quite simply killing me.

What do you think? Ever heard of anyone doing something similar? Any suggestions on how to make the most of such an experiment? Any concerns to raise before the starting gun goes off around Labor Day?