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Introduction to the Hebrew Bible instructor feedback--Brandon Grafius

Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: Second Edition
Instructor review

We asked Brandon Grafius, adjunct professor at Ecumenical Theological Seminary to provide feedback on how using John Collins's Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: Second Edition assisted his seminary class in studying the Hebrew Bible. Read what he had to say!

Brandon Grafius

Brandon Grafius
Ecumenical Theological Seminary

View Professor Grafius's syllabus

As anyone who has been through seminary knows, the introductory survey course for the Hebrew Bible is one of the most difficult classes, perhaps excepting only the biblical languages. The sheer amount of material and reading makes it a daunting task for the students; add to this the general unfamiliarity most beginning seminary students have with the texts of the Hebrew Bible and the background of Israelite history, and you have a course that is challenging on a variety of fronts. One of the main tasks of a professor of Hebrew Bible is helping students to navigate these difficulties. But along with these concerns are concerns with the material itself and its often troubling nature. It’s in providing a framework for discussing these issues that John J. Collins’s textbook provides one of its many great services for an introductory class.

Collins has long been concerned with the issues surrounding violence in the Hebrew Bible, as evidenced by his 2003 presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature, published in the Journal of Biblical Literature as “The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence.” While always remaining even-handed in his judgments and allowing significant room for disagreement, Collins is persistent in raising the issues of divinely sanctioned violence throughout his introductory text, providing extremely helpful signposts for students in engaging with these difficult issues. When discussing the story of Phinehas found in Numbers 25, for example, Collins discusses the disturbing implications of the story’s violence, while also noting the fundamental tension that exists in the Priestly tradition, containing both “an attitude of intolerance” and “a respect for life” (p. 160). Similarly, Collins does not shy away from discussing the “barbarity” of Israel’s conquest of the land as depicted in the book of Joshua, and he raises the question of whether “the aura of biblical authority” can cause serious problems when reading texts that depict warfare against other nations (p. 201), juxtaposing this with the often “humane” legislation found in much of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history. This willingness to point out the sometimes contradictory viewpoints inherent within the biblical traditions can prove very useful as an entry way into some important classroom discussions.

In my classroom experience, the violence of the Hebrew Bible is one of the greatest stumbling blocks students face when studying this material. Some students are familiar with the Hebrew Bible only from church lectionary readings, and they are surprised to find how much nastiness is contained in these pages. Others, somewhat more familiar with the texts, have dismissed them because of this violent content, seeing the tribal brutality of the Hebrew Bible as being counterbalanced by the grace of the New Testament. Collins gives voice to this view, while also challenging it by his persistent focus on the contradictions inherent in the variety of biblical writers’ worldviews. Of course, these are the kinds of issues and concerns that can’t be solved by a few pages in a textbook, but need to be talked over in the classroom. But Collins’s text sets the table for discussions of such topics, giving students places to begin their own reflections and the permission they need to develop their own interpretive strategies to carry with them into their churches and communities.