Book Review: The Meaning of the Bible (Douglas Knight & Amy-Jill Levine)

Meaning of the Bible ISBN 9780061121753
Available from Amazon

Reviewed by Lesley A. Carter, webmaster for the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania.  

“(An) informed approach is not the enemy of a faith-based reading; biblical scholarship is not, in our view, a weapon designed to destroy one's religious beliefs.  It is, rather, something that can enhance such beliefs.” (p. 44)  In making this statement, authors Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, both professors at Vanderbilt Divinity School, stake their claim both for the importance of biblical literacy for people of faith and for the case that biblical scholarship is an important tool in the arsenal of those wishing to deepen their faith through the study of biblical texts.

Unlike many other books on the Old Testament, Knight and Levine chose to arrange their monograph not by biblical book but by theme.  Tackling in turn such topics as history, literary heritage, law, politics, and diaspora, the authors are able to examine the biblical texts as well as their historical, cultural, and archaeological contexts in a topical manner.  Both Jewish and Christian scriptural interpretations are considered (Levine teaches both New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt and is herself Jewish) and provide a more layered, faceted lens through which to view the biblical texts discussed than is often found in similar surveys of the Old Testament.

As a former student of both writers, I could hear echoes of past lectures in phrases and discussions throughout the text; but archaeological and Scriptural analysis have both moved on in the years since I finished my degree, and I felt as though I was taking a much-needed refresher course to bring me a little more up to speed on biblical scholarship.  This is not a difficult read, but it is a deep, engaging one, and while this would be an excellent choice for a small group study, I would recommend spending multiple weeks on the book and being prepared to do some side reading in order to make as complete a study of the topic as possible.  Given the thematic arrangement of the book, the use of selections of it would also be an idea, for example as a resource for a discussion of the politics of Israel and understanding the context of books such as Joshua and Judges.  Preachers may well find fresh ideas in this book for preaching parts of the lectionary they might otherwise avoid.

One thing the book emphatically does not do – and intentionally so (I asked the writers about this in a recent podcast for the Baltimore-Washington United Methodist Conference) – is to provide definitive answers about the interpretation of scripture.  The text provides tools and information in the hope that its readers will become informed readers of scripture, but those readers must take their own steps and make their own decisions about what scripture says.  As the authors point out, “To criticize is not to dishonor or dismiss; to struggle with the text is to be 'Israel' in the literal sense, to 'wrestle with God.'” (p. 295)  We must all do our own wrestling and heavy lifting; but this text is an excellent tool to help us along our way.