In this introduction to the books of Joshua to Chronicles, Campbell provides a guide for the task of interpreting the “historical” books of the Older Testament. Campbell’s book is not a history of Israel, nor an introduction to historical-critical or newer literary, feminist, etc. methods, nor a detailed survey of the content of these biblical books. Rather, Campbell seeks to help a student or beginning reader see how the meanings and values inherent in these texts offer theological reflection on Israel’s experience. By including Chronicles and contrasting meanings found there with those in Joshua to Kings, Campbell supports his case that the “historical” books present a theological interpretation of Israel’s past.
As Campbell explores it, the nature of the interpretive task in reading Scripture is shaped by the nature of Scripture itself. While the Bible does present information and convictions about the past, it is not history. And while Scripture is based on claims about the presence of God, it is not the unmediated revelation of God. So the interpretive task neither seeks to construct a history from the text (p. 11) nor to make fundamentalist claims about God (p. 12). Rather, Scripture is the record of ancient Israel’s reflections on its “experience of life in relation to God” (p. 4), its “discernment of the presence and activity of God” (p. 11), and its deep engagement with issues of human existence (p. 4). So the interpretive task seeks to understand Scripture as the articulation of these things, to explore how it communicates these things, and to be open to learning from it (p. 9).
Keeping to his sense of the interpretive task, and the corresponding need for deep reflection on Scripture, Campbell structures his survey in the order of the biblical books. Each chapter is organized into: 1) an overview of the book(s) being considered, ending with a schematic chart of sections; 2) a description of the “major text signals,” that is, the features in the text (for example, the ordering or duplication of stories, or the prominence of various characters) that should “govern its interpretation” (p. 20); 3) a close reading of the sections indicated in the chart using the text signals as interpretive guides; 4) a summarizing section, “Reading the Whole,” where various interpretive issues and observations are pulled together; 5) questions for review or discussion; and 6) a brief bibliography of works other than commentaries (which are listed at the end of the book). The close reading highlights structural pointers to the text’s focus, major themes and theological comments in the stories, and the presence of varying views on events and ideas. Throughout, Campbell shows how the text is best understood as the ancient writers’ attempts to articulate interpretations of their identity, past events, and the presence of God in their lives. The books of Chronicles are included in the appropriate chapters on Samuel and Kings. Campbell’s coverage of Chronicles is brief and consists largely of an overview and comparison with the Samuel/Kings materials in order to highlight the central concern for the temple that is the theological and interpretive focus of Chronicles (p. 117).
As Campbell covers each book, he mentions related historical, archeological, compositional or form critical observations to orient his readers both to some of the contexts of the books’ composition and to the interpretive issues Biblical scholars have raised. A consistent underpinning is the assumption that this literature began with various sources and traditions, some perhaps oral, and underwent successive editions in the years of the monarchy and into the exile and post-exilic period. Not surprisingly, Campbell relies on his own past work on sources like the “Prophetic Record” underlying Kings to give a sense of earlier traditions behind the text. The concluding chapter of the book draws together the diverse observations about the compositional history and interpretations made in earlier chapters. Because the earlier compositional comments are not systematic, the book is best used in a setting where terms like “deuteronomistic” can be explained, or, perhaps the last chapter can be read first in order to orient a reader to the concepts about compositional history.
Campbell’s book works well in insisting that biblical literature such as that found in Joshua to Chronicles is both an interpretive text and a text that needs interpretation. For any audience that might naively or doctrinally begin to read the text “straight off the page” as either historical truth or faith statement, such an emphasis, consistently carried out through sensitive readings of the stories, is necessary and welcome. Campbell’s tone is refreshing. Where a story presents a difficult or problematic reading for contemporary readers, he acknowledges that reality. Where scholarship is still unclear or unsettled as to resolving critical issues, he acknowledges that and sometimes offers a provisional reading. His own commitment to reading the text as Scripture and as formative and informative for people of faith recommends his approach for those who want to explore how such commitments can integrate with an active understanding of the task of interpretation.