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Reading the Historical Books

A Student's Guide to Engaging the Biblical Text

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Biblical history can be some of the most difficult material for beginning students to grasp. The conventions of contemporary history writing are quite different from those of ancient Israelite writers. Here a master teacher offers basic orientation to the genre and conventions of the Old Testament historical books, helping students become careful and attentive readers.

Written in an accessible style with many ancient and contemporary examples, this book introduces students to some of the phenomena they will encounter in the historical books and provides strategies for understanding their significance. The goal is to make further reading and study of Scripture more informed and sensitive. Sidebars, discussion questions, and further reading suggestions are included.

1. Discovering the Context of the Text
2. Listening to the Story in the Text
3. Discerning the Interests of the Text
4. Examining History in the Text
5. Examining the Shape of History in the Text
Conclusion: Toward a Definition of Biblical Historiography


"Somebody once famously wrote, 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.' For those coming to serious study of the Bible for the first time, there cannot be any more important lesson than to understand how to read the Bible's ancient historical records faithfully on their own terms. They are not always the same as ours. You will not find a better or more sympathetic introductory book than this one to point you in the right direction."

H. G. M. Williamson, University of Oxford

"This student's guide is a model of clarity, economy, and explanatory skill. Writing in a straightforward and interesting style and spicing up her discussion with specific ancient and modern examples, Patricia Dutcher-Walls lays out a sensible reading plan for any who wish to take the Bible seriously in all its aspects: literary, historical, and theological. Her numerous examples from ancient Near Eastern sources locate the Bible in its world, and her frequent modern illustrations help readers connect. Useful sidebars and stimulating study questions enhance the pedagogical attractiveness of the volume. Both author and publisher are to be congratulated on a fine book that should gain a wide readership."

V. Philips Long, professor of Old Testament, Regent College, Vancouver

"Reading the Historical Books provides an excellent supplementary text on methodology for anyone teaching the Former Prophets. Dutcher-Walls builds on the reading experience of students to explore such critical topics as social context, narrative technique, and theology that are part of the fabric of ancient history writing. Summary questions for reflection guide students through the reading process. Only after students have become familiar with the texts through firsthand reading does the volume conclude with a broad discussion of ancient historiography and how it has shaped the writing of Israel's history in the Former Prophets."

Tom Dozeman, professor of Old Testament, United Theological Seminary

"This is a book about the ancient biblical historical books for readers in the text-message age! Engagingly written, it goes beyond matters of introduction to show how an appreciation of the factors of historical context, storytelling, point of view, and overarching concept plays a crucial role for readers in their understanding of the text. Always sympathetically aware of its audiences, and with panels calling for reader involvement, this book will be an invaluable aid to all who have a serious interest in understanding these rich story-histories of the Old Testament."

J. Gordon McConville, professor of Old Testament theology, University of Gloucestershire

"Finally, an accessible work that reunites the literary and historical aspects of the Old Testament historical books and trains contemporary readers to hear the text in responsible ways that can shape the course of life today."

Mark J. Boda, professor of Old Testament, McMaster Divinity College and professor, Faculty of Theology, McMaster University

"This engaging guide to reading historical narrative in the Old Testament is a great text for beginners. Dutcher-Walls assumes little and draws on a wide variety of relevant texts and illustrations from the Bible, ancient Near Eastern sources, and especially modern historical texts and media contexts. There is nothing better for communicating basic principles of Hebrew Bible historiography to modern readers."

Richard S. Hess, Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, Denver Seminary

"Professor Dutcher-Walls has given us an excellent treatment of the principles of history writing that guided the historians of this corpus of biblical literature. A judicious examination of texts from ancient Near Eastern literature reveals that these same principles may be found in that larger body of texts as well. Further, she has demonstrated ably that an awareness by the contemporary reader of how these ancient historians told their stories will greatly assist one in engaging the biblical text. Numerous examples from modern media such as family histories, film, and Facebook show that even yet we tell our own stories, mutatis mutandis, in very similar ways to the ancient historiographers. I am happy to recommend Reading the Historical Books."

Victor P. Hamilton, professor emeritus of Old Testament, Asbury University

The Author

  1. Patricia Dutcher-Walls

    Patricia Dutcher-Walls

    Patricia Dutcher-Walls (ThD, Graduate Theological Union) is professor of Hebrew scripture at Vancouver School of Theology, where she also gives administrative oversight to the school's doctoral programs and serves as dean of studies and director of the...

    Continue reading about Patricia Dutcher-Walls


"This is a very good introductory guide to reading the historical books. It is accessible, covers a lot of important ground, employs good examples from the biblical texts, and draws helpful analogies for the points being made from history, literature, and indeed life more broadly. I believe that students will find it extremely helpful, and I shall certainly recommend it to mine."

Iain Provan,

Review of Biblical Literature

"Dutcher-Walls has done a great service for those who have the privilege to teach the historical books of the Bible. Her writing is clear and straightforward, her examples are illuminating, and she seems to write as if she is thinking along with a first-year student who has the temerity to take a class called 'Old Testament Historical Books,' but is not exactly sure why she is taking it. I can easily imagine many undergraduate Bible professors using this book as a course text--either in a 'Historical Books' class or in a general hermeneutics class that covers the various genres of the Bible. With helpful charts, discussion questions at the end of each chapter, and 'Questions for Careful Readers' side-barred throughout, the book is definitely reader-friendly. . . . It strikes me that [Dutcher-Walls] has taught a generation of students to read the text well. Moreover, I appreciated the way Dutcher-Walls builds upon her observations of the narratives to establish specific points about the message of the historical books."

Neil Skjoldal,

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

"Reading the Historical Books is clearly organized, presents reading strategies in an accessible manner, and effectively uses analogies from contemporary culture and history. . . . As a text geared for demonstrating how to read the biblical historical books, this volume achieves its goal and is ideal for college undergraduates or for a congregational adult education series."

Kristin A. Swanson,


"Dutcher-Walls reveals excellent pedagogical skills even as she makes ancient historiography, a topic commonly unfamiliar to the average undergraduate student, very accessible. The student reader of this book is offered the essentials necessary to engage deeply with the historical books. . . . Dutcher-Walls has provided a great entry-level book for studying the biblical historical books as well as a great refresher for those already well versed in the primary texts. . . . It is a pedagogical triumph."

Steven Stiles,

Expository Times

"The book itself is a pedagogical tool, with suggestions for further reading and discussion questions at the end of each chapter, as well as inserts throughout the book containing either questions or further information. . . . This book is evidence that Dutcher-Walls is both a seasoned scholar and an experienced teacher. It is highly recommended."

Dianne Bergant, CSA,

The Bible Today

"Dutcher-Walls states that her intent was to write a book that prepares students for a more in-depth study of the historical books, and in this she has succeeded. . . . Dutcher-Walls concludes her book with a helpful ten-page definition of biblical historiography that summarizes its characteristics and elements. Other helpful features include maps, tables, and short excursuses on various related topics. . . . There are text boxes with 'Questions for Careful Readers' throughout the book. At the end of each chapter, there are suggested readings and discussion questions, and scripture and topic indices enable easy reference. Dutcher-Walls provides an accessible and engaging supplemental guide to the historical books that is ideal for undergraduate and seminary students."

Mark Wirtz,

Review and Expositor

"Dutcher-Walls' book is intended for students from beginning to end. Its prose is clear, its organization lucid, and it has a judicious sprinkling of charts, maps, and discussion questions. The rhetoric is that of a friendly teacher, frequently using second-person address, and making light references to familiar examples in technology and popular media. . . . Again and again, I found myself admiring Dutcher-Walls' ability to say true (and important) things without getting into those controversies and reconstructions that bedevil the biblical scholar, and confuse the beginning student. It may be that for many students, this invaluable guide to basic contextual and literary questions, this straightforward presentation of ancient historiography, is a necessary precursor to deeper questions of sources and theology."

Jonathan Huddleston,

Stone-Campbell Journal

"The word 'engaging' in the subtitle of this book is important to note, as the focus is not on just explaining the content of the books Joshua through to Esther but on helping students of the Bible interact with the text of Scripture at a deeper level. To that end, [Dutcher-Walls] assists her readers to gain certain exegetical skills and to become more aware of the cultural and historical background of the Old Testament historical books. . . . What is particularly pleasing in her presentation is that Professor Dutcher-Walls does not see the Bible's literary qualities, theological commitments, and historical accuracy as tradeoffs but instead shows that they are fully compatible with each other."

Gregory Goswell,

New Life

"Today's readers of the Bible's Historical Books need a guide--like this one--that explores the text's social context, the methods and inner workings of biblical storytelling, and the narrative techniques used to convey authors' larger messages. . . . The book achieves its aim of uncovering for today's audiences what the first readers and hearers of Historical Books of the Bible would have 'taken for granted.'. . . Substantive yet accessible, Reading the Historical Books poses 'Questions for Careful Readers' throughout the book. . . . Dutcher-Walls also suggests reading strategies that can be helpful in better understanding other parts of Scripture."

Abram Kielsmeier-Jones,

Bible Study Magazine

"[This book] is a very good introduction to how to read the historical books of the Bible and can help any reader understand and appreciate the historical books as stories written by and for real people. The book is systematic and clear in its approach, and Dutcher-Walls does a masterful job taking an academically complex process and bringing it 'down-to-earth' in an accessible way by connecting examples from the historical books with modern analogies. It is also highly practical; the 'Questions for Careful Readers' sections throughout the book can make both 'rookie' and 'veteran' students of the Bible better exegetes and teachers of the text. For these reasons, this book is a helpful introduction for any student of the Bible, but would be especially useful for college students, seminarians, pastors, and laypeople in the church who are interested in being attentive, for their own sake and for the sake of those they teach and lead, to the rich shape and depth of the choices the authors of the historical books have made in writing their histories."

Adam Darbonne,

Books at a Glance

"A unique and helpful supplement to the study of the historical books of the Bible. As a student textbook it is easily accessible and provides help in knowing how to read and make sense of the historical narratives. . . . In considering how the historical intersects with theological interpretation, Dutcher-Walls's discussion is helpful in drawing attention to how the very act of writing is a historical phenomenon."

Karen R. Keen,

Interpreting Scripture blog