John Walton, Wisdom for Faithful Reading Principles and Practices for Old Testament Interpretation

Walton, John. Wisdom for Faithful Reading: Principles and Practices for Old Testament Interpretation. IVP Academic, 2023. xv+226 pp. Pb. $24.00   Link to IVP Academic  

John Walton has written extensively on the Old Testament, including the popular textbooks A Survey of the Old Testament (with Andrew Hill, Zondervan 1991) and Old Testament Today (Zondervan 2004), commentaries in Genesis and Job NIVAC series, and several books in his The Lost World series (IVP Academic).

Old Testament Interpretation

The introduction is divided into five brief parts. First, Walton states his quest: faithful interpretation. Second, he states two caveats. Our goal is faithful interpretation, not right interpretation. This humbly recognizes that you may be wrong and need more evidence. Since interpretation happens in a community, Walton has three essential commitments: accountability, consistency, and control.

In the fourth part of the introduction, Walton offers four fundamental concepts for interpretation. First, context is everything. This includes linguistic, literary, cultural, and theological. He illustrates these points with a particular text drawn from the Old Testament. Second, interpretation matters. Meaning can only be determined by interpretation. Third, he suggests we mind the gaps. Interpretation requires readers to fill in gaps since authors just don’t tell us everything. “Filling in the gaps” can lead readers astray. Fourth, interpretation is complicated. Faithful interpretation is hard work because we are reading ancient documents, and this is rarely a straightforward process. He illustrates this with the mysterious Nephilim (Genesis 6:4).

Finally, in the fifth part of the introduction, Walton gives five principles for faithful interpretation. First, an author’s message carries the authority of scripture. Second, an author’s message is couched in his own language and culture. Third, our accountability in interpretation is to track with the author in the text he produced. Fourth, our interpretation should be supported with evidence identifying the author’s intention. Fifth, our task is to find our place in God’s story (17).

After this introduction, Walton gives twelve general principles for faithful interpretation. Some of these will not be controversial, such as “All translation is interpretation.” However, some readers may wonder about principles like “the Bible is written for us but not to us” or “the Old Testament is not about Jesus, but it drives us to Jesus.” He illustrates each principle with examples from the Old Testament and offers ample footnotes to more technical discussions in academic literature.

The second major part of the book offers genre-specific guidelines. This builds on Chapter 11, “A genre discussion must precede an authority conversation.” Often, faithful interpretation requires us to know something about the genre of the literature we are reading. The genre of modern books illustrates this principle. One does not read Harry Potter the same way one reads a biography of Abraham Lincoln, nor does one read an op-ed column the same way one reads a baseball box score. Each genre requires different mental tools. Walton, therefore, has five chapters on the Pentateuch, four on Narrative, three on Wisdom and Psalms, and five on prophecy and apocalyptic.

To illustrate this section of the book, I will focus only on his comments on prophecy and apocalyptic. First, like most Old Testament scholars, Walton observes He also observed that fulfillment of prophecy is distinct from the message. Prophecy has far more to do with revealing God’s plan than revealing the future. Second, it is crucial to understand that prophecy is not always a prediction. Although sometimes there is prediction, this accounts for a very small percentage of the prophetic books. Third, some readers may be surprised by his observation that apocalyptic is not prophecy. This is important since apocalyptic literature often describes the world the writer lives in through the apocalyptic genre. However, I suggest that there are occasional prophecies in an apocalyptic book.

The last section includes three chapters on application. If readers attempt to read scripture well (by which Walton means faithfully), how should they live?  First, Walton encourages readers to avoid using the Old Testament for proof texts. Typically, people only turn to Leviticus to search for verses forbidding certain sins (and ignoring the rest). Second, he suggests readers avoid searching the Old Testament for inspirational nuggets (these are things your grandmother forwards you on Facebook). Third, he also warns against searching for Jesus or the gospel in the Old Testament. He illustrates this point with several examples of bad allegorical interpretations of the Song of Solomon or the Tabernacle. Last, he points out the danger of mixing up promises made specifically for Israel and turning them into personal promises. Applying Jeremiah 29:11 is the classic example of this error since people tend to think this is about their personal relationship with Jesus rather than explicitly addressing Israel in exile.

Conclusion. Wisdom for Faithful Reading is something like a primer for Old Testament Interpretation. The book targets the “academically minded people in the church who want to improve their reading of the Old Testament” (xv). Even though Walton states in his preface that the book was not intended to be a textbook, it would be an excellent addition to an “Introduction to the Bible” or “Old Testament Survey” university or seminary class. Since the style is accessible for the layperson, the book would fit well in a church Bible study or Sunday School class.

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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