Friday, February 05, 2010
  The Invention of Hebrew: first and last paragraphs
Not having read the whole book, or even (yet) the beginning and ending of each chapter put me at a disadvantage in reading the "Conclusion". I am not sure whether it is a "tell 'em what you told them" or a "so here's what that all means" conclusion.

Maybe I'll have to rethink and read the first and last paragraph(s) of each chapter first - different books need to be read differently. Actually already with chapter one it is clear that I should read the first few paragraphs, down to the first section heading, as evidently these are Seth's intro to the chapter as a whole.

Actually, I'm going to revise my approach. Not just because (unusually) I am reading the whole of this book - my normal approach to reading is geared at avoiding reading more than I need ;) But because (having peeked at the beginnings and endings) the chapters look so exciting I want to read them properly before I savour the conclusion.

This is how books should be written!

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010
  The Invention of Hebrew: First impressions
At SBL Seth told me that in exchange for a review here (and/or in a journal) his publisher would be willing to send me a copy of his new book:
Sanders, Seth L. The Invention of Hebrew. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

How could I refuse, the pre-publication hype and Seth's own descriptions of the book suggest that I'll either love or hate it. It seems it addresses my passionate interest in the intersection of culture and technology, especially writing and communications technologies. And it is focused on the "invention of Hebrew". My only sadness was that I had to wait till I returned home from a ten week working trip/holiday in Thailand and other interesting places. I'm home, and along with other goodies the book was waiting for me :) I'll post the review here in several parts, and I'll follow my usual procedure for reading a book (rather than for writing a traditional review, which aims to become a seamless whole) and post piecemeal as I read.

So first I looked at the most important bits (at least for getting an overall idea of a book):
  • Publishers blurb
  • Table of contents
  • (Index etc.) not a read just a quick scan
  • Preface (unless the first sentence or two suggest it is a waste of time)
The Invention of Hebrew is an attractively produced small volume (171 pages of text - no small is good, big just means more waffle like an airport block buster a waste of time, and in an academic book probably not entertaining either). The paper feels nice, though the print could be larger and sharper or I could be younger and sharper. It has a short but useful looking index and a bibliography. (Don't you hate books where you have to hunt the notes for the first mention of a work you need to consult!) Priced at $50 but the publisher (University of Illinois Press, who have a strong stable of interesting Bible related works now) it is even better value at Amazon for $40. By only complaint so far - and if you read this Seth please pass it on to the series editor - is that it follows the idiotic habit of listing the notes at the back and numbering them separately for each chapter. (This device developed in the BC period when it was hard work for poor writers and editors to keep track of all the notes and difficult for typesetters to place them at the foot of the relevant page. Computers changed all this. But graphic designers like "clean-looking pages" and actual users are not considered, once we have bought a copy publishers have no interest in our reading experience. Readers of academic texts need references, so either use the Harvard system of inline references, or use footnotes!)

The publishers blurb claims that Seth's book is groundbreaking: "absolutely innovative", "makes new knowledge", "first book to..." It also suggests that the work has an interesting thesis that Hebrew was a "self-conscious political language" promoting "a source of power previously unknown in written literature: 'the people' as the protagonist of religion and politics". Which is nicely sweeping and in a bookstore would lead me to open the work.

The preface is not at all one of the dead and dull ones that give "preface" a bad name, it is lively, quasi-autobiographical, and tells us that Seth intends to address loads of interesting questions:
  • Language and identity: "Did writing always flow from your spoken language and everyday identity, or did the relationship change? And if it did could that change who you were?"
  • Bible and politics The history of how "the Bible exercises power: through the manner in which it speaks to people". Have maximalists and minimalists both connived at reducing politics in Ancient Israel to the exercise of state power? (A question dear to the heart of every aspiring Anabaptist ;)
  • Biblical Studies and the academy "What does biblical studies have to say to the rest of the academy?"
The table of contents reads as if the book were a collection of unrelated essays:
  1. Modernity's Ghosts: The Bible as Political Communication
  2. What Was the Alphabet For?
  3. Empires and Alphabets in Late Bronze Age Canaan
  4. The Invention of Hebrew in Iron Age Israel
The four chapters are enclosed by an "Introduction" and a "Conclusion", but their titles do not strongly suggest their coherence and progression. Each looks interesting but they do not obviously work together. However, the sort of questions foregrounded in the "Preface" suggests that the blurb may not be exaggerating, this could be a ground breaking and interesting book. So I am hoping the "Introduction"will reveal how the chapters work.

All in all, I can hardly wait to read the "Introduction" and "Conclusion" tomorrow!

(But today I must make more progress on my chapter for The Gospel and the Land of Promise. My chapter will either be titled: "'Exile away from his land:' is landlessness the ultimate punishment in Amos?" or perhaps: "Land and earth, judgement and gospel in Amos".)

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009
  Jesus as fulfilment of Scripture: Slavery and Spanking
Photo by lucyfrench123
This second of my recast podcasts continues thinking about Jesus as "fulfilment" of the Scriptures, by examininging at one topic that's been agreed universally by the Church universal for decades, and another that, in NZ where a bill whose detractors claimed would criminalise parents spanking children, was in the daily headlines when I recorded the 'cast.

You can download it here.

I'm working with this material again for a possible short series in Daystar an NZ Evangelical monthly, which will be republishing my piece on families in the Bible in their December issue.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009
  How does Jesus "fulfill" Scripture
One of the difficult issues for many of my students is the notion of Jesus fulfilling Scripture. The only way they can think of "fulfilment" in this context seems to be predictions and their fulfilment. This means that they have to understand much of the Old Testament as making a series of predictions that would have been total gobbledegook to their first hearers or readers (even assuming that the Holy Spirit had explained enough to the "prophet" so that they could make head or tail of them). This Nostradamus view of prophecy is widespread among Christians. Yet I think it is nonsense.

So, here is the first of two audio posts discussing what it might mean for Jesus to "fulfil" Scripture:

What DOES "fulfil" mean?

PS this post is the first of several over the next few weeks while I will be either or both extremely busy or travelling in which I will repost here things that were first put on my 5 Minute Bible podcast if you first saw them there I apologise for cross-posting after all this time.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007
  Audio Blog Posts
I have posted a couple of new items to the 5 Minute Bible site this week:

After a long gap for marking since the previous post:

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Thursday, November 08, 2007
  Elementary, my dear Watson!
cash advanceWell, they are all doing it, first (I think) in "our" circles AKMA, then JPS both of whom run genius level blogs! Susanne gave us a brief round up, though the best anyone except John (who, I am reliably informed, cheats by pasting lots of Hebrew into every post) could achieve on her tests was Postgraduate Level. So I gave in to the temptation (I blame it on the marking it makes me go all light-headed) and tested Sansblogue. You can see the result on the right...

So, for those whose heads are aching from reading all those Genius-level posts, just come over here for a rest!

In the meantime, I have four exegeses and about thirty blog assignments to mark, so you'll be on a diet of pictures for another few days yet, which will probably lower the reading age required even further ;-) but should encourage some of you to book for SBL International in this beautiful land next July!

Today's "wish I was there" photo is of Kaikoura (where we went whale watching and saw loads, but were very sick, they said the sea was "very lumpy", they were right :(

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Saturday, August 18, 2007
  How to avoid reading books
Good students avoid reading books. To explain this I need to start by describing how average students read, so you will understand what I mean.

Many of us try to read wrong

The average student faced with a book reads it. They begin at the beginning (or more likely at chapter one - which as we shall see is never the right place to start), and slowly - but only sometimes surely - plough through until with a sigh they finish the chapter. Little information and few ideas are retained, the words have mysteriously passed from eye to brain, only to drain out through the pores of the skin to be join the other lost words in linguistic limbo. Such reading is the next best thing to useless. That is time spent in "uselessness" would have been invested more wisely, for wasted time often pays a surprising dividend, time spent reading this way seldom does!

Having described how one ought not to read books, and hinted at why, let's think about how to avoid reading books. The aim of the smart student is to read as little as possible but gain the maximum intellectual benefit from what one reads.

I've always been a slow reader, I try to cope by "reading smarter".

One way I do this is to "waste time" overviewing something before reading it:

Contents list

Even if it is only chapter titles, this page or two should give you a fair idea of what the book is about and how it is organised - a few moments (1mo is shorter than 1min but much longer than 10secs) spent well on the contents list means you can already make intelligent guesses about where to find what, and even join a conversation about the book without sounding totally stupid.

At this stage, if you glance at the foreword (that's the bit before the first chapter - it often tells you what the author though their book was about, and so is often vital reading!) - and the conclusion (yes like detective stories serious textbooks demand you read the ending early on!) you should be able to write a summary of the book in a few sentences - this is a skill worth practising for when you become a teacher, because then with all that marking you will no longer have the luxury of actually reading books ;-)

Go on, write the summary down! At the very worst you can look back at it later and shake your head over how naive you were before you understood the full complexity of the topic ;-)


Look first at beginnings, endings and headings to try to get an idea of what the each chapter is about and how the different parts fit in.

Then skip through the material, not actually "reading" but reading a bit here and there to firm up your idea of what it is about and where it is going. By now you should be able to join a conversation about the chapter and sound like you read it!

Essential "reading"
: they say a picture is worth 1000 words (1Kw in metric measures), well it is true a well chosen picture is worth 1Kw, though badly chosen pictures are worth-less (however, they are fun to look at, so worth wasting time on ;-) charts, tables and diagrams are usually (even when badly done) worth at least 1Kw - so spend time on them!

The right way to read is much like the way we "read" the newspaper or a magazine!

At this stage you should be able to write a brief summary of the chapter - yes, just like you did for the book earlier.

Important "bits"

Then read carefully the bits that you think matter most. Seldom (using this approach) will you actually "read" all of a chapter, but you will get a good idea of what is in it - often better than if you had scanned each of the words!

I find if I try to read page by page that it goes in my eyes and out my ears. If I try to read that way page after page it is all forgotten five minutes after I scanned the page. Such reading is a waste of time - don't do it!

Sometimes with this scheme you will end up reading nearly everything twice - but it will be a chapter or book that really matters. Sometimes you will end up not reading some pages at all - but you will know where they are if you need them "one day"!

In summary

Do a survey of the book, or chapter (much as suggested above - playing about till you know what it contains, and where things are) then actually read carefully the "bits" that matter to you.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007
  Mouth-feel and the Bible
How do you (I/we) read the Bible? Since many of us are biblical scholars, and others are students, theologians and the like (I'm guessing from the readers of SansBlogue whom I know about from the comments you leave - I suppose it's possible there are a hundred lurkers who are all bakers, or candlestick makers but somehow I doubt it ;-)
  • the short simple answer is "with our eyes"
  • the longer, more complex answer is "carefully".
Withering Fig has has a nice post Of Ancient Texts and Hypertexts which begins from noticing how we read hypertexts differently. (Though perhaps we should note that many of us read newspapers and magazines more like we read hypertexts - and perhaps some of us [I did NOT say this, so do NOT quote me!] read academic articles similarly, until we have to respond to them in an academic article of our own ;-)

But goes on to describe the different relationship to and feel of a biblical text if it is read aloud. He wonders:
if it might be better for me to read the words aloud. Let them wrap around me. What does the scansion tell me? Where does the stress fall naturally? Perhaps rhythm is more important than word order.
Since biblical texts were written to be read, that is read aloud to an audience - not scanned more or less carefully with the eyes in a study, and since many of them may well have existed orally before being written at all, this question seems to me a no brainer. Never mind the syntax, get the mouth-feel first. Then analyse. (Since the Bible is an ancient text, separated from us in time, culture and by language, we MUST analyse.) Then, return to reading the text, and get the mouth-feel again informed by the analytical study.

Incidentally, I think much the same applies to non-scholarly readers, hear the Bible as well as looking at it. Just looking at the Bible risks making you into a Bible idolater, hearing the Bible risks making you try to follow its advice - much more dangerous, and worthwhile... but that's another post.

PS: See also How to avoid reading books for advice on reading academic texts in non-linear manner!

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