Corrine L. CARVALHO, Encountering Ancient Voices: A Guide to Reading the Old Testament. Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press, 2006. pp 496. $43.75 ppb. ISBN-13:978-0-88489-911-2.
Reviewed by Kathleen M. FISHER, Assumption College, Worcester, MA 01609

There are many things to like about this introduction to the Old Testament, starting with its main goal of “empower[ing] students to read the Bible.” To that end Carvalho has developed her text with a clear, precise, and progressive pedagogy. In fifteen chapters and an Epilogue, she carefully guides students into the Old Testament (a terminology choice she immediately explains on p. 6), describing the historical-critical method in parts along the way. The advantage to this, I think, is that students can see the methodology at work as they read the Bible themselves, rather than trying to absorb the theory all at once before even beginning to read Scripture.

Each chapter has two major divisions: an explanation of the literary, historical, and cultural background of the selected Biblical book followed by a methodical analysis of key passages. In addition to a synopsis and study questions, Carvalho offers a feature called “In Case You Were Wondering” in which she explains some of the culturally specific terms, phrases, or places that are likely to trip students up in their reading. Each chapter is supplemented by black and white photos, sidebars, and tables, and concludes with a summary, review questions, and a short annotated reading list that promotes manageable research assignments.

Some of the features I especially like about this textbook are its conversational tone, its regular reinforcement of learning, and its emphasis on the layers of meaning in Biblical texts. Carvalho’s literary style is informal, often talking directly to the students as if she were teaching a class. Though at some points this feels a little folksy, overall I think it works to keep the students engaged in the subject as it addresses the growing problem of their difficulty in reading more traditional academic texts.

Another appealing feature is the “Review and Preview” section which Carvalho uses to help students reinforce and integrate what they have learned. This feature appears only twice, but each at a critical juncture in studying the Old Testament: as a pedagogical pause between the Pentateuch and the Conquest (p. 126) and again before beginning a study of the Second Temple Period (p. 338).

A third notable accomplishment is the way in which Carvalho’s text models the exegetical skills and mindset students need to read critically. She analyzes and discusses the Biblical stories as multilayered in meaning, challenging the students’ tendency to reduce the texts to a single moral or religious interpretation. She corrects students’ common belief that the Bible was created as one unified work by demonstrating the diversity – perhaps even contradictions – among the books of the Bible. For example, in chapter fifteen Carvalho presents the Books of Ecclesiastes, Job, and Daniel as what she calls the Israelites’ “skeptical literature,” writings that reveal their pessimism about God.

Another editorial decision that reinforces the skill of close and deep reading is Carvalho’s placement of Genesis 1-11 in the study of Wisdom Literature (Chapter 13), rather than as the first Scripture students read. Placing these stories with works like Proverbs and the Book of Job demonstrates their philosophical complexity which may tame students’ desire to read them literally and “scientifically” (thus missing their purpose). Having read much of the Old Testament by this point in the textbook, students may now be more receptive to the concept of “allegory.”

My criticisms of Encountering Ancient Voices are minor. For ease of use, I would rather see the maps incorporated into the text as geography comes up rather than set off in an Appendix. I would like to have seen a lengthier discussion of the oral tradition (p. 32) to help students better appreciate the power of story. Aside from these issues, I find this a thorough and accessible introduction to the Old Testament that is likely to be user-friendly for students. It teaches them how to read critically and imaginatively and offers fresh ideas for structuring my own Bible course, much of which is spent in the Old Testament.

TO ORDER BOOKS: - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books