Published by B&H Academic on December 1, 2019
Genres: Academic, Theology
Buy on Amazon
Urban Legends of the Old Testament surveys forty of the most commonly misinterpreted passages in the Old Testament. These “urban legends” often arise because interpreters neglect a passage’s context, misuse historical background information, or misunderstand the original language of the text.
With a pastoral tone and helpful explanations of where the error originally occurred, authors David A. Croteau and Gary E. Yates tackle legendary biblical misinterpretations of topics like the origin of evil or the purpose of Mosaic food laws, as well as common misconceptions about dinosaurs, or NASA discovering Joshua’s long day. Urban Legends of the Old Testament will help readers avoid missteps in the interpretation of key biblical texts while modeling interpretative techniques that can also be applied to other Old Testament passages.
As a pastor and public theologian, one of my pet peeves in Christian culture is the moralistic way in which the Old Testament is often taught. Whether in children’s Sunday School classes or from the pulpit, I’ve seen improper leaps over exegesis to make Old Testament figures full of conflict and nuance more two-dimensional than their flannelgraph counterparts. Or, I’ve seen churches and pastors try very hard to give proper cultural context but fall victim to sourceless stories and unverified myths. Urban Legends of the Old Testament by David Croteau and Gary Yates seeks to take a look at forty of the most common misconceptions in and about the Old Testament.
This book follows up Croteau’s solo work Urban Legends of the New Testament. As a NT scholar (he’s an NT and Greek prof at Columbia), this was right in his wheelhouse. For this Old Testament counterpart, he brings in Gary Yates, a professor of Old Testament at Liberty University School of Divinity.
Despite this (and despite being published by an academic imprint), Urban Legends of the Old Testament is a very readable and accessible book. Each misconception is covered in about six to seven pages and follows a fairly clear structure of:
- Explaining the “legendary teaching” in one paragraph.
- Countering the legend in one paragraph.
- Exegeting the passage in five or so pages.
- Providing application in one paragraph.
The misconceptions are listed in order as they appear in Scripture (Genesis–Malachi), allowing readers to make their way through the Old Testament page by page and be challenged by responses to common, popular-level interpretations.
The “legends” range from widely known to obscure (at least in my own experience), from trivial to important, and from patently false to a potentially valid interpretation. Here’s some randomized examples:
- Radical Islam has Inherited Ishmael’s Violent Spirit (Genesis 16:12)
- The Angel of the LORD Refers to the Pre-Incarnate Jesus (Genesis 18:1-13)
- The Old Testament Law is Divided into Three Parts (Deuteronomy 6:1)
- NASA Found Joshua’s Long Day (Joshua 10:12-15)
- Without Vision, People Perish (Proverbs 29:18)
- Song of Songs is a Biblical Model for Dating and Marriage (Song of Songs 3:6-5:1)
- God Has Promised You a Bright and Prosperous Future (Jeremiah 29:11)
The problem comes when potentially valid interpretations—interpretations that are debated at the academic level—are given the same treatment as interpretations that are only discussed in emails that begin FWD: FWD: FWD: fwd: fwd: DID YOU KNOW??!?. Let me give you three examples:
True Urban Legend | Urban Legends of the Old Testament
Only a few of the entries in this book are true urban legends. The most prominent is that NASA found Joshua’s long day. There’s no exegesis involved here. The issue is not with the ancient text but with a present assertion. (And that may be waning…I hadn’t heard this promoted seriously since the 1990s. Snopes has an article debunking this written in 2000.) With ridiculousness of the claim debunked, Croteau and Yates can then move to modern science and the ancient text to view possible explanations. That’s an urban legend.
Popular Level Misinterpretation | Urban Legends of the Old Testament
The majority of the entries are really about popular level misinterpretations or misappropriations of Scripture. Croteau and Yates discuss Gideon’s “putting out the fleece” to determine the will of God and the popular-level misinterpretation that reads this as a positive thing Gideon does that we should emulate. However, the purpose of the text is to show that it is Gideon’s lack of faith that leads him to ask for a sign. God’s will had been made perfectly clear in the text. This entry is able to talk about the fallacy of reducing the OT narrative and its players into morality tales.
Another example in the book is Proverbs 29:18, “without vision, the people perish.” I once listened a very prominent evangelical megachurch pastor preach a whole series (and write a book, and release a small group study) on this misinterpretation of this proverb. Croteau and Yates rightfully discuss the necessity of vision casting but carefully walk through the verse to explain why that’s not the focus of the verse. They interpret it “Social harmony and restraint cannot be achieved without the exhortations of the prophets and the teaching of the law.”
Debated Interpretation | Urban Legends of the Old Testament
While the first two types of entries are appropriate for this book, there were a couple that I felt had enough academic background that the phrase “urban legend” seemed inappropriate, particularly when placing them on the same level as “NASA finds Joshua’s lost day.” The best—maybe only—example of this (others from different denominations or traditions may disagree) is their assertion that the belief that Angel of the LORD is Jesus is a legend.
They have a whole section recognizing that the terms “Angel of the Lord” and “Yahweh” are used interchangeably in Scripture. They even quote Douglas Stuart, writing in the Exodus volume of the New American Commentary series that the burning bush being referenced as the Angel of the Lord is strong evidence that they are the same. Ultimately, they determine that there are enough distinguishing markers that they do not feel comfortable with that assertion.
But there’s a wide difference from calling a popular email forward an urban legend and calling a belief cited and believed by many scholars an urban legend. I’m okay with its inclusion, but there needed to be some recognition of a level of difference between obvious falsities and times the authors think that certain exegetical decisions are unwarranted.
Overall, Urban Legends of the Old Testament was a worthwhile read. It gives me easy access to debunk some of the common myths my congregants have had ingrained into their belief system. The structural breakdown is simple and easy to follow. The explanations are clear and concise—even when they should have been a bit more robust. This is what I would consider an “advanced lay level” book. If you have seminary training, you should have already confronted and corrected these myths in your education. It’s something I’d point to any layperson wanting to get a deeper grasp on the Old Testament.