At a conference early last year (2015), a speaker recommended Wanda Robinson’s Unsung Heroes (and a Few Villains): A Women’s Study of Lesser-Known Men in the Old Testament (Gospel Advocate, 2015). I decided not to judge the book by its messy title and bought a copy. Unfortunately, that book recommendation was probably better left ignored.
The study guide contains thirteen chapters, each centered on some of the relatively minor roles found in the Bible: Ishmael, Hur, Ithamar, Caleb, Korah, Achan, Boaz, Nabal’s servant, the 450 prophets of Baal, Gehazi, the man who touched Elisha’s bones, King Manasseh, and Ebed-Melech. The author notes some key lessons the reader can learn along with some questions for group discussion.
While I liked the overall idea and appreciated some of the insights offered, I was overwhelmingly disappointed with the book. There’s enough commentary in the Bible on some characters like Caleb and Boaz to draw some conclusions. However, featuring others like Hur and Ebed-Melech just led to a lot of unfounded speculation. The bitter truth is that the Bible just doesn’t give enough information about many individuals for us to undertake a worthwhile character analysis. Imaginative elaborations might work for fictionalized stories and feature films, but pretending that certain case studies exist when they don’t isn’t helpful for a Bible study, especially a grown-ups’ one.
The other thing that bothered me was the factual errors. This not only calls into question the author’s competence, but also that of the editor. Robinson confuses the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. (No, Babylon was never the Assyrian capital.) She claims that Ishmael was a slave because of his mother’s status. (No, this wasn’t colonial Virginia.) And she repeats a really silly story about Zulus catching ring-tailed monkeys with melons. (It’s ring-tailed lemurs. And what those Zulus were doing in Madagascar, I don’t know.) Clearly, the author never did her research, and this is the age of Google.
Needless to say, I can’t pass on the recommendation. In many churches, women’s education is sadly neglected, but books like this one don’t improve the situation. We don’t need more authors who take passages out of context or repeat a story as true because it makes a desired point. We don’t need more authors who cite one verse in six different Bible versions when Strong’s Concordance will just tell you that na‛ar can mean both “servant” and “young man.” Instead, we need authors who will fact-check, authors who will bring the content up a notch. And we need ruthless editors, who will send manuscripts back for revision until they’re truly ready for publication.