Review: Including the Stranger

including the stranger

Including the Stranger (New Studies in Biblical Theology), David G. Firth. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A study of the former prophets that makes the case that God was not an exclusivist who hated foreigners, but that God welcomed the stranger who believed and excluded the Israelite who repudiated him.

Many people have the idea that in the Old Testament, God hates foreigners. At worst, some have called him a genocidal monster. David G. Firth argues from the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings)  for something far different. He believes that these books reveal a picture of a God who includes the foreigner who believes, works through such people for the benefit of Israel, and that ultimately, the people of God were defined not by ethnicity but by faith.

In Joshua, he contrasts the faith of Rahab the Canaanite prostitute (and ancestor of David and Christ), with Achan, who takes for himself what was to be devoted to destruction, to the destruction of his fellow Israelites and his own family. Firth also points to the inclusion of the Gibeonites and their subsequent role. In Judges, he contrasts Othniel the Kenite (an outsider), the paradigm judge who saves Israel from the invading nations, with the nation itself, divided by tribal rivalries and becoming more like the surrounding nations.

The books of Samuel contrast Israel who wants to be like other nations and Saul, whose kingship is shaped more by his responses to foreign adversaries than obedience to God, with David, the man after God’s heart, who slays Goliath who dares to taunt against Yahweh. Later, we see David the unfaithful adulterer and murderer of the faithful Hittite soldier Uriah. And when David’s actions bring a plague ln Israel, it is Araunah, the Jebusite, whose threshing floor becomes the site of an altar to Yahweh at the point where the plague stops.

In the books of the Kings, once again, it is the vindication of the greatness of Yahweh over the nations that results in the defeat of the Assyrians confronting Hezekiah. Often, as in Judges, the incursions of the nations are a judgment for Israel’s faithlessness. When Yahweh acts, it is that the nations may know him (2 Kings 19:19). Perhaps the height of this expression of concern for the foreigner is in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple:

As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name—for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name. (I Kings 8:41-43, NIV).

Later, Naaman is a striking example of one who finds healing through faith in Israel’s God. Firth then concludes his treatment by tracing this trajectory of concern for including the stranger into the New Testament, and makes application to the church.

Firth’s point in all this is to show that the people of God may include foreigners, and exclude unfaithful Israelites. Foreigner nations face judgment not because they are foreigners, but when they embrace rivals to the living God and represent a threat to lure Israel into the same. Sometimes, these nations are instruments to draw Israel back to God through invasions.

Firth does a service in calling our attention to the numerous instances of the inclusion of the foreigner in the Former Prophets, and God’s revealed intentions, material overlooked by those who attack these books. In so doing he demonstrates that there is a greater continuity in the two testaments than may be thought. Some may find his inference that the people were destroyed or driven out not because of their ethnicity but because of the rival gods they believed in inadequate to justify this destruction. To fully address this would require a much longer book. What Firth does is show us that the actual case is far more nuanced than is popularly portrayed. While we cannot get away from violence against the nations, there is also an ongoing thread of the inclusion of foreigners from Rahab, to the paradigm judge, Othniel, to Naaman and many others that reveal God’s over-riding concern for his glory among the nations and the inclusion of all who believe into the people of God.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature

interpreting old testament wisdom literature

Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature, Edited by David G. Firth and Lindsay Wilson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A collection of articles on the wisdom literature of the Bible, discussing each book as well as recent developments in Wisdom literature scholarship.

Many of us find the Wisdom books (commonly Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs) as both confusing and compelling. Is there some rhyme or reason to the organization of Proverbs? What is the point of Job, his suffering, and all those long speeches? Is everything really hebel or as it is sometimes translated, empty, as Ecclesiastes would tell us? And Song of Songs, is it a sensuous love story, or something more?

The collection of essays in this volume touch on all these questions and more in their survey of the recent scholarship of the Wisdom literature. The work begins with Craig Bartholomew’s overview of current Wisdom literature scholarship. I found his framework of seeing this scholarship in terms of a series of “turns” quite helpful: historical criticism, then literary criticism, followed by postmodern criticism, and finally theological criticism. He surveys the important contributions of each. His most helpful advice:

“What Christian scholars should not do is continue to work away at sites in wisdom studies determined by others who have no interest in reading Old Testament wisdom as Scripture. We always need to be in dialogue with scholars of diverse views, but a Christian perspective will alert us to particular work sites crying out for hard labour if we are to retrieve Old Testament wisdom as Scripture today” (p. 33).

Part Two of the work devotes a chapter each to Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Ernest Lucas covers a wide range of issues from questions of structure in Proverbs, the focus on character and consequences in its nuances and contradictions, the personification of Wisdom, and the use of women in various personifications, questions of gender in who is speaking at different points in Proverbs, and the connection of wisdom and creation. Lindsay Wilson’s essay of Job focuses on the faith of Job, and how this is expressed both in the trial he undergoes, and the trial to which he would subject God. Katherine J. Dell’s essay reviews recent scholarship in Ecclesiastes, considering particularly the question of the unity of the book and the tension between pessimism, realism and joy, all of which one will find at some point. Rosalind Clarke explores the question of what wisdom might be found in the Song of Songs, finding evidence that there is wisdom for women, parallels to the personified Woman Wisdom of Proverbs, and in the role of Solomon.

Part Three on Themes considers broader issues. It begins with a delightful essay asking “Is Ruth Among the Wise?” In Hebrew scriptures (as opposed to those most of us read) Ruth follows Proverbs 31 and Gregory Goswell proposes that this “encourages an appreciation of its heroine as an example of the wisdom ethic that is taught in the book of Proverbs” (p. 117). Leonard Boström takes on the theme of retribution in Wisdom literature, that our actions will bring good or bad consequences based on the character of the act–that the righteous will prosper and the wicked suffer. The discussion of the differing portrayals of this principle in different books was helpful under the common but sometimes challenging understanding that retribution traces back to a sovereign creator who ordains in his creation certain consequences for actions, but that this does not reduce to an uncomplicated formula as, in the case of Job, the righteous suffer, and the wicked sometimes prosper. David G. Firth looks at wisdom in Old Testament narrative, and the paradox that the wise often are not approved by God, when “wisdom” is not accompanied by obedience to God. Christopher B. Ansberry considers the contribution of Wisdom literature to biblical theology, where there often seems to be a disjunct between the two. He highlights contributions to cosmology, anthropology, and ethics, and also how Jesus is presented as the wise man par excellence. Simon P. Stocks calls our attention to the “wisdom psalms” and the way their voicing parallels Lady Wisdom of Proverbs 8. Brittany N. Melton concludes the book with what I thought was one of the highlights of the collection, an exploration of “divine absence” in the Wisdom literature. She concludes:

“Wisdom is the way to God, but is not always attainable. As such, the determination to find wisdom was fuelled by the sages’ search for divine presence. And yet, even if wisdom is found, the mystery of God is preserved. In the wisdom literature we have a prime example of the tension between divine presence and absence. Insofar as wisdom is personified and takes on a much larger literary presence than God in these books, this speaks to divine absence. Where is God? He is hidden behind Wisdom (p. 216).

What I appreciated about this collection of essays was not only the many connections they made for me (including that of thinking of Ruth in light of Proverbs 31), but also that they exemplified Craig Bartholomew’s exhortation to scholars. Each studied these works as scripture, and engaged in their retrieval as scripture today, nourishing in this reader the desire to read these works of wisdom once more to hear in them the word of the Lord. This is an important resource not only in the academic setting, but for all who would teach the Wisdom literature, and who want their students or congregants to not only be informed of the latest scholarship, but to be shaped by hearing these books afresh as “scripture today.”