Review: The Problem of the Old Testament

The Problem of the Old Testament: Hermeneutical, Schematic & Theological Approaches, Duane A. Garrett. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: An exploration of how and whether Christians ought read the Old Testament, contending that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament and that its material still has authority and edifying value for the Christian.

We Christians have a problem with the Old Testament. We struggle to define what it is. We find it hard to read. And we struggle to reconcile it with the New Testament. How do we understand “Messianic prophecy”? How do we understand the Law in relation to Christ? What is the relationship between Israel and the church? In this work, Duane A. Garrett attempts to chart a way through this thicket of problems, proposing that the Old Testament remains authoritative for the church and edifying for the believer.

Garrett begins by surveying how the post-apostolic Fathers approached this question. While much remained unresolved, they identified the Old Testament as canonical, identified a core of texts that were fulfilled in Christ while seeing some passages as allegories of Christ, saw it as a source of moral instruction and a theological authority in their polemic efforts. He then explores two hermeneutical approaches that began early and have had continued influence at various points in church history: the allegorical approach of Alexandria and the literal approach of Antioch. The allegorical approach was uncontrolled; the literal could be argued to say nothing beyond the immediate context of the text (e.g Isaiah 7:14 was fulfilled in Isaiah’s own day and that is it).

He then turns to the schematic approaches used to connect the two testaments. He considers Covenant Theology, noting the difficulty of finding the language of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace in scripture. In opposition is Dispensationalism, often problematic as historic events unravel prophetic schema and because it excludes large parts of the Old Testament from the effective canon, even while it remains in the formal canon. He follows this discussion with one of conceptual solutions considering the meaning of the canon, the meaning and focus of biblical theology, and models for organizing Old Testament theology. He concludes that no single approach is adequate and believes only a hybrid model is sufficient.

The third part of the book is Garrett’s articulation of his own approach. He contends for an approach that is neither supercessionist nor dispensationalist with regard to Israel, rooted in the promise to Abraham that includes the blessing of the nations through Israel fulfilled in Christ for Israel but also including the Gentiles. He also considers the Old Testament under the two headings of Election Literature and Wisdom Literature. He focuses the remainder of this volume to Election Literature (alluding to future volumes where I assume he will discuss Wisdom Literature).

He starts with the successive covenants of the Old Testament and the developing understanding of how Israel is chosen to bring blessing and redemption to the world, chosen in Abraham, given the pedagogue of the Sinai covenant to teach, and the Davidic Covenant of an everlasting future Davidic king. These all point to a fulfillment beyond the Old Testament horizon, found in the New Covenant in Christ. Garrett turns to the Law and traditional understandings, particularly of the divisions of civil, ceremonial, and moral law–a division made nowhere in the Law itself. Garrett sees the law as part of a covenant document at the same time demonstrating a need for a new covenant, fully realized in Christ. It is both an ideal of righteousness and basis of judgement. Finally, for the believer, the law is a teacher that in Christ leads those who meditate upon it into the righteousness which is theirs in Christ.

Garrett discusses narrative, and particularly allusive patterns in narrative, where later material alludes to earlier material. He notes that we ought read such material backward, to prior texts and not forward to future ones. Finally, Garrett discusses prophecy, looking at Hosea and Joel as case studies. Considering Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I called my son.”) Garrett argues that Hosea is using representative recapitulation and that while this is not a prediction of Jesus time in Egypt, Matthew uses the same method of representative recapitulation in his account of Jesus. Hosea doesn’t predict Jesus, but Jesus fulfills Hosea, or is the culmination of this allusive material. Garrett, in an appendix, applies a similar approach to Isaiah 7:14.

I think many of us have reached similar conclusions, if we are dissatisfied with the traditional schema. What Garrett does is help us think more deliberately about the “problem” of reading the Old Testament, the different kinds of material we find there, and how we read the narrative arc where so much allusive material occurs. He brings discipline to intuition as well as an approach that avoids supercessionism or artificial constructions not grounded in scripture. Most of all, he grounds a vision of the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ in a way faithful to good interpretive practice rather than forced or undisciplined approaches. I look forward to seeing how Garrett continues to develop this approach.

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

Review: Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?

bloody, brutal and barbaric

Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?, William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: Using an incremental, redemptive ethic approach, and careful textual study, the authors argue for assessing the Old Testament warfare and war rape narratives against the Ancient Near East cultural context, the constraints on warfare for Israel, and evidence in the arc of biblical narrative that God both grieves warfare and redemptively works for the end of it.

Since 9/11, there has been an increasing focus on religiously-motivated violence including renewed attention not only to the sometimes violent history of the church, but also to the violence in the Old Testament, commanded or allowed by God. The authors of this work recognize the very real difficulties in these texts, particularly in light of our Geneva Convention ethics.

They begin by arguing that the argument of divine commands rooted in divine holiness and the evil of the Canaanites is a round peg into the square hole of modern ethics. The authors advocate instead that war be understood in terms of the biblical storyline in the Ancient Near East (ANE) context. Key is understanding God’s intention to restore the sacred space where God relates with his people lost in Eden, foreshadowed in Israel, decisively inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Jesus, looking forward to the peaceable kingdom of the new heaven and new earth, where evil is vanquished not by violence but by the word of the lamb.

The authors also develop the idea and show evidence that much of the “total kill” rhetoric of scripture reflects hyperbole, and that actually, death was most focused on military, and the kings who led them, where the general population may have been driven out of their homes. Often passages talk about “total” victories, only for subsequent passages to report continuing Canaanite presence.

Additionally, they contend that God accommodates the existing ethical practices of Israel. Perhaps the most significant argument for this “weeping God” portrayal is that unlike other victorious kings who often built temples, God banned David the warrior king from doing so, deferring the temple construction to Solomon (“shalom), the peaceful son.

It’s also striking that by ANE standards, Israel’s warfare practices are constrained. One chapter describes graphically an extensive list of atrocities common among the nations that were prohibited, as was battlefield rape. While warriors were permitted to take virgins who were attractives, they could not rape them on the battlefield. They were to be allowed 30 days to grieve during which they shaved their hair, and exchanged their clothing before the men could take them as wives (not slaves), who, if not pleasing, were not to be kept but released. None of this would be wholly acceptable by modern ethics (though often actual warfare still is accompanied by these atrocities) but these represented incremental improvements on a redemptive trajectory.

Ultimately, in Christ, God’s kingdom comes, not by the exercise of violence, but by the incarnate Son taking violence upon himself, standing with the victims of violence through history. In the end, the Lion who is the Lamb who was slain comes to set things right, not through indiscriminate slaughter, no ethnic genocide, no real battle but conquest by the Lamb’s word.

The writers admit the warfare accounts in scripture will always be troubling. We should be troubled. What the authors propose is a God who was troubled with a fallen world, who rather than remaining aloof, accommodated to the human conditions of war, but also instituted a redemptive process that will ultimately end all war atrocities and injustices in his peaceable kingdom.

I suspect we want a God who would wave a magic wand and make it all go away, pacifying warriors into peace-loving automatons. That’s not what’s on offer here, but rather a God who mixes it up with our sorry mess, and works slowly through history and sacrificially through his Son to set things to rights.

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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: Inexpressible

Inexpressible

InexpressibleMichael Card. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: A study of the Hebrew word hesed, exploring what this says about God, about the objects of hesed, the incarnation of hesed in Jesus, and how then we should live.

“When the person from which I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.”

After studying all the uses of the Hebrew word hesed, this is how Michael Card ended up defining this word. This whole book is about one amazing word. Translators have groped for words to express in one or a few words the inexpressible wonder of this word, particularly because it most often is used to describe God in his action toward humanity. At the beginning of Card’s book, Card lists over a hundred words or phrases the translators have come up with for this word. The King James Version came up with a compound word, loving-kindness, to try to capture its essence.

Card takes us through his own extensive study of every use of the word in the Hebrew Bible. He takes us through passages that have to do with the God of hesed, explores what it is like to be an object of hesed, considers how Jesus incarnates and teaches hesed, and what hesed meant for the Jews after the destruction of the second temple, and what this says for us. Appendices give us a list of every text with the word hesed, the words used in different translations, the words associated with hesed, and ideas for further study.

Card tells memorable stories to illustrate hesed such as that of Keshia Thomas, a black demonstrator at a Klan rally who saw a Klansman who had wandered mistakenly into her group of protesters, and was being attacked until she shielded him with her own body, possibly saving his life. Card speaks of his first visit to a black church, and a black woman, Dinah, who held his hand, and extended welcome. He develops the argument of Moses with God that he is slow to anger and abounding with hesed, a refrain recurring throughout scripture. God may deal with Israel’s sin, but he never gives up on her.

One of his most striking reflections is on Jesus with the Roman centurion, who is described as deserving by the people, but describes himself as undeserving and yet, out of love for his servant, and faith, the like Jesus had not seen in Israel, asks for what he does not deserve. He found the hesed he believed in. Eventually, at the cross, Jesus would give to all humanity what we did not deserve, making peace between God and us.

His concluding reflections challenge us to live in this world. He begins with how the followers of Hillel in Judaism dealt with the fall of the temple, drawing on the statement of Hosea 6:6 which says, “For I desire hesed and not sacrifice.” The doing and living of hesed, along with the idea of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) have become central to modern Judaism. Card invites us to live into that same reality:

“The final challenge to you and me is to take whatever understanding we have in our heads of hesed and allow the Spirit to move it into our hearts. We must enter into the world of the word hesed and then take that world into our world, back to our families, to our churches and towns–to our enemies. The Scriptures are offering us an unimaginable opportunity to make Jesus believable and beautiful by offering everything (even our lives) to those who have a right to expect nothing from us.” (p. 135)

To read this book was to allow God to thaw my heart, reminding me of the everything I have so undeservingly received. To read this book was to clear the fog from my eyes, to give me at least a glimpse of the inexpressible beauty of the God of hesed. Finally, to read this book was to stir my will, my hands, my feet, to think about the places where I might repair the world through the loving-kindness of hesed. 

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Interpreting the Prophetic Books

Prophetic BooksInterpreting the Prophetic Books, Gary V. Smith. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2014.

Summary: This is a concise guide for those preaching from Old Testament prophetic texts covering issues of genre, themes, interpretation, preaching, and contemporary application.

This summer, I’ve been part of a preaching team covering a number of the shorter books in the Bible one book per Sunday, including the Minor Prophets. My assignment has been the books of Nahum and Habakkuk. This is a challenging task if you are not a specialist in this area and some distance from your seminary classes! Distinguishing between near and distant fulfillment, understanding the setting, recognizing different genres within prophecy, and moving from the meaning of the text to relevant application for an audience separated by over two millenia and a cultural gap are all issues that face anyone working with these biblical texts.

Gary V. Smith’s book, part of Kregel’s series of Handbooks for Old Testament Interpretation, is a concise and helpful guide for all these issues and more. In six chapters coming in at under 200 pages, Smith covers the following:

Chapter 1. The Nature of Prophetic Literature: Temporal categories of present, future, and apocalyptic, genres of prophecy, and poetic elements including parallelism and imagery.

Chapter 2. Major Themes in the Prophetic Books: Themes running through the prophets, and themes by specific books.

Chapter 3. Preparing for Interpretation: Knowing the setting of the pre-exilic prophets to Israel and Judah, the exilic prophets, and the post-exilic prophets, issues to be aware of in Ancient Near East Prophecy, textual criticism, and the use of commentaries, including recommendations of commentaries by book (conservative to mainstream Western scholarship).

Chapter 4. Interpretive issues in Prophetic Texts: Literal vs. metaphorical, contextual limits, conditional or unconditional, near or far future, and prophecy and its New Testament fulfillment.

Chapter 5. Proclaiming Prophetic Texts: Getting oriented, shaping the presentation, determining the principle, and reflecting on the application.

Chapter 6. From Text to Application: Offers examples of the steps of Chapter 5 with reference to near future and distant future prophecy.

The book concludes with a glossary of terms relevant to interpreting the prophetic books.

The organization of the book follows good principles of biblical exegesis and provides pointers to the most common exegetical and interpretive issues that arise in handling the prophetic material. There is a brief and then more detailed table of contents that allows one to consult material relevant to a particular prophetic text. The author provides examples from scripture throughout to illustrate points. And the examples in Chapter 6 illustrate the process and care involved in putting together a message that is both exegetically sound and appropriate for one’s audience.

If there was any criticism that could be made of this book, it would be the very limited attention (six pages) given to prophecy and New Testament fulfillment, and particularly, to Christological interpretation. It may be that the author decided to defer to other texts that give greater attention to these matters but given that this is written for use by pastors of Christian churches, a fuller treatment might have been helpful.

On the whole, however, this is a valuable work that serves as a helpful review for those who have had seminary-level training in prophetic exegesis, and a valuable and accessible primer for those without such training.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem

Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem
Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem by Heath A. Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Your God, if he exists, is a genocidal monster, and even if I believed there were such a God, I could never put my faith in him.” This is what atheist students have said to me in discussions. More than this, it is one of the leading critiques of Christianity from the New Atheist movement. What this critique focuses on are the mostly Old Testament texts, especially in Deuteronomy and Joshua in which the total destruction of Canaanites is commanded. This is often cited as part of a larger critique of Christianity and monotheistic religion as inherently violent because they have no room in the world for those who differ from them, with the Crusades serving as case in point.

This is an important critique to answer not only in public dialogue but personal conversation. Indeed, for many Christians of conscious, this raises doubts. This volume, then, is a valuable resource both for personal exploration and theological and apologetic resources for answering this challenge. The book consists of a series of chapters by different authors that were presentations at a conference on this issue. Given this format, the reader will find that not all authors make the same arguments or interpret biblical texts in the same way.

The book is organized into six parts. The first speaks of the challenge of “Holy War” for Christian morality and consists of an introductory essay, and an illuminating exploration of documentary evidence in the Crusades and the lack of biblical citations of the “divine war” texts (most authors in this volume prefer this term, or “Yahweh war” to the term “holy war”). There is nothing holy about war, and also, the wars in question are in fact initiated by and fought by Yahweh, with Israel accompanying.

The second part explores the Old Testament texts including an illuminating essay about “divine war” in the writings, an area not often referenced in discussing this issue. Part three turns to the New Testament, with an interesting essay on divine warfare in Ephesians, which clearly situates warfare for the church in the spiritual realm, and divine warfare as representing divine justice in John’s Apocalypse.

Part four explores biblical-theological perspectives. David Lamb observes how both compassion and wrath are evident in the wars of Yahweh, and Israel, as well as her enemies may be subject to both, depending on whether they repent and trust, or rebel and pursue wickedness. Douglas Earl’s second essay in this volume pursues the question of herem, the devotion to destruction of people, livestock and city structures.

Part five consists of four chapters focused on ethical and philosophical perspectives. Most helpful to me was Glen Stassen’s chapter which focused on the neglected theme of “peacemaking” in the prophets. While we often notice war-making, we do not often notice the language of the land enjoying rest from wars. In Judges there are 40 to 80 year stretches where this is true (something our own country has not known). Robert Stewart also focuses helpfully on the polemical strategies of the new atheists and the problematic elements in these.

The book closes with theological perspectives. One of the things evident here and throughout the volume is that none of the authors sees any warrants in the “divine wars” of the Old Testament for any form of holy war today. The authors warn against alliances of Christians with political powers of state supporting war efforts in language that make these seem like holy or religious wars.

The authors also point out the biblical work still to be done–indeed the differing, though not conflicting perspectives evidence this additionally needed work. Some writers in this selection lean more toward considering the OT texts in question stylized hyperbole. Others emphasize that most of the Canaanite wars (as supported by archaeological evidence) suggest that Israel displaced the Canaanites rather than obliterated them, apart from a few instances. Still others justify these acts as the just, and delayed (by 400 years) judgment of God against idolatrous cultures engaged in child sacrifice and other morally repugnant atrocities. My own hunch is that a nuanced apologetic will probably include all of these elements.

All told, this is a valuable resource that also includes an extensive bibliography for those who would pursue this at greater length. Anyone engaging with those who have been exposed to the polemics of the New Atheists will find much of help here.

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