The Elephant in the Room of Old Testament Biblical Theology

Human beings can get used to nearly anything. People can learn to live under oppressive regimes, grow accustomed to wearing jeans that an earlier generation would have immediately thrown out, and adopt tap-and-go technology without a second thought. Familiarity breeds invisibility.

By such a means an Old Testament elephant has achieved a striking invisibility. My students in Old Testament Foundations, a first-year subject that covers Genesis–Kings, have the task of creating a thematic portfolio as their assessment piece, and may choose one of four themes, each with an associated student text in OT biblical theology:

  1. The story of Israel, utilizing the text by the same title by Pate, Duvall, Hays, et al.
  2. The presence of God, using T. Desmond Alexander’s From Eden to the New Jerusalem
  3. Covenant, using Sandra Richter’s Epic of Eden
  4. Kingdom, with Bartholomew & Goheen, The Drama of Scripture

I must confess to not having read each of these student texts from end to end; I have only browsed portions in connection with student work or class preparation. But wait, I’m working my way towards the elephant: that utter surprise lurking within the pages of our Old Testament that should leave our jaws hanging, but which through familiarity and a dull reading fog, we fail to notice.

800px-Paraceratherium_transouralicum

Not elephants, but the more interesting and even bigger Paraceratherium, member of the Pleistocene megafauna (
ABelov2014 (https://abelov2014.deviantart.com/) via Wikimedia Commons)

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Farewell, For a While, to Chronicles

I’ve had the personal goal for a while, a pretty nerdy and distinctly Old Testament one, of reading through the entire Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) in its original languages. I began in 1998, at bible college in Queensland, Australia, when I took my first Hebrew subject. I expect to finish this year. I have about eight chapters to go – the final chapters of Ezekiel. I’m no high church guy, and I’m not deliriously excited to be about to read eight or nine chapters of temple dimensions, but amidst the detail I almost always find a gem or two, and I suppose this will be no different.

This morning, I finished 2 Chronicles.

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Ten Books on the Boil: The Other Five

Well, the truth is you can’t really keep ten books properly on the boil. And a word from experience: this isn’t the kind of snappy title that attract readers to a blog post. Learning as we go. But, in the interests of finishing something that you start, here are some comments on the following five books whose reviews were flagged in a post probably two months ago:

  • Isaiah 1-39 with an Introduction to Prophetic Literature (1996), by Marvin Sweeney
  • Interpreting Isaiah: issues and approaches (2009), edited by David Firth and H. G. M. Williamson
  • The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah’s Role in Composition and Redaction (1994), also by H. G. M. Williamson
  • Prolegomena to the History of Israel, originally 1878, by Julius Wellhausen (that ought to get a reaction), and
  • Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction – and Get It Published (2002) by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato.

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Ten Books on the Boil? The First Five

Are you one of those people who have 6 or 8 books on the go at once? A couple at the office, three or four on the bedside table, another one on top of the fridge? It isn’t the most efficient system, is it? Short attention span? Too many interests? When you know how you operate, you don’t keep fighting it, do you. So it’s going to be 6 or 8 books on the go for life.

In the absence of a more coherent & thoughtful piece, here are my ten or so books with a comment on what each is about and how good it is. There is, naturally, an Old Testament theme, and more specifically, most have to do with either Old Testament history and historiography (history-writing) or with Isaiah, my new teaching subject for this semester. Continue reading

Five Responses to Reading Genesis 1–2 (ed. J. Daryl Charles) #5

Amazing. I think we’ve reached instalment five, dear reader, of my review series dealing with Charles, J. Daryl, ed. Reading Genesis 1–2 : An Evangelical Conversation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013). And not just within the same decade, I’m gonna get this done within the same calendar year, at the astonishing rate of a post on the subject about every six weeks. Ah well, it’s easy to impress when you set expectations very low.
Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1-2

My last post in this series offered my opinions on Chapter Four: “What Genesis 1–2 Teaches (And What It Doesn’t), by Tremper Longman III,” by C. John Collins. Now, finally, are my thoughts on:

Chapter Five: Reading Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, by John H. Walton. Walton spent twenty years (1981–2001) teaching at Moody Bible Institute and has been OT prof. at Wheaton College since then. He’s quite prolific writing on Genesis and ancient Near Eastern backgrounds to Genesis and to the OT generally. He’s the only one of these guys I’ve heard speak in person, being lucky to catch him here in Australia within the last couple of years. The present essay is a nice nutshell version of his thinking on Genesis 1. I found myself agreeing with much that he said, but in the end he presents a solution to tensions over Genesis 1 that I suspect represents a bit of a fast move.

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Five Responses to Reading Genesis 1–2 (ed. J. Daryl Charles) #3

Charles, J. Daryl, ed. Reading Genesis 1–2 : An Evangelical Conversation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013).
Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1-2

My last post in this series offered my opinions on Chapter Two: Reading Genesis 1–2: A Literal Approach, by Todd S. Beall.

Now I offer a few thoughts on the next chapter:

Chapter Three: Reading Genesis 1–2 with the Grain: Analogical Days, by C. John Collins (+ the four responses of the other writers)

At the time of publication, Collins was/is “Professor of Old Testament in the Dept. of Scripture and Interpretation at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. He has a long list of achievements and publications in the interpretation of Genesis and understanding of creation, and brings scientific as well as theological training to the task. I was quite impressed years ago with his article, “How Old Is the Earth? Anthropomorphic Days in Genesis 1:1-2:3,” Presbyterion 20 (1994), 109-130, and he has more recently published:

C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsberg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006).

Collins, C. John. “Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matter,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62, no. 3 (2009), 147–165.

Collins, C. John. Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).

Collins’ position has remained consistent over the two decades or so since the first-mentioned article was published, and is reflected in the present chapter. The 2nd and 3rd titles actually reflect where the heat is in Genesis debates at the moment – not the age of the earth, the Genesis 1 days or evolution per se, but whether we should insist that Adam and Eve were literal people. Earlier in the present volume Collins cites N.T. Wright in a kind of cautious support for a historical Adam and Even (see p. 64 and footnotes), but that is not really discussed in the chapter under review.

So what is?

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Five Responses to Reading Genesis 1-2 (ed. J. Daryl Charles) #2

Charles, J. Daryl, ed. Reading Genesis 1–2 : An Evangelical Conversation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013).
Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1-2
Further to my recent post responding to Chapter One: A Literary-Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1–2, by Richard E. Averbeck, here are my responses to the next chapter:
Chapter Two: Reading Genesis 1–2: A Literal Approach, by Todd S. Beall.

Beall is the head OT prof at Capital Bible Seminary, which appears to fall under the aegis of Lancaster Bible College headquartered at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA. He is the lone young-earth creationist voice in this book and seems to represent what I would call a ‘standard’ version of that position.

My response to Beall’s essay is generally that I sympathize with some of his fears about the risks of a less literal view of Genesis 1 for our view of the Bible, but that I don’t think his arguments are very strong at times, and find his thinking at times too simplistic. He lives in a more black-and-white world than I do, though I think it’s vital to believe in ‘true truth’ and not drift into relativism. Let’s pick out a few specifics:

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Five Responses (at least) to Reading Genesis 1-2, edited by J. Daryl Charles #1

Charles, J. Daryl, ed. Reading Genesis 1–2 : An Evangelical Conversation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013).
Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1-2
This recent book on creation as detailed in Genesis 1-2 has five main contributors from the world of US evangelicalism, and in reality, from a rather narrow conservative evangelical band. I have found that plenty of food for though emerges from each of the five contributors for a blog post each, so I thought I would review the book and talk about biblical creation by engaging one author at a time.

Chapter One: A Literary-Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1–2, Richard E. Averbeck
The first main contributor is Richard E. Averbeck, Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, Illinois.

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A Few Thoughts on the Book of Joshua

It’s funny what occurs to you when you read different books of the Bible simultaneously.

I’ve just finished reading Joshua in the Hebrew, in my grand quest to read the whole OT in Hebrew, and finished Leviticus prior to that. At the same time, a Greek reading group I’m involved with at our college, Melbourne School of Theology, has been working through the Gospel of John.

What I find in such parallel reading experiences is that you see new and exciting connections between the different books.

So, for the record, here are three connections I’d suggest for the book of Joshua:

  1. Scholars often talk about a ‘Deuteronomistic History’, that is, who would describe Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings as an ultimately unified historical work strongly conditioned by the theology that is most systematically articulated in Deuteronomy. This can be construed in a very diachronic way, i.e. almost purely in terms of how these books originated, or in a more synchronic way, seeking the theological and thematic continuities. In my mind both of these angles are interesting and relevant. But I would simply say here that this is an enlightening way to read Joshua. Chapter 1 is clearly designed to correspond to the later chapters of Deuteronomy, esp. ch. 31, or vice versa, with common language about the succession of Joshua for Moses and the importance of discarding fear. Chapter 8 features the covenant-making ceremony recalling the instructions given in Deuteronomy 27. Joshua 22 details at length a controversy about an altar built near the Jordan by the eastern tribes that recalls the instructions about a single altar in Deuteronomy 12 (e.g. see Josh. 22:29). And the historical recollection that prefaces the covenant ceremony of Joshua 24 in its consciousness of having roots ‘across the River’ in Mesopotamia reminds me of the famous confession of Deut. 26:5, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” So I see a clear Deuteronomic influence in Joshua that may be read in terms of a theology and in terms of an editorial stratum, and I don’t think these two angles are mutually exclusive. But that’s not what was new to me!
  2. Reading Joshua after Leviticus showed me just how ‘priestly’ the book of Joshua is. Priests lead the crossing of the Jordan. Even the infamous ‘ḥērem’ or program of extermination (‘ideal’ though it be) of the Canaanite occupants of the land seems to me to be conducted (or portrayed) in a very priestly and ceremonial manner, along with the punishment of its violation by Achan. On a similar note, but now contrasting with Leviticus, the Levites suddenly make their appearance in Josh. 13:14. Priestly action is unaccompanied by any mention of Levites to this point in Joshua. This is not unlike the Pentateuch: Leviticus does not so much as mention a Levite until ch. 25, and then only in two verses, Lev 25:32-33! It is, ironically, the book of Numbers that teems with references to the Levites. So it is in Joshua: no mention of Levites, but much to priests, in Joshua 1-12; then quite a focus on Levites and their part in the land distribution. While they are denied an inheritance like that of the other tribes, a region to call their own, Joshua 21 offers detailed description of the towns allocated to them to reside in. So I found these priestly/levitical connections interesting, and felt as though all of the historical reportage of Joshua has a kind of priestly, ceremonial frame.
  3. This might surprise you. I find Joshua akin to the Gospel of John. They might seem quite contrary: John all about how God “loved the world in such a way,” with a love that extends in a sense universally; Joshua making it clearer whom God hates than whom He loves, if that isn’t too pointy a phrasing. But they are Jekyll-and-Hyde alter egos of one another. Both are very theologically geared, more so than their neighbours. Theology constrains the telling of history much more in Joshua than in Judges or Samuel, I feel, and I would say the same about John in comparison with Matthew, Mark and Luke. The result is a much more schematic book in both cases, less shaped by the flow of events and far more by the theological truths needing to be conveyed. The two share a very simple vocabulary too: Joshua a good book for a new reader of biblical Hebrew, and John famously so for a new reader of NT Greek. Yet both offer a profound and quite challenging theology that belies the simplicity of their terminology. Perhaps we could be simplistic ourselves here and give a motto for each book’s message:
    1. Joshua: “Who ya gonna serve?”
    2. John: “Who ya gonna trust?”

Time for the real work of the day, but maybe this will challenge your thinking about these three biblical books.

And Something I’d Missed from Leviticus 21…

Did you ever notice that in Leviticus 21:10-11, the high priest is forbidden to tear his clothes or to put himself into an unclean state (i.e. for mourning purposes, e.g. with dirt on the head, presumably) even if it was his nearest and dearest, his father or mother who had died!

But in Matt 26:65 and Mark 14:63 we’re told that at the trial of Jesus, when Jesus responded to the insistence, “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” by saying,

You have said it yourself. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven (Mat 26:64 NET),

the response of the high priest is to tear his clothes! I’m not even sure how that is done, if those clothes are at all robustly made, e.g. the classic one-piece linen robe I understood the high priest wore. But assuming it’s possible, should we see this as an act of utter desperation at this apparent blasphemy? Something implicitly worse than the death of father or mother, a dent in the honour of Yahweh?

Surely a Jewish-Christian author such as Matthew knows that the high priest has done something technically illegal for the high priest, and I think he can assume that it’s common knowledge amongst his Jewish audience. What is his implicit commentary on the action? Is it that the high priest, in condemning Jesus, is in the act of doing something that breaks the law himself? Or should we interpret it simply as high emotion?

Over to you, dear reader!