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(Below is a copy of the response I have submitted to RBL in the hopes they will publish and circulate it, as a fitting response to Hong’s review of my book, which you can read HERE).
A Response to Koog P. Hong’s Review of My
Jacob and the Divine Trickster (RBL 3/13)
John E. Anderson, Ph.D.
I welcome this opportunity to respond to a recent RBL review of my book (published 3/22/13), written by Koog P. Hong of Yonsei University. Hong has offered a review that strives to take my work seriously. For this I am appreciative; what more could a scholar want? But there are some missteps and misstatements in the review to which I would like to respond. It is my hope also that this response—motivated by the very tenets of the SBL to “foster biblical scholarship”—will encourage a robust dialogue on some of these questions I raise that are, to my eye, far too often ignored, be it out of theological convenience, Testamental dissonance, and/or personal bewilderment at their presence. There are two basic issues I wish to raise: 1) matters of content and argument; 2) matters of theology and method.
Matters of Content and Argument
Hong’s critiques make constant mention of what I don’t do. Barring the ‘maxim’ that a reviewer is to articulate fairly and accurately the book the author wrote, not what s/he should have written, I take Hong’s points seriously. On nearly every occasion, however, I do indeed discuss—at times in depth—what he suggests I do not.
The Morality and Theology of Divine Deception
For example, Hong writes that “Anderson does not discuss the moral and theological implications revolving around his bold thesis: YHWH the divine trickster. His insistence that YHWH’s deception is intimately bound to the covenantal fidelity to the ancestral promise (i.e., deception is used only to advance the promise) does little to alleviate the moral unease inherent in it” (emphasis added). But I do indeed discuss the “moral and theological implications” in both the introductory and concluding chapters. Indeed, in the final chapter of the book is a bolded subject heading entitled “Theological Implications” (174-77) in which I advance and develop five theological implications arising from this study; in short, they are: unexpected modes of divine fulfillment/fidelity, the “centripetal force of the ancestral promise,” the destabilizing and subversive tendencies of this portrait of God, that the Old Testament and thus our theologies should not “whitewash, sanitize, or domesticate God,” and that one avoid systematic approaches to doing Old Testament theology. This critique is odd given that Hong himself notes in the summary portion of the review that “Anderson concludes with a reflection on the implications of the theology of deception.”
Moreover, while my book is not primarily concerned with issues of morality as it relates to this material, I do discuss it, again in both the introductory and concluding chapters. In the introductory chapter, this point appears as early as page 2. Later in that same chapter, I argue that “in its original context, the Jacob cycle is not a narrative ultimately concerned with matters of ethics” (39). Attached to that statement is a lengthy footnote, maintaining that “there does not appear to be any moral commentary running throughout [these texts]” and that “I disagree with the sentiment that a contemporary reader must deem these texts unethical.” I am, at bottom, here suggesting that there is an inherent danger in importing our modern sensibilities of ethics and morality onto an ancient text. Our primary task—and the task I take up—is to offer a descriptive theology, and only with that in place should we begin to move toward questions of contemporary application. More germane to Hong’s “moral unease” is my final chapter, a section following immediately upon the “Theological Implications” section, entitled “Trustworthy Deception,” where I wrestle with this question as articulated in the biblical text, with ramifications for the life of faith. To be fair, this is not my primary concern in the book, but to suggest I ignore “moral and theological implications” is simply untrue. I don’t ignore them, yet I do seem to argue a perspective contrary to one Hong holds.
One might more appropriately ask whose “moral unease” I should have set out to address and redress. Certainly, given my comments above, I am not persuaded ancient Israel took moral issue with this portrait of Jacob but rather saw it existing in a beautiful and meaningful tension with other portraits of Jacob. Nor am I persuaded the authors and/or compilers of Genesis in its final form felt any sort of ethical impulse to tame Jacob or God (a point I also develop in the book). It seems Hong’s main contention is that I don’t address the “moral unease” of contemporary readers. Surely the God of the Old Testament is unsettling in many respects, but I don’t understand my task—be it in this book, or as a believer, or as a professor—to be to assuage difficulties with or apologize for the Old Testament’s raw portrayal of God. Not that these issues are unimportant to me or are not questions with which I live and wrestle, but not everyone is troubled by a God capable of/complicit in deception. Ancient Israel wasn’t. The authors/compilers of Genesis weren’t. Nor were the authors/compilers of the multitude of other biblical (and ancient Near Eastern) texts I enumerate in my first chapter. I often tell my students, who are unwilling to admit that God may be complicit in deception, violence, or some other unsettling behavior in the Bible, that when the Bible clashes with your theology, one of the two needs to give way; they are free to choose their theology over the biblical text, but they must then be aware of the implications of the choice they have just made (I may here be betraying my Protestant bias, but as an Old Testament scholar I am deeply committed to the text and wrestling with the Bible we have, not the one we wish we had). This is not to say the Bible or its portrait of God is beyond critique or censure, but one must be honest with where the ethical impulse is located: in the text, or the reader?
This may provide little consolation to those who are unsettled by a God who engages in trickery, but this book was not written for those in the pews; it was written for the academy, as an attempt to crack open a larger conversation that occurs far too infrequently. But, I do still feel I have attempted to answer, or what Hong calls a way “to cope with it and present the present-day audience with the message that is still relevant today.” I would affirm, as I do in the book, that the Old Testament challenges and empowers readers to delight in, be challenged by, and puzzle over a God whose trustworthiness can be displayed, in a beautiful paradox, through deception (see pp. 177-86).
I must note, as I do in the book, that I am in good scholarly company in not being repulsed by divine deception: Hermann Gunkel, O. H. Prouser, as well as several others I have become aware of since the publishing of my book. Among the most recent, Marvin Sweeney offers this insightful comment about God in Genesis with which my book resonates: “Freed from the presuppositions of historical analysis that the trickster or deceptive nature of G-d’s character in Genesis is simply the product of a primitive and theological unsophisticated stage in Israelite religious development, scholars are now coming to recognize that divine duplicity and deception cannot be dismissed as the product of primitive culture, but must be taken into account in biblical interpretation.”
God and Deception: “Through” or “Despite”?
Another example warrants mention. Hong writes that “Anderson ignores an interpretive possibility that God works despite human errors.” This is not a new criticism, and it is, again, one I take up in the book.
Hong’s challenge centers on God’s relationship to deception in the Jacob cycle; in the opening chapter I survey at length and engage with extant scholarship on several possibilities, one of which is that God persists with Jacob in spite of his seemingly lackluster character. There is no need to repeat at length the material already in the book, but at bottom I argue the text is clear in its articulation, from beten (Gen 25:23) to Bethel (esp. Gen 28:13-15) to Peniel (Gen 32) and at scattered moments in between that God is not making a concession in dealing with Jacob. Up until this point in Genesis thus far God has felt perfectly free to change course on a number of occasions; the primeval history bears this point out fully. Moreover, while I don’t state this in the book, the ancient Near Eastern evidence I adduce, replete with examples of trickster deities who are happy to work deception for (and sometimes against, but not despite) human characters is informative. Knowing that ancient Israel shared this cognitive environment makes the resonances that much more striking.
The larger operative question is who is to say whether Jacob has erred? Hong seems to assume as much, given his statement cited above. But who is to adjudicate whether Jacob has failed? Whose assessment matters in the world of the text? Us, or God? This is not to suggest we read uncritically and simply accept at face value anything in the text. We should indeed read discerningly. But my argument, that the prenatal oracle in Gen 25:23 animates the conflict (a conclusion I share with Brueggemann, whose bold and daring foray into this oracle is illuminating and honest), and that God’s first appearance to Jacob on the heels (pun intended!) of a family shattering act of deception—where Jacob is met not with punishment but with promise—underscores that God has no moral qualms with Jacob’s shenanigans. The “tragic side of the trickster’s celebrated life” that ensues, mentioned by Hong, no where connects the moments of theophany with divine punishment. Rather, as I argue in the book (and along similar lines as Diana Lipton in her Revisions of the Night), the moments of theophany are revelatory in their ability to communicate that God has been at work, to co-opt a well-worn phrase from Luther, “in, with, and under” Jacob’s many deceptions. Not despite. In, with, and under.
Moreover, it is precisely the “tragic side” of Jacob’s life with Laban that I argue leads to incipient fulfillment of the ancestral promise in Gen 29-31 in and amidst deception (see esp. pp. 97-129). And while Hong contends that I “fail to see that Jacob has to pay a heavy price for his behavior” (in Gen 34, which Hong incorrectly labels the “Tamar incident”; Tamar occurs in Gen 38, while it is Dinah who is subject, and object, in Gen 34), I do not see God as a character here working “despite” or “against” Jacob; even Hong is tentative here in his conclusion, stating that “one may take these as God’s implicit punishment for Jacob’s trickery” (emphasis added). Readers will have to read my arguments for themselves to see whether they find them persuasive.
Matters of Theology and Method
We operate in an age of methodological plurality, where dissonant scholarly voices grapple for a hearing, much like the tensive voices in much of the Hebrew Bible. And to be sure, methods can at times distort the text much more than they can inform it. I have, however, attempted to be up front about these issues in the book, offering as much transparency into my method and the assumptions I bring to the work (handily discussed in a section titled “Assumptions and Methodology,” pp. 33-40). In brief, I work with two mutually-informing vectors—how and what the text means—as an avenue into genuine theological inquiry, channeling scholars such as Robert Alter, Adele Berlin, and Meir Sternberg. Methodologically, I am not treading new ground as much as I am working to put new literary criticism more intentionally in the service of Old Testament theology, a discipline that has, until recently, largely been dominated by historical-critical methodologies.
Modern or Postmodern?
Hong identifies my method as “modernistic” given that I maintain “rhetoric of [my] reading’s superiority over other readings.” While I see the point he is attempting to make, I am hard-pressed to think anyone would come away from a reading of my book and label it “modern.” Perhaps the problem resides more in the sometimes unhelpful and fluid labels modern and postmodern. He is correct that I have followed Brueggemann’s lead (though I would include Leo Perdue as a seminal voice here as well) in embracing polyphony, but this is not tantamount to saying all meaning is up for grabs. Hong critiques me for defending my reading in engagement with others. I remain unclear what he envisions a truly postmodern/polyphonic argument to look like, though it is apparently not one that has an interest in defending an argument critically and thoughtfully. He does suggest “the argumentation would have been more nuanced had he presented his reading as an alternative conditioned reading that adds another facet to the ‘richness’ of the text, candidly admitting his own involvement in its production.” This, however, is precisely what I do. I write: “Old Testament theology is not a monolithic entity; there are, rather, theologies in the Bible. In this book, I offer one such theology, a theology of deception in the Jacob cycle” (34). It is my literary-theological method that helps clear this path, and while I do persist in affirming the integrity and persuasiveness of my own reading, that does not mean that I have exhausted all possible meaning-potential from the Jacob cycle, a point that is true whether one does or does not agree with my method and my conclusions.
Where is Meaning Found?
In a similar vein already alluded to above, Hong expresses the desire that my methodological proclivities would have given me reason for “candidly admitting his own involvement in its [the text’s meaning] production.” But, again, I do make just such an admission. I write: “Readers play a role in discerning a text’s meaning, and this meaning arises in the dynamic relationship between text and reader. While no reading can be entirely disinterested, the text itself serves as a ’control’ for one’s interpretation, and it is against the text that the authenticity of any interpretation must be judged” (35). On that same page is a lengthy footnote that provides even greater clarity, appealing to W. Lee Humphrey’s The Character of God in the Book of Genesis and assuming the posture of a first time reader, ignoring as much as possible “a priori ontological assumptions about God’s character deriving from classical systematic theology” (my words) and “both claims by historians of religion about the God(s) of ancient Israel and early Judaism and particular and fundamental claims about God from theologians and members of religious communities who assert an identity between God in Genesis and the God who commands their worship and allegiance” (Humphrey’s words). ‘Checking’ (as much as possible!) this theological and ecclesiastical baggage leaves, as I have already described, little more than the text and I. I have, in essence, attempted to ‘put off’ the very garb Hong seems to wish I had kept on! Therefore, in conversation with extant scholarship, I fully admit to my own involvement in the production of the text’s meaning. The only caveat I would extend is that I wish more scholars would admit the same.
Psychologizing Biblical Studies
One final point warrants brief mention. At several points Hong engages in little more than psychologizing my thought process or rationale in writing various parts of the book. I don’t find such speculations helpful or warranted in pursuing genuine scholarly inquiry or the conversation I have attempted to begin.
The Divine Trickster: Moving Forward
I wrote this book with twin objectives: 1) to give uniquely theological expression to an oft-ignored portrait of God that some may deem unsettling or problematic; 2) to provide a fresh reading of the Jacob cycle that honors the textual tension between Jacob’s character and God’s election of him. The topic of God’s character is a hot-button and controversial issue to be sure with much at stake, and I suspect readers will have many visceral reactions to some of what I suggest. It is my hope that whether one finds my arguments compelling or not, that I have opened up new avenues for dialogue on these two very timely issues, dialogue that will not be animated by any animus to my reading but by an honest attempt to wrestle together, theologically, with the unsettling God of Genesis and the Hebrew Bible.
The day Hong’s review was published I received an email from Gershon Hepner, author of Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel, who shared with me an original poem he wrote, inspired by my work and Hong’s review of it. Gershon has kindly agreed to allow me to share the poem here.
The theory that Jacob’s trickeries reflect
his imitation of our God
may not sound religiously correct,
but precisely since it’s odd
should be considered seriously. We see
as soon as the great God of Abram picks
the Jews He does not mind their trickery,
approving the repeated tricks
that Abraham and Isaac choose to play
by claiming that their wife
is just their sister, which each one would
not just to save their life,
but to demonstrate to every ruler
such tricks are an M. O.
that God, the universe’s Foremost Fooler,
considers not de trop
provided that the end seems good, believing
that to be Machiavellian
when faced by those who’re murdering and thieving
is not rebellion
against His principles, for they’re more real-
istic than we might
have thought, brought up to think we must repeal
all trickery, and fight
the good fight, one hand tied behind our backs,
against all tricky foes.
Simplistic views like that the Lord attacks,
and Patriarchs oppose,
especially the third, whose name means “fraud”—-
Hosea says this clearly.
Fraud is the M. O. that the Lord
does not regard as merely
acceptable for Jacob, but a path
that turn a Forefather
into what some may call sociopath,
but a great hero, rather,
behaving in a way that God would too
if He lived down on earth,
since Jacob does the sort of things He’d do
to show his godly worth.
In the Torah’s laws God changes all the rules,
and outlaws all deception.
The rules’ great proof, we should be taught in schools,
is Jacob—their exception!
(This poem was inspired by Koog P. Hong’s SBL review of a book by John E. Anderson at Baylor University, performed under the supervision of Bill Bellinger. The book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and Yhwh’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle)
 On this, see most recently Yair Zakovitch, “Inner-Biblical Interpretation” in Reading Genesis: Ten Methods (ed. R. Henden; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 92-118.
 Marvin A. Sweeney, Reading the Hebrew Bible After the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 25.
 While I wouldn’t classify my book as attempting the same thing, one may helpfully consult Fortress Press’ new Texts@Contexts commentary series for examples of scholars foregrounding their respective contexts and being open to how context informs and indeed at times creates meaning.
From Marvin Sweeney’s recent Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible:
“The task of a Jewish biblical theology cannot be the same as that of a Christian Old Testament theology or a Christian biblical theology. Fundamentally, Judaism is committed to a relationship with Gd as defined throug divine Torah whereas Christianity is committed to the notion that its relationship with G-d is defined through Jesus Christ. Because fo their differing characters, the Bible is formed and read differently within the respective contexts of Judaism and Christianity, and those differences must be taken into account when undertaking Jewish (or Christian) biblical theology” (20).
And concluding the first chapter:
“In sum, a Jewish biblical theology must engage the text fo the Bible firsthand, grappling with the interpretation of the Hebrew and Aramaic text; discerning the diachronic dimensions of its literary form, compositional history, generic and linguistic features, communicative features, socio-historical setting, and the potential intentions of its authors; and grappling with the synchronic dimensions again of its literary coherence, plot and character development, and its intertextual relationships. A Jewish biblical theology therefore points to the foundations for an ongoing dialog concerning the identity and character of G-d, the Jewish people, the world of creation, the nations at large, and their interrelations with each other. It is on the basis of this dialog begun in the Bible that Judaism is formed” (35-36).
While I don’t find the litany of modes and approaches Sweeney outlines that constitute Jewish biblical theology to be in any way distinctive of Jewish biblical theology (countless OT theologies do precisely these things), his insistence throughout this introductory chapter that Jewish biblical theology must engage post-biblical Jewish sources is an important and rich insight. (For a beautiful example of this in practice, see Benjamin Sommer, “Dialogical Biblical Theology: A Jewish Approach to Reading Scripture Theologically” in Biblical Theology: Introducing the Conversation, ed. Perdue, Morgan, Sommer [Nashville: Abingdon, 2009]). Not incidentally, the idea of the dialogic reality of the Hebrew Bible is a vitally important observation, one in which several Christian Old Testament theologians have rightly picked up on, perhaps most notably Walter Brueggemann.
In the Fall I will be teaching at Sioux Falls Seminary in Sioux Falls, SD. I am beyond excited for this opportunity to do something I am passionate about: communicate the beauty, complexity, and importance of the Old Testament for the life of faith. This is doubly important to me because my task will be equipping current/future pastors with this knowledge, in the hope that they too will communicate it to their communities of faith. So much of what I strive to do centers on this point: that the Old Testament matters.
I will be teaching three master’s level courses. There is a (perhaps not so) odd fascination I have with what books folk use for their classes, and so I’ve listed the books below that I plan to use for the respective classes. Still working through course requirements, paper and sermon specs, and whether I’ll even do tests or not. Really trying to think of creative activities to bring the materials from the respective courses into the church or the various students’ ministries, while still being something I can evaluate. Feel free to drop suggestions in the comments if you have them.
INTRO TO THE OLD TESTAMENT
*Birch, et. al., A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament
*Sharp, Wrestling the Word: The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Believer
*Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God
TIOT will be the main text; I’m planning to have the students read Sharp in its entirety for the first week of class to set the tone and provide some fodder for discussion. And with Seibert, having them read, slowly, over the course of the entire semester, culminating with a critical book review of the book.
BIBLICAL HEBREW EXEGESIS
*Scott, A Simplified Guide to BHS
*Wegner, Using Old Testament Hebrew in Preaching
*Brotzman, Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction
I have yet to select the texts we will be doing, but my goal is that each week we will address and read in the Hebrew a different literary genre: law, narrative, poetry, psalms, wisdom, oracle, etc. to get a sense of the language of each and the how of reading each. Students will (most likely) be asked to write a paper/sermon that uses Hebrew in a worthwhile and critical way, emphasizing something that the Hebrew has helped them see that they wouldn’t/didn’t realize previously.
The Brueggemann book is phenomenal at getting at the theological issues while still pressing readers to think in very different and unconventional ways about very familiar texts. The MacDonald book is hot off the presses at Eerdmans, and so I am delighted to be using it, especially given its focus on the intersection of Genesis and Theology. It isn’t ideal, ultimately, because far too many of the essays focus on creation or some variation thereof, but I think each week we’ll take an essay or two and spend some time on it. I’m also planning to assign brief targeted articles each week (i.e., Fretheim on creation, Trible on Hagar, etc.). If you have suggestions, drop them in the comments.
I’m also planning with the Genesis class to a) have students consult outside of class at least two additional critical commentaries and bring those insights to the larger weekly discussions, and b) choose a single book from a list I provide of more focused studies on Genesis, and then writing a brief critical review of the book and leading the class through that brief time, as a means of broadening our horizons in Genesis. If you have a particular suggestion for a book to go on that list, drop it in the comments; I already have a list of about 10 compiled off the top of my head.
And so that’s what I’ll be doing. Extremely excited, grateful, hopeful, and prayerful!
Book Review: Kenton Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture
Kenton Sparks, interim provost and professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, sets out in this volume to expand upon–in a more general format–his contributions in his God’s Word in Human Words. Despite this more general readership sought, the book is rich, dynamic, and thoughtful, covering a number of seminal issues relating to the Bible and reading it properly, especially within more conservative/evangelical communities, in which Sparks offers a progressive voice.
The book is divided into 13 chapters, in addition to a “First Thoughts” and “Final Thoughts” section. Sparks’ overarching thesis is that the Bible itself is a part of our fallen creation and is therefore, just like humanity, in need of redemption. This is, at least in part, attributable to the fact that humans wrote the Bible, a point Sparks will nuance as the book goes on, resurrecting the old adoptionist Christological heresy (!!!) as a way to explain God’s “adoption” of human authors–with all their errors and foibles–to communicate the divine word.
In the “First Thoughts” section, Sparks affirms that “it really must be the case that, at some points, every branch and bough of the Christian tradition is getting something wrong,” (4) precisely because Christians don’t agree on any manner of things! For this reason, Sparks suggests tradition, while an important vector of interpretation, is not beyond scrutiny and, if need be, revision. As a compelling example, he cites the old Christian conception that the earth was at the center of the cosmos and the church’s less-than-mature response to Copernicus and Galileo; of course, he says, Christianity now clearly affirms that Scripture is ‘wrong’ on this point and the universe is heliocentric.
In chapter 1, “The Truth and Beauty of Sacred Scripture,” Sparks (briefly, and perhaps apologetically) opens by affirming, unsurprisingly, the truth and beauty of Scripture. It is “a vital resource that guides people to Christa dn that helps us become healthier people” (10). He goes on to cite five illustrative texts that testify to the truth and beauty of Scripture, though it is interesting that of the five examples, 4 are from the NT and only 1 from the OT (Exod 23:4-5, a fair though rather odd choice in comparison with the NT texts selected). In fact, one of my main issues with this book, as with many others in this vein (see for example my review of Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior in RBL, or my multi-post review of David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly beginning HERE), is that while they affirm the centrality, beauty, and importance of the OT, it continues to get short schrift; Marcion’s shadow is indeed cast very long.
Chapter 2, “Creation and the Problem of Evil,” uses creation as a lens to understand Sparks’ larger argument. He does this for two reasons: 1) “the created order is historically prior to Scripture”; 2) “Scripture itself highlights the priority of creation” (12). The central question raised is theodical: how can one affirm a good and loving God, and a good creation, when suffering and evil predominate in the world? For Sparks, human sin has also adversely affected the cosmos. Creation does indeed, Sparks affirms, contain “evils monstrous and unspeakable,” though this, he says, provides an apt analogy for understanding the character of Scripture; Sparks writes “The Bible actually stands within the fallen order that we seek to understand. . . . the problem of Scripture is one permutation of the larger problem of evil” (22, italics original).
In chapter 3, “The Contribution of Christology,” Sparks asks whether Jesus Christ had a fallen human nature, a question he answers in the affirmative, choosing to separate out sinful activity and sinful nature. He rejects a rigid “Christological analogy,” that is “according to this logic, because God has given us Jesus Christ as a sinless and errorless word in the flesh, we can say by analogy that he has also given us a sinless and errorless word in Scripture” (28), opting instead for an “adoptionist” approach that sees “Scripture [as] God’s word because God providentially adopted ancient human beings, like Paul, as his spokespersons”; those who wrote Scripture, thus, erred as do all humans. This posture allows Sparks to affirm the fallenness yet sacredness of Scripture.
Chapter 4, “The Problem of Sacred Scripture,” Sparks emphasizes that of all the difficulties and problems of Scripture, God is implicated in none of them; the ‘perpetrators’ are in fact sinful humanity, both in narrative action in the various stories and also in the very writing of the Scriptural text. In essence, the biblical authors got things–including God–wrong at some points. He wrestles with the diversity of Scripture (which, while perhaps a facile response, in this reviewers eyes is ultimately not a problem at all, precisely because this diversity–and I think Sparks would agree–is one of Scriptures great gifts, and is evidence of the fact that Scripture was written and compiled over a long period of time, written by different authors addressing different situations with different ideas about how the world and God works; for this reason, I think the label “contradictions” is a terrible misnomer), as well as with ethical issues such as herem in Joshua. Sparks understands these fallible ideas to be refracted through the lens of fallible authors and traditions produced and propagated by fallible people. Moreover, the diversity and ethical issues are attributable not only to human finiteness and fallenness but also to the vast cultural separation between our world and the ancient world of the biblical text and its authors. As to the issue of herem specifically, Sparks avers that within the Bible itself this behavior is challenged, and it is not portrayed as “spiritually laudable behavior” (44).
With this foundation in place, Sparks begins to chart his way forward in chapter 5, “The Brokenness of Scripture,” by trying to balance Scripture as God’s word with an appreciation for its ethical diversity. Sparks adduces the Holocaust as “the quintessential symbol of our fallen world and of fallen, sinful humanity” (45), but also draws a fair though troubling comparison between the Holocaust and the herem texts in Deuteronomy and Joshua. The analogy is somewhat apt, thought part of the issue revolves around well-known scholarly arguments that such a conquest likely did not occur as described in the Bible. By noting this I do not wish to affirm that historical inaccuracy is a way to address or redress ethical issues (just the opposite, in fact!), but there is one glaring difference that Sparks ignores, it seems: in the herem texts it is clearly God who is the voice behind the extermination command (whether it is human authors who put these words in God’s mouth or not), whereas in the Holocaust, most Jewish theologies–and many Christian ones–would affirm that there was no divine voice either commanding the genocide (Rubenstein’s central question) or intervening on behalf of the victims. This is where Sparks’ analogy breaks down for me: how do we address not the theodical issue but the theological issue of divine silence during the Holocaust in comparison with divine mandate for genocide in theherem texts? For Sparks, again, this evil cannot be traced back to God, though all we can confess is that “we do not have a complete answer” (49). Personally, this response sounds overly apologetic; we cannot and do not know the answer, but surely it must not be God. This does not mean I wish to indict God so readily on this matter, but Sparks dismisses the divine origin of the command all too easily, ascribing it simply to human authors; why that itself is not an adequate enough defense for him given his thesis remains unclear. I would echo many of my same critiques I raise in my RBL review of Seibert (link above).
Chapter 6, “Some Theological Queries,” tackles a number of questions related to the nature of the Bible and proper interpretation. Sparks addresses a number of issues: inspiration, revelation, the continued authority of Scripture for the Christian faith if it has error and lies within the fallen order, if Scripture is as Sparks describes then why believe it is God’s word at all, could not such a view of Scripture lead to doubt or rejection of the faith, what is to stop readers from picking and choosing the theology they like and don’t like. Sparks concludes this chapter poignantly: “in the end, the success of biblical interpretation depends a great deal on whether we want to listen to God or merely tell him what he ought to say. For it is only by listening to God–to what he says in all of Scripture, and through all avenues by which he might speak, such as the voices of the Spirit and of creation–that we can finally arrive at the best understanding of how the Spirit is directing us to love God and our neighbor” (65).
In chapter 7, “The Redemption of Scripture: Biblical Examples,” Sparks adduces biblical evidence that Scripture itself is in need of redemption. The first example he cites is the famed Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus cites a precept from the Torah and proceeds to offer a “contrast” in his own teaching, introduced by the phrase “but I say to you.” I must confess that I do not find this to be what Jesus is doing in the majority of cases; rather than offering a contrast and reversing its teaching (Sparks’ words), Jesus seems largely to be ratcheting up the Torah’s requirements. For example, Jesus affirms that the Torah says one shall not kill, but Jesus says those who get angry are liable to judgment; Jesus doesn’t draw a contrast between his assessment and the Torah . . . he takes Torah seriously and makes it even more strict. Sparks also argues, based upon an earlier CBQ article he had published, that the Gospel of Matthew as a whole is meant as “a deliberate and sustained attempt to redeem the Old Testament law and make it serve the purposes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (69), evident in the juxtaposition between the command “go and kill all the nations” with “go, make disciples of all the nations.” Sparks anticipates a fair critique, namely that the OT is the one typically associated with needing redemption, though he maintains that the OT is vital still for several reasons, among them that it is the basis for Christianity’s message of redemption, that OT authors also sought to redeem broken parts of Scripture (2 Sam 24:1 cf. 1 Chron 21:1; not the most compelling example in my view), and that even the NT is not without its problems given slavery, misogyny, and ethnic slurs, the latter two of which I would argue Jesus is implicated (see perhaps most disturbingly Matt 15:21-26). It remains, though, the death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus that redeems both Testaments.
Chapter 8, “Christian Epistemology: Broken Readers of Sacred Scripture,” surveys several epistemological foundations for reading the biblical text. Sparks discusses Ttcit and reflective realism, modern realism (which develops into the Enlightenment), postmodernism (anti- and practical realism). Practical realism is the approach Sparks advocates, which he summarizes as follows: “God has it perfectly right, while human beings are partially right and partially wrong, but in a way that admits some human perspectives are better or more adequate than others” (87).
Chapter 9, “Sacred Scripture as Ancient Discourse,” looks at the task of theological interpretation (which has become an especially and increasingly important avenue in recent scholarly works; see, for example, Briggs and Lohr’s Theological Introduction to the Pentateuch and Green’s Practicing Theological Interpretation). For Sparks, theological interpretation is creedal, ecumenical, biblical, and theological. It is also important, Sparks avers, to read contextually and with an eye toward genre. It is here that Sparks appears far more optimistic about getting at authorial intent than I am, though I am sympathetic to the importance of reading with a mind toward context. This, however, doesn’t have to be so intimately connected to authorial intention, as though that were an attainable interpretive goal (on this, see my Jacob and the Divine Trickster, the introduction, for a discussion on the necessity of understanding deception in its ancient context and not with the negative baggage our contemporary culture associates with it). But here we should also be mindful of Sparks’ affirmation that biblical authors too can make mistakes and be wrong about things. The Bible, Sparks says, is hard, so much so that even ancient authors struggled with it. Sparks compellingly writes that “the idea that Scriptures meaning is everywhere perspecuous (clear and obvious) to the average reader does not seem to be a biblical idea” (102). It is a living document that we all encounter through the work of specialists, be it because we are reading a scholarly commentary or, Sparks says, an English translation, which likely has behind it a team of scholars who have worked through the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek so as to make the text accessible to the non-specialist.
Chapter 10, “Listening to the Diversity and Unity of Scripture,” Sparks wonders how unity and diversity succeed in communicating theological profundity. The answer is manifold. Approaching Scripture honestly entails acknowledging that there is diversity and contrast; it also leads to certain dangers (Sparks’ example: “kill the Canaanites transitions all too easily into “kill anyone whose religious ideology threatens you,” a terrifying reality that has unfortunately become a reality in the modern day battle for Israel). And so Sparks says that where God is portrayed as saying or doing something he wouldn’t do, such texts tell us more about the authors than about God. My question, however, and what Sparks leaves frustratingly undeveloped and unanswered, is how one is to adjudicate this matter. How does one know if God would be in the business, for example, of pronouncing judgment on Canaanites, or unfairly punishing someone, a la Job? By what hermeneutic can someone arrive at such conclusions? For Sparks, it seems self-evident that God would never be associated with anything evil or immoral. That, clearly, is the human side (though I wonder how Sparks would understand the imago Dei concept in light of this?). The only indication he offers is similar to what Seibert suggests elsewhere, that Jesus is the barometer. Sparks writes “our theology should grant priority to Jesus Christ, to knowing him, his teachings, and the redemptive significance of his resurrection, ascension, and eventual return” (107). While I am sympathetic to the Christian focus on Jesus (!!!!), Terry Fretheim has a word for this in his book The Suffering of God: he calls it Jesusology, that is, that God is kept at a distance and is feared while Jesus is the one we hold tenderly in our hearts and is, in essence, the one who comes to rescue us from a dangerous and wrathful God. Emphasizing Jesus is fine, of course, but at what point does this lead to a latent, or even functional, Marcionism? Elsewhere in this same chapter, Sparks hazards another, less precise, response to how one adjudicates the matter of whether God did/did not do X: Sparks simply acknowledges that there is “no guarantee” we’ll get the answer right . . . put simply, he doesn’t answer the question. But Sparks is right, at least, in arguing that “healthy theology” entails familiarity with all of Scripture, even its unpalatable moments, as contributing to the theological whole. Whether this is a reality Sparks attains (or something he rather gives lip service to) remains unclear to me.
Building on the previous chapter, chapter 11, “Theology beyond the Bible: Spirit, Cosmos, Tradition, and Experience” claims that there are times we must–and have, for example, with slavery, or the ordination of women–move beyond Scripture. What other voices warrant a hearing? The first, says Sparks, is the Spirit, which is both at work in believers/unbelievers and through activities of the faithful. Second, the cosmos, a sort of natural theology. Third, tradition, which is not itself infallible says Sparks, has regained a central foothold among Protestants, as well as maintaining its importance with Catholic and Orthodox circles. Tradition too is not beyond challenge, though I remain unclear why Sparks thinks reading tradition (creeds, catechism, etc.) is a task unlike how he has suggested we read the Bible. Fourth, experience. Sparks writes: “when our full-orbed ‘gut-feel’ comes to blows with our cognitive theological affirmations, this experiential evidence is a hint that our theological views may stand in need of refinement and modification” (131). And it is here that I would adduce the Holocaust as the quintessential example of not one person or group but the entire human race’s experience standing in stark dissonance with tradition. Sparks, however, unfortunately and problematically, doesn’t raise the Holocaust as an example here. The voice with which the Holocaust speaks here is deafening.
Chapter 12, “Priorities for Theological Interpretation,” suggests that interpreters must attend to mystery, personal wholeness, praxis, and mission. 1) Mystery attests to the limits of our knowledge and should be “embraced and enjoyed” rather than “solved”; mystery is also, though, not an “escape hatch,” a point which I deeply appreciate as this approach is all too often used as an apologetic for God; 2) personal wholeness seeks our mental and spiritual health for the relationships for which we are built; 3) praxis understands interpretation to only be correct when it impels one to act on what God has said; “I have not interpreted Scripture adequately until I have acted on what God has said” (139); 4) missional hermeneutic sees, in a very NT Wright-ian way, an essential component of the Christian task as involving working to remedy our broken world here and now.
The final chapter, “Validity and Biblical Interpretation,” asks how we define in a postmodern context which interpretations are valid and which are not. Toward this end, Sparks draws a distinction between warrant (an interpretation that is reasonable though may be wrong) and validity (a right interpretation). Puzzlingly, Sparks says the only way to ascertain the validity of an interpretation is to know God’s perspective. Compounding this difficulty all the more is the “surplus of meaning” that texts are seen as having. Sparks says both text and community offer controls on what can and cannot be a valid interpretation. Where interpretations are deemed invalid, Sparks prescribes “gentleness and respect” as opposed to chiding and damnation.
A brief “Final Thoughts” section (2 pages) rounds out the book. Sparks basically rehashes his main points: that God “sanctifies and uses broken human beings to extend his grace to broken human beings” (156), that error and diversity and tension in the Bible does not make it useless, that anything negative in Scripture and/or our world stems from humanity and never from God, and that problematic images of Scripture derive from “our fallen condition,” though it is in and through Jesus that all–ourselves and Scripture–are healed.
Sparks has written a careful, nuanced, and thoughtful work with which I resonate a great deal. His insistence that the Bible is not without its complexities and difficulties, coupled with the reality that it must be read for what it is and not what we wish it was, are central and necessary insights that many need to hear and be reminded of often. But I cannot, as some of the comments above suggest, get on board with Sparks’ confidence that everything negative stems from human beings and our fallen condition. I do not wish to dispute the brokenness of creation or of humanity, though Sparks’ discussion assumes and takes for granted the Fall, seemingly, as an actual historical event. Even if he didn’t, the assumption that the text of Gen 2-3 can support an interpretation of the Fall is something scholars have wrestled with a great deal and is anything but self-evident. It is much more a Pauline lens focused on the Genesis text, perhaps, than it is a reading of Genesis in its own context. I also do not share Sparks’ optimism about the ease with which God can be exonnerated by simply attributing those texts to humans. Again, this doesn’t suggest that God in fact did all the things that the Bible suggests–good or bad–but I remain unconvinced that tracing these images to a human origin removes or even tempers the ethical difficulty. Even granting Sparks his point, the fact remains that someone or some group saw fit to portray God in some quite unsettling ways; what lies behind these portrayals? What is the impetus in portraying God this way? And relatedly, granting Sparks’ “adoption” understanding–whereby God adopts and uses fallen humans, where they are instruments to communicate the divine word–if humans get God so drastically and problematically wrong on some points (i.e., genocide of women, infants, and children in Josh 11 or 1 Sam 15, for example), would God not perhaps see fit to intervene and remedy such portrayals? Or, moreover, seeing something as inexplicable as the Holocaust from a “God’s-eye view,” would God not feel compelled or moved to intercede? My point is, simply, what are the limits to which humans can get God wrong?
Sparks’ book is an important and worthwhile voice that should be read carefully and critically by Christians of all stripes. Some will find him progressive, others will suggest he doesn’t go far enough. But no one should be able to fault him for at least not raising the questions that need to be asked.
Many of you may know I am currently working on my second book, tentatively titled An Untamable God: Reading the Old Testament’s Troubling Texts Theologically (under contract with Eerdmans). I have thus far compiled an initial, brief bibliography, but I was curious what other books/articles/collections of essays, etc. need attention. There is always something missed, and this is my hope to minimalize that liability as much as possible.
What is missing, and equally important: why?
A very brief word about the book itself. It is in the vein of recent contributions by Seibert, Stark, Copan, Lamb, and others that looks at the seemingly problematic character of God in the OT and attempts to address the issue (see HERE). I remain unsatisfied with these treatments, namely because I think they commit one of three primary errors: 1) engage in apologetics to defend or exonerate God; 2) ignore the texts entirely as though they do not exist or by some exegetical method or gymnastics; 3) appeal to Jesus as the barometer of who God really is, thus beginning to tread a Marcionite line. The common denominator in all three of these approaches is that the disturbing portraits of God are basically explained away rather than explained. My approach, however, wants to retain the “untamable” (hence the title of the book) nature of these texts yet still allow them to speak a word about God, a word of theology.
And so . . . what else should I be reading?!
Since Facebook has proven to be a delightful means of making connections within academia and being made aware of current trends and conservations in scholarship, I have begun, again, reading and using Twitter. It is partly entertainment related (yes, so I can see how my favorite WWE wrestlers are doing, or read the daily hilarious tweets of one of my favorite comics, Jim Gaffigan), but I’ve also found a fair number of biblical scholars on there. Not a lot, however. What’s more, I only (sigh) have about 50 followers–and a disturbing number of them are weight loss folk that I’ve NEVER met or heard of in my life–all of which makes conversations and connections less profitable and robust.
And so, dear and loyal readers, I ask of you two things:
1) What biblical scholars do you know that are on Twitter, and what are their handles?
2) Feel free to follow me: @johneanderson (do note the inclusion of the middle initial), and drop me a note if you do follow me. I don’t always catch the new ones.
I’m back from the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco, which I attended Friday, Nov 18 – Tuesday, Nov 22. It was an excellent meeting this year, though the one complaint I have is that things were quite spread out between sessions and the book exhibit. It was about a 15 minute walk from my hotel, where sessions were held, to the book exhibit. Not a big deal, but it does make it difficult to jump from session to session for those who want to hear only certain speakers.
A few highlights of the meeting from my perspective:
1) Genesis consultation launch: This meeting saw the first sessions of the new Genesis consultation I started and co-chair with Chris Heard. The first session at 1pm on Saturday was themed ‘Genesis and Theology,’ with myself, Terry Fretheim, Joel Kaminsky, and Tammi Schneider presenting papers; Walter Brueggemann served as respondent. We were amazed and delighted when 15 minutes before the session was even to begin the room was already full, with folk standing in the back.
This is something I had feared when first seeing the room; there were exactly 50 chairs, and all were taken. Jim Eisenbraun said he counted up folk and came up with between 120 and 140 in attendance. We later learned many came, saw the crowd, and left, but remarkably many also came and despite not being able to hear, stayed, no doubt in the hopes of touching the hem of the garment of either Brueggemann or Fretheim! The papers were all exceptional, and Brueggemann’s response was classic Brueggemann. What we all especially appreciated was his conclusion, carving out a new niche for Genesis studies going forward that doesn’t rehearse the traditional historical-critical questions but embraces, what he described, as four main features . . . all four papers, Brueggemann said, shared the following marks: ideological/theological, contemporary, bearing marks of contestation, and interest(ing).
He juxtaposed this with earlier studies in Genesis, which would either parrot the biblical text or deal with issues of the numinous history of the text, enterprises which he called, if you read them, “boring.” This was truly a gift. We were also privy to a fun but brief exchange between Brueggemann and Fretheim; Brueggemann was pushing Fretheim on Fretheim’s idea that in the Jabbok wrestling match God had self-limited; Brueggemann rightly asked why not just say God is limited in some capacity. Would that there were more time for such a discussion!The second Genesis session was themed ‘Genesis 1: The State of the Question and Avenues Moving Forward.’ Again, a much too small room, and we had about 100 folk, standing room only again. Chris Heard opened with a paper surveying where Gen 1 research is now, and posing questions to our panelists for where things need to go. I presided over the session. Each of our panelists–John Walton, Bill Brown, Ellen van Wolde, and Mark Smith–have recently published seminal works on Gen 1, within the last two years. After Chris’ paper, each panelist received 15-20 minutes to address Chris, one another’s work, and the larger discipline of Gen 1 studies. There was some very worthwhile and interesting discussion about Walton’s view of ‘functional ontology’ and whether it is an either/or situation or a both/and in regards to material ontology. Walton argues that God is not creating matter but ascribing functions. Also some interesting conversation about method in biblical studies.The Gen 1 panel: John Walton, Mark Smith, Chris Heard, Bill Brown, and Ellen van Wolde.
What I found most interesting–perhaps because of the panelists we selected–is that the conversation focused almost entirely on historical/critical approaches and the ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment, which is no doubt appropriate and fitting, but I was surprised the conversation didn’t ever turn much explicitly to discussion of theological purpose, thrust, or image of God. This is not a critique, merely an observation. I had Walton, Smith, and Brown sign copies of their books for me, and also Terry Fretheim sign my copy of his God and World in the Old Testament.
Both sessions I have heard from various folks were quite well received, and the new Genesis consultation is off to a vibrant start and is one that, I think (and hope) will have a robust and bright future. Did any of you attend, and if so, what were your thoughts?
(I am also looking for someone with an audio recording of the Gen 1 session; I noticed several in the audience recording the session. If you have this, please let me know, as I’d love to obtain the file).
2. Catching up: The more I attend SBL, the less I find myself in sessions and the more I find myself catching up with folk and making new connections. I had a number of appointments scheduled going into the meeting. Saturday morning I had breakfast with my dissertation advisor, Bill Bellinger. Always a joy to see him and catch up, and even more of a joy to see him later in the conference and learn that he and Brueggemann had been together on Baylor’s campus recently, and at the conference itself, and both times they spoke of me, with Brueggemann speaking highly of me and my work; given how influential he has been for me, this is truly affirming. Saturday evening I joined Bellinger with all his former dissertation advisees, as is customary every year, for a wonderful meal and time of conversation. An interesting development potentially arose from this meeting, and that’s all I’ll say right now, but I am hopeful for something significant in the (near) future re: it.
I had lunch with my friend Eric Seibert, author of Disturbing Divine Behavior (if you haven’t yet, see my RBL review HERE), and as always some stimulating conversation re: the character God in the Bible. The more I talk with Eric and the more I use his book in class, the more appreciative I become for what he’s done, though I still stand by all my critiques in the RBL review; he’s asking the right questions, just answering them incorrectly in my view. I was also happy to see he had purchased my book, Jacob and the Divine Trickster, and had me sign it. Very cool!
I had an enjoyable meeting with Michael Thomson, acquisitions editor at Eerdmans, about my forthcoming book with them, An Untamable God. Michael has a great sense of humor, and I am deeply appreciative for his interest in the book. We hammered out some questions about tone and audience, which was my primary query. Now that those are clarified a bit more, I plan to start writing in earnest soon.
Chris Heard and I had supper Sunday night; two Genesis geeks together. What did we talk about, you ask? Mainly bad jokes and how forgiving scholars actually are (right Chris?!). Maybe I’ll share your viewpoint more fully when I’m tenured!
Monday night I was blessed to have supper with Terry Fretheim, who along with Brueggemann, are my biggest influences in how I approach the Bible and understand the character God. It was a truly enjoyable, natural conversation spanning many topics.
I was especially happy to hear of Terry’s positive assessment of my Jacob and the Divine Trickster (which he also cited affirmingly during his presentation in the Genesis session on Saturday).
Had the good fortune to talk to Walter Brueggemann a few times in the book exhibit; one time he especially praised the Genesis session, calling it “fun” and suggesting that in offering a response to such strong papers, he had to come up with something critical to say for each!
3) Books: I live in the book exhibit at these things. It’s where I run into the most people, make new connections, and of course, buy books. This year I bought two books and God two freebies from publishers. The freebies were Russel Pregeant’s Reading the Bible for all the Wrong Reasons (Fortress, 2011) and Thomas Long’s What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Eerdmans, 2011). I bought Philip Jenkins’ Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (Harper, 2011) and Matt Schlimm’s From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis (Eisenbrauns, 2011). Started Jenkins in the airport during my 2 hr layover in Denver on the way back to South Dakota.
The highlight of the book exhibit, however, was seeing my book for sale with Eisenbrauns.
They had an awesome banner with my book on it too. What was even more of a highlight was hearing from them that after the Saturday Genesis session in which I presented there was a run on them; by the end of the conference, they only had two copies left!
It was also pretty cool to sign copies for a few folk, including Bill Brown, who is a big name and has been quite influential also in my own scholarly pursuits, especially in the Psalms but also in Genesis.
Another highlight was catching up with old Baylor friends, including two with whom I stayed. It’s great we can get together at least once a year! And I was also encouraged in the number of folk who asked me–and I was surprised at how many actually did–if I had lost some weight. Imagine their surprise when I replied “yep, 85 lbs.”
4. Sessions: Aside from the two Genesis sessions, I only attended one other session in full: the Book of Psalms session commemmorating the 25th anniversary of the publishing of Gerald Wilson’s seminal The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter. Some great papers on the shape and shaping of the Psalter, as well as some very moving reflections on Wilson the man and scholar, as well as where Psalms scholarship has yet to go. Great session. Earlier I had popped into the Exile/Forced Migrations session to hear papers by Erhard Gerstenberger and Chris Seitz.
All in all a great meeting, and I’m really looking forward to SBL in Chicago next year!
And how was your meeting?