Old Testament Theology Thursday! (Fretheim Edition)

Most of you know of my great respect for the scholarship of Walter Brueggemann; I have learned from him a great deal, and it is a joy to say that we are acquaintances and have traded many an email and conversation at SBL. But if there is someone who comes in a very, very close second, it is without a doubt Terence Fretheim from Luther Seminary. I have been making my way through his God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Abingdon, 2005), and I must confess this is the best book I have read in a long while. Fretheim is always transformative to read for me. This volume is no different. And so today’s edition of OT Theology Thursday is dedicated to Terry Fretheim, who has taught me to realize that creation and creation theology is far more deeply embedded and engrained in the biblical text than I had originally appreciated.

About the flood story in Gen 6 Fretheim writes:

“The flood story focuses on God and God’s commitment to the world. This God: expresses sorrow and regret; judges but does not want to; goes beyond justice and decides to save some, including animals; commits to the future of a less than perfect world; is open to change in view of experience with the world and doing things in new ways; and promises never to do this again. What God does here “recharacterizes”  the divine relation to the world. God ameliorates the workings of divine judgment and promises an orderly cosmos for the continuation of life. God will never do this again! God is the one who has changed between the beginning and end of the flood, not human beings (though there are fewer of them around!).” (God and World, 82)

This quotation represents very nicely a microcosm of what Fretheim seeks to do in this volume. There are so many rich passages in this book from which I could have chosen, but I especially like the last line of that quoted above.



18 thoughts on “Old Testament Theology Thursday! (Fretheim Edition)

    • John Anderson says:

      Care to elaborate, Brian?

      I must confess, alongside Brueggemann, Fretheim is the one other scholar that I would be so bold as to say that he is essentially right about almost everything he says.

  1. hashavyahu says:

    Whose theology does he claim this is, or where is it located? Was it intended by the compiler of the two flood stories? Or is it a theology of the reader alone, that is, this particular reader (Fretheim) and other readers who might find his reading compelling?

    • John Anderson says:

      Interesting question. The locus of meaning is always a hard question to nail down. Whereas one scholar may say the meaning is located with the author, I may say no, the meaning is located in the text, or in the reader, or in the confluence of the two. Scholarly method also muddies this quest up sometimes.

      Fretheim is pointing out a (singular, not THE) theology of the OT. He is picking a particular, under-appreciated theological stratum and tracing it through the biblical text and showing the rich undertones and deep connections it has throughout. Was it intended by the compiler of the two flood stories? That depends, first on whether you assume the mechanism was as simple historically as putting together two different stories. Moreover, the issue of authorial intent is always a dangerous and problematic claim to make, and these are not Fretheim’s questions in this volume. He is, as I do in my own scholarship, focusing upon the final, received canonical text as the locus of meaning and theological insight. But I don’t think that makes it a theology of the reader alone. And I don’t think the two poles that have been insinuated (authorial intent OR reader-response) are fair or accurate characterizations. I’d speak more of a continuum than an either/or. And I am confident Fretheim would not say that his book represents simply his own theology (though surely it is) but that he is drawing up and highlighting the breadth of creation theology throughout the Hebrew Bible. Part of that creation theology, nested already in the creation stories of Gen 1-2, involves a God who willingly gives up power and shares power with humans, and a God who is willing to change for the sake and integrity of the relationship with creation.

      I’d recommend checking out his The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. It’s shorter than God and World and gives you a good sense of his take on God, loaded with a variety of biblical texts in support of his case. Reading that book 10 years ago literally changed my entire conception of God.

      • hashavyahu says:

        Unless he can argue that someone, be it author, redactor, or whatever, intended these theological points he sees in the text, I think this theology most certainly is exclusively a theology of the reader. The failure to nail down the locus of meaning is precisely why I tend not to like biblical theology. The claim that the locus of meaning is difficult to identify looks like a strategy for making room for ideological interpretation and ignoring historical questions that are appropriate to ancient texts (like composition).

  2. hashavyahu says:

    how do we know, for example, that God’s change of heart after the flood is due to his willingness “to change for the sake and integrity of the relationship with creation,” and not, say, because he really likes getting sacrifices and so decides that humans are worth the trouble after all?

    • John Anderson says:

      Every theology, be it historically minded or text immanent, is a theology of that particular reader. None of us is ever a disinterested reader in the text. This is one of the great gifts of postmodern biblical scholarship: the recognition that readers have baggage and experiences that must be foregrounded in the interpretive process.

      I think you are a bit more confident than I am, and Fretheim is, and many others are, about the success in being able to “nail down the locus of meaning.” And I can say with great confidence that a) Fretheim is not offering an ideological interpretation; b) he is not entirely ahistorica; c) ideological interpretations are not always a bad thing, so long as one is honest about it.

      The discipline has evolved, and historical questions are not always at the fore, nor are they required for sound scholarship. Look, for instance, at Robert Alter’s seminal The Art of Biblical Narrative on this front. Historical-critical scholarship is, to me, just as nebulous and skepical–oftentimes even moreso–than other methodologies.

      As to your second post, the simple answer is we don’t know that, and Fretheim isn’t interested in arguing the cause as much as the result. He is more concerned to show that God changes than with trying to psychologize God (though that is an entirely different set of issues; how one adjudicates the relationship between the textual God and actual God–Fretheim’s words in another context–is quite difficult).

      My suggestion: read the book and see what you think. It’s most definitely worth it!

      • hashavyahu says:

        Trying to speak about the actual God on the basis of a couple thousand year old text is an incredibly ideological project. If some claims to describe or explain biblical texts, as I presume Fretheim does, historical questions have to be primary for the simple reason that the texts themselves are products of the ancient world. Using the ancient texts but bracketing or downplaying the historical questions always strikes me as a bizarre thing for a scholar to do since it looks like an unwillingness to treat the supposed objects of study as the ancient artifacts that they are. So I think historical questions certainly do always have to be at the fore when dealing with texts from the ancient world (just as archaeological questions would have to be at the fore when dealing with pottery sherds, etc.). I would cite Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative as an example of bad scholarship for just this reason.

        That is why I bring up the example of Yahweh’s change of heart after the flood (J source). If this change of heart is due to his taste for sacrifice (I’m speaking here of the character in the story, not psychologizing about the actual God) rather than his concern for maintaining a covenantal relationship with humanity, then your statement about his “willing to change for the sake and integrity of the relationship with creation” is unwarranted textually (one thinks of the motivation for Mesopotamian gods’ change of heart after the flood as they swarmed like flies around the sacrifice). You can force the text to support what you want it to mean through an ideological reading, but that tells us nothing about the ancient text as such.

  3. John Anderson says:

    What we have here is an obvious methodological disagreement. Your labeling of Alter’s volume as “bad scholarship” is evidence of this. I obviously disagree entirely, and I would point you to the number of volumes in biblical studies that are not simply historical-criitical forays. The discipline itself is far more diverse and eclectic than it was 30 years ago. I’d invite you to read Carolyn Sharp’s recent book Wrestling the Word for a fine survey on various modes of reading the Hebrew Bible, including ideological readings (which she correctly partitions out from literary readings).

    Second, to reiterate, Fretheim is not ahistorical. We may be talking past one another here. If your insistence that he ask historical questions entails him partitioning the text out into its constituive sources and development, he does do some of this, but very very briefly. More important, though, are his socio-literary comments throughout, typically associating these texts with the experience and trauma of exile. There are different ways to be historically-minded in scholarship.

  4. hashavyahu says:

    Yes, we certainly do have a disagreement about how ancient texts should be approached. It would be absurd for me to deny that numerous people in the field have written numerous monographs and articles that abandon properly historical questions. The scholars at the top research universities in the US and Germany, however, have not stopped putting the historical questions at the center (rather than periphery) of their work. The difference reflects a difference in conception about what a scholar of ancient texts is supposed to do with them.

    • John Anderson says:

      I would quibble with your characterzation of scholars at the top research universities are, thankfully, the ones continuing to walk the historical-critical line. There are some, to be sure, but there are plenty who are not. That is a broad and gross over-generalization.

      I do not, nor is Fretheim advocating, the dismissal of historical-critical methods. Yes, I find them often tenuous (tradition-history, redaction, source criticism, etc.) and oftentimes tautological. But literary methods are prone to these critiques as well. Both can be performed poorly, and both can be performed with exemplary skill. Fretheim falls into the latter category. So does Alter.

      The scholarly task is a rich and diverse one, full of eclectic methodologies and powerfully thoughtful scholarship. Yet I remain firmly against such easy characterizations that aim to say that because one is not foregrouning history (and I do not understand these ancient texts to REQUIRE one to foreground historical-critical matters at all!) they are doing poor scholarship. If Alter has taught me anything, for example–and he has taught me a great deal–it is that the Hebrew Bible is full of literary artistry that a purely historical-critical eye will miss entirely.

      In my forthcoming book I have, in a way, bridged this gap by emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between HOW and WHAT a text means.

      Put most simply, there are diverse ways of reading the biblical text (again, check out Carolyn Sharp’s recent volume I cite above). But there are also diverse ways of adducing history in reading and interpreting the biblical text: redaction, source criticism, tradition history, textual criticism, socio-literary, etc. No one way is right, or better.

  5. hashavyahu says:

    “and I do not understand these ancient texts to REQUIRE one to foreground historical-critical matters at all!”

    Yes, this is precisely our disagreement. The nature of the source material requires historical methodologies. Other approaches may be “valid,” but are not the proper domain of scholarly investigation into the ancient texts themselves. They belong to the domain of Christian theology, Jewish theology, feminist theology, pietism, or whatever, but not the study of the Hebrew Bible as a collection of ancient documents.

  6. jill says:

    Although I share hashavyahu’s feelings about biblical theology, I have to agree with John here. Levenson at Harvard, Sharp at Yale, Strawn at Emory, Anderson at Notre Dame, not to mention the Duke or Princeton Seminary faculty, all center their research on biblical theology. Unless we only consider Chicago with two very good but junior Hebrew Bible scholars, Brandeis, NYU, Wisconsian (sp),Temple with two very good but junior Hebrew Bible scholars as the only top research scholars, and these schools are not all top research universities, I can’t agree with hashavyahu’s claim as much as I wish it were true.

    PS Penn currently has no one in Hebrew Bible although they are currently searching for Tigay’s replacement. That is why I didn’t list them.

    • hashavyahu says:

      Fair enough, though some of the names you list nevertheless approach their theological projects from explicitly historical perspectives (I’m think particularly of Anderson and Levenson). Also, I have no doubt that Penn will be hiring a critical historian and not a theologian. I can’t wait to see who it will be.

  7. John Anderson says:

    @hashavyahu: The fact that the age or ancientness of the material being handled in the end requires a certain methodology, that then MUST operate hegemonically, is a problematic assumption to make for many reasons I’ve already indicated. But moreover, let us take another parallel: Shakespeare’s writings. These are no doubt old (but of course not as old as the biblical text, yet this isn’t a contest!). Does their age and rootedness in history REQUIRE that one approach them solely from a historical point of view? Absolutely not; while I do not discourage history as a necessary part of studying Shakespeare (or the biblical text), I do disagree that it MUST be THE central operative mode of inquiry. Emphasizing history with Shakespeare would then cause one to miss the rich literary artistry that pervades the text; similarly, focusing SOLELY on history with the biblical text misses the literary artistry of the text, misses the HOW the text communicates. I have always said the authors of the biblical text, whoever they were and whenever they wrote, know Hebrew far better than I (or dare I say, any scholar) ever will; to ignore that literary artistry as a part of the interpretive picture misses a great deal.

    @Jill: Thanks for rattling off some names, and for your support. We, though, it seems disagree on the nature of the task of theological inquiry of the biblical text (I don’t thnk it must be, nor even is best practiced as, historical-critical).

    @Brian: Many thanks. I have learned a great deal from Fretheim; reading his work is always a powerfully transformative venture for me.

    • hashavyahu says:

      I wouldn’t exclude a description of literary artistry from the task of historical criticism. The task of the critic, however, is to understand what the ancient author or compiler was trying to do. The modern reader is irrelevant. I imagine the same would be true for someone interested in Shakespeare. If literary criticism is no longer interested in those question, all the worse for literary criticism.

  8. jill says:


    I agree completely that theological inquiry does not to be primarily historical critical and probably should not be. We simply differ in what interests us not on how the task of theological inquiry should be done: you are interested in theological inquiry and I am not. That is all that I meant when I said that I share hashavyahu’s feelings.

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