Old Testament Theology Thursday (Genesis Edition!)

Yes, I know it isn’t Thursday (mea culpa, it’s been one of those weeks!), but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to offer a very special Genesis edition of OT Theology Thursday–special in light of SBL’s acceptance of a new program unit devoted to the book of Genesis (see HERE). And so I offer, from one of our scheduled presenters at the 2012 Annual Meeting, R.W.L. Moberly (from his Theology of the Book of Genesis, Cambridge 2009, some thoughts on the theology of the book of Genesis:

“. . . the Book of Genesis comes to us, not as an interesting papyrological or epigraphic discovery from exploration of the Middle East that can enlarge our knowledge of ancient religion, but in the context of the canonical scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. In this context, Genesis has a seemingly inexhaustible history of interpretation and appropriation, which gives rise to continuing expectations and assumptions as one comes to the text. Whatever the complexities and ramifications of the debates about the relationship between scripture and tradition that have characterized both Jews and Christians down the ages, and however much it may become necessary periodically to reassert a certain kind of scriptural primacy over the forumlations of continuing traditions of interpretation, the fact remains that Genesis is received within the context of continuing traditions of faith, life, and thought, however variously these may be conceived” (12)

This approach described here by Moberly, in my estimation at least, speaks quite accurately to what we see and hope to continue to see being done in the book of Genesis, hopefully on display in the Genesis unit.

And I can’t resist another, from Moberly, the same volume:

“It is perhaps unusual for a book within the Old Testament to have one particular text that can be regarded as a possible interpretive key to the book as a whole, and even to the Old Testament as a whole. Yet such a case has been made in relation to God’s call of Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. . . . The intrinsic significance of this passage is not in doubt. For its context makes it a bridge between God’s dealings with the world in general in Genesis 1-11 and his dealings with the patriarchs in particular in Genesis 12-50. These are also works on the lips of God, which clearly introduce and frame the story of Abraham that follows” (141).

I am in firm agreement with Moberly that Gen 12:1-3 is the interpretive lens needed for much of the biblical text, Old and New Testaments alike.


Old Testament Theology Thursday (von Rad Edition)

In Gerhard von Rad’s magisterial two volume Old Testament Theology, he writes the following concerning the patriarchs:

“All who read the stories of the patriarchs with an eye to their theology will soon see that it is not easy to give an answer to the question so self-evident to us, what is their meaning, their theological content? How are we to approach this question? For in these stories we are not confronted with an account of the history which furnishes the reader with explicit theological judgments, or which constantly allows him to participate in extensive theological reflexion upon the history, as the Deuteronomistic account does. In the stories of the patriarchs the reader will look in vain for any formulation of the narrator’s own theological judgment. . . . Is then the question perhaps wrongly put? Can we say that these story-tellers ever had a theological interpretation which really took in the whole body of the stories of the patriarchs? Was their intention to offer such a thing at all?” (165).

I have learned a great deal from von Rad’s volumes, and despite their age they continue to inform me in rich and diverse ways about the task and nature of Old Testament theology. What von Rad here points out about the difficulty in isolating theological content from the ancestral narratives is correct–very few scholarly treatments have sought to do just that–yet I must confess my dissatisfaction with von Rad on this point. Yes, it has been difficult to glean items of theological profundity from the ancestral narratives, yet I suggest this reveals much more about our own contemporary values and mores being imported into the text than it does about what the text is actually trying to communicate. My forthcoming book with Eisenbrauns (!!!!) will attempt to give potent theological voice to the ancestral narratives, the Jacob cycle more specifically. While the text does not provide clear theological judgments (or, put another way, the narrator does not intrude and tell us what to think and where, as in Deuteronomy, which von Rad notes), I disagree with von Rad that it does not invite the reader to “participate in deep theological reflexion.” The very absence of such expected guideposts in the narrative impels the reader to do just that. In response to von Rad’s question–was the intent ever to offer theological content in and through the ancestral narratives–I must answer with a bold and unequivocal YES!

Carolyn Sharp on “naively performed” historical-critical inquiry of the Bible

In Carolyn Sharp’s new book Wrestling the Word (which I am hoping to use in the future for some classes), she addresses in her opening chapter the question of “What’s at Stake in Different Ways of Reading?” I found her comments about historical-critical inquiry to be particularly interesting (perhaps because I share many of them), yet I should point out that Sharp quotes John Barton’s  quite unflattering remarks about postmodern biblical interpretation . . . and so the knife cuts both ways.

Sharp writes the following about the difficulties and problems of historical-critical interpretation “naively practiced” (18-19):

1. Historical critics are sometimes unduly influenced by the views of those who wielded political power in the societies under investigation.

2. Historical critics sometimes confuse the views of biblical characters and narrators with what may have actually happened in history (i.e., they “can be startlingly naive about the relationship between text and context, missing the subtleties with which literary texts use misidrection, conflicting viewpoints, irony, and other artful means to tell stories,” p. 20)

3. Historical critics sometimes seem unaware of their own cultural and epistemological biases. (To expand, Sharp writes “But biblical hisorical inquiry, as it has traditionally been formulated, has made something of a fetish out of purportedly ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ scholarship, dismissing the biases and values of the historian as irrelevant. Bracketing one’s own opinions is one thing. Pretending one’s own biases do not exist is quite another, and that latter approach has been a hallmark of biblical historical-critical scholarship in many quarters,” p. 20).

And . . . that’s where my Amazon books preview cuts me off (I must buy this book!). Some sharp words from Sharp!

(I cannot resist comment . . . that is one beautiful and compelling cover! Well done whoever designed that!).


Old Testament Theology Thursday! (Childs Edition)

Today is a goodie from the late Brevard Childs in his little book Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Fortress Press, 1985):

The initial point to be made is that the canonical approach to Old Testament thoelogy is unequivocal in asserting that the object of theological reflection is the canonical writing of the Old Testament, that is, the Hebrew scriptures which are the received traditions of Israel. The materials for theological reflection are not the events or experiences behind the text, or apart fro mthe construal in scripture by a communty of faith and practice. however, because the biblical text continually bears witness to events and reactions in the life of Israel, the literature cannot be isolated from its ostensive reference (6).

I am appreciative for what Childs says here: the emphasis is most fruitfully placed on the canonical text. Where I disagree with Childs–and where I continue to be unsatisfied with his canonical methodology–is in his confidence that the larger canon intentionally serves as the hermeneutical lens through which one must interpret various texts. For instance, elsewhere in this tiny volume he argues about a topic near and dear to my heart–the ethically problematic tales of the patriarchs–suggesting that in the biblical canon the emphasis is not on their ethical infelicities but instead on the grace of God in choosing such figures and remaining steadfast to them. While I don’t disagree with the idea that God’s grace is in evidence (abundance!) in the ancestral narratives, I am quite hesitant to suggest with any sort of confidence that these later texts (for instance, Psalm 105, among others) are intentionally reinterpreting the Genesis texts. Why could the opposite trajectory not be equally, if not more, authoritative? Could the Genesis texts be offering a comment on Psalm 105 et. al.? I have never been convinced that the way one adjudicates the direction of interpretation and influence is anything but arbitrary. But in the end, I am deeply appreciative for Childs’ emphasis on the importance of the final form of the text as the locus of Israel’s theological reflection and thus the necessary starting point for the interpreter’s theological reflection as well.


Old Testament Theology Thursday!

Many bloggers have series that they run each week. This marks my attempt to begin such a series (and to utilize some alliteration!), where each week I will offer a particularly interesting, significant, or thought-provoking comment on the nature of Old Testament theology. This inaugural edition comes from (surprise, surprise) Walter Brueggemann:

“I shall insist, as consistently as I can, that the God of Old Testament theology as such lives in, with, and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text, and nowhere else and in no other way.  This rhetorical enterprise operates with ontological assumptions, but these assumptions are open to dispute and revision in the ongoing rhetorical enterprise of Israel” (Theology of the Old Testament, 66)

Thoughts? Discuss!

A Disappointing Book . . . (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?)

I was quite excited at SBL to see that Paul Copan’s newest volume Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God was available early from Baker (it wasn’t supposed to be out until early 2011). Given my (tangential, yet increasing) interest in the topic, especially in light of my thorough interaction with my friend Eric Seibert’s recent contribution on the topic, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (watch for my forthcoming RBL review of this volume), I was quite eager to crack this one open. I must say, I am terribly disappointed for a number of reasons.

Copan is offering a rebuttal to the New/Neo-Atheist movement, which I can appreciate a great deal, though his manner of doing so is hardly convincing in my view. The book is intentionally written and pitched at a popular level, which is not a problem in and of itself, but this is not what I was expecting. Copan’s volume is comprised of a number of chapters, each addressing a particular problematic issue (i.e., divine arrogance, divine child abuse, the weirdness of the Old Testament [i.e., kosher laws, for instance], among many others). While I am appreciative for what he is trying to do–the Neo-Atheist argument is simply too facile, rudimentary, and extreme–his arguments are not convincing. My biggest complaint is that while he accuses the Neo-Atheists of arguing from their own theological a priori, I would say Copan is equally guilty of this charge. He is critiquing the Neo-Atheists for arguing from an a priori when Copan is doing just this in his attempt at a defense. He similarly employs weak exegesis in my view, for example claiming that God’s command that Abraham “Please take your son” in Gen 22  shows God as being “remarkably gentle as he gives a difficult order” (47). All this seems based upon the word “please” (‘na’ in Hebrew), a particle of entreaty that cannot so easily be translated as “please,” allowing the interpreter to move on. This is another annoyance; while Copan does not appear to know Hebrew (which is not the annoyance, mind you), he is reliant upon other scholars who do. Those he relies upon, however, are clearly in the conservative camp, and he commits the logical fallacy of citing another scholar’s work as evidence that a given point is authoritative and correct. The interpretive issues and conversations on these texts are far more diverse and complicated than Copan seems to admit. Despite this being a popular level book, engagement with both sides of the debate (and some voices in-between as well!) would be worthwhile. Things are not simply black or white (with Copan seemingly always arguing for the ‘white’).

Another big complaint I would register is that Copan frequently psychologizes the biblical characters. I am open to allowing a modicum of psychologizing in interpreting biblical texts, but only where the narrative gives the reader license to do so. Copan, however, pushes things beyond these bounds. For example, in his desire to defend the Akedah in Gen 22 Copan makes statements such as “Because Abraham already knew God’s faithful–and even tender–character and promises, he was confident that God would somehow fulfill his promise to him, however this would be worked out” (47) or “Abraham had confidence that even if the child of promise died, God would somehow accomplish his purposes through that very child. Abraham believed God could even raise Isaac from the dead” (48, italics mine). The italicized phrase highlights another concern I have: these readings are heavily colored by New Testament texts and categories. This is certainly a legitimate mode of interpretation, but how might these texts function in their own contexts, with their own integrity, as part of the Old Testament? Moreover, if the NT is the hermeneutical key to unlocking these texts (which you will see in my review of Seibert I am convinced is NOT the case and actually raises more problems than it aims to solve!) I wonder what this then says about contemporary Judaism’s continued affirmation of these texts as authoritative.

Spoiler alert!!! While I have not yet finished the book, I have seen from the table of contents that Copan is going to suggest Jesus as the answer to this all. This is a problem in itself, for a variety of reasons, among them that it runs the risk of feeding a Marcionite/supersessionist reading and that it drains these texts of any sort of theological profundity, power, or freight, relegating them simply to antiquated musings of ancient Israel that are at best ethically inferior. My forthcoming book argues these texts in fact have quite a bit to say about God, but more on that another time. I am simply not convinced such texts NEED or WANT our apologetics, and I am nearly confident we are doing the texts a severe disservice when we attempt to do so.

Books I will be Reading in 2011

I’ve seen a few of these posts floating around, and I find such lists interesting. It will also be helpful for me to be intentional about thinking over what I want to get through this year. Of course, this list is only an approximation; no doubt more books will come to mind, or to my attention, or will be published this year that I simply must read. But, as it stands right now, here’s what I have on my docket, in no particular order:

Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).
Picked this one up at SBL and am excited to take a peek at it. Those who know the topic of my forthcoming volume with Eisenbrauns will know well this is an issue that is (tangentially) relevant to my own work, and an area I hope to take up more intentionally soon. I did take a gander at the end of the book to see how Copan ‘solves’ the problem of problematic portrayals of God in the OT, and I must admit a priori I am entirely dissatisfied to see that his answer is an appeal to Jesus. Read my RBL review of Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior when it comes out in a month or two and you’ll know some of why I find this problematic.

Walter Brueggemann, Out of Babylon (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010).
Brueggemann has told me this will most likely be the last full-length book manuscript he will attempt, and for that reason alone I am looking forward to reading it. It is vintage Brueggemann, wrestling with issues of the prophetic with a contemporary social agenda. The comparison between contemporary America and ancient Babylon is intriguing, and I will be curious to see how this book encapsulates his thought.

Mark J. Boda, A Severe Mercy: Sin and Its Remedy in the Old Testament (Siphrut 1: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009).
This volume, the first in a new series by Eisenbrauns, is a massive tome, coming in at over 500 pages of actual text. I am most interested in reading this work because of its inclusion in the Siphrut series, which focuses upon the synthesis/symbiotic nature of literature/literary approaches to the text and theology . . . such is my own methodological persuasion. Plus, to be entirely transparent, Eisenbrauns is publishing my dissertation in this exact same series (hopefully in 2011!), so I simply must read it!

Joel N. Lohr, Chosen and Unchosen: Conceptions of Election in the Pentateuch and Jewish-Christian Interpretation (Siphrut 2: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009).
Again, another volume in Eisenbraun’s Siphrut series, this volume is of particular interest to me given its emphasis on the topic of election and non-election, which is a seminal and often grossly misunderstood topic–in my estimation–within the Bible. It is also relevant to my own work and understanding of Jacob and Esau in Genesis, and so I am anxious to look at how Lohr approaches this topic more broadly in the Pentateuch. I’ve read some of it, but I am anxious to dive in and tackle the rest.

Ronald Hendel (ed.), Reading Genesis: Ten Methods (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Another book I picked up at SBL; I have looked at one of the essays dealing with the Jacob cycle more closely for inclusion in my own forthcoming book (gotta keep the bibliography up to date!), but I am always interested in the latest work being done on Genesis. As the subtitle suggests, a number of methods are employed in elucidating the biblical text, and I look forward to seeing specifically what methods–and how–the contributors employ. I am hopeful they are not too beholden to historical-critical methodologies as I have argued in my own work that there is much fruitful work to be done outside the bounds of such an interpretive posture.

John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009).
I’m obviously a bit behind the curve as this book has been reviewed nearly ad infinitum on the blogs. There is a professional project that I can’t mention explicitly yet that is especially pressing me to read this volume. I don’t get involved in the origins debate, but I have gathered that Walton is saying enough unique things about the text itself that this is worth reading so as to get a sense of where work on Gen 1 has gone.

Joel S. Burnett, Where Is God? Divine Absence in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010).
Joel is a former teacher of mine at Baylor, and I am excited to read this most recent work of his. Again, the topic is (tangentially) related to my own work; if it deals with the characterization or understanding of God in the OT I am all over it. I am also especially interested how Joel will negotiate and handle other works with which I am familiar on the topic–especially Crenshaw–as I still remember getting Crenshaw’s Defending God from the Baylor library for him as a part of this project.

Jerome F. D. Creach, The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms (St. Louis: Chalic, 2008).
I owe this book a review, which is one reason to read it, but I am also quite interested in metanarrative/holistic approaches to the Psalter. I find the work of Gerald Wilson to be absolutely transformative in Psalms scholarship, and I am always intrigued by how all those who come after him continue to wrestle with the issue and refine–and at times challenge–his seminal contributions. Creach’s ‘center’ or heart of the Psalter is the life and destiny of the righteous. I am eager to crack this one open to stay current on my own work in Psalms. I still have a Psalms article on the conclusion to Book IV I need to expand and send off!

Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005).
Aside from Genesis, Old Testament theology ranks a close second in terms of my true loves in the guild. Fretheim’s book The Suffering of God literally transformed my entire perspective on the biblical text and its conception of God (so much so that I used it in one of my classes I am currently teaching); I have a tremendously deep respect for Fretheim’s serious theological engagement with the text and the relationship of integrity between God and creation/humanity. This, his OT theology, has been on my ‘must read’ list for a long time. Now is the time!

Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).
I am ashamed to admit I have not yet read this classic. Over time I have become less of an advocate of Childs’ canonical approach (for a variety of reasons I won’t elucidate here), but I cannot discount that he is a pivotal figure in the way we interpret biblical texts. I literally think we can speak of interpretation pre- and post-Childs as two quite different enterprises; he is a formative and transitional figure in the movement to more holistic approaches of which I am an advocate. To be a serious scholar of Old Testament theology, this is a must-read. And read it I will.

John Goldingay’s 3-volumes on OT Theology (Israel’s Gospel / Israel’s Faith / Israel’s Life)
A HUGE undertaking, but Goldingay is an important and recent voice to be heard (among the most recent of those doing Old Testament theology). I am actually very excited about the length of these volumes; that means I have high expectations that many of the issues so prevalent in OT theology will be addressed in some substantive way. I often find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with Goldingay, oftentimes on the same point (makes no sense, right?!), so I fully expect these to be a challenging and illuminating set of readings.

That’s a good and thorough starting list, I think. There are already a few forthcoming volumes I know I will dive into, among them David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly (IVP, June 2011) and of course MY BOOK, tentatively titled Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception and YHWH’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, forthcoming [hopefully] 2011).

Your thoughts? Have you read any of these?

Update on my teaching status for the Spring semester

Many of you know I am currently adjuncting at my undergraduate institution, Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. Teaching there has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had. I will be teaching there again in the Spring semester.

I will also, however, be adjuncting at Dakota Wesleyan University in my hometown of Mitchell, SD. The course I am teaching is entitled Understanding the Old Testament; it is a freshman/sophomore introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. I am tremendously excited to be teaching an Old Testament intro at last! It was a joy trying to figure out what books to use.  Here is what I arrived at (all are required for the course):

New Oxford Annotated Bible, with Apocrypha (4th edition)


Terence E. Fretheim, The Pentateuch (Interpreting Bible Texts)


Richard J. Clifford, The Wisdom Literature (Interpreting Bible Texts)


Jack Lundbom, The Hebrew Prophets: An Introduction


Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God


Elie Wiesel, Night

Quotation of the Day: On the Danger of Being a Biblical Theologian

I’m working on finishing up my RBL review of the Brenner, Lee, and Yee edited Genesis as part of Fortress Press’ Texts @ Contexts series.  In going through the volume again, I came across this line from Carole Fontaine in her essay “Here Comes This Dreamer: Reading Joseph the Slave in Multicultural and Interfaith Contexts”:

Aside from the discord of being part of a trophy “minority”–religious scholars who will speak up–my sense of discontinuity is not simply at discovery that being a biblical theologian is enough to get you many death threats, if you do it properly.  Rather, I read with groups who, unlike my Christian seminarians, really don’t have much stake in the outcome.  Quite frankly, they want me to read “for” them, or “to” them, not read “with them” . . . (133).

Very poignant and powerful words.  I consider myself a biblical theologian (or at least an Old Testament theologian); we shall see if the death threats begin rolling in after my dissertation is published!!  But on a serious note, Fontaine’s words do attest to the gravity of a very important task.

Reading the Bible as a (Dis)interested Reader?

I have been asked by the good folks at RBL, the SBL book reviews division, to review the new Genesis volume in Fortress Press’ new Texts @ Contexts Series (the Genesis volume is edited by Brenner, Lee, and Yee).  In reading through the series introduction written by Athalya Brenner and Nicole Wilkinson Duran I was struck by the following lines:

The project of recognizing and emphasizing the role of context in reading freely admits that we all come from somewhere; no one is native to the biblical text, no one reads only in the interests of the text itself (xii).

While the basic premise lying behind these words may seem patently obvious and thus presumably goes without saying, I would contend precisely the opposite is the case.  No one is a disinterested reader; we all bring biases and assumptions to the text.  Not incidentally, in every paper I write, as well as my dissertation, I always include a section titled “Assumptions and Methodology” where I try to articulate as clearly as I can that which I am assuming to be the case (it isn’t as cumbersome or dull as it may sound!).  I simply think interpreters need to be blatantly obvious about this dynamic of interpretation: as I say in my dissertation (and this is hardly a new idea), meaning occurs in the interaction between text and reader.  The text, though, is a sort of control, and serves as the basis against which the success or failure of any meaning can and should be adjudicated.  But much (more than most openly admit) of one’s conclusions also stem from context, be it geographical, political, economic, gender, race, etc.  I don’t believe these comments quoted above are endemic only to a volume such as this one in the Texts @ Contexts series.  This is part of my frustration with some, though not all, historical-critical scholarship: typically earlier twentieth century biblical scholarship purported to know what the biblical writers meant to say better than the biblical writers themselves, and felt free to correct the text accordingly, or postulate a tradition history or redaction that produces a text that may have never existed.  I think it is only academically honest and responsible for scholarship to admit at the very least its biases and to recognize, in print or at the very least in the process of writing, where these readings come from: readers and texts interacting in symbiotic relationship.  In good postmodern fashion, no reading can or ever will be the definitive, final reading of a text.  This is not to say all readings are equally valid; it simply wishes to press others into recognizing that one’s reading of a text derives not simply from the text itself, devoid of any a priori assumptions.  No ‘final’ reading is possible.  Not until all contexts have been exhausted.