A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament

Written by Bruce C. Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Petersen Reviewed By Mike Butterworth

This is the book that even Hananiah the ‘prophet’ could have predicted, although probably guessing wrongly at two of the authors and much of the contents. It reflects the current keen interest in the theology of the OT and disinterest in the topics found in most Introductions. Previous critical work is acknowledged, summarised briefly and assessed. But the use made of it varies. Some sections could have been written without any critical work at all, while others contain little theological comment. This probably reflects the varied stances of the four authors, who nevertheless present their work as that of a unified committee.

After an introduction (‘The OT as Theological Witness’), the book moves through the OT section by section (Gen. 1–11; Gen. 12–50; Exod. 1–18; Exod. 19–Deut. 34; etc.). The first three chapters are useful supplements to more standard critical introductions. They make creative suggestions and contribute to the reader’s understanding of Genesis and Exodus. ‘Suffering of God’ theology emerges strongly in different forms, e.g. ‘on the far side of the flood, God rejects annihilation as the means to accomplish this reformation and graciously chooses a more vulnerable, long-term engagement, working from within the very life of the world itself’ (65).

However the sections are not uniformly helpful, nor do they have the same end in view. For example, the important (at least to Jesus) prophet Zechariah is referred to extremely briefly, and only in connection with the political system he allegedly recommends, viz. a ‘dyarchy of priest and king’ (or ‘political leader’ three lines previously, 424). Of course, in a chapter of 31 pages covering most post-exilic prophets and writings, space is bound to be limited. But why not give us the actual theology, e.g. significance of the temple, punishment and chastening, universal hope for the nations, the final battle between Israel and her enemies (though see 304)? It is strange that Zechariah should be neglected given Petersen’s work on the period: his well known commentaries seem unmentioned, and there is no author index to accompany the useful scriptural and topical indexes.

The book begins to fill a gap, and hopefully will inspire other scholars to write similar theological introductions. However, it suffers from infuriating vagueness and generalisation, often without indication of sources or arguments. Conservatives will be dismayed to find that their existence is hardly acknowledged, and caricatured when it is. Those who ask only historical questions [of Joshua etc.] have failed to reckon with the ideological-interpretative character of the text.’ Indeed, but who are these people? It is very difficult to follow up this sort of statement. The ‘three positions’ concerning the historical events of Joshua are described as ‘the older US hypothesis’(!), the German theory of infiltration and the ‘peasants’ revolt’. This last is presented tentatively at first, and then, without any further evidence, as the model to go for (see 182f., 190, 192f.).

The authors affirm: ‘It is important to see these texts as advocacy and not reportage. This does not mean that they are untrue, but that the truth is always interpretative’ (184). Perhaps we should add that those who say ‘advocacy that does not accord with facticity is not necessarily untrue’ are fooling someone. To claim to elucidate the theology of the text and then to speak of the Israelites’ ‘demonisation’ of the Canaanites (cf. Hollywood westerns, 192) and the ‘legitimisation of violence within these texts’ is somewhat paradoxical. The authors claim not to be ‘taking the good stuff’ and ignoring the rest. They are, in fact, subtler. They acknowledge the bad stuff and criticise it strongly from a western perspective, despite deploring this. They then assert that the text is designed to help exiles affirm their claim to the land, to warn against foreigners and to urge careful Torah obedience.

A final example. On Isaiah 53 the authors tell us: ‘There is no clear way to identify the servant. Clearly it must be recognised that the poetry and the text per se do not have Jesus in purview, so that such Christian reading is surely a belated extrapolation. More important is the awareness, shared by Jews and Christians, that this much discussed chapter probes a fresh and radical way whereby healing, perhaps healing among exiles, may be accomplished.’ ‘Clearly’ is a suspicious word (as all mathematicians know), especially when used to sweep aside the convictions of millions of Christians over many centuries. The dogmatic (but often woolly) ideas promoted in this book make it ultimately very unsatisfactory. It will be used widely—the names of Brueggemann and Fretheim will guarantee that. I hope it will also be used critically. Very critically.

Mike Butterworth

Principal, St Albans and Oxford Ministry Course