Raising Up a Faithful Priest: Community and Priesthood in Biblical Theology

Written by Richard D. Nelson Reviewed By Philip Jenson

This is a welcome and timely volume, and in my opinion the best summary to date of what the Bible says not just about priesthood, but about Israel’s worship in general. It is reminiscent of De Vaux’s masterpiece, Ancient Israel, being written clearly and with only a handful of footnotes, so that we are not distracted from a sustained engagement with the biblical texts. The sophistication of the comments reveals a deep and wide knowledge of the scholarly literature, and good use is made of anthropological and sociological insights. An inevitable drawback of the approach he has adopted is that at a number of points Nelson makes critical judgments without discussion. He adopts the usual critical datings and reconstruction of the history of the priesthood, although in general he is cautious and judicious. Along the way we are given a clear and comprehensive discussion not just of priesthood, but also of concepts of cleanness and uncleanness, holy space, sacrifice, and aspects of Israel’s eschatological hope. On every page there are insights and perspectives that illuminate the text and the world of ancient Israel.

To write biblical theology nowadays is to make some difficult choices about how to proceed. I think that Nelson has made most of the right choices. In contrast to the critical forces that encourage fragmentation, he insists that the Bible comprises a chorus of voices, not a chaos. His approach is synthetic and constructive, while recognizing historical development and uncertainty about many issues. The tension between the critically reconstructed history of the priesthood and the canonical presentation emerges from time to time, with the latter usually getting the final say. A very positive feature of Nelson’s writing is that he is not afraid to interact with modern culture and contemporary ideologies. His exposition of Israel’s ‘culture map’ draws upon structuralist and anthropological insights, and he introduces a range of vivid modern metaphors that enliven the writing and enhance the communication. I was particularly struck by his development of the ‘holy-unclean fusion reaction’ metaphor. Nelson is more concerned to explain than to dictate, but from time to time he chides Western scholarship for its prejudices. I would have liked him to be even bolder in his dialogue, and a little more aware of the limitations of the metaphors he uses. But perhaps his moderate approach may win the more over to reflect seriously how much Israel’s experience of worshipping God can teach us.

Christians, especially Protestants, have often ignored the accounts of Israel’s worship, but Nelson explores the relation between the NT and the OT approaches to priesthood and sacrifice in a positive and helpful way. While acknowledging that the NT does not take over directly priestly paradigms for its orders of ministry and eucharistic theology, there are other aspects which remain relevant. Above all, priests are called in a special (but not an exclusive) way to be mediators and guardians of community, vertically with God and horizontally among members of the community. This task is focused on worship, though not restricted to it. Nelson suggests that we need to recover a theology of holy space, as well as of time and history. There is also a growing need to articulate and resolve ritually powers of guilt, uncleanness and sin that destroy the integrity of individuals and communities. Here also the priests have much to teach us. I warmly commend this volume, not merely to those seeking an introduction to the religion of Israel, but also to those alert to the vital significance of worship in the church today.

Philip Jenson

Trinity College, Bristol