This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities

Written by Matthew Richard Schlimm Reviewed By Matthew Newkirk

To many people the OT seems like an odd book. Christians have often neglected it and non-Christians have even despised it. It is filled with strange stories and ancient customs that press us to ask a variety of difficult questions: Does science contradict what the Bible says about creation? Why did God allow and even command so much violence in the OT? Does the Bible value men and women equally? How should we understand accounts that appear to contain inconsistencies and even contradictions?

Entering this discussion is Matthew Richard Schlimm, assistant professor of OT at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. In this book, Schlimm seeks to explain some of the most difficult aspects of the OT while maintaining a commitment to it as Christian Scripture, yet also refusing “easy solutions that disrespect readers’ honest reactions to the Bible” (p. xi). The book is organized topically, written for a Christian audience, and designed primarily for college students, seminarians, and educated laity (pp. xi–xii). Although parts of this work are helpful and worth exploring, from an evangelical perspective I have substantial reservations about Schlimm’s overall approach and conclusions.

In Chapter 1 Schlimm summarizes many oddities and difficulties that readers encounter in the OT. His thesis throughout is that by viewing the OT as “our friend in faith” (p. 5) we are able to maintain commitment to it while also having the freedom to question it. Just as friends occasionally disagree with one another, at times the OT and its readers may “have fundamentally different perspectives on some matters” (p. 9), but by persisting in relationship with the OT, Schlimm argues, we will grow in our faith and benefit from its wise, if at times strange, perspective.

Chapters 2−11 examine various issues that readers often find problematic in a careful study of the OT. Schlimm discusses the relationship between the early chapters of Genesis and modern claims of evolutionary science (chs. 2–3), arguing that the biblical accounts of Genesis 1–4 are best understood figuratively and thus do not contravene the theory of evolution (p. 42). He explores the prevalence of unfaithful activity (ch. 4) and violence (ch. 5) in the OT, gender issues (ch. 6), strange elements in OT law (ch. 7) and its modern applicability (ch. 8), perceived contradictions within the Bible (ch. 9), prayers of sadness and anger (ch. 10), and the wrath of God (ch. 11).

The concluding chapter addresses the question of the OT’s authority and brings the discussion full circle by advocating that the OT be viewed as “our friend in faith.” Schlimm argues that rather than rulers or bosses—figures with more overt authority over us—it is our friends who truly shape and influence us. By viewing the OT this way, Schlimm concludes, we will be offered “a richer, fuller, and more faithful life than we could ever manage on our own” (p. 207). An appendix at the end offers a literal translation of Genesis 2:4b–4:16 along with some commentary on its literary features.

Several aspects of Schlimm’s work in this book are commendable. His writing is lucid, organized, and free of unnecessary technical jargon, making it accessible to the wider audience he is addressing (cf. p. xi). In particular, his chapters discussing the strange laws of the Bible (ch. 7) and prayers of sadness and anger (ch. 10) are well balanced and would be helpful for those wanting to grapple with these often perplexing sections of Scripture.

However, other elements of this work are difficult to agree with. His view that the creation account and the bulk of prediluvian narrative are figurative and non-historical is not convincing in my view (for an alternative reading of Genesis 1–4, see C. John Collins, Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006]). Moreover, although Schlimm concludes in chapter 2 that the fall narrative of Genesis 3 is figurative, in chapter 4 he seems to view the fall as an historical event, saying, “Moral living has always been challenging, ever since humanity left Eden” (p. 58). In addition, while his discussion of gender advocates egalitarianism, he explicitly acknowledges that 1 Timothy 2:11–14 is “at odds” with his interpretation (p. 92n24). One is left wondering at this point if the NT is our friend in faith as well, and what this means for a Christian interpretation of gender roles in the Bible.

My most substantial disagreement with this work, though, pertains to Schlimm’s overriding metaphor of the OT as “our friend in faith.” Schlimm is critical of classical views of biblical authority that advocate inerrancy and infallibility, and his recasting of the OT as our “friend” does not invest appropriate authority in the biblical text. Although our friends certainly shape us and heavily influence our identity, ultimately they are not authorities over us. We may disagree with friends and disregard their counsel with no direct repercussions. We have no responsibility to obey our friends’ instruction or teaching. The same can hardly be said of our relationship with the Bible.

In his closing discussion Schlimm seems unduly skeptical of authorities such as rulers or bosses, noting that such positions can easily be abused and intimating that our obedience to them is typically rote and mechanical (pp. 204–5). This characterization seems unnecessary and is ultimately irrelevant to a discussion of the OT’s authority, since the misuse of authority does not invalidate its proper use. Perhaps a better metaphor for understanding the OT’s authority would be to view it as a “friendly ruler”—one who has explicit authority over us and whom we are responsible to obey, yet one who does not abuse this authority, using it for our good always (cf. Deut 6:24). Those interested in exploring tough questions in the Bible within an evangelical framework are instead encouraged to read Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

Matthew Newkirk

Matthew Newkirk
Christ Bible Seminary
Nagoya, Japan

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