Yesterday, today and tomorrow: time and history in the Old Testament

Written by S. J. de Vries Reviewed By Martin J. Selman

As Terrien’s stimulating Foreword acknowledges, this volume, the first comprehensive study of the Hebrew language of time since 1871, appears at a time when man is acutely aware of the problem of the meaning of time. Any hopes, however, that this examination of OT attitudes to time will provide guidelines for modern man in what may be the final ebb-tide of time are only briefly fulfilled. For the author’s interest is not only in the theological aspects of time but in correct methodology, which means a rigorous exegesis of all relevant biblical evidence. Following an introductory chapter which argues for yôm (‘day’) as the basic Hebrew unit of time, the three central chapters contain an extremely detailed analysis of the expressions bayyôm hahû’ (past), hayyôm(present), and bayyôm hahû’ (future), involving a combination of the various disciplines of literary analysis, redaction criticism, form criticism, and traditio-historical criticism. The results are discussed in a brief final chapter entitled ‘The texture and quality of time in Old Testament tradition’, and the book concludes with a glossary for the general reader, though it has some peculiarities (see e.g. the entries on charismatic, covenant-renewal festival, holy war, kerygmatic, lectio defficilior). There is no bibliography.

The use of such a method, though theoretically attractive, makes severe demands upon the reader’s attention, and it is not helped by the rather ponderous, repetitive style. It is surely unnecessary, for instance, to examine all 217 examples of adverbial hayyôm (hazzeh), when so many of the results are virtually identical, and all are conveniently tabulated at the end of the chapter. Comprehensiveness for its own sake is no scholarly virtue, and the same conclusions could have been equally well presented by the use of selected examples. In any case, de Vries’s method is only partially comprehensive. Other Hebrew temporal expressions are very summarily treated—‘ēt for instance is quickly discarded because in the author’s view it rarely occurs in original contexts, while ’etmôl and zeman do not even appear.

The theologian, whom the author is anxious to attract as well as the exegete, is directed to the first and last chapters, and the latter in particular contains several stimulating suggestions. The distinctiveness of the OT concept of time is described in terms of quantitativeness and qualitativeness. Time could not only be measured mathematically, but individual ‘days’ when Yahweh acted were also seen as theologically significant, giving historical event and its interpretation a revelatory aspect. The authors of Joshua, Judges and Samuel in particular epitomized the past in this way, while the prophets spoke of the future in similar fashion. Since ‘that day’ in the past also possessed the same essential quality as ‘that day’ in the future, the ‘Day of Yahweh’ became simply any day in the future when God acted decisively among men. De Vries, like many others, regards the prophets as being almost entirely interested in the imminent future, so that those prophetic passages where the ‘Day of Yahweh’ or ‘that Day’ looks further ahead are treated as later expansions, acting as a prelude to apocalyptic. In fact, the author’s discussion of apocalyptic is consistently unsatisfactory, since for him it is so detached from the present that it becomes irrelevant to it, thus divorcing God from human history.

The present is also of central importance. Especially in the non-legal sections of Deuteronomy and in the prophets, God’s revelation concerning both past and future is mentioned primarily to stress Israel’s responsibility to respond to covenantal requirements ‘today’. Since Yahweh has revealed himself and will reveal himself in event and word, God’s people must act in obedience now, though the author goes too far when he concludes, ‘ “That day”, past and future, has no other function than to illuminate “today” ’ (p. 340). De Vries sees this emphasis on parenetic appeal as normative for biblical faith, but at the same time his repudiation of cultic worship, which for him is mere ‘memorialization’ granting the worshipper a ‘timeless’ religious experience without any ethical challenge, is too severe. Comparison with ideas of time among Israel’s neighbours is noted in passing, and though the uniqueness of the OT’s approach is rightly emphasized, the description of Mesopotamian thought is notably inadequate, containing doubtful generalizations and no awareness of the importance attached to the continuity of time in Mesopotamia. Although evangelicals will not agree with all the writer’s methods or his conclusions, no-one interested in the OT concept of the day will be able to ignore this significant contribution.

Martin J. Selman

Spurgeon’s College, London