A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament

  • Walter Brueggemann, Bruce Birch, Terence E. Fretheim, David L. Petersen
  • Feb 19, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010

Birch, Bruce C., Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Petersen.  A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd edition. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005.  xviii + 485 pages.  Paperback.  ISBN 068706676X. 

From the beginning, these authors emphasize the diversity of the Old Testament.  They stress their connection with the Christian faith and the desire to find here a continuity with Jesus and the Church.  Nevertheless, they write as heirs of historical criticism and within the postmodern context of gender studies, socioeconomic class research, ethnicity and culture, and sensitivities toward political contexts.  In this light it seems, the authors refuse to connect any specific Old Testament texts to the church’s Christology (p. 15).  Thus a canonical unity does not presume any clearly prophetic texts that could directly anticipate what is known as the New Testament.  Such analysis anticipates larger assumptions that become clear as the book progresses.  More stress lies on the concern to find a continuity between the testaments of God, God’s people, and creation.

The work moves chronologically through Israel’s history with special attention paid to the Pentateuch in the first 171 pages.  The multiplicity of themes found in the opening chapters of the Bible are highlighted in regard to creation and fall.  God’s involvement in all of creation is given special emphasis.  While some note of the loss of harmony is made (p. 38), it is brief and not reflective of the degree to which this motif characterizes these accounts.  Of special interest with the Flood are the notes that God’s promises to not again destroy the world in this manner constitute a measure of self-limitation.  Furthermore, the authors find a note of God’s suffering in Genesis 6:5-7, signaled by divine willingness to endure the wicked world and open the divine heart to it (p. 55).  In this way it can be said that God changes in this story, while humanity does not.  The differences in the stories of Genesis 12-50 have long been noted and are here deftly handled with the emphasis on how God works through the family.  There is much in the way of overt encounters, of belief as a new part of righteousness, of dreams, of direct divine encounters, and of God behind the scenes in the story of Joseph.  The role of the family is paramount.  Perhaps this is why so little is devoted to Genesis 14 and almost nothing to Melchizedek.  The critical study of this material receives extensive review with flat generalized assumptions about the lack of any historical context.  It is perhaps the ignoring of the one “international” chapter, i.e., 14, that leads the writers to ignore the evidence that only in the early 2nd millennium B.C. did Elam politically reach into the West Semitic world and only in the 2nd millennium were there kings named anything like Tidal (i.e., Tudhaliyas of the Hittites).  This is not to argue that the evidence requires historicity; only to express disappointment that the newcomer to the Old Testament will find only one option here. 

The authors emphasize the exodus as an event of “kerygma” rather than history.  They do not define how these are mutually exclusive (if indeed they are), but they do concern themselves with the exodus where salvation takes place through liberation.  The pharaoh and even the people of Egypt are caught up in the God’s acts so that even the innocent may be “placed in danger by the reckless disregard for God’s purposes on the part of the oppressor” (p. 113).  The result is a powerful discussion of God’s concern for the marginalized and oppressed with a potent act of salvation that results in the formation of a community that follows God and praises the divine works of salvation. 

The discussion of the laws is marked by the twin concerns that God will continue to hold Israel to a high standard and that “Judgment will not be God’s final word for either the world or Israel.  The promises are made” (p. 169).  Throughout this discussion there is a commendable emphasis on the integration of the physical and spiritual so that there is a full integration of all of life before God.  The order and structure of the law emphasizes concern for the poor and vulnerable of society, for care for the animals and the land, and for the other nations of the world.  These latter look upon Israel and evaluate it.  Whether Deuteronomy 29:26 and 32:8-9 can be taken as evidence that God has legitimated the worship of other gods for the nations by having built it “into the created order of things” (p. 161) is not so clear.  The former verse describes how Israel may worship the gods of other nations and thus be led astray.  It does not condone any worship of other deities.  The latter text is controversial and has several key variants in the ancient versions so that any conclusion based on this text cannot be considered established. 

The author’s study of Joshua and Judges is oddly distributed among the 33 pages of that chapter.  The first 13 pages only mention the books incidentally and proceed to describe various preferences by the authors of their ideology.  Judges is limited to six and a half pages.  A great deal of the chapter assumes Norman Gottwald’s theory of the Israelites as peasants in revolt against their Canaanites oppressors.  Thus their wars are acts of throwing off tyranny.  However, as has been noted, this theory is not supported by the archaeological or textual evidence.  There is no basis in the archaeological record for seeing the appearance of Israel in the hill country, with its distinctive archaeological assemblage, as related to the culture of the lowlands and city states of Palestine.  Further the major battles of chapters 10 and 11 are written in the style of the very same Hittite, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian battle conquest accounts that these people are supposedly revolting against.  Further, the biblical text emphasizes the defensive nature of these battles, the absence of occupation of the “conquered” areas, and the absence of any specific casualties other than the armies and their leaders.  Rather than trying to force these narratives into politically correct categories of the 21st century postmodern theologians, it may be better to read them for what they are; the people of Israel trying to survive in a hostile land and fighting defensive wars directed against those who seek to exterminate them; with faith in their God’s good gift of the land and without mention of any genocide of non-combatants. 

Inasmuch as the chapter on Joshua and Judges is weak, that on the Rise of the Monarchy is strong, especially in the first part.  Clearly Hannah anticipates the future in her uncertain fate.  And Samuel does the same as one who is inexperienced and naïve, just like Israel.  Truly 1 Samuel 8:11-18 does emphasize the “taking” by the king in all of his oppression of Israel.  David is an ideal king who follows the decision of Saul to turn against and ignore the prophet’s warnings.  On the other hand, it is likely that the completely negative portrayal of Solomon was not what the citizens of Israel felt during their period of enormous prosperity and success.  Nevertheless, the decision to compromise his faith at the altars of his wives should have been emphasized as the major cause of the downfall of this generation. 

The problem with Jeroboam was that, despite God’s promise to him for an eternal dynasty like that of David, he served other gods.  The authors appreciate the positive and negative contributions of the various kings.  However, they do not accept an agreed upon chronology, ignoring the work of Thiele.  It is indeed true that the role of the prophet emerges as the royal counsel and conscience, but it is not so certain that prophecy only begins in the period of the Judges.  Not only is an earlier prophetic movement attested in the Pentateuch (e.g., Balaam and even earlier placed in Jacob’s mouth in Genesis 49), but the Mari evidence clearly asserts prophecy in the West Semitic cultural world as early as seven hundred years before the judges.  Elijah and Elisha shift the emphasis from the rulers to include the people as well.  Life and death for all people are God’s concern (and not Baal’s).  The analysis is consistently careful and useful. 

The latter part of the monarchy is summarized with emphasis on the writing prophets who begin in the eighth century B.C.  Amos begins with judgment upon all the nations for the violation of universal moral norms.  Amos indicts Israel for its failures toward God and toward one another.  The general tenor of judgment is tempered at the end by a vision of the Davidic house as a restored building.  Hosea and his wife Gomer symbolize God’s relationship with Israel.  However, the authors do not find Gomer in chapter 3.  Rather this is a different woman who symbolizes the return from the exile.  The focus of judgment is on the fertility of the land.  God exposes his own emotion of hurt and love in 11:8-9.  Micah is a third eighth century book but it contains a message derived from Hosea and Amos, and redacted by later authors and editors.  The prophet applies the warnings against Israel to the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  There is also a greater emphasis upon a future hope and the idea of a remnant who will survive (5:7-8).  Isaiah’s dual focus on Zion and Davidic kingship culminates in the Zion tradition that guarantees that the two will survive the Assyrian military threat.  The work is largely a composite of later writers.  However, enough apparently remains from the eighth century for the authors to feel confident that Isaiah did prophecy a future time of peace and prosperity but that this remained unfulfilled.  Zephaniah is the last prophet that the authors date to the eighth century.  They argue that his book follows much of the structure of Amos, although this assumes that one ignores the initial chapter of judgment against God’s people and leaders. 

As the authors look at the prophets of the late seventh and early sixth centuries, they begin with the short work of Nahum which they see as a work of “celebrative hate” against Assyria.  Although the anti-Assyrian position is dominant they also point to the rule of Yahweh as expressed over all nations.  Nevertheless, one always wonders about some of the modern political applications.  Alongside Nahum, the larger (and more influential?) works of Jeremiah and Ezekiel are considered; the former addressed to those in Judah and the latter to the diaspora in Babylon.  Again, the modern authors find many editors and redactors in these books so that the choice of the original message begins to appear arbitrary to one outside the critical guild.  These books, as well as Habakkuk and Lamentations, reflect the despair of the exile and the subsequent hope.  They demonstrate the disappearance of Babylon from history and the subsequent rise of Cyrus as God’s messiah.  Thereby they illustrate God’s control of history, not that of one military power or another.  Finally, Isaiah 40-55 return to the theme of hope, again illustrated by Cyrus.  Although the authors can find no direct connection to Jesus in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, they do testify to how the road to newness in history comes via vicarious suffering. 

The section on wisdom theology denies the presence of covenant as part of its approach.  Indeed, there seems to be a fundamentally materialistic understanding of the world in which God is found only in the historical processes of the world.  Perhaps for this reason the issue of the presence of God in Job is downplayed and focus instead falls on the Satan and the redeemer whom Job hopes for as one who will fight God and so vindicate Job.  Nevertheless, the pragmatism of Proverbs and that of the Wisdom psalms does lead to the praise of God.  However, this is a praise that is defined by the cry of the innocent in their suffering.  Ultimately, Ecclesiastes leads the reader to appreciate only blind fate and to find a balanced enjoyment in the life that one has.  In this understanding, the ending of this book, “fear God,” is added on by someone who wished to make the work acceptable in orthodox circles. 

The final section looks at the remaining Old Testament books and parts of books as bearing witness to a diversity of opinions in the postexilic period.  The historical books such as Chronicles emphasize the possibilities for postexilic Israel that will come with repentance, where Manasseh is the chief example.  The postexilic chronicles, such as Ezra and Nehemiah, witness to the move from Yahwism to Judaism.  The structure of the Psalms gives them a significance that begins in Torah and moves to the praise of God.  There are texts such as Ruth and Esther that emphasize the importance of the voice of women in this period.  Overall the prophecies take on new levels of hope and expectation, culminating in the apocalyptic overthrow of the existing political order. 

In general the book provides a fine and current introduction to the study of the Hebrew Bible.  The student reading this work will learn much.  If not all interpretations and applications are without objection, the authors retain an impressive skill at identifying key elements of teaching within the literature.  Despite these values, one is left with the sense that the authors see the Old Testament as a fundamentally human book reflecting on the imagined deeds and words of God; rather than as a fundamentally divine book elucidating the significance of these deeds and words for each and every generation of the people of God. 

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
Denver Seminary
February 2010