Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach

  • Robin Routledge
  • Feb 25, 2011
  • Series: Volume 14 - 2011
Book-Cover Routledge

Robin Routledge.  Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008.  384 pp.  Hardback.  ISBN 978-0-8308-2896-8. 

Routledge’s work seeks to steer a middle course in Old Testament theologies.  He wants to avoid both the shorter and more devotional styles of some works and the large, “daunting” tomes that characterize others.  Given the intermediate size of the work, one can already judge that he is on his way to achieving this goal.  Even though Routledge designed the work as an introductory textbook, he is not shy about expressing his own opinion on a host of subjects. 

In the first and longest chapter, the author considers the introductory matters of the definition of the Old Testament as well as the history of the discipline.  He contrasts the “Hebrew Bible” of Judaism and the “Old Testament” of Christianity, observing that Judaism is as much a development of the Old Testament’s faith as is Christianity.  This is an important point that is sometimes obscured by the fact that Judaism is the proper term for the faith of the post-exilic period.  However, that faith is not identical with the one that finds articulation in the Mishnah and Talmuds that appear centuries later than is Christianity.

For Christians, the fundamental question is the relationship of the two testaments.  While the traditional distinction between the allegorical and literal approaches should be observed, from the perspective of postmodern reading strategies it has become an oversimplification.  The question is not merely whether we are interpreting the Bible through one set of signs and symbols or another, but also the motivation for this interpretive process.    In tracing the development of Old Testament theology Routledge pauses at the key works of Eichrodt and Von Rad.  While Eichrodt’s work did not enjoy the same degree of acceptance as Von Rad, the latter’s approach was bound to the critical method of his day; one that has evolved and changed.  Routledge defends typology as the best option for relating the Old Testament to the New.  He then turns to consider structuralism as an example of narrative approach.  The complexities of this approach have not demonstrated their relevance or “exegetical payoff” and it is surprising that so much time is spent on the topic here, with so little reference to it throughout the remainder of the work.  Reflecting on the works of Childs and Sailhamer (with observations as to how the latter takes a more literalistic approach), the author considers the postmodern work of Brueggemann and of Goldingay.  contrasting their contributions according to the historical value placed in the text.

The first topic to which Routledge turns after his historical introduction considers the nature of the biblical view of God and the other spiritual beings.  In so doing, the author begins with a topic closer to Israelite religion than to Old Testament theology.  He reviews the basic terms for God – Elohim, El, Yahweh, and compound terms such as El Shaddai.  The personal name Yahweh is understood as conveying how God is distinctive, personal, and relational.  Monotheism (one god and no others in existence) seems to be rejected in favor of monolatry (one god and others do not matter).  Nevertheless, Routledge appears to believe, and rightly so, that Israel was more concerned about how to relate to God than the niceties of monotheism.  He advances half of Alt’s hypothesis in which the El deities were gods of local Canaanite sanctuaries.  The other part of the theory, with its references to patriarchal gods of fathers, is not addressed.  Yet the whole is speculative and hardly proven.  Routledge’s arguments against polytheism in early Israel seem odd.  Despite his objections, there almost certainly were prolonged periods of polytheism in which multiple deities were worshiped.  One finds this throughout the period of the judges and during later kings reigns that could last a half century or more (such as Manasseh).  The view that monotheism does not “evolve” gradually from polytheism but comes as a revolution is found in the case of Egypt’s Amarna revolution.   However, it is not so clear that this was the case in the philosophical world of Classical and Hellenistic philosophy.  Furthermore, the whole theory assumes that one can define patterns and laws in the nature and development of religion.  There is no justification for this and it has been disproven many times.  More likely is the view that monotheism existed from early times in Israel but was often a minority faith.  Routledge continues his study with a helpful review of some characteristics of God such as righteousness, wrath, holiness, and faithfulness.  He observes the role of God’s Spirit in creation, life, skill giving, and the appointment of kings and priests.  Finally, he considers the roles of demons and angels, as well as the Satan.  The limited role of demons in the Old Testament is mentioned but not explained. 

In the following chapter, Routledge turns to the question of creation.  This introduces the matter of myth.  The author considers some traditional definitions but this is a mirky term loaded with emotional connotations that do not assist in understanding.  Chaoskampf, the West Semitic struggle of the chief god with the personified waters to bring about creation, is introduced.  It is properly connected with the thirteenth century Ugaritic stories of deities.  However, it can be traced as early as eighteenth century B.C. Mari and references there in royal correspondence.  This goes back to the traditional date for the patriarchal narratives and invites finding an ongoing polemic in the early biblical literature, one that culminates in the historical acts of the deliverance of Israel by Yahweh at the Exodus.  This victory over the waters of the Re(e)d Sea supersedes the non-historical claims of the surrounding Canaanite peoples as to the work of their chief god. 

Routledge moves to consider the immanence and transcendence of God within the creation accounts.  One might add that the Genesis accounts themselves exhibit this.  Genesis 1 implies the transcendence of God while Genesis 2 illustrates the immanence of Yahweh God.  The use of the personal name in chapter 2 further illustrates the point.  When Routledge examines the beginning of Genesis 1, he objects to the view of the world in v. 2 as unproductive ands not supportive of life.  Rather he finds here an emphasis on chaos.  While the element of order is clearly present in this chapter (as seen in the acts of division on the first three days and the command for various creatures to reproduce after “their own kind”), the emphasis is on the creation of life that is abundant and blessed by God.  Thus, if the opposite is described in v. 2, it is more non-life with than it is chaos.  Indeed, v. 1 is understood better as a title introducing what follows than as something connected only with the second verse.  Routledge’s approach fits better with assumptions about priestly authorship than it does with the text itself (and the parallel emphasis on absence of life and its context at the beginning of the second creation story in chapter 2). 

There is much of value in the remainder of this section that reviews some of the dominant Old Testament features of God, the nature of humanity, and the “fall” into sin.  One could wish that this relatively small and clearly written section would be required reading for students of theology before they become mired in assumptions of systematics/dogmatics that see the Old Testament as a text useful primarily for reading Trinitarian theology back into its pages.  The teaching of the nature of God, creation, and the human condition make an essential contribution to Christian theology that forms the foundation for a Christian world view.

The discussion of the Abrahamic and other covenants is helpful.  Added to the traditional threefold divine promise of land, seed, and blessing is a fourth element, that of God as present with the covenant recipients.  This is, of course, true.   However, it is less a distinctive part of the covenant and more one that can be found in each of the other three parts.  The section on worship and sacrifice begins with the altar, the Tabernacle, and the priesthood; much as the Bible does in the bodies of Pentateuchal law.  Good discussions of priests, sacrifices, prophets, wisdom, and kingship follow.  Routledge argues that there are sins that lie outside the possibility of forgiveness by sacrifice.  Based on Psalm 51, he maintains that only the appeal to God’s hesed is possible to find forgiveness for these.  Routledge’s view of Israelite kingship affirms a close relationship with order, justice, and God’s blessing upon the people.  In some ways this resembles the Egyptian view of kingship as well as that of other neighboring countries. 

In terms of the future and the Messiah, Routledge views things from an amillennial context.  Everything prophecied in the future was symbolized and fulfilled in Jesus.  There is no future temple or time of peace before the new heavens and new earth.  So when Ezekiel 40-48 describes this in detail, he was just condescending to people who could not otherwise understand except by making them think there was really going to be a temple and a repopulated Promised Land.  Somehow Routledge doesn’t find this deceptive in the least, despite the fact that every example we have until after the New Testament was written believed in a literal fulfillment of a restored temple.   

The prophecies regarding the Messiah are handled well from a Christian perspective.  The Suffering Songs of Isaiah may be a reference to the original writer’s own experience or a composite picture of figures such a Moses and Jeremiah.  With Israel’s historical experiences, the projection of a future heavenly kingdom was realized less in prophecy and more in apocalyptic literature.  Especially the suffering under Antiochus Epiphanes led to a large production of this type of literature.  While Ezekiel and Zechariah fed into what became apocalyptic, Daniel represents an example of the genre found in the Old Testament.  Routledge seems to opt for the Maccabean date of c. 165 B.C.  God’s sovereignty in human history is key for understanding this book, according to the author. 

Turning to the topic of death and the afterlife, Routledge concludes that Deuteronomy 26:14, prohibiting food offerings to the dead, indicates that such activities were common in ancient Israel.  The Old Testament does not teach that death is the separation of the soul and body.  Rather, the nephesh somehow retains both at death, but in a shadowy existence.  Why a physical corpse remains on earth is not clear.  Routledge notes Philip Johnston’s view that Sheol is only for those under divine judgment; and Levenson’s understanding that Sheol represents an unfulfilled life.  Personal resurrection is suggested by Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2.  

The last chapters consider how Israel is similar to and different from the other nations.  Routledge discusses the great texts of God’s mission to the whole earth and the manner in which he uses Israel to achieve that goal.  The work concludes with observations on the promised salvation of peoples from around the world.  This is a useful volume to introduce the reader to both the discipline and the major themes of Old Testament theology.  It is hoped that it will gain a wide readership. 

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
Denver Seminary
February 2011