Old Testament Theology. Volume Two. Israel's Faith

04.02.08 | Denver Journal, Old Testament, Richard S. Hess | by John Goldingay

    Dr. Rick Hess' review of, "Old Testament Theology. Volume Two. Israel's Faith," by John Goldingay.

    John Goldingay.  Old Testament Theology. Volume Two. Israel's Faith.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007.  Hardback, 891 pages.  ISBN 0-8308-2562-2. 

     

    Goldingay continues his trilogy of studies regarding Old Testament theology.  Unlike volume 1, which dealt with the narrative story of God's work in Israel; volume 2 allows Goldingay to organize his thoughts according to major participants and existential experiences in a series of seven chapters that follow the introduction:  God, Israel, The Nightmare, The Vision, Humanity, The World, and The Nations.  As with his earlier work, the text is easy to read, although sometimes rambling into provocative statements, and appears in another huge volume. 

    The goal of this second volume is expressed in Goldingay's postmodern formulation on p. 17: 

    We cannot identify a single faith articulation in the text, but we might be able to construct one out of its diversity, even if we find ourselves leaving some ambiguities and antimonies, and even if we still grant that the end result needs to recognize once more that we see only the outskirts of God's ways. 

    Like so many other biblical theologies, Goldingay seeks to "let the categories of thinking be ones that emerge from the First Testament itself." 

    The first chapter on God begins with an important assertion that God is not an internal construct but someone apart from us who actually has spoken and acted in the history of Israel as the people of God.  God exhibits self-revelation in the form of the name Yhwh.  Goldingay's decision to use only the consonants runs against current textual evidence (personal names, Greek transliterations, etc.) that implies the vocalization Yahweh.  But his more important point is that God's holiness is fundamental.  However, holiness is not a moral category but a complete otherness that separates the divine from all of creation.  In Ezekiel 1 Yahweh is revealed in a humanlike form.  Yahweh is the source of life and cannot be overcome by death, unlike Baal.  Survivors from the judgment of the nations will only find deliverance if they turn to Yahweh.  Yahweh is unique but the monotheism of Enlightenment thought (as Goldingay follows Tracy in this) does not exist.  Rather there exists the possibility of other deities while Yahweh alone is to be worshiped.  Yahweh's "underlings" include the gods of other nations.  Yahweh's aide brings the presence of God to people but without overwhelming them.  Yahweh is sovereign over all powers and authorities in heaven and earth.  In an important section, Goldingay considers the various forms of God's presence, briefly summarized with adjectives:  accompanying, local, attentive, active, narrative, personal, and intense.  To demonstrate this Goldingay pulls in many Scripture texts from the Pentateuch and the Psalms.  More often in later chapters in the book, Goldingay will settle on one biblical chapter or text and discuss it with little or no reference to other texts.  Goldingay turns to consider Yahweh's love, mercy, healing, faithfulness, and a host of related characteristics.  But there is also the hiddenness of God, the pain and anger of God, and the manner in which Yahweh hates and even goes to war against the very same people of God.  God is likened to a parent, at times chastising and at times forgiving.  This in brief constitutes the first chapter (after the introduction) that ends, like the others, with an attempt to apply it to New Testament Christianity and often to the Church today.  Throughout this chapter on God, Goldingay abandons traditional categories of systematic theology and lets the text nuance various dogmas; from monotheism to omniscience. 

    In the chapter on Israel , Goldingay traces the election of God's chosen people and their connections with the land, a relationship that remains even when they are not occupying the land.  He also considers Yahweh's judgment on Israel and the resulting dispersal among the nations.  Nevertheless, Goldingay affirms that there is no doctrine of rejection to correspond to a doctrine of election.  Goldingay rejects a replacement or supercessionist theology.  Instead, he affirms that the Church is called upon to learn from Israel.  Thus Christendom should "share its vocation, and it lives looking forward to the day when the Jewish people comes to recognize Jesus" (p. 253).

    In his chapter on the Nightmare, Goldingay identifies the problem with sin.  He further suggests that the "First Testament" primarily understands sin as active rebellion.  Passing by his rather odd assertion that hiding is a feminine sin and pride is a masculine sin (p. 260), Goldingay turns to criticize modern Christians who emphasize demonic bondage and ignore purity.  In contrast, the Old Testament emphasized purity and ignored demonic possession (p. 279).  Some might wonder where Gen. 4:7; Deut. 32:17; Ps. 106:37; and Dan. 10:13 fit into this picture; but the greater question seems to be the downplaying in general of spiritual powers with a corresponding emphasis on Yahweh alone as having power in the Old Testament.  Certainly the New Testament is replete with issues of the demonic and spiritual powers of darkness.  It addresses matters of possession.  Further, my experience has been to find in modern churches that, where demon possession is discussed, issues of purity are also proclaimed.  Not unique to this example is the tendency to generalize with provocative statements that simply don't ring true when applied to numerous specific instances. 

    Once again each section develops various aspects of the Nightmare, often building on a single text.  When he comes to the topic of Death, Goldingay uses Hosea 13.  He associates Israel's death in v. 1 with the incident at Beth-peor (p. 309).  While possible, the text itself does not mention that event, but does describe the worship of Baal.   Further, the description of Israel's fate fits nicely with the Baal myth at Ugarit where Baal dies and then appears alive again (R. Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], 100; based on John Day's analysis).  Building on Jeremiah 18 and 36, Goldingay notes that Yahweh's "will for the immediate future is never fixed.  It is always dependent on human response" (p. 317).  The remainder of the chapter examines the possibility of repentance for Israel.  This becomes a learning experience for the Church.  In a poignant illustration at the end of the chapter (p. 349), Goldingay relates the demise of the Church in both the Middle East and North Africa in the first millennium, in Europe in the second millennium, and now perhaps in the U.S.A. in the third millennium - but for the latter there is still a possibility to forestall the Nightmare.

    In the Vision, Goldingay argues that this is not just in the future, but the prophets already called the people to seek it in the present.  In this chapter one finds the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31, the heart of stone replaced with one of flesh in Ezekiel 11 (cf. Ezekiel 18), and Goldingay's first close study of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (pp. 410-415).  For Goldingay, the servant here is a prophet during the time of the Exile who suffers with the people and does not necessarily die.  Surprisingly, Goldingay does not find the substantial appearance of sacrificial terminology to indicate a vicarious or atoning act by the servant, but rather an association with the people who are also suffering.  Further, he suggests that the phrase, "cut off from the land of the living," does not necessarily mean death, and therefore there is no requirement for the prophet to come back from the dead.  Yet some sort of return to life after death is surely the most natural way to read the passage.  Of course, as it is unlikely that a prophet in the sixth century B.C. would have risen from the dead without any further note anywhere in Jewish literature, the interpretation of a death and resurrection would compromise Goldingay's argument that all such prophetic texts were only intended for people and events when they were written and that their New Testament application to Jesus is best understood merely as a general analogy.  He traces the prophetic development of both a priestly and a princely leader, culminating in the expectation of Zechariah.  For Goldingay, the origin of priests and deacons in the Church lies in the distinction between priests and Levites in Ezekiel 44 (p. 501).  He concludes the chapter with a discussion of various millennialist views. 

    Much of the chapter on Humanity considers the person and home more as an anthropological subject than in terms that one might traditionally think of it as a theological study.  One or two comments should be added here.  While the Song of Songs does indeed emphasize an egalitarian relationship (p. 548), some mention should be made of the much stronger emphasis on mutual commitment between the lovers that pervades the whole poem.  P. 550 seems to imply that the nephesh can refer to a dead body, but no biblical text supports this, including the one Goldingay cites (Lev. 19:28).  It refers to those who live on after death, but not to their dead bodies.  On the other hand, Goldingay aptly notes how Jer. 2:19 suggests that Judah's sin can generate its own punishment (p. 606).  He also notes that, while the Old Testament does not worry about death (it is only anxious concerning premature death) and while there is an absolute finality to it, "Nothing alarming or frightening can assail us in the realm of death, because there are no metaphysical powers outside Yhwh's control" (p. 634). 

    As might be expected, the chapter on the World elaborates the doctrine of Creation.  Goldingay would like to balance the Creation account of Genesis 1 with that of Job 38-39, which he sees as more ecologically friendly (p. 682).  Genesis 1 and 2 further suggest that nature as created had a propensity toward an inappropriate assertiveness so that, while humanity was not originally responsible for this rebellion or sin, it becomes responsible (p. 718).  Primeval beasts and dragons lie behind texts such as Genesis 3, Psalms 73 and 74, Job 40, Isaiah 27, and others.  They are identified with an evil that God defeated at the beginning but it was not a final defeat.  That is still coming and the new creation, begun in the Church, has a part in this destiny.  Further, the context of Isaiah 24-25 suggests that the dragon somehow connotes the political as well as the natural world (p. 728). 

    In his chapter on the Nations, Goldingay notes that Psalm 2 confronts a pacifist stand (p. 742): 

    The First Testament consistently assumes that God does not abjure the use of force and violence and accepts the place of these men in the affairs of the nations and thus of Israel as a nation.  Perhaps it is a judgment call when we must love our enemies by lying in front of their tanks and when we must love the oppressed by taking to the tanks in order to put down wrong.

    However, the major theme of the chapter is the judgment of the Superpower, usually Assyria in the texts Goldingay uses, and how this applies directly to the U.S.A.  In his discussion of the promised judgment against Assyria, Goldingay writes, "Yhwh had better not be one who takes redress, because we will be on the receiving end of it" (p. 781).  It is certainly true that every superpower was judged and faced destruction throughout history, but this has also happened to every nation that has ever existed.  At some point all faced destruction and one may assume the same will happen today, whether to a superpower or to any nation.  What this reviewer misses is a comparison and contrast between Jonah and Nahum, who represent opposite sides of the same coin.  Both preach judgment against Assyria, but in the case of Jonah the repentance of the nation is followed by God's repentance and mercy toward that generation.  Goldingay's omission of this reality seems inexplicable, except perhaps as a rhetorical rush to judgment, rather than as a reflection of a divine desire for repentance. 

    There are good things to gain from reading this volume.  In a manner uncommon for theologies, Goldingay insists on treating text after text in its larger context and so looking at the message of the whole biblical pericope, rather than relying on proof texts.  At the same time, this benefit can also become a detriment.  It makes the volume unwieldy.  One has the sense that many texts repeat the same basic message and that some of the subcategories into which Goldingay divides his work are more apparent than real in making legitimate distinctions.  Indeed, the contents of the book could probably be conveyed in a volume that is a fraction of the size of the present one.   Further, the size of the volume and the repetition of similar concepts begs at times for a clear and logical development of thought.  These concerns aside, Goldingay has providedf a helpful and important volume for introducing major concepts of theology in the Old Testament to a new generation of readers.  There are few sources which one could consult in order to learn as much about the breadth and depth of teachings across the entire Old Testament.  Having used the work in the context of an Old Testament theology class, this reviewer found it a valuable resource for stimulating discussing both in the traditional areas of the discipline and in the urgent questions of application to the postmodern age.

    Richard S. Hess
    Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
    Denver Seminary
    March 2008

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