Book Review – The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (David A. Dorsey)

The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis – Malachi, David A. Dorsey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999) 328 pages.

I find out about books in a variety of ways – I belong to a book club, I read blogs, I follow Twitter accounts of fellow ministers who drop hints occasionally. I discovered the above book (now getting a little long of tooth) in the process of researching a lesson on Jonah. I came across an old outline from a good friend, and he referenced this book (snarky aside – imagine that, a minister who actually gives credit for someone else’s work!!) The insight my friend gave me made me purchase this book. I am so grateful!

First, let me note that the book is both accurately and inaccurately titled. It clearly is a study in the literary structure of each of the books of the Old Testament, but it is not a study of the literary structure of the Old Testament in its entirety. And, the subtitle should note that it is primarily a commentary on the literary structures found in the books of Genesis-Malachi. The author does include sections on the meaning that is conveyed by these structures, but the book is not a verse-by-verse study, as is commonly understood by the word “commentary.” Very small quibble, to be sure, but the title could potentially be misleading.

We twenty-first century, western, technological and linear thinking Americans tend to read Scripture in twenty-first century, western, technological and linear ways of thinking. We want our stories to begin, continue, and end in a very definite format – as in a straight line. Thus, our minds tend to latch onto narrative sections of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, the books of Samuel – Chronicles, the gospels, Acts) and we tend to struggle with or dismiss non-narrative sections (the law codes, the poetic sections, we do a very, very poor job with the prophets!) What this book does is to illuminate how the ancient authors may (and I emphasize that word) have structured their writings to appeal to their audiences (non-western, non-technological, non-linear, and definitely not 21st century!).

The first five chapters of the book are worth the purchase price alone – Dorsey explains his thesis and further explains the value of literary structural analysis. For someone who really struggles with understanding the Old Testament, those chapters are a great eye-opener – there actually IS a method to the overall structure of each book, and of the Old Testament in general.

The remainder of the book (a total of 39 chapters) is devoted to an examination of the various books of the Old Testament, through chapter 38, and then a concluding chapter. A concept that might be of interest to some is that Dorsey does not believe the traditional division of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and then followed by Joshua and Judges to be structurally correct. He sees the “Book of the Law” continuing through Joshua 24. His defense of this suggestion is interesting, to say the least, and definitely has merit.

I read the book cover-to-cover without stopping to examine each chapter carefully against the text. This process has its advantages, but also comes with some drawbacks. On the one hand, it is fascinating to see how certain structures are repeated throughout the Old Testament. On the other hand, the book does tend to get ponderously repetitive, and I found myself skimming some sections because it seemed that the author was just repeating himself too much.

However, and I must stress this emphatically (not to be redundant), I am a much more careful reader of the Old Testament texts now after having read this book. Books, or sections of books, that made no sense to me at all now have come to life. Whether Dorsey is 100% correct in his analysis or not, I now see with my spectacles just a little cleaner. For what it is worth, I think Dorsey is spot-on correct in some of his work (the aforementioned analysis of Jonah just makes the book leap out of the binding!). Some of his work is highly speculative – and to Dorsey’s unending credit – he actually points out when he feels his analysis is speculative! When I read an author say, “this is what I think, but I could be wrong, and more study needs to be done here” his credibility level goes through the roof with me.

As I mentioned, Dorsey’s fascination with some structures can become monotonous – get ready for a lot of sevens! At a number of places in the book I found myself wondering if the biblical authors could have possible been aware of the intricate structures that Dorsey identifies – and then Dorsey himself asked that question in the conclusion (another tip of the ol’ Fedora to the author). As a neophyte in this field, I am just not educated enough to decide how correct Dorsey is in all of his conclusions, but this I will say with no hesitation whatsoever – I am deeply indebted to his study, and I feel that I am a better reader of the Old Testament for having read through this book.

Ultimately, this is a book that must be studied in conjunction with the biblical text (something I did not originally do), and, as with every commentary ever written, the reader must hold the author’s conclusions in suspension pending further study and personal research.

Bottom line – two thumbs up and five gold stars!

Book Review – Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (John H. Walton)

John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006) 334 pages plus and appendix listing Ancient Near Eastern gods.

I like some books because they are rich and satisfying. I like some books because they challenge and goad me. I like some books because they explain in far greater detail or provide the evidence for what I already intuitively believe to be true. I like some books because when I finish with them I consider myself to be a wiser, or at least more knowledgable person. This book by John Walton elevates each of those reasons to heights I rarely experience.

In phraseology of common digital conversation, My. Mind. Is. Blown.

Many books written on subjects as esoteric as Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought can be, and are, so specialized that they are virtually opaque to the average reader. Thankfully, this is NOT one of those books. I do have to admit to a certain degree of eyes-glazed-over and bewildered response to part 2  of the book (a summary of the literature of the ANE) because in my very limited exposure to such literature, it all seemed so repetitive. However, the remaining sections of the book (and the first, for that matter) are simply wonderful in terms of content, ease-of-reading, and application.

A couple of disclaimers are appropriate: first, if you are looking for a book that simply equates the Old Testament with ANE literature, you will be horribly disappointed. Second, if you are looking for a book that proves the Old Testament has nothing in common with ANE literature, you will be horribly disappointed. What Walton sets out to do, and in my opinion accomplishes with great success, is to demonstrate both the similarities and differences between the Old Testament and ANE thought. Here the reader must take careful notice of the title: this is book that examines the Old Testament in light of the conceptual world of the ANE.

I believe one way modern people view the Old Testament is through the idea that the Israelites lived in a protective bubble – that God’s covenant with Abraham through Moses and extending through David and the monarchy somehow protected and insulated the writing of the Old Testament from any outside influences. What Walton demonstrates is that while there are marked differences between Israelite culture and the surrounding nations, the authors of the Old Testament were fully aware of the thought world in which they existed, and that this familiarity shows up in in the text of the Old Testament. By more fully understanding the conceptual thought world of the ANE, both the similarities and the differences between the pagan cultures and the Israelites becomes more explicit.

While my “book reviews” are not actual reviews in the technical sense of the term, I do want to share one aspect of the book that I thoroughly appreciated. Walton devotes the majority of each chapter to the thought world of the ANE (hence, the title of the book). However, within each chapter he pauses to draw attention to a specific aspect of the Old Testament that has a bearing on the subject at hand. These discussions are set off in a grayed-out “side-bar” type of arrangement, and come with their own footnotes. In a pure lecture format, it is as if Walton is stepping back from his main topic and saying, “Okay, that is what the thought of the ANE is, now let’s see how the Old Testament either reflects, or does not reflect, this particular aspect of ANE thought.” While the basic text provides the meat and potatoes of the book, these shorter illustrations provide the icing on the cake, so to speak.

I have honestly rarely been so engrossed in a technical book to the point that I did not want to put it down, and actually looked forward to continue my reading. Maybe I am a nut (okay, that point is not up for debate), but this book was just that good. If I was an instructor in a course of Old Testament study, this book would be mandatory reading. I assure you, if you take Walton’s thesis seriously, you will never read the Old Testament the same way you have always read it (unless, of course, you already accepted Walton’s thesis without knowing it.)

Do not be put off by the technical nature of the subject. This book is easily understandable. All foreign language words are transliterated into English, and if I can follow the author’s train of thought with my embarrassingly limited understanding of ANE literature, anyone can. With all of the usual caveats duly noted (“you are not going to agree with everything the author says,” etc., etc.), I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I so wish I had this material presented to me when I was either in my undergraduate or graduate studies. But, I am thankful I have it now, and I plan on making further examination of this material a point of emphasis in my continued growth in biblical studies.

Book Review: Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus (Reggie L. Williams)

Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, Reggie L. Williams (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014) 170 pages including extensive endnotes.

Through the years I have developed somewhat of a credo for my reading/education: I cannot learn anything from someone with whom I agree 100%. I may be encouraged, challenged, edified, reminded, or entertained, but very, very, rarely can I be educated. When I want to learn something, I must reach outside my circle of experience and understanding. In terms of fulfilling that credo, Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus dots every “i” and crosses every “t.”

I first came to meet Dr. Williams in a seminar hosted by Wheaton College on the subject of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and culture in April, 2012. I was finishing up my Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Theological Seminary and much to my joy and everlasting gratitude, Fuller allowed me to create a guided study of the theology of Bonhoeffer. The professor assigned to guide me in this study was Dr. Glen Stassen who was a professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller, and a devoted Bonhoeffer scholar. Dr. Williams completed his Ph.D. under Dr. Stassen, so in an academic sort of way there were a number of stars that were aligning themselves that would finally come together during this seminar.

Dr. Williams’ topic at the seminar was on the impact of the year Bonhoeffer spent in New York, 1930-31, and in particular, his exposure to the world of Black Christianity in Harlem. If you are interested in Bonhoeffer, you can read all the seminar’s lectures in the book, Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture (Downer’s Grove, IVP Academic, 2013). If you want to be fully educated about Bonhoeffer’s experience with the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, you need to read Williams’ complete exposition in this volume, listed above.

To be perfectly honest, reading this book was difficult for me. I am, to a very large extent, the product of the very protected and dominating white culture that Williams identifies in this book as the evil that Bonhoeffer witnessed in Harlem. Reading what Bonhoeffer witnessed during his year in New York was not pleasant. (Note: I had read Bonhoeffer’s account numerous times, but reading the same words through the eyes of Dr. Williams was enlightening – in a very disturbing sense. I had read Bonhoeffer’s words, but through Dr. Williams I actually felt them. It was, as I said, disturbing.)

To provide an exhaustive review of this book would require much more space than I typically aim for in these blog posts. Suffice it to say that Dr. Williams writes as an insider to the injustice Bonhoeffer identified in his work at Abyssinian. While this is truly an academic product, it is also a labor of love – and a gripping account of Bonhoeffer’s experience in Harlem. Williams provides a lucid explanation of the “Black Christ” to whom Bonhoeffer would have been exposed to in Harlem, the economic and cultural background of the Harlem Renaissance, and draws a clear line of contact between that experience and Bonhoeffer’s work with and for the hated Jewish community in Nazi Germany.

This book would be an extremely valuable purchase if you are interested in: Bonhoeffer and his life; Black theology and its impact not only on Bonhoeffer, but also later 20th century theology; racism, ethics, and/or the role of the gospel of Christ in confronting culture in any age. My only criticism of the book is that it tends to read in somewhat of a stilted manner, and not at all like the wonderful manner in which Dr. Williams speaks.

I actually was able to speak to Dr. Williams following his presentation at Wheaton. I was desperately seeking a topic for my dissertation, and somehow I managed to catch Dr. Williams when he was not the center of a huge group of people (NOT an easy task!) I explained my situation as hurriedly as I could, and to my great surprise and pleasure, Dr. Williams took a number of minutes to question me about what I had studied, what I was attempting to accomplish, and what ideas I already had. In about 15 minutes I felt an inviting warmth and welcome that touched me deeply. I know that experience has influenced my reception of Dr. Williams’ book – and so I want to stress again – this book identifies the racial divide that continues to trouble the Lord’s church. If you are unwilling, or unable, to look in the mirror and examine your own life in light of this reality, do not bother buying or reading this book. If you are willing, and if you can invest in the effort to examine your own ideological weaknesses, then I highly recommend this book.

N. T. Wright – An Author Every Minister Needs to Read

Nicholas Tom (N.T.) Wright is one of those authors that everyone has been influenced by, whether they have read him or not. This is because those who have read him either agree with him completely and spread his teachings far and wide; or they disagree with him, imagine him to be the anti-christ with horns on his head and a pointy tail behind him, and therefore caricature what he has written, and spread that caricature far and wide. What makes him so controversial is that he is a retired Anglican bishop who holds many conclusions that are strikingly opposite to that of the majority of members of the Anglican, and especially the American Episcopal, church. [I might add as a snarky aside, that because that number is dwindling so quickly, it really should not matter.] I obviously believe both positions to be false, but I also believe N.T. Wright is an author that every minister, and every concerned church member, should read. Let me explain why.

I read theological books for two reasons. One, I like to read books written by authors who hold positions similar to mine, but who are more advanced in some areas that I am not familiar with, for the purpose of comfort and reassurance. It is just nice to curl up with a nice cup of tea and read a book and not have to parse out every phrase and paragraph to decide whether I agree with the author or not.

Second, I read authors who hold views differing from mine (in varying degrees) because I want to learn. It is an axiom of mine that you simply cannot learn anything from a teacher with whom you agree 100%. For one example – in regard to the book of Revelation I hold an a-millennial position – neither pre-millennial nor post-millennial. I simply cannot learn anything by reading the arguments of other a-millennials. I can be encouraged by them, or reassured by them – but I cannot say that they teach me anything. Same with the subject of baptism. I have eight books on the subject of baptism in my library – and while some present the subject of believer’s baptism in ways I have not fully considered, they really teach me nothing of which I have not already been convinced. If I want to learn something about infant baptism, for example, I have to go to someone who holds that position. Same with virtually every subject in my library.

Which brings me back to N.T. Wright. I was basically ignorant of Wright’s writings up until a couple of years ago, and then it seemed like everywhere I turned there was someone referencing Wright’s work, either in fawning praise or scathing rebuke. I decided to see what all the fuss was about so I bought one of his books, Surprised by Hope. I quickly understood what all the fuss was about. I recently added one other book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. I have not been disappointed with either purchase.

The most important thing I learned about Wright is that he is a scholar – a preeminent scholar. Reading his book on the resurrection of Jesus I was blown away with the depth of scholarship involving pagan and second temple Judaism views on the afterlife. That book has profoundly questioned my previous understanding of how we view our life after death – and while I may not agree with every point Wright makes, I cannot simply dismiss him because he actually presents solid evidence, and not just pious suppositions, for his conclusions.

Reading Wright first-hand has allowed me to draw some conclusions about his opponents. I have come to realize that people dislike or reject Wright for the following reasons:

  1. They have not read his books first-hand, and are simply parroting other criticisms. This I find to be the most ridiculous and childish of responses. In what is both a marvelous example of irony and a pathetic display of theological illiteracy, I saw someone attack Wright by approvingly quote John Piper – one of the most hard-core Calvinists to ever write a book. I know this particular opponent of Wright would reject every aspect of Calvin’s (and therefore, Piper’s) teaching, and yet, there he was, gleefully parroting Piper’s rejection of Wright, just because it was someone who disagreed with Wright. I guess the enemy of my enemy is my friend – at least if my enemy is N.T. Wright.
  2. They are intensely jealous of his scholarship and his popularity. This is especially true of a petulant group of theological Lilliputians who simply cannot stand the thought that some people can actually think on their own, and who admire Wright, even while disagreeing with him on some significant issues.
  3. They simply do not understand him. I find Wright to be very easy to read, but I have about 14 years of theological education behind me. Some might be put off by Wright’s scholarship and the depth of his learning. I’m sure some of his books are written for a more “popular” audience, but there is nothing in the two books I have that cannot be understood if you read carefully.
  4. They have read Wright carefully, and genuinely disagree with him for what they believe to be solid biblical/theological reasons. This number is sizable, but even his academic peers disagree with him in far more respectful tones than most of the churlish invective I read from those who occupy reasons 1 and 2.

For the record, I do not agree with every position Wright holds. After all, he was a bishop in the Anglican Church, and therefore he approaches Scripture and certain ecclesiastical questions from an entirely different perspective than I do. I especially disagree with him on the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. But even there I learned something from him.

I oppose both a sycophantic adoration of Wright and a petulant rejection of him. He is one of the most prolific and preeminent scholars writing today, and so his conclusions must be carefully considered. Whether you know you are dealing with Wright or not, chances are some of the arguments you hear being discussed come from his pen. So – that is why I suggest that every minister, as well as every concerned member, needs to read at least some of his works.

Book Review – Perspectives on the Ending of Mark (David Alan Black, ed.)

Perspectives on the Ending of Mark : 4 Views, Edited by David Alan Black (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 141 pages.

Okay, this book may be a little geeky for some, but I will not apologize one teensy little bit for it. I have had a lifetime love affair with textual criticism (well, at least since my undergraduate days), and the problem of the ending of Mark is a well-known and much-debated subject. If you are interested in such issues, this book is as easy to read and as complete as you will find – especially compressed into 141 pages.

This book is made up of five essays. In the first, Daniel B. Wallace defends the position that Mark intentionally ended his gospel at 16:8. Maurice A. Robinson defends the position that Mark 16:9-20 is the original ending to the gospel. J.K Elliott defends the position that we simply do not have the original ending to the gospel – it has been lost (at least until it is found). David Alan Black defends the position that Mark 16:9-20 was not the “original” ending to the gospel, but is Mark’s work and was added to the gospel some time after an original copy (ending at 16:8) was circulated. And finally Darrell L. Bock summarizes all the preceding essays, basically agreeing with Wallace that the gospel ended at 16:8.

From what I have read (comprehensively, although far from extensively), nothing new or earth shattering is presented in these essays. Each author summarizes his position and presents the evidence that best supports his conclusion. This is not a written “debate” per se, so there is not a significant amount of addressing the position held by others, although there is some of that sprinkled throughout the essays.

The one new theory that I learned came in Elliott’s essay. He pointed out that in the “Western” order of the copying of the gospels, Mark comes last. (The apostolic authors Matthew and John come first, Luke third). What we now know as Mark 16:9-20 was appended, not to the gospel of Mark itself, but as a summary of all of the resurrection appearances in each of the gospels. Because it came at the end of Mark (which, by the way, he believes was damaged somehow), the so-called “Long Ending” became the ending that was copied onto subsequent copies of the individual copies of the gospel of Mark. Interesting theory, for sure, but it just has too many holes in it to satisfy my curiosity, and I think Elliott offers it as an outlier option, not one that he puts a lot of stock into.

I have to say that of the first four essays, I found Black’s essay to be the most original (pardon the pun) and most entertaining. He really does make his argument come alive through his telling, although, I must admit that he does not convince me. On the one hand, his idea is just plausible (and crazy) enough to have occurred, but on the other hand, there is some really fanciful imagination in the telling of the story.

The ending of Mark is, in my opinion, the most significant of the major textual problems in the New Testament. Growing up in the Church of Christ I was routinely challenged by the decisive tone of Mark 16:16 – if you want a passage defending the practice of baptism you do not have to look much further! But, also as a child growing up in the Churches of Christ where we were told to “do as they did” and to “call Bible things by Bible names,” I was confused as to why I never heard a sermon on Mark 16:17-18, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (ESV) These verses are not promises made about the apostles, or those specially gifted by the apostles. These verses are specifically directed to “. . . those who believe.” So, I have always had a “love/hate” relationship with Mark 16:9-20.

I am not anywhere close to being educated in textual criticism enough to know the answer to whether Mark 16:9-20 is original or not. From my own study, it is not likely that Mark would end his gospel with the women being afraid, and there being no confirmation of the resurrection of which Jesus spoke so plainly. On the other hand, the textual evidence suggests very strongly that verses 9-20, although known at a very early stage of copying, were also questioned as to their authenticity.

As Darrell Bock points out in his concluding essay, we can be absolutely sure that there is no doctrine related to salvation taught in these verses that is not taught clearly elsewhere in the New Testament. The clear statement regarding the importance of baptism is instructive to me – but the snake handling and the poison drinking are equally troubling to me. Luckily, I have many, many other passages which instruct me about baptism, and nary a single one that tells me I have to make friends with a Cottonmouth Water Moccasin.

Bottom line – I give this five stars out of five and two thumbs up. There might be brief sections that are too technical for the average reader, but not to fear – I believe the main points the authors make are very clear. The evenness of the book is remarkable – this is a very well edited product! Go ahead, feed your inner Geek. This is definitely a good purchase.

Book Review – “Grieving A Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope (Albert Y. Hsu)

Albert Y. Hsu Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2017) Rev. ed. 195 pages with discussion questions, a one session discussion guide, and notes.

My library is seriously stacked one-sided. I have commentaries, technical studies, historical volumes, and numerous language study books. One section of my library that is noticeably thin is the section on counseling. In an attempt to rectify that situation I was thumbing through some catalogs and my eye fell on an interesting title – the title listed above. Suicide is not a topic frequently discussed in preacher training courses, and outside of stray chapters here and there, is not much written about either. I decided to take a chance.

One of the best decisions I have made in book purchasing!

This book is a beautifully written, fundamentally sound piece of writing. Hsu is himself a survivor of a suicide, and he writes with compassion and directness. A huge pitfall for such a book would be to turn the subject into a shallow, emotionally laden wallowing in trite, worn-out phrases that help no one. Hsu’s book is anything but – as a survivor he weaves his story in and out of virtually every chapter, but not in a voyeuristic way. What the reader senses is the companionship of a kind and stable friend.

The book is divided into three sections: Part one deals with the aftermath of a suicide and the emotional and physical changes that occur. Part two addresses three key questions the suicide raises: Why did this happen? Is suicide the unforgivable sin? and Where is God when it hurts? Part three turns then to life after a suicide: the spiritual component of grief, the need to participate in a healing community, and a final chapter on the lessons of suicide.

The book is written from a clear Christian perspective, and I was impressed with Hsu’s straightforward and even-handed use of Scripture. My only quibble, coming strictly from my theological perspective, is Hsu’s willingness to consider the forgiveness accorded to murder/suicides, but his final conclusion merits thoughtful consideration: we simply are not in the position of God to make the final judgment of whether a person receives God’s forgiveness or not. My own personal opinion is that Hsu pushes that human limitation further than I am willing to go (I think the Scriptural record is more clear regarding the necessity of repentance), but I was impressed with Hsu’s language and outlook throughout.

The book is written by a suicide survivor to other survivors of suicides, and not specifically to ministers, but the pastoral emphasis throughout the book is invaluable. This truly has been one of the best purchases I have made in many months, and I HEARTILY recommend the book if you have been affected by a suicide, if you know of someone who has been hurt by a suicide, or if you are in a ministry situation where you most likely will be affected by a suicide. If I had a rating scale, this book would easily get six stars out of five.