Sound Conservatism

Those who read my post yesterday, (Neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran) who are otherwise unaware of who I am, may have come to the conclusion that I am some kind of flaming liberal. Well, I can assure you that is not the case. I may be a flaming dingbat, but I digress. My point yesterday was to illustrate how conservatism can be, and has been, coopted by ideologies that ultimately destroy healthy conservatism. There is a sound, healthy conservatism, and I believe the Bible teaches that conservatism.

After writing yesterday’s post, it might be surprising for me to say today that biblical conservatism contains aspects of each of those three distortions of conservatism I dismissed. While I firmly reject the conservatism of the political Sadducees, the legalistic Pharisees, and the escapist Qumran covenanters (perhaps the Essenes), I do believe that biblical conservatism holds the basic truths of those movements, but in a way that fundamentally rejects where each of them ends up.

In terms of the political Sadducees, there is a sense in which biblical conservatism seeks to maintain a healthy equilibrium, a measure of the status quo. Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that God’s chosen people can exist, and can even pray for the leaders, in any and every human culture. Daniel did not seek to overthrow Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah commanded the exiles to pray for their Babylonian captors. Both Paul and Peter encouraged Christians to pray for the leaders of a godless, pagan Roman empire. This is because, as I firmly believe, the Kingdom of God transcends human politics. The kingdom is dynamic, and will eventually work to overcome those pagan cultures, but it is not dynamitic – it is transformative but it is not revolutionary. Where the Sadduccean view of conservatism goes awry is that it seeks to maintain a certain political status quo for purely selfish and covetous reasons. It is all about power, and Christians today who are pressing for a political solution for moral issues have sold their soul to the devil when it comes to power. Power corrupts – and there is not a single elected official who does not have to deal with the issue of how to exercise his or her power. Human nature being what it is, and Sin being what it is, that power is virtually always turned inward, and the more power the more selfish and egotistical that power holder becomes.

Regarding the legalistic Pharisees, the Bible clearly enjoins faithful obedience to the laws of the Kingdom of God. The New Testament nowhere repeals every injunction of the Torah (a point not often understood). Jesus himself, in that oft quoted passage (Matthew 23:23-24), clearly states that obedience of the letter of the Law is not to be ignored, but that what is more critical is that the “weightier” concepts (justice and mercy and faithfulness) to which the letter of the Law points is to be observed with greater diligence. To ignore what the Pharisees were trying to protect is to totally misunderstand their righteousness (see especially Matthew 5:20). Jesus never condemned the Pharisees because they were concerned with protecting the Law of Moses. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they elevated a legalistic interpretation of the Law over the spiritual message that the Law was pointing to. Today’s Pharisees are not to be blamed because they are devout in wanting to follow God’s commands to the furthest extent that they can see them. Where today’s Pharisees share with their historic counterparts is in their devout, almost psychotic, elevation of their interpretation of some jot or tittle of Scripture and who completely miss the truth of that text. Just as one example, yesterday I mentioned an overly literalistic interpretation of the age of the earth. Now, no one knows how old the earth is, and I defy anyone, scientist or theologian, who can prove to me conclusively that he or she knows otherwise. It simply cannot be done – and do not even start with Archbishop Ussher’s chronology – I’ve seen it and while I appreciate its scope, I reject its basic premise. However, today’s Pharisees mandate that a believer holds to a very specific age of the earth, and anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic, certain to be excommunicated if not burned at the stake. It does not matter to them if there are other possible scenarios (and the entire thrust of Genesis 1-3 is utterly ignored). The only thing that matters to them is whether their interpretation is unquestionably accepted as absolute truth.

That leaves the Qumran covenanters, and once again, there is a level of legitimacy to their desire to separate themselves from the pagan society in which they found themselves. Jesus himself clearly taught that there are firm boundaries between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Paul taught that the call of Christ is a call to “come out” of the world and enter into a new realm – to become citizens of heaven. Peter addressed his Christian readers as exiles in this world. This is an aspect of the Kingdom of God that I find disturbingly missing from much of contemporary Christianity. Within the Churches of Christ we have deep roots in this line of spirituality, and the fact that we have virtually eliminated that strain of thought has weakened our message and out influence considerably. We (and I speak as the majority of Churches of Christ) are far too comfortable in this world, and we have welcomed far too much of the world into our congregations. However, taken to a radical extent, this desire to separate from the world leads to a spiritual pride, and even a physical separation, that is wholly unknown in the New Testament. Paul called on his readers to separate from the world, not at all meaning they were to leave their cities and move to the desert, but that they were to separate themselves from the behaviors and practices of those who were “outside” of the kingdom. It is possible, and even biblically commanded, that Christians are to be separate, to be God’s Holy people. But we can never allow that command to countermand the equally valid injunction that we are to salt and light in a bent and broken world.

So, while I firmly reject the political compromises of the Sadduceean conservatives, and the legalistic dogmatism of the Pharisaical conservatives, and the utopian escapism of the Qumran conservatives, I do equally affirm the reality of a sound, healthy, biblical conservatism. I believe that the church must profess the last, while rejecting the excesses and errors of the first three. There is, to use Aristotle’s term, a “golden mean” that allows a disciple of Christ to be thoroughly conservative, and yet at the same time be energetically concerned with the social issues of the day. It requires that we be thoroughly biblical – that we be Old Testament Christians as well and New Testament Christians. It means that we have to re-learn some texts that we have either forgotten or have ignored – mostly the Pentateuch and the Prophets.

But it can be done. And, when we dive deeply into those books we discover a wonderful new world – it is the world of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

The Church Really Needs to Rediscover the Old Testament

I’m preaching a series of sermons on Christ and Culture. What has been the best source of pertinent material?

The Old Testament.

I kid you not. When it comes to speaking to the contemporary church about the dangers of lapsing into the modern malady of multiple-ideology malaise, the best biblical response is given in the first testament of faith, not the second.

Last week I preached on Deuteronomy 7, 8, and 9 – Moses’s warnings to the Israelites not to think too highly of their numbers, their seeming military strength, or their righteousness. If the contemporary church does not need to hear that sermon then I will eat my diplomas. This week I turn to a fascinating character study in the life of Jeroboam I, who would become the patron saint (demon?) of bad kings in the northern kingdom of Israel.

On the one hand, Jeroboam had everything going for him that you would want in a king. God had a prophet go and specifically give Jeroboam the detailed prophecy of what was going to occur in his near future. God specifically chose Jeroboam for his divinely inspired mission. He gave him a specific sign to accompany the verbal prophecy. God promised Jeroboam a perpetual kingship, just as he had promised David. In short – Jeroboam had it all, and then some.

And then Jeroboam gave it all away. He became fearful. He thought he would lose what God had promised him. So he set about to fix a problem that did not exist. He called his cabinet together to discuss the issue. The problem, they decided, all revolved around the commanded, and therefore necessary, worship in Jerusalem. Eradicate that problem, and you solve the potential problem of losing your kingdom. So, Jeroboam built two temples, one in Dan and one in Bethel, complete with priesthood and ritual “like the one in Judah,” but one of Jeroboam’s own creation.

Well, I’m not going to give away all of my sermon, but what does that story have to teach the church? Funny you should ask.

Today I see the church focused almost exclusively on a problem that does not exist – or I guess I should say only exists in the minds of a few academics that are so focused on picking lint out of their bellybuttons that they have lost sight of reality. The church is worried (fearful!) about losing its young members, about not being “relevant” (whatever in the world that word means) to its surrounding culture, about giving up its “place in the conversation” concerning contemporary issues.

Jesus promised that he be lifted up, he would draw all men unto him. Jesus promised that even the gates of hell would not be able to withstand the onslaught of the gospel as preached by the church. God promised, and then demonstrated, that through Jesus’s life healing and wholeness would come to the entire world. Pretty powerful promises, if you ask me. Kind of like the promises Ahijah gave to Jeroboam, although you could say that Jeroboam’s promises did not even come close to what we have been promised.

And yet we sit around and fret because a young generation demands more and more from the church to meet their needs, that the world views the gospel as irrelevant, that we are not given a chair at the great conversation table. And I cannot help but think that God must be asking his legions of angels, “When are these people going to get my point?”

Read the next paragraph carefully, because what I am going to say is carefully nuanced. I do not care if a generation (or, actually just a portion of a generation) bullies the church and threatens to leave if its demands are not met. I do not care if by “relevancy” the current philosophy demands that I surrender the fundamental nature of God and of human beings. I do not care whether we have a “place at the conversation” if the conversation is all about how irrelevant and meaningless the church is, and what can be done to eliminate it from public discourse altogether. What I do care about, and care passionately, is that the church remains true to her commission, that she lifts up the name and saving work of her Lord, and that she refuses to surrender her very nature all because of an irrational fear of what might happen.

What might happen is not really theoretical at all. All a person has to do is to see what has happened to the Anglican (Episcopal) and Presbyterian churches after they have capitulated to the bullying demands of postmodernism. The number of adherents in those churches has plummeted, even as they make fundamental change after fundamental change in order to staunch the bleeding. And, really, what is the point of belonging to a church that basically believes everything and acts identically to the way its surrounding culture believes and acts? Why belong to a church that has eliminated the concept of sin, and therefore can offer no concept of salvation? If supporting your local sports team offers the same (or even greater) sense of community, and a lot more excitement, why waste time on your day off going to a religious assembly that has basically lost faith in its own mission and importance?

Jeroboam tried to bathe his new temples and ritual in pious, even consecrated, language. “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28, see Exodus 32:4!) God was not fooled. In one of the most explicit, and terrifying, rejections of the plans of man against his divine will to be found in the entire Bible, God told Jeroboam, “. . . but you have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back.” (1 Kings 14:9, emphasis mine)

You see, that is what I am afraid of. We can make other gods and create alternate rituals and build imposing edifices (real and philosophical), and we can attempt to bathe those gods and rituals and edifices in pious and even “Christian” language. But we will never fool God. I am personally terrified that in our efforts to save the church, all we are doing is casting God behind our backs.

Folks, that is a horrifying thought. And that is why I believe the church needs to rediscover the Old Testament.

The Value of Systematically Marking Your Bible

Last year I started doing something that many, many people already do, and almost immediately I started seeing things in Scripture that had earlier eluded me. The practice is inexpensive, and totally flexible – there are no set rules and each reader can adjust the process to fit his/her needs. What is this magic elixir of Bible reading?

I started marking my text with different colored markers. (Duh.)

I purchased a set of 8 markers, marketed as the “Inductive Bible Study Kit” packaged by G.T. Luscombe, and I bought mine through Christian Book Distributors. This particular set has a .01 fine line black and red markers, and .05 fine line markers in yellow, pink, green, blue, orange and purple. If you so desire they have a rather complicated (and in my opinion, far too busy) system of marking the text, so, being as simple-minded as I am, I came up with my own system.

Not that it matters, but I use the black marker for simple emphasis kind of texts, and for making notes in the margin. The red I use for translation kind of notes, and to underline words where translation issues can affect the meaning of a verse or verses. I use the yellow to highlight words that seem to be central or key themes in a book or chapter (fer instance – the words “believe” “live” and “sent” in the gospel of John, the word “righteousness” in the gospel of Matthew). I use green to underline references to God’s people, the church, or God’s kingdom (more on that later). I use blue to underline references to God’s Spirit or the Holy Spirit. I have not really found a use yet for pink (too close to red), orange, or purple, but their use may come later.

A couple of really interesting things have occurred as I do this (and I try to keep all of my physical texts marked identically, which is taking some time). First, specifically in regard to marking all the texts that refer to God’s people, the church, the kingdom of God, or God’s kingdom, or His kingdom, etc., I came to a rather profound conclusion (at least for me, profundity is measured in small containers). The prevailing attitude among the teachers and preachers of my youth was that the New Testament church is the kingdom of God. Ergo and therefore, good Christians cannot pray for the “kingdom of God to come” as Jesus taught in Matthew 6:10, because it already came on the day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2. To pray for the kingdom to come (as in some future sense) was to be either a closet premillennialist, or worse, a flaming premillennialist. (A brief historical aside here – in the days of my youth, to be a premillennialist was somewhat to the left of being a Baptist, and being either one endangered your soul. To be a Baptist and a premillennialist was especially dangerous. Times have changed, and I don’t think many members of the Churches of Christ even understand what a “premillennialist” is; and we have even started having conversations with the Baptists, so long as they are not premillennialists, or Dallas Cowboy fans. Well, maybe that last one only applies to me.)

So, as I worked through the New Testament, merrily marking passage after passage in green, something occurred to me. In the overwhelming number of passages where the kingdom is specifically mentioned, there was no way I could substitute the word “church” and have the context remain intelligible. In plain English, in the overwhelming number of passages, the kingdom and the church are not equal, they are not interchangeable, they are not the same. Now, in a few passages it is possible to interchange the words kingdom and church, but they are indeed few.

I am not a closet, and certainly not a flaming, premillennialist, but thems are the facts.

Something else I noticed – there are a LOT more passages that have blue under them in the Old Testament than I ever expected there would be. Now, I am not suggesting that the Holy Spirit as is specifically discussed in the New Testament can be read back into the Old Testament, but there is a much higher number of references to “God’s Spirit” or “my Spirit” when God is the speaker, than I had otherwise caught on to. So, it just got me to thinking . . . a commonly held belief is that the “Holy Spirit” (especially as Luke describes him) is a New Testament being – not really present in the Old Testament. However, the number of references to the Spirit of God or, as I indicated, “my Spirit” would seem to contradict that. If we read the Bible in a “New Testament Centric” model, I think our reading is therefore distorted. Perhaps if we read Luke after considering these texts in the Old Testament, we could arrive at a more well rounded view of the Holy Spirit. Something to think about, anyway.

So, anyway, if your Bible reading and study has ¬†reached a stale plateau, try this very simple and inexpensive experiment. Buy a new copy of the Bible (if you do not want to mark up your “old faithful” copy), and create your own system of marking the text. The markers I have purchased do not bleed through the pages, and I have used them on several different copies. I think creating your own system has a far greater value than using some pre-packaged system, but to each his own, I guess.

Blessings on your study, and may you find a precious nugget in your daily Bible reading!

The Genesis of God’s Laws (Pun Intended)

I am a strong proponent of daily Bible reading – whether one is motivated to read through the Bible in a calendar year or has other motivations (the slow and meditative reading of a particular genre, such as the gospels or the prophets, for example). The simple fact of our human weakness is that we cannot always be on the top of our game, and some days we read with brilliant clarity, and some days we read as if swimming in molasses. If we wait for one of those “brilliant clarity” days, we can make all kinds of excuses for not reading God’s word. I like to read whether I feel like it or not, because I have found that, just as frequently as not, I find a profound verse or two on my “down” days as much as my “up” days.

So, I was reading along in Genesis this month, and came across this sentence:

Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws. (Genesis 26:5)

Wait, what?

When did God give Abraham any charges, commandments, statutes, or laws? The language is precise here – and is the language that is used repeatedly of the laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. But that event is centuries in the future as Genesis 26 unfolds. Such language then would be considered prescient, not reflective.

And, while we are at it, why would it have been a crime for Pharaoh to have taken Sarai sexually in Genesis 12, or for Abimelech to have done the same in Genesis 20? Or, to go further, why was it a sin for Cain to offer an sacrifice unpleasing to God, or for Cain to have killed his brother? Why was it wrong for Shechem to have had sexual intercourse with unmarried Dinah?

What, exactly, is the Genesis of God’s laws?

You see, there are certain beliefs and attitudes that creep into our understanding of Scripture that are not necessary bad or malicious, but they are never-the-less wrong. One such belief that I labored under for many, many years was that prior to Mt. Sinai, the world basically operated under a “wild, wild, west” form of government and things were considered wrong or sinful based on “secular” or human concepts (i.e. the Code of Hammurabi, for example).

There is only one fly in that ointment, however. Well, there are probably many more than one, but one will suffice. God did not say that Abraham obeyed the laws of the land. God did not condemn Cain for violating a civil code against murder. Simeon and Levi were not responding solely to social mores (although, they were probably doing that as well). Jacob did not respond with approbation against Simeon and Levi just because they went too far with their form of “justice.”

Cain, Abraham (and later, Isaac), Simeon, Levi – all of these violated the expressed will of God prohibiting falsehood and murder. Pharaoh and Abimelech knew of a code that prohibited the taking of another man’s wife – more than just staying out of hot water with the local magistrate (note, for example Genesis 20:5). The problem for us is that we do not have written down for us exactly when or where those expressions were made. In other words, there is more to the Word of God than we have recorded for us.

On one level I find that deeply disturbing. On another level, I can be assured that I have all I need, and that is sufficient (see, for example, 2 Peter 1:3). John the Revelator was given more insight and more “revelation” than he recorded (Revelation 10:4), but should that bother us? I think not. God’s ways are utterly and completely beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9), so it should not surprise us that there are things that he revealed to his servants the prophets that were, and/or are, not appropriate for general audiences.

I really did not intend to get too terribly philosophical here – what I really wanted to point out is how important it is to read a portion of God’s word every day, because you never know when you will come across a text, or even a series of texts, that re-shapes and possibly even corrects, a flawed or incorrect understanding.

Read. Meditate. Pray. Ascend lower.

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!

Stop Trying to Defend God!

Add the name Andy Stanley to the list of “mega-church pastors” who feel like they have to defend God from himself. The list is long and shameful. Poor God – without guys like Stanley and Rob Bell and Brian McLaren (and a few others who hit much closer to home) – God would not stand a chance in this world. But, with their apologies and explanations, God can sleep comfortably at night, knowing his honor is well protected.

C.S. Lewis was much more than a Christian defender. He was also a prophet, of sorts. He recognized that in his day something profound had occurred, and whether Lewis knew it or not, it was only going to get worse. What Lewis observed was that prior to the Enlightenment (and really maybe even closer to his day), man lived with the reality that God was right, and therefore mankind had to adjust its understanding of “right” to line up with that of the Divine. However, Lewis noted, in his day it was not God as the judge and man as the accused, but it was Man that was the judge and God that was in the dock (in our judicial system, at the defense table). Today, more than ever, God has to be defended, protected, and absolved of many pernicious crimes.

This is exactly what so many “Christian” leaders espouse today. God might not be wrong, per se, but he is clumsy, rash, intemperate. He has a really bad P.R. department, and it is up to this new generation of preacher/apologists to set the record straight. They do this by “explaining” the text in such a way that it really doesn’t say what it says. So, God “really” did not destroy Sodom because of sexual deviancy – it was because of social injustice. God did not “really” command the Israelites to destroy nations – he only wanted them to nudge them out of the land a little. And, if they cannot set the record straight – they simply expunge the record. If the Old Testament is embarrassing, simply “un-hitch” the Old Testament from your Christianity and then you will not have to carry around all that excess baggage.

Of course, none of this can fit the definition of biblical Christianity – it is decidedly unbiblical. The sad thing is that these mega-pastors have such a star-struck and devoted following that the issue, the teaching, cannot be questioned because to do so casts aspersions against the teacher – and that simply cannot be allowed.

I worry a lot about the church. I worry because I see and hear so much that resembles this noxious teaching – that somehow or another we have to sanitize the Bible, that we have to make the church “relevant” or we have to “make the gospel appealing” to our culture. I hear and read so much about how we have to change our message. All of this ultimately puts the blame on God and the biblical writers for our unbelief or outright rebellion.

Let’s face it – at the core of the biblical message there is a very unpleasant and disagreeable fact – all men and women have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. There is only one way for God to deal with this sin, and it is through his divine judgment. For those of us living today, the central event of that judgment was the cross of Jesus where he took our guilt and shame and paid the price for our rebellion. The light and beauty of the sacrifice of Jesus can only be properly understood in the depth of the darkness of human sin. God does not have to be justified or defended – man does. This is what the Old Testament and the New Testament both attest. To be embarrassed by the Old Testament – or for the New Testament, for that matter – is to be embarrassed by God himself.

Just stop trying to defend God! He doesn’t need your help, and you only make yourself look like a fool when you try. If what you read in the Bible does not line up with your sensibilities – who is wrong? You, or God? Before you accuse God of sin, I think you had better review your facts.

Let us ascend by descending lower.

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.