Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Book Write-Up: Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.  Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. is a biblical scholar, who has taught the Old Testament and has written many books and articles.  In this book, Kaiser addresses tough questions about God in the Old Testament.  Kaiser also interacts with the New Testament, including passages that many consider misogynistic, as well as passages about food.

Overall, this is a good book.  It offers some of the stock apologetic answers about God in the Old Testament, yet I still learned from the book.  Kaiser also wrestled with questions, and the Discussion Questions at the end of each chapter were thoughtful and open-ended and did not assume that one had to agree with Kaiser.  There were times, however, when I wished that Kaiser provided actual documentation for claims that he was making—-about Canaanite life and religion, about the dating of the Book of Job, etc.

I can better critique the book by going through each chapter.  I will not be exhaustive, but I will convey some of Kaiser’s points, and my reactions.

In the Introduction, Kaiser talks about Marcion, an ancient Christian who distinguished between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament.  Kaiser also referred to biblical scholars and theologians who portrayed the God of the Old Testament as harsh, in contrast with the loving and merciful God of the New Testament.  Kaiser, of course, disagrees with such views.  I appreciated Kaiser’s academic discussion of this issue.  At the same time, I doubt that Marcion or the scholars whom Kaiser critiques were getting there impressions from nowhere: Paul himself appears in places to contrast the old covenant with the new covenant, presenting the former as a ministry of condemnation, discipline, and wrath, and the latter as a ministry of grace.

Chapter 1 is entitled “The God of Mercy or the God of Wrath?”  Kaiser argues in this chapter that God is rightfully angry at sin, and yet God’s anger is small when compared with God’s vast love.  I did not learn anything radically new from this chapter, and I think that Kaiser’s points are valid.  At the same time, I do not think that Kaiser’s insights will eliminate all feelings of discomfort that one may have when reading the Old Testament, particularly when God’s wrath appears to hit innocent people (through collective punishment, arguably, or when God kills children through the Flood and the Conquest).

Chapter 2 is entitled “The God of Peace or the God of Ethnic Cleansing?”  In this chapter, Kaiser addresses God’s command for Israel to kill all of the Canaanites and take their land.  Kaiser essentially argues that the Canaanites were sinful and that God was punishing the Canaanites through the Israelites.  Kaiser refers to a Ugaritic writing about a bloodthirsty deity, maintaining that the Canaanites were imitating the depraved actions of their gods.  Kaiser’s argument is consistent with elements of the biblical narrative.  Yet, I still have questions.  Would the Canaanites or their gods look so one-sidedly bad if we looked at Ugaritic literature without the agenda of wanting them to look bad so that God looks good?  Is not the slaughter of Canaanite children a moral problem?  Moreover, while Kaiser contrasts the biblical Conquest with Islamic jihad, they look to me like they overlap: both portray people as instruments of God.

Chapter 3 is entitled “The God of Truth or the God of Deception?”  In this chapter, Kaiser addresses biblical passages in which God appears to deceive or to command deception.  Kaiser also interacts with the question of whether it is ever legitimate for a person to lie, referring to biblical passages in which righteous people lied, dissimulated, or concealed information for a righteous or a practical end.  Kaiser appears to take a strong stand against lying: Rahab and the women who delivered the Israelite babies were wrong to lie, as far as Kaiser is concerned, even if their actions were protecting life.  But Kaiser is rather tolerant towards Samuel telling Saul that Samuel was going off to sacrifice, rather than telling Saul that he was going off to anoint a new king to replace Saul.  Regarding divine deception, Kaiser maintains that God permits deception but does not command it, even though Kaiser acknowledges that God’s permission can be portrayed as God’s activity or command.  Kaiser likens this to Jesus telling Judas to betray him quickly (John 13:27): Jesus was not really commanding, authorizing, or endorsing his betrayal, but was giving Judas permission, and yet it comes across in the form of a command.  In the Discussion Questions, Kaiser asks if misleading an opponent as part of a sport or war is permissible.  That is a good question, and it made me think about times when God’s people in the Old Testament misled their enemy (i.e., Gideon arguably did so).  Kaiser is a bit too absolutist, in my opinion, but he did make me think about how literally we should take passages about divine deception.

Chapter 4 is entitled “The God of Evolution or the God of Creation?”  In this chapter, Kaiser argues that God in Genesis 1 created ex nihilo, that the biblical creation account differs from other ancient Near Eastern ones, and that Genesis 1 is inconsistent with evolution.  This chapter was interesting for two reasons.  First, Kaiser referred to how interpreters have addressed the question of why God in Genesis 1 created light on Day 1, but the heavenly bodies on Day 4.  Second, Kaiser notes that each day of creation is punctuated with “and there was evening, and there was morning, (such-and-such day).”  Kaiser asks why this punctuation does not mention the afternoons.  I had never thought about that.  While I understand that the Jews have long counted each day as beginning at evening and lasting until the next evening, I wonder after reading Kaiser if there was a different Israelite tradition: that the day actually ended on the morning of the following day.

Chapter 5 is entitled “The God of Grace or the God of Law?”  In this chapter, Kaiser argues that God’s grace and God’s law are present in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Kaiser also wrestles with the question of which aspects of the Old Testament law Christians are supposed to keep.  Kaiser argues that Christians are supposed to keep the Ten Commandments, that they do not have to observe the ceremonial “patterns” that Christ fulfilled, and that they should abide by the principles behind all of the laws, even those they do not literally observe.  This chapter was good in laying out different positions on law and grace.  Kaiser did not always offer support for what he was saying (i.e., that the Ten Commandments are eternal), however, plus, as far as I recall, he did not explain how Christians should relate to the Sabbath commandment, which is part of the Ten Commandments.

Chapter 6 is entitled “The God of Monogamy or the God of Polygamy?”  In terms of argumentation, this was probably the best chapter in this book.  Kaiser argues that God’s standard was and is monogamy (even though Kaiser can understand the rationale for polygamy in an ancient cultural setting), and Kaiser argues against the view that God in the Torah permitted polygamy.  For example, Deuteronomy 21:15-17 says that a man with two wives has to honor the firstborn son of the unloved wife, and Kaiser argues that the man does not have the two wives simultaneously, but rather that his first wife died, then he married again.  I do not know how well Kaiser’s interpretation here works, but I do respect him for addressing that passage.  Kaiser also argues that II Samuel 12:7b-8 does not mean that David married Saul’s wives because that would mean that David married his mother-in-law, which is a capital offense in Leviticus 20:14.  (Plus, Kaiser states, Saul’s wives in the biblical text do not appear in the lists of David’s wives.)  Kaiser’s conservative approach to the Bible is manifest here, since Kaiser presumes that the Book of Leviticus preceded the time of David, something liberal scholars going back to Wellhausen (maybe beyond) would dispute.  I wonder, though: if God’s standard in the Old Testament was monogamy, why did so many righteous people in the Old Testament, David included, transgress that standard, without batting an eye?

Chapter 7 is entitled “The God Who Rules Satan or the God Who Battles Satan?”  This chapter did not seem to me to be a direct answer to that question; rather, Kaiser was going through the portrayal of Satan in the Old Testament.  Kaiser was arguing against liberal scholarly views, such as the view that the serpent in Genesis 3 was not the devil, and the view that Satan was not always conceptualized as God’s adversary but rather as God’s prosecuting attorney.  Regarding Genesis 3:1, Kaiser argues that it means that the serpent was craftier than the creatures God made, not that the serpent was one of the creatures that God made in the Garden; the former is more consistent with seeing the serpent as the devil.  This chapter offered me things to think about: Kaiser said that the story in Isaiah 14 (Helel, translated in the Latin as “Lucifer,” trying to take the throne of God) was unparalleled in the ancient Near East (even if some of the names appear in ancient Near Eastern literature), and that there is evidence that Tyre peacefully surrendered to Babylon (which is relevant to Ezekiel 28, which prophesied the destruction of Tyre, but which many maintain was not fulfilled as the text prophesied).  I tend to go with the standard historical-critical views that Kaiser critiques.  For example, I tend to interpret the serpent in Genesis 3 in light of ancient Near Eastern depictions of serpents at the time, not in light of the devil, which seems to me to be a later development in Jewish religion.  (Kaiser in this chapter does not support his claim that the Book of Job, in which ha-Satan is a character, dates to the second millennium B.C.E.)  God can reveal things to people that are beyond their historical context, but would God do so, if God’s aim is to communicate to people within their historical context?  Would not God do so in terms that are familiar to them?  Kaiser himself, in questioning whether the food laws in Leviticus 11 relate to health, states that “If the distinctions between clean and unclean were based on science, then the reasons for those distinctions were unknown for thousands of years” (page 161).  Is Kaiser implying here that God’s revelation occurs within the context of where people are and what they already know?

Chapter 8 is entitled “The God Who Is Omniscient or the God Who Doesn’t Know the Future.”  Kaiser argues that God is omniscient, and Kaiser disputes open-theism, the idea that God does not know the future.  Kaiser takes a position against open-theism, but he does not casually dismiss it; rather, he wrestles with it, acknowledging reasons that people may arrive at such a conclusion from the Bible.

Chapter 9 is entitled “The God Who Elevates Women or the God Who Devalues Women?”  Kaiser appears to take an egalitarian position here.  He offers an interesting history of the interpretation of I Corinthians 11 in light of a veil, and an interesting take on I Timothy 2:11-15.  (In his view, it does not forbid women to teach but requires them to learn first, so that they are not like Eve, who sinned in ignorance.  I am not entirely convinced, but it is an interesting interpretation.)  Kaiser does well to note the times when women are treated with dignity in the Bible.  At the same time, he seems to ignore, in this chapter at least, the aspects of the Torah that are patriarchal (i.e., husbands or fathers can nullify women’s oaths, but women cannot nullify their husband’s oath, Numbers 30; daughters can only inherit if their father does not have sons, Numbers 26-27).

Chapter 10 is entitled, “The God of Freedom with Food or the God of Forbidden Food?”  This chapter took me by surprise, for Kaiser appears to argue that the New Testament does not nullify the food laws of Leviticus 11, and that Christians today should observe them.  I heard this view during my time in Armstrongism and Seventh-Day Adventism, but I did not expect to read Walter Kaiser supporting that kind of view!

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Kregel Publications, in exchange for an honest review.

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