Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Book Write-Up: Old Testament Theology for Christians

John H. Walton.  Old Testament Theology for Christians: From Ancient Context to Enduring Beliefs.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

John H. Walton is a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, which he teaches at Wheaton College.

In this review, I will highlight aspects of each chapter that stood out to me.  Occasionally, in doing so, I will comment on broader themes in the book.  Hopefully, this will give you a taste of what the book is like.

Chapter 1: Introduction and Foundations

This chapter includes a provocative quote by Yvonne Sherwood about people’s problems with the Old Testament.  Walton also distinguishes between systematic theology and biblical theology, as well as highlights where his biblical theology overlaps with and differs from other biblical theologies.  For instance, there are other biblical theologies that focus on how different biblical authors within the Hebrew Bible disagree with one another in their theological ideas, but Walton largely avoids that approach.  Source criticism is lacking in this book.  One can get the impression that, as far as Walton is concerned, all of the Old Testament essentially manifests the same theology.  Also lacking in this book is discussion about how themes in the Hebrew Bible fit into stages of Israel’s history, such as exile and restoration.  Historical context still looms large in this book, for Walton situates themes in the Hebrew Bible within the context of ancient Near Eastern worldviews, exploring where they overlap and differ.  As far as I can recall, however, Walton never attempts to provide a historical, naturalistic explanation for how ancient Israelite religion came to differ from the rest of the ancient Near East.  The implication may be that Israel’s distinct theology is due to divine revelation.

While acknowledgement of diversity within the Hebrew Bible is largely absent from this book, the Old Testament is presented as quite distinct from the New Testament.  According to Walton, the Old Testament lacks certain themes that are in the New Testament, such as salvation from sin, a rigorous conception of the afterlife, a divine Messiah, the Trinity, and acknowledgement of a devil.  Yet, Walton posits a connection between the Testaments.  Walton argues that the Old Testament is Christotelic rather than Christocentric.  For Walton, the New Testament develops themes that are in the Old Testament, especially the theme of God dwelling with humanity.

Chapter 2: Yahweh and the Gods

Walton highlights how the God of the Hebrew Bible is similar to and different from the gods of the ancient Neat East.  Walton has done so in other works, but his discussion in this book is clearer and more accessible.  Walton’s picture of the God of the Hebrew Bible is rather stark, in places.  Walton seems to endorse a version of the divine-command theory: something is right or wrong because God says so, not because it is inherently right or wrong.  Later in the book, Walton says that we should worship God because of who God is, whether that benefits us or not.  At the same time, Walton stresses God’s wisdom and desire for order in the Hebrew Bible, so Walton does not depict God as arbitrary.  Another aspect of Walton’s discussion is that Walton questions whether there actually is a divine council, as the Hebrew Bible presents, or if that is God accommodating Godself to the ancient Israelites within their historical context.  Walton appears to downplay the Hebrew Bible’s acknowledgement that there are other gods.

Chapter 3: Cosmos and Humanity

Walton argues that the Hebrew Bible, like the ancient Near East, stresses not material origins but rather function: something exists when it has a function within an orderly cosmos.  For Walton, this is relevant to current debates about the theological ramifications of evolution: creatures and things in the natural world could have received their function within the orderly cosmos as a result of evolution, as God used that as the mechanism.  According to Walton, God in Genesis 1 created an orderly, albeit not necessarily perfect, cosmos, where God would dwell.  God created human beings to increase the order in the world, and their rulership of the world is how they are in God’s image.  Walton distinguishes the biblical God from the Great Symbiosis within the ancient Near East: unlike many ancient Near Eastern gods, God did not create humans to be God’s slaves and to provide God with necessities, such as food.  The Great Symbiosis will recur throughout this book, as it relates to the distinctions between the religion of the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Near Eastern religions on a variety of topics, including divine retribution and the afterlife.  This chapter also provides a discussion of biblical anthropology: what are the ruach (spirit) and the nephesh (soul) within humans?

Chapter 4: Covenant and Kingdom

This chapter includes a paragraph about how God envisioned Abraham’s descendants being a blessing to the nations, drawing from examples in the Hebrew Bible.  Walton talks about the importance of genealogies in I Chronicles and states that the Chronicler’s message is that Israel and her priesthood can still bring order to the world, notwithstanding the absence of a monarchy.  (I guess this would be an exception to what I say above about the relative absence of Israel’s history in this book.)  Walton speculates about how Abraham would have viewed God’s calling of him, in light of ancient Near Eastern religion: Abraham might not have initially seen God as the high god but rather as a lower family god, offering to patronize Abraham and Abraham’s family.  In one of the book’s many excurses, Walton offers an interpretation of God writing God’s law on Israelites’ hearts and minds (Jeremiah 31).  Walton interprets this, not so much as God reprogramming the Israelites to be righteous, but more as God writing on their hearts as a message to others.  Walton brings into this discussion how gods in the ancient Near East were believed to write on entrails in communicating their will.  Throughout this book, Walton’s discussions fell on a spectrum.  Some of his discussions were convincing.  Some of them evoked a reaction of “yes, but…”  Some made me wonder where he was going or what he was getting at.  The discussion on Jeremiah 31:33 evoked more a reaction of, “That’s interesting, but does it work, in terms of explaining Jeremiah 31?”  God reprogramming the Israelites to be righteous would solve a problem that is mentioned in Jeremiah 31—-the Israelites breaking the covenant—-and it overlaps with themes elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible: the circumcision of the heart, the heart of flesh and the new spirit in the Book of Ezekiel, etc.

Chapter 5: Temple and Torah

Walton appears to conflate different perspectives in the Torah, acting as if Deuteronomy has a conception of ritually purifying the land of Israel for God’s presence.  Many scholars, by contrast, would contrast P with Deuteronomy.  Deuteronomy, they would say, largely does not present God as dwelling with the Israelites, but rather depicts God’s name as dwelling there.  This, in my opinion, is one area in which Walton’s failure to acknowledge source criticism or the diversity of Scripture leads him to drop the ball, to ignore themes within the different voices of the Hebrew Bible that make them distinct.

Walton talks about sacrifices and distances them from being about the forgiveness of sin.  He does well to let the Hebrew Bible to be the Hebrew Bible rather than forcing it into a Christian mold.  At the same time, the New Testament seems to relate sacrifice to the forgiveness of sin.  A fuller discussion of how the New Testament reworks the concept of sacrifice may have been helpful, for, in Hebrews, the cleansing of the sanctuary does appear to be applied to forgiveness.  Walton occasionally offers insights on this, though, as when he says that the Old Testament sacrifices were about cleansing the sanctuary in the land of Israel, whereas the New Testament presents Christ’s sacrifice as cleansing God’s new Temple, the church, for God’s habitation.  Walton offers an insightful discussion of the problems of imitatio Dei: how we imitate God, and where that is impossible.  He says that the Sabbath was more about participation in God’s rule than rest.  This evoked a reaction of “Yes, but”: yes, gods affirmed their sovereignty in resting after creation, but the Hebrew Bible still stresses the rest-and-refreshment aspect of the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12; 31:17).

This chapter also discusses the concept of to-evah (abomination) in Leviticus 18, as same-sex sexual activity is called that.  This was one of those discussions where I wondered where Walton was going: sometimes, in reflecting on his discussion, I have clarity, and sometimes not.  Walton argues that the rules in Leviticus 18 were about order and were specifically given within God’s covenant with Israel: we cannot conclude, therefore, at least on the basis of Leviticus 18, that opposition to homosexual sex is part of God’s universal moral law.  I am a bit ambivalent about this argument.  Perhaps God was mandating an order that fit Israel’s ancient context, one that had slavery (which Walton briefly discusses later in the book), privileged heterosexual marriage, and stressed the importance of reproduction.  On the other hand, does not morality fit into God’s conception of order?  At times, Walton seems to suggest that it does, asserting that the Old Testament provides us insights into God’s character.  At other times, Walton appears to question whether we can derive any universal moral principles from the Old Testament.

Chapter 6: Sin and Evil

This chapter includes a helpful discussion of demons in the Hebrew Bible.  Walton argues that the Hebrew Bible does not suggest that non-Israelite gods are demons, arguing on linguistic grounds that the “demons” in such passages refer to gods in the pantheon, not Satan’s minions.  This chapter lucidly argues that the Hebrew Bible lacks the concept of a devil, exploring the serpent of Genesis 3, Isaiah 14, Ezekiel 28, and the depiction of ha-Satan in the Hebrew Bible.  As far as I can see, Walton failed to engage I Chronicles 21, in which ha-Satan actually instigates David to sin, rather than simply raising righteous concerns about a person’s character, as he does elsewhere (according to Walton).

Chapter 7: Salvation and the Afterlife

Walton argues that salvation in the Hebrew Bible does not relate to forgiveness of sin.  Perhaps, but the Hebrew Bible does seem to stress divine forgiveness of sin a lot.  Walton also argues that the concepts of people going to heaven and hell and a general resurrection of the dead are absent from the Hebrew Bible.  His discussion of passages that have been applied to these concepts was good.  Unfortunately, as far as I can see, he does not engage passages in the Hebrew Bible about people being gathered to their fathers when they die.  Within scholarship, such passages have been considered relevant to the question of whether the Hebrew Bible depicts a rigorous conception of the afterlife.

Conclusions

What was particularly interesting in this chapter was Walton’s discussion of the Holy Spirit.  Walton argues that the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Bible was not a personal being but rather God’s power.  That stood out to me, as I was raised in a church (Armstrongism) that taught this.  What is interesting, though, is that Walton argues that New Testament and Christian conceptions of the Holy Spirit—-as a personal being or one who indwells people—-are similar to ancient Near Eastern theological conceptions.  Walton was not clear about where he was going with this, but it was an intriguing observation.

This book is informative and lucid.  Obviously, I have some concerns, but it would make an excellent introduction to the Hebrew Bible for students, as well as a reference book for both scholars and people interested in the Bible.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

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