Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament Reviewed

Currid

Currid, John D. Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. 153 pp., $17.99 paper.

Parallels between the literature of the Hebrew Bible and that found elsewhere in the ancient Near East (ANE) have long since been noted. While it is beyond doubt that some relationship exists between these texts, the nature of the relationship continues to be a matter of debate. Did the biblical authors simply plagiarize their material, sanitizing the pagan aspects? Or, did the Hebrews incorporate elements of ancient Near Eastern culture and religion for a driving theological purpose. In his book, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament, John Currid argues that the latter is the case.

In the prologue, Currid presents the basic elements of the work, including the topic, purpose, and audience. In describing the topic of the book, Currid states, “This book is about the relationship between the writings of the Old Testament and other ancient Near Eastern literature” (9). From the outset, he makes clear that he understands the worldview of the Bible to be “altogether unique, as confirmed by its all-pervasive monotheism” (9).

The explicit purpose of the book, as expressed by the author, is to advance the discussion regarding the parallels between biblical literature and its ANE counterparts by proposing an alternative explanation, namely, polemical theology (9). Though this stands as the authors goal, he writes the book “for those who know little about polemical theology, not the scholarly community (9-10).”

The structure of the book consists of eleven chapters exploring various aspects of the polemical theology; its history and notable occurrences in the Old Testament. The opening chapter seeks to provide a cursory outline of the history of ancient Near Eastern studies, considering the relationship between ANE studies and biblical studies. Through the discovery of a wealth of ANE texts beginning in the 19th century, scholars have uncovered various parallel accounts of familiar biblical narratives. During this time, Currid states, a hermeneutic of suspicion led some scholars to conclude that the biblical authors were guilty of “crass plagiarism.” On the other hand, the increase of material required greater degrees of specialization, producing fields of scholarship previously unknown. The chapter concludes with a brief sketch of the state of “evangelical” scholarship on the question of the parallels between the ANE and biblical texts. Currid says that many evangelical scholars have emphasized the similarities between these texts to the detriment of their dissimilarities.

The burden of chapter two is to define and explain polemical theology. Currid provides the following definition: “Polemical theology is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in the ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning” (26, italics original). The new meaning that Currid finds in the biblical text is centered on monotheism. This device used by the biblical authors graphically contrasted their worldview and that of the rest of the Near East. Hence the differences between the texts are more telling than the similarities. Currid provides several introductory examples of polemical theology such as polemical expressions (eg. “the strong arm of the Lord”) and motifs (eg. The confrontation of the serpents in Exod 7). Currid makes clear that he is not proposing polemical theology as a king of theological center, but rather one of many lens through which to read the OT.

The remainder of the book focuses on specific instances of polemical theology in the OT including the creation account, flood narrative, the birth of Moses, and the self-designation of the God of Israel as “I am.” In each chapter, Currid summarizes the relevant data from the biblical and the ANE texts. In many cases, he discusses the provenance and date of the ANE texts, framing the biblical accounts as later compositions. As such, the biblical authors, who were familiar with ANE ideology and religion, intentionally employed linguistic parallels and structured the very events and objects of each episode as a critique of ANE practice (119).

In light of this summary, one may see the value of this work. Many have been unsettled upon the discovery that events and narratives in the biblical text may have preexisted in other pagan documents. Yet, rather than the biblical authors simply rehashing ancient mythology, Currid’s thesis provides a viable solution for many of these parallels. Though the subject of ancient Near Eastern textual data may appear to be inaccessible to a lay reader, Currid designed the book to reach such an audience. The clarity of his writing style, in addition to frequent charts comparing biblical and ANE texts, allows the reader to easily follow the discussion. Moreover, the length of the book (153 pgs.) serves as an invitation to lay readers, avoiding the intimidation of a large scholarly tome.

Yet with all of its strengths aside, the book, in my opinion, contains some significant weaknesses. First, one may quickly discern the tension between the intended purpose and audience of the book. Though written on a more popular level, Currid hopes “to advance the debate a little, stir up some thoughts, and perhaps make some progress in the discussion”  regarding the parallels between biblical and ANE texts (9). Yet this debate does not occur on a popular level, but rather in the halls of scholarship. Furthermore, the methodology and conclusions that Currid manifests would only be acceptable within an evangelical readership. For example, the claim that the worldview of the Bible is unique in its “all-pervasive monotheism” (9) would certainly not go unchallenged by critical scholars. Thus, the participants in the debate that Currid hopes to advance are limited from the outset. This critique would most likely not be an issue for the author, as both he and the publisher focus on a more conservative audience, but a clarification, however brief, could be helpful nonetheless.

A second point of critique I wish to raise, in my view, is the most significant. Throughout the work, Currid emphasizes both the literary artistry of the biblical author and the historicity of the events recorded, but nowhere satisfactorily explicates the relationship between the two. The question becomes, if the biblical authors deliberately employ polemical elements in the unfolding of these narratives, how is the historicity of these events to be understood. The problem would be greatly diminished if linguistic parallels were the only element employed by the biblical authors, but as Currid himself states, the Hebrews authors “[structured] the very events and objects of the episode[s] as a critique of [ANE] practice” (119, emphasis added). While I am sure that Currid would have an available answer to this question, an extended discussion of this relationship may benefit the careful reader. For, on the surface it appears to be a contradiction to defend the historicity of a particular event, while simultaneously affirming the creative artistry of the author in restructuring the events themselves.

One final point of critique that will be noted here is Currid’s extensive quotation of himself. On the one hand, this stands as evidence of his substantial achievements as an academic. Yet on the other hand, the reader may find the frequent quotations, many times without any introduction, to be odd. I could not help but wonder if there was not another way to make his point that did not require a self-quotation. This may be a preference on my part, but I did find it to be strange.

With these critiques noted, I recommend this work to anyone interested in Old Testament theology. While many of the specific cases mentioned may readily be found in technical commentaries, Currid distills them in a concise, readable fashion. For those with no exposure to ANE studies, this book could serve as door to more advanced study.

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The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs as Witnesses to Pre-Christian Judaism: A Re-Assessment

The latest Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha has been released. Though it consists of only three articles, one is of particular interest here. David A. DeSilva in his article, “The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs as Witnesses to Pre-Christian Judaism: A Re-Assessment” argues that while the final form of this text is the result of a Christian community, it can indeed provide insights into the world of Early Judaism. See the abstract below.

In regard to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the pendulum of scholarship has been swinging in the direction of treating these texts as Christian compositions that, therefore, cannot be used to illumine pre-Christian Judaism. This article reassesses this movement in light, rst, of recent methodological propositions regarding deter- mining the faith community in which a text had its origin and, second, of traditional methodological approaches to the question of the Christian material found in extant manuscripts of the Testaments. It also challenges the hyper-Christianization of the Testaments in modern scholarship, arguing that, in many cases, material is being designated as distinctively Christian simply because interpreters are not sufciently aware of how their own lenses are coloring their readings. The Testaments remain an important witness to Hasmonean Jewish readings of Genesis, developments in ethical thought, and re-articulations of Israel’s hope.

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How to Go to Seminary for Free without Going to Seminary

biblical-training

There are many who desire the in-depth study of the Bible that one gains in seminary, but cannot afford to allocate the time required. Especially for those who do not aspire to serve in an official ministerial capacity, the time and labor that go into seminary simply are not practical. While online resources abound, some of which I have highlighted on this site (see here), one perhaps stands above the rest in my mind. BiblicalTraining.org (BT) contains a wealth of free, online courses, taught by many first-class professors. With 73 free classes available, anyone can easily gain access to the basics of a seminary education.

Of course, one cannot substitute the value of an on-campus experience. Between the rigor of presenting assignments and interacting with peers and professors in person, seminary is best experienced in the flesh, so to speak. Perhaps most significant, few people have the motivation and stamina to learn the biblical languages on their own (and no, learning the Greek alphabet in your fraternity does not count). But for those unable to pursue a degree in biblical studies, resources like BT may be a great help.

I have known about BT for some time, but have recently come across the accompanying iPhone application. Now, one can easily take lectures on the go, whether redeeming time in the car, or, as I often do, when doing the dishes.

Of the courses available, I want to commend a few that pertain to Old Testament studies. I hope many of you will make use of this great resource. If you benefit from this ministry, do not forget to consider a financial contribution to continue this work (see here).

1) Old Testament Surveys

2) Essentials of the Old Testament

3) Old Testament Theology

4) Essentials of Old Testament Theology

5) Biblical Theology

 

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Claude Mariottini on Women Prophets in the Hebrew Bible

Devorah

When we think of Israel’s prophets we often envision the great men of old who spoke on behalf of Yahweh. Yet often overlooked are the women in the Hebrew Bible designated prophetesses. Dr. Claude Mariottini has begun a series looking at the prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22), first surveying female prophets as a whole in the Hebrew Bible (See here). Overall, Dr. Mariottini provides a good introduction, though I have reservations about various conclusions (eg. Isaiah’s wife as one of disciples). Though the Hebrew Bible largely presents the prophets as male, students would do well to remember the brave and faithful women that served served Israel as agents of Yahweh.

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The Book of Joel: A Prophet Between Calamity and Hope (Review)

Joel book pic

Identifying the historical context of the book of Joel has been a great challenge in the history of interpretation. While many other books in the prophetic corpus contain superscriptions that provide context, Joel offers no such help. As you may imagine, this uncertainty has opened the door to a variety of proposals ranging from a monarchic date of the book to the late postexilic period.

Elie Assis in a recent monograph, The Book of Joel: A Prophet between Calamity and Hope, presents a case for the composition of Joel during the exilic period (587 BCE-538 BCE). During this time of national crisis, the prophet encouraged those left in Judah after the destruction of the temple that their God ultimately had not abandoned them. Through the strategic use of rhetorical devices, Joel encouraged the people to reestablish the covenant and persist in prayer. Thus, the author concludes that the book of Joel, alongside Lamentations, sheds light onto the otherwise vague exilic period.

The book’s 12 chapters are divided into 4 parts. While Part 1 and 4 comprise an extended introduction and conclusion, the central two parts represent Joel’s two major divisions (1:2-2:17 and 2:18-4:17). The author devotes much space to unraveling the relationship between the two sections of Joel.

Assis’ introduction orients the reader to the problem of identifying the historical context of the book. Through a helpful survey of scholarly literature, the author discusses the issues that influence various opinions, such as the state of the Temple and the cult alluded to by the prophet. Joel’s two major concerns, as noted by Assis, are the locust plague of chapters 1-2 and the political salvation after the exile. Assis further discusses  features unique to Joel over against other prophetic books.

Regarding the locusts, the author maintains that Joel employs a double meaning with both literal and metaphorical dimensions. In dealing with a people who thought they had been rejected by their God, Joel uses the imagery of locusts to communicate his ultimate message in familiar terms. Though the Temple lay in ruins, Joel reminds the people that the opportunity for worship and prayer were still available.

While this book has much to commend, I will limited my praise to two points. First, the book contains a form of prose that is both readable and engaging. The author writes clearly, though not always succinctly. The reader is able to easily follow the flow of thought, further aided by frequent summaries and connections to the wider argument. The structure of the chapters also is organized and follows the methodology outlined in the introduction.

Second, the author pays careful attention to the literary features of the text. From the opening pages of the introduction, the reader is able to discern Assis’ concern to listen to the text before formulating conclusions. The book contains a thorough treatment of the Hebrew text of Joel, as well as discussions of ancient literary and rhetorical devices. Furthermore, the author’s handling of the textual data upholds his defense of the unity of Joel, refuting attempts to uncover underlying source documents.

Though there are many more aspects of the book I could commend, I must mention briefly several points that did not meet the standard set by the rest of the book. First, Assis rejects the notion that Joel at any point called the people to repentance. Instead, the prophet exhorted the people to return to God that they may renew a “bond that had been broken” (15). Yet, this point is not altogether clear. Though Assis does deal with the passages that seem to indicate calls for repentance (e.g.. 2:13), his alternative exposition is unpersuasive. Furthermore, if the people were under the judgment of God for their sin, how could a reestablishment of the covenant not involve repentance?

Second, Assis too quickly dismisses the mention of the city walls in 2:7. Historically, this has been a strong argument for either a prexilic (before the destruction of Jerusalem) or postexilic (after the walls had been rebuilt) date. The author says that the destruction of Jerusalem need not imply a severe demolition of the wall, but the work of Ezra would seem to stand against this. Furthermore, the language of the invading army scaling the wall (יַעֲלוּ חוֹמָה) would appear to support a  wall that was undisturbed or rebuilt. Otherwise, the enemies would have no need to gain entry over the wall. Assis would do well to provide stronger support against this reading.

Finally, though well written, the book tends to be a bit repetitive. The author certainly could organize the material in a more succinct format. This becomes less burdensome with the help of good indices (Scripture and Author) at the conclusion of the book, allowing for the quick reference of a particular passage or author.

In conclusion, Assis has presented a good case for an exilic date for the book of Joel. Though I do not embrace his conclusions, I found the book stimulating regarding the book of Joel, exposing weakness of older arguments, and opening up new questions for further research. The degree to which the reader will agree with the argument of the book will be influenced to a great extent by the degree of rhetorical artistry afforded to the prophet Joel. Those more skeptical about the employment of complex rhetorical/psychological devices will doubtlessly remain unpersuaded. Regardless, Assis’ has served Hebrew Bible scholarship with the publication of this work.

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Reconsidering the Date and Provenance of the Book of Hosea (Review)

Reconsidering...

The importance of the date and provenance (ie. origin) of biblical books can hardly be underestimated. In many cases, though not always, the task of interpretation can significantly be aided or impeded by one’s understanding of a book’s background. The time and social situation from which a text arises largely informs the purpose of its author(s)/compilers. Prophetic literature is no exception.

James M. Bos in the recent publication of his doctoral dissertation, Reconsidering the Date and Provenance of the Book of Hosea, seeks to move the clock forward on the traditional date of the book of Hosea. While the “older paradigm” thought Hosea to be an 8th century composition, Bos argues that the book in reality is the product of the Persian period (6th/5th century).

Following an introduction, surveying some older approaches to the background of Hosea, though lacking in my opinion, the book includes five chapters outlining the pillars on which Bos substantiates his argument. These five strands of data set forward for a Persian date include: 1) The level of literacy, or the lack-there-of, in ancient Israel 2) The anti-monarchial ideology of the book; 3) Hosea’s polemic against other centers of worship; 4) The presence of an exile-return theme; and 5) The use of Israelite’s past traditions.

In these five chapters, Bos concludes that the book of Hosea was composed not by an 8th century prophet, but rather, by the Jerusalemite priesthood in the Persian province of Yehud as political propaganda. The book then served to establish priestly authority over against the provincial governor with whom they shared power (164).

While the book asks many of the right questions regarding background and textual issues, the conclusions drawn are predicated upon questionable premises. Bos himself concedes that no one individual argument may persuade all readers of a Persian date, but believes that the collective force of the chapters renders the traditional date no longer feasible (32). While there is not room here to engage each individual argument, I will briefly address two points that I found particularly unpersuasive.

Many of Bos’ conclusions rest on his understanding of literacy in 8th century Israel. Bos maintains that there existed a standardized system of writing that was controlled by the governing institutions. Scribes were trained in the king’s court and produced documents under the authorization of the monarchy. Bos questions whether a government would train and authorize a scribe as critical as Hosea. But if this model of ancient literacy is not shared by the reader, many of the book’s arguments are left without sure footing. It must be noted that though literacy in the ancient world is indeed a difficult issue, not all scholars accept Bos’ reconstruction. Others, such as Alan Millard, are more optimistic about a wider degree of literacy in Israel.

A second point that I found problematic was the discussion of Hosea’s use of Israelite traditions such as covenant and exile. Bos includes a discussion of the date of Deuteronomy, which he relegates to the Second Temple period. While many may point to the recovery of the Book of the Law in 2 Kings 22 as evidence for an early form of Deuteronomy, Bos is skeptical about the historicity of Josiah’s reforms altogether. With a late date of Deuteronomy, Hosea, who references the terms of the covenant, must be a late composition. Again, for the latter to be legitimate one must accept the former. If Deuteronomy, or at least the Deuteronomistic tradition, is visible in the reform movement under Josiah Bos’ argument falls flat.

Regarding the exile theme, Bos states that the situation expressed in Hosea more closely matches that of the Persian period over against the 8th century. Yet this claim largely ignores other early prophetic works that discuss exile themes (of course, Bos would date these works later as well). I find this unacceptable. For those interested in the exile theme, I recommend the massive doctoral dissertation (779 pgs.) written by Thomas R. Wood entitled, The Regathering of the People of God: An Investigation into the New Testament’s Appropriation of the Old Testament Prophecies Concerning the Regathering of Israel (2006). Wood traces the theme of exile from the pre-exilic period, through the Second Temple period, and beyond.

In conclusion, though I found myself at odds with many of Bos’ conclusions, I am thankful for the opportunity to rethink many of my unchallenged assumptions. There is nothing like a fresh perspective to sharpen your own thinking.

boo ole miss

I must also say, and this should have been expressed up front, that Bos now teaches at the rival university (Ole Miss.) to my Alma Mater (Mississippi State University). Though I endeavored an objective review, such deep-seated tensions cannot be entirely suppressed. I hope this did not drive me to be overly critical. But in all seriousness, this book would best serve more advanced students of prophetic literature, pushing them to rethink issues in the older paradigm. Though the thesis may not be persuasive, one will certainly have a clearer perspective as a result.

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I Teach Because I’m Lazy

Read Me

Every teacher, or aspiring teacher, has their own motivation for choosing teaching as a career. For some, the pursuit of riches and fame lures them into the enchanted forest of the academy. Unfortunately, such a life, or so I’m told, shares a den with the unicorn and other elusive creatures. The labor and discipline of teaching soon delivers a swift wake-up call to an otherwise blissful fantasy. For others, fascination with a particular field drives a sustained interest to spread abroad one’s passion, in hopes that the world will be a better place for it. For, as any specialists knows, your field is the most important for the advancement of human civilization (akin to a parent who thinks their child is the “most special,” when in fact they are ordinary at best).

Though I would scarcely turn down fortune (fame I could do without), and do have a genuine passion for biblical studies, a prominent motivation for my desire to teach is altogether different. In short, I want to teach because I am by nature lazy. Let me explain.

I once had a conversation with my college pastor about his motivation for entering the ministry. I was not expecting the response he provided. Among other things, he said, “If I didn’t have to preach every week, I wouldn’t spend as much time in the text as I do.” This statement brought a startling degree of clarity.

You see, I am one of those students of biblical literature who believe that they actually have something to say about who God is, the fallen condition of man, and the person and work of Jesus Christ. Yet far too often, to my shame, I do not devote the time and energy to study the text that I ought. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

On the other hand, I take the tasking of teaching very seriously. The warning of James 3:1 practically has been seared onto my retinae. I’ve found that when I am expected to open the Scriptures before others, I discipline myself to study all the more. As a Christian, my desire is to better know God and understand the Bible; what it meant, how we got it, and what it means for the Church today. In my own experience, preparing to teach helps get me there. And while this is not my only motivation for wanting to teach, it has been a means of grace to grow in disciplining myself for the sake of godliness.

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