Theologies of the Old Testament by Erhard S. Gerstenberger (Fortress) The title of this work, which is based on a series of lectures given in Brazil and Germany, emphasizes the plural: `Theologies in the Old Testament'. Usually a self-confident singular is used. The reason for my choice is relatively simple. The Old Testament, a collection of many testimonies of faith from around a thousand years of the history of ancient Israel, has no unitary theology, nor can it.' The unity of belief in God, which we constantly want to emphasize (or have to emphasize, because we need it in many respects), does not lie in the texts themselves, even in the collected writings or the canon, but solely in our perspective. We use what the Bible says as guidance for our faith and action. We need the biblical texts as a basis for our identity, so they must not be broken up pluralistically. But the Old Testament cannot of itself offer any unitary theological or ethical view, since it is a conglomerate of experiences of faith from very different historical and social situations. Moreover the testimonies are very fragmentary; and they have been edited and manipulated very heavily before coming down to us. More of that shortly. Here at the beginning, and time and again later, I simply want to emphasize that I in no way regard the plurality and the clearly recognizable syncretism of the Old Testament tradition as a disaster, but as an extraordinary stroke of good fortune. The diversity of the theologies opens up for us a view of other peoples, times and ideas of God; it relieves us of any pressure to look anxiously for the one, unhistorical, immutable, absolutely obligatory notion and guideline in the ups and downs of histories and theologies. It frees us for the honest, relaxed assessment of the theological achievement of our spiritual forbears that they deserve, and it makes us capable, in dialogue with them and with the religions of the world, of finding and formulating the `right' faith in God, i.e. a faith to be expressed here and now, for an age which represents a turning point and perhaps an end.
Traditionally, the authors of `Theologies of the Old Testament' use the singular in the title as if in the many layers of the texts and compositions of the Hebrew Bible with skill and patience one could in fact bring out a single doctrinal structure, a scarlet thread, a theological ground base, a hidden `centre', etc. But because most modern theologians have been trained in historical criticism and cannot overlook the exciting diversity of the collections of writings, such unification cannot be achieved without violent means. Those who want to depict the theology of the Old Testament must declare that one element, one stratum, one idea of their choice is the dominant voice of the great Old Testament chorus of faith. All other elements then have to be made subordinate to it. The arbitrariness with which the theological orchestra is conducted is evident from a mere comparison of the current textbooks.' The basic tendency of Christian Old Testament theologies seems to me to begin from the nature of Yahweh as the eternally unchangeable God and to want to make biblical statements transparent to this absolute. In that case the true unity of the theology would be grounded in the transcendence of God. However, this is to overlook that as theologians we do our business in immanence (regardless of how the boundaries of the transcendent may be defined) and have no adequate notions or categories of the depth dimension or the universal dimension of all being. Thus theology in reality has exclusively to do with time-conditioned experiences of faith, statements and systems, in short with ideas of God and not with God in person or essence. Old Testament theology formulated as orientation for our day should be content with the contextual images of God in the Hebrew Bible and in a similarly provisional and time-conditioned way venture to make binding statements or statements which nevertheless have only limited validity.'
Is the designation `Old Testament" legitimate? My answer would be that I too see this as a very well-established, Christian designation, which can have derogatory overtones. However, all the substitute names are equally defective: `First Testament' can suggest that (as is customary in law) the Second Testament abrogates the First. Tanak (Torah, Neb' iim, Kethubim) gives the impression that we ourselves are Jews. `Septuagint' leaves out the Hebrew text. Wherever we turn, in any nomenclature we betray our own standpoint and our history. And our action is even more reprehensible: we apply the Old Testament tradition directly to ourselves by reading and exegesis as if it had been made only for Christians. But it has not; we are the intruders. However, taking account of the historical realities of the mission and expansion of Christianity, we can gain access through the world-wide openness which is also characteristic of the traditions of ancient Israel, provided that we refrain from claiming to be sole representatives and acknowledge that other traditions, interpretations and theological formulations have equal rights.'
The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction by John David Pleins (John Knox/Westminster)
Pleins's full-scale study of the Hebrew Bible uncovers the social vision of the Hebrew Bible. He examines the biblical statements about social ethics within a framework provided by Israel's social institutions, the social locations of its actors, and the historical struggles for power and survival that are reflected in the transmission of the texts. Each major section of the Hebrew Bible is investigated through the lens of a representative scripture passage. This clear and comprehensive introduction reveals the rich mosaic of social visions in ancient Israel.
"Here is a cogent analysis of the social context of the writings of ancient Israel within their literary and cultural milieu. Pleins ties together the disparate literature of the Hebrew Bible and demonstrates a greater unity of purpose and social agenda. This volume thus provides a foundation for comparisons with modern concerns over social ethics." -Victor H. Matthews, Southwest Missouri State University
"David Pleins has gone where most theologians and biblical ethicists fear to tread. In this monumental work, he seeks to tease out the divergent social and moral values that often lie hidden beneath the stock language of Scripture. In so doing, Pleins has demonstrated the world behind the text to be an arena of conflict and struggle in an age of pluralism not unlike our own. I recommend this study as an essential text in any introductory course on the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible." -William P. Brown, Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Richmond, Virginia, and author of Ecclesiastes
DAVID PLEINS is Associate Professor in Religious Studies at Santa Clara University in California. He is an associate editor of The Anchor Bible Dictionary.
"What light can we get on the troubles of the great capitalistic republic of the West from men who tended sheep in Judea or meddled in the petty politics of the Semitic tribes?" With these words, the great purveyor of the social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, opened his influential Christianity and the Social Crisis, raising questions about the enduring legacy of the Bible's social ethics.
Of course, from the vantage point of twenty-first century biblical scholarship, this "light" has been scattered through the prism of a host of socio-historical methods and postmodern readings. The "capitalistic republic" has been replaced by global markets. The "West" has been deconstructed as an ideological landscape, and scrutinized by "north-south" political realities. Feminist analysis has exposed the patriarchal bias favoring the "men" of that culture, and opened to us the rhetorical world of the women who are missing from Rauschenbusch's equation. The "sheep" and the "petty politics" of the Bible have been read against the institutional and cultural backdrop of the Syro-Palestinian and ancient Near Eastern archaeological record. For the sociologist, talk of sheep nomadism oversimplifies the cultural picture. To the liberation theologian, "petty politics" grossly mischaracterizes the systemic oppression experienced by the poor of that day. Even the "tribes" have been reassessed by turning to the pages of the anthropologist's field notebook. With so much recast or up for grabs, one may wonder what, if anything, remains of Rauschenbusch's question.
While perhaps less clear in his day, it is certainly now apparent to the student of literary criticism that our encounter with the past is very much an encounter with ourselves. While I am perhaps less skeptical about the value of historical methods than some of my colleagues, I am also aware that the Hebrew Bible raises key questions about the nature and shape of communal life that continue to speak to the challenges of living in our troubled and divided global village. In a sense, in the Bible's struggles we will see our own. In its wrestling with divergent theological perspectives and diverse ritual practices, we can hear our own civic debates. In its people's struggle for survival, autonomy, and liberation, we can see enduring political aspirations. In its conflicting voices, we find encouragement to add to its provoking of the conscience of the postmodern polis.
That the past is not simply a mirror, however, will become apparent in the pages that follow. The Hebrew Bible is too rooted in its particularities to be easily driven to universalities. The road of ancient Israel's historical experience is loaded with far too many obstacles, wrong turns, detours, and cul-de-sacs to yield a singular "grand narrative" that can speak to successive political epochs, whether theirs or our own. Thus, to the extent that we are able, we should be prepared to encounter unique perspectives concerning the construction of a community's social ethics, perspectives that can augment or even undermine our own thinking on these pressing matters. We should be prepared, in other words, to enter fully into a conversation that has been going on for sometime now.
OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY
Horst Dietrich Preuss
Leo G. Perdue
Westminster John Knox Press
$34.00, cloth, 372 pages, notes, index to biblical passages
OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY
Horst Dietrich Preuss
Leo G. Perdue
Westminster John Knox Press
$34.00, cloth, 438 pages, notes, index to biblical passages
Horst Dietrich Preuss, following in the tradition of classic Old Testament theologies developed by scholars like Walther Eichrodt and Gerhard von Rad, presents a comprehensive analysis of the theology of the Old Testament. Utilizing the most recent scholarship available, Preuss proposes that the central and unifying theme of Old Testament theology is God's acts of election and covenant and the subsequent human responses to God. Special attention is given to the Sinai and Exodus traditions, the figure of Moses, and the themes of law and land. Preuss's thorough investigation of the names, descriptions, functions, and titles of God found in the Old Testament makes this volume one of the best resources available. Volume two includes a full range of discussions about the social, political, ethical, and historical ramifications of Israel's sense of "Primal Election." Topics include, but are not limited to, the development of priesthood in ancient Israel; the significance of prophecy; the rise of Jerusalem as "City of God"; humanity and its relationship to God; and the future of the people of God.
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