OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY: Israel’s Life (Volume 3). By John Goldingay.

OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY: Israel’s Life (Volume 3). By John Goldingay. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009. 875 pages. Hardback. $49.95.

Reviewed by Reed Lessing, Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, MO.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tm 3:16–17). While these words of Paul can be applied to the NT, it specifically concerns itself with the OT. But if you look at most Lutheran churches you would never realize that they believe the apostle’s understanding of Israel’s scriptures. The OT is seldom preached upon, and when it is, more often than not, texts are used as pretexts for something else. Adding to the problem, most laypeople are never taught how to read and apply the OT to their lives.

Goldingay sets out to address this problem in Old Testament Theology, Israel’s Life. Volume 1 (Israel’s Gospel) follows the OT story line, while Volume 2 (Israel’s Faith) is based upon the Prophets, Psalms, and Wisdom Literature. In Volume 3 (Israel’s Life) Goldingay orders the discussion under the titles “Living with God,” “Living with One Another,” and “Living with Ourselves.” This three-part structure follows the Decalogue which also moves from a right relationship with Yahweh (commandments one–three), to our associations with one another (commandments four–eight), and finally to our relationship with ourselves (commandments nine and ten). “None of these stands on its own. They form a whole” (17). Through it all, Goldingay, an evangelical Anglican, successfully demonstrates that the OT is useful for the church. He makes numerous applications, quoting from the likes of Roman Catholic popes, Karl Barth, and Barack Obama.

Reading this book is like listening to a Chicago Cub fan who fanatically and fervently embraces every part about his underdog team. Goldingay loves the down-and-out OT! But he also realizes that relating the OT to the twenty-first century is fraught with difficulties. Quite often our assumptions and terms differ from those in Israel’s world. For example, Hebrew has no specific word for “husband.” The following overlap—baal (“owner”), ish (“man”), and adon (“lord”)—but none of them are exactly mean “husband.” Hebrew also has no words for marriage; though it does have a word for “wedding” (chatunah, Song of Solomon 3:11). In spite of these cultural differences, Goldingay is able to steer a steady course between a simplistic one-to-one correspondence and an outright rejection of the OT because of its cultural and chronological distance from us.

Goldingay has recently completed a three-volume commentary on the Psalter (Baker Academic, 2006, 2007, 2008). It comes as no surprise, then, that in his section “Living with God” the discussion is saturated with psalms. It almost comes across as a theology of the Psalter. When he moves into the area “Living with One Another,” his fundamental belief is that the Torah did not spell out for Israel what to do; rather it taught them how to think about what they do. The upshot of his argument on ethics is that the Torah does not always lay down laws but rather casts a vision. The Torah is more imaginistic than strict policy. For example, Goldingay believes the Jubilee chapter in Leviticus 25 points to a lifestyle and was thus understood by Israel as Yahweh’s ideal. It was never taken literally. Other texts are also taken as rhetorical and not actual. The admonition “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (cf. Ex 21:23–25) is poetic and does not imply physical retaliation. Likewise, threats of execution were not implemented literally (e.g., the stoning of a rebellious son, Dt 21:21). The threat “is more like a declaration of how strongly Yhwh disapproves of such acts and how firmly Israel is to disavow them” (450). And the charge to annihilate the Canaanites is an expression of how radically Israel must avoid being influenced by Canaanite religion. This reading of the OT is based, in large part, upon the assumption that if there are no texts that describe Israel enacting Yahweh’s commands, then the ideas were figurative and not taken absolutely. This appears dubious to me. The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. That is to say, just because outside of Jeremiah 34 there are no other descriptions of Israel’s enacting Jubilee policies does not mean they were never taken seriously.

The way Goldingay goes about applying Pentateuchal laws for the church is most ingenious. His key text is Matthew 19:1–12 which is Jesus’s discourse on divorce. Here our Lord points to Genesis 1–2 and the way God structured the world “in the beginning.” Jesus suggests a canon within the canon that helps us approach the challenging world of Pentateuchal legislation. Goldingay observes that the deepest insight appears at the beginning of the Bible, and what follows involves regress more than progress. “The tension between how things were at the Beginning and how things are when one makes allowance for human hardness of heart runs through the Torah, and in principle one can plot all its regulations on an axis between these two. Yhwh is always concerned to pull Israel toward realizing the vision of how things were at the beginning, but is always starting where people are” (339). By means of “in the beginning” Goldingay navigates through a host of ethical situations like polygamy, divorce, herem warfare, politics, and homosexuality.

Although Goldingay has sections titled “Living in Light of Creation,” “Killing for Food,” and “Relating to Animals” he does not include any sustained discussion on creation and the environment. The book has no section on eco-theology. I also wonder why the author offers such an amazing amount of information, and describes a tremendous amount of theology, but all with very little overall analysis and synthesis. On the positive side of the ledger, unlike volumes one and two, volume three is much more interactive with the NT. And Goldingay’s prose carries the reader along quite effortlessly through almost 900 pages! His wit and humor is refreshing. For example, “Some people in the city [in Israel] would farm the area around, the villagers had to commute to their fields, perhaps for several hours a day like people in Southern California, and at about the same speed sitting on their asses” (478). Pastors and professors of the Bible will find a wealth of information, organized in a helpful manner, and made practical by the author’s desire to fulfill the mandate of 2 Timothy 3:16–17.

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1 Comment

  1. Lance December 31, 2015
    Reply

    I was hoping for more info in this review. Goldingay teaches at Fuller. Fuller has had much drift down the path of liberalism and a lower and still even lower view of the Bible, especially the gospels and the OT. It would have been useful to assess if Goldingay presents a high or low view of scripture and if he is or is not carried away by historical criticism.

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