Saturday, May 14, 2016

As by no other word . . .

The only thing left is the decision whether we are willing to trust the word of the Bible or not, whether we are willing to let ourselves be held by it, as by no other word in life or in death. And, I believe, we can find true joy and peace only when we have made this decision.
–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Letter to Rudiger Schleicher, April 8, 1936" (DBW 14:148).

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Poem for Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of what is called Holy Week, which commemorates the week before Jesus died (the week before Easter). Often Christian churches gather for a special service on this Thursday evening.

At this gathering, the church takes communion and reflects on the events leading up to the crucifixion (the last supper; his trial; crucifixion). The word "Maundy" comes from the Latin word for "command" (mandatum), from the words of Jesus in John 13:34: "A new command I give you: Love one another."

The service anticipates Easter Sunday, but specifically focuses on the last hours of Jesus' life and his death. Often the service will feature dimmed lights and a single candle burning through the service, to be snuffed out as the crucifixion account concludes and the service quietly and abruptly ends. The design of the service is to enable us to feel the shock and pain of this death and fuel a longing for resurrection.

Maundy Thursday, A Poem

The candle is lit. The lights are dimmed.
The service has begun.

As the melting marks our progress
We do as we are told
Among the reading and response
Watching narrative unfold

We see him set his face like flint
Toward a bitter destination
We hear his silence fill the court
Absorbing biting accusation

The void his words have left
Filled now with darker sound
The hint of kiss
  The curse of foe
    The pound of fist
      The rooster crow

I eat the bread and drink the cup
Bearing stains I can't deny
Think of blood he sweat and bled
Hear my heart shout "crucify"

The old, old story strange and new
The weight of murdered son
His dying breath is on his lips
The closing song is almost done

There. Now. It is Finished.

The room is darker now.
The smell of the snuffed out candle
Creeps toward the worshipers.
And Hope must wait for another day.

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Friday, March 11, 2016

Esther and Her Elusive God, Book Review

Title: Esther and Her Elusive God: How a Secular Story Functions as Scripture
Author: John Anthony Dunne
Publisher: Wipf&Stock, 2014
Price: $20.00 (amz)
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 158
Esther and Mordecai: Heroes or Villains? Were they models of piety and faithfulness, or did they assimilate into their cultural context? Should we emulate their character and their response to the pagan Persian culture they were forced to live in? Or, is this a life they chose?

Even asking the question seems absurd for most Bible readers. However, John Anthony Dunne argues that the story of Esther is a “secular story” that portrays its main characters in a much more negative light than is often thought. Dunne is currently pursuing a doctorate on Paul’s understanding of suffering in the book of Galatians. In his spare time, he wrote a book on Esther (pp. xi-xii).

In part one, Dunne discusses Esther as “a secular story” by outlining the ways Esther and Mordecai have assimilated into Persian culture (chapter 1) and essentially neglected their Jewish religious heritage (chapter 2). In Greek translations of the story, oftentimes these very details are modified in order to portray the characters in a more positive and faithful way (chapter 3). In part two, Dunne reflects on the role that Esther plays in the canon (chapter 4) and in the church (chapter 5). In these last chapters, Dunne seeks to show the effect that Esther’s unique narrative has had on readers.

Unsatisfied with the way Esther is often presented, Dunne aims “to provide the church with an alternative to the popular understanding of the story” (p. xi). To explain, Dunne outlines the standard take on Esther’s story: “God remains hidden in the story, never mentioned of course, but many believe his presence is implied, assumed, suggested, or (paradoxically) emphasized on every page” (p. 1). To this interpretation, Dunne counters, “Yet does such an approach really do justice to the story?” (p. 1). For him, the dominant interpretation of Esther is “much more in line with the later Greek translations of the story than the original Hebrew” (p. xi). Arguing that Esther is “the chief narrative of the Old Testament in terms of literary skill, story-telling, and subtlety,” Dunne works with “the assumption that Esther is a misunderstood story” (p. 3).

He explains that the oddities of the Esther narrative are either “neglected” or “adjusted.” The heart of Dunne’s characterization of the book is that “the typical view of Esther and Mordecai fails to account for a number of important factors” (p. 17). These factors include the omission of any mention of God, the lack of concern for “the land” of Israel, and the very different religious vocabulary used by the characters. Further, Esther and Mordecai seem to be presented as “ethnic Jews” that are not particularly connected to the religious elements of Judaism. An experienced reader of the Old Testament will immediately sense a difference in style and content when reading the book of Esther. 

Dunne’s explanation for these oddities is that “Esther is a secular story,” in the sense that “the people of God portrayed in Esther appear to have experienced a decline in faith and religious adherence to the God of their ancestors” (p. 3). For Dunne, this effect is due ultimately “to the result of assimilation, the undoing of Israel’s commission to be ‘set apart’ from the nations” (p. 3). The missing pieces of Esther (God’s name, prayer, etc), for Dunne, all point toward “the secularity and assimilation of God’s people. And yet, this unfaithful people experienced such an incredible deliverance—attended by multiple ‘coincidences’—that we will ultimately be led to conclude that the elusive God of Esther was steadfast and faithful, preserving his people though they did not deserve it” (pp. 4-5).

Dunne here attempts a difficult task. He wants to engage the reception history of Esther at the academic level, but he also wants to translate these findings for a broad audience. In this vein, he succeeds in writing a brief and accessible entry point into this approach to Esther’s narrative (the main text is only 130 pages). While engaging in text-critical details in one chapter, he analyzes VeggieTales and the ordering principles behind the Chronicles of Narnia the next. This results in a readable book that will allow a broad audience to encounter his provocative analysis.

Negative judgment of the book of Esther or its characters is not necessarily novel. Historical-critical scholars typically deny the historicity of the book, question the details and plausibility of the narrative elements, or conclude that the book is a work of fiction designed to function completely outside the context of the canon. Dunne does not focus on these types of arguments (e.g., he opts not to comment on the historicity question: pp. 5-7). His primary purpose is to investigate the narrative itself and grapple with the way it has been received (and modified!) by its readers.

In analyzing this reception history, though, Dunne perhaps overplays the notion of Esther being a “secular story.” Dunne asks throughout the book how a “secular story” like Esther could “function as Scripture.” Some places he calls it a “seemingly secular story” (p. 11). Most of the book, though, builds a “cumulative case for the assimilation and secularity of the characters” (p. 11, emphasis added). More direct reflection on the hermeneutical difference between the secularity of the characters and the secularity of the author’s narrative (story) would help clarify the nature of Dunne’s arguments. He has shown that the figures Esther and Mordecai are presented as secularized Jews living in a foreign land. However, the case remains to be made that the Esther narrative is itself a “secular story.”

One of the reasons that this distinction is necessary is because it will affect the way in which one perceives and handles the book of Esther as a whole. For instance, in the chapter on “Esther & Canon” (pp. 95-110), Dunne considers the canonicity of the Esther narrative. Given the secularity of the story, he asks, what place does it have in the canon? This way of raising the question, though, highlights the abovementioned definitional issue. In other words, a pressing question is: in what way is the story secular? If the secular portrayal of the characters is a feature of the author’s compositional strategy, then the narrative (story) itself should not necessarily be classified as secular.

The primary reason that sensitive readers of the book experience unease at the story (as evidenced by the neglect or adjustment mentioned above) is precisely because the biblical author has guided them down this path. For example, we would not know that Esther and Mordecai were forgetting Passover unless it was shown to us at strategic moments in the narrative progression. To give another example, the author himself is the one who casts Mordecai in the guise of Haman at the end of the story. The author has strategically selected these elements in order to produce this effect on readers.

As Dunne notes, the critique of Esther and Mordecai is implicit and skillfully done. Noting this aspect of the narrative prompts the question, How would we know that they are “secular” except for the compositional strategy and the canonical context within which we encounter the book? Is it possible also that the canonical context itself is the element that allows us to see the surprising secularity of Esther and Mordecai in its starkest contrast (i.e., the book’s relationship to Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah). Thus, it seems possible to affirm the core of Dunne’s insights into Esther’s narrative while maintaining the hermeneutical impact of its location within the Hebrew Bible.

Because the option of ignoring or downplaying the oddities and difficulties of Esther is inadequate, those who disagree in part or on the whole with Dunne’s take on the book will need to offer alternative explanations that deal adequately with the narrative’s textual realities.


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Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Text in the Middle, Book Review

Title: The Text in the Middle
Author: Michael B. Shepherd
Publisher: Peter Lang, 2014
Price: $82.95 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 193
For several years, Mike Shepherd has been publishing works that highlight the compositional features of biblical literature. In The Twelve Prophets in the New Testament (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2010), he argued that the New Testament writers used and understood the twelve Minor Prophets within the literary context of the Book of the Twelve. In The Textual World of the Bible (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2013), he examined the way biblical authors summarize and interpret previous narratives as they recount the history of redemption and compose their own texts. In The Text in the Middle, Shepherd furthers this broader project by examining a network of intertexual connections that span the biblical canon.

Shepherd begins with the assumption that “the Hebrew Bible is a text composed of other texts” and that “those ‘other texts’ are within the Bible itself” (p. 1). He argues that those who helped shape the Hebrew Bible into a coherent collection gave the texts a specific perspective by their compiling and editorial work. The Hebrew Bible “was thus built to interpret itself” and later biblical readers including the authors of the New Testament “understood this phenomenon and were greatly influenced by it” (p. 1).

In this study of inner-biblical exegesis, Shepherd focuses on what he terms “bridge texts” or “texts in the middle” (p. 2). Shepherd explains, “This is where a citation of a text occurs, but the way in which the text is cited has already been anticipated in a previous citation of the original text, thus involving at least three texts (primary, secondary, and tertiary)” (p. 2). Recognizing the difficulty of identifying the “direction of dependence” in cases of inner-biblical exegesis, Shepherd looks for “clues as to how those who gave these texts their final shape wanted readers to understand intertextual links” (p. 3).

The book itself consists of a long series of case studies that involve multiple texts (apx. 90 groupings!). The four chapters cover citations from the Pentateuch (chaps 1-2), the Prophets (chap 3), and the Writings (chap 4). Each chapter consists of main headings that list the passages that the following subsection will examine. This organization gives the volume a technical feel, but it also means that the groupings unfold organically and that a specific textual example is relatively easy to locate.

Shepherd’s analysis shines when he examines a genuine “bridge” text. In these cases, the explanatory power of his approach is evident. For instance, Shepherd shows how the writer of Hebrews draws on Psalm 8 in order to illustrate the incarnation of Jesus (see pp. 7-9). This particular psalm, though, is already an interpretive reflection on the creation narratives of Gen 1-2. Further, the “exegetical warrant” for connecting the general comments about mankind in Psalm 8 to Jesus is the connection that already exists in the Psalter between this psalm and Psalm 110 which speaks of a messianic priest-king. In fact, these texts appear in close proximity in the opening argument of Hebrews (i.e., Heb 1:3, 13).

Accordingly, Shepherd argues, “the writer’s exegesis of Psalm 8 is based upon a holistic reading of the book of Psalms” (p. 9). Similarly, Shepherd shows that when Hebrews speaks of entering God’s rest in Heb 4:1-11, the writer not only draws on the conclusion to the creation narrative in Gen 1-2, but also on the notion of Sabbath rest in Exod 20:11 and the promise of entering the land in Josh 13:1 and Judg 1:27-33 (see pp. 11-13).

This type of study broadens the scope of investigation to include not only the way that the New Testament authors draw on the Old Testament, but also the intertextual activity already at work within the Hebrew Bible. For instance, Shepherd notes that “theologians sometimes cite Rom 9:13 in support of the view that Paul is talking about corporate election rather than individual election” (p. 45). This seems to be the case when Paul quotes Mal 1:2-3, which speaks of the nations of Israel and Edom rather than individuals like Jacob and Esau. However, Paul also quotes Gen 25:23, “a text that announces both the birth of two individuals and the birth of two nations” (p. 45).

In this case, “the Malachi text is an exegesis of the Genesis text” and “Paul’s text is thus an exegesis of an exegesis” (p. 45). Because the Malachi text connects the “story of two sons” with the “history of two nations,” Paul can “move fairly freely between the election of individual and that of corporate entities” (p. 45). For Shepherd, recognizing that the author of Malachi is interpreting the Genesis narrative is critical when interpreting Paul’s understanding of the Malachi text.

Though there are many “text in the middle” examples, perhaps a more accurate general description of the nature of most of the textual case studies comes much later in the volume: “the phenomenon of inner-biblical exegesis involving three or more texts” (p. 108). In most groupings, Shepherd coordinates and considers a “constellation of texts” (p. 43).

For instance, Shepherd discusses the various ways that subsequent biblical authors understand and utilize the account of the Lord’s covenant with David in 2 Sam 7:1-17 (see pp. 122-29). Prophetic texts like Zech 6:12-13 and poetic texts like Psalm 89 and 132 allude to different features of the Davidic covenant in their messages of future deliverance. The author of Chronicles and the New Testament writers also understand Jesus’ messianic role through the lens of the Davidic covenant (1 Chron 17:1-15; Lk 1:32-33; Acts 2:30; Heb 1:5). Though in many cases like this one there is no true bridge text in the middle (as he defines it), through these examples Shepherd clearly demonstrates how frequent intertextual connections appear in all parts of the biblical canon.

This fuller intertextual awareness will enhance the study of all of the texts under review and enable readers to appreciate the intertextual nature of biblical literature. Some of Shepherd’s treatments are strikingly brief and would require further development to persuade most readers (sometimes only a few sentences for a large number of texts; the final chapter on the Writings is also only six pages). Shepherd’s discussion of methodological issues is also surprisingly condensed (pp. 1-4, 107-09).

Because his work covers so many texts, a little more reflection on the method he uses to make exegetical decisions would benefit the reader trying to keep track. Nevertheless, virtually every page brims with grammatical, syntactical, and text-critical insight. Because of Shepherd’s deep grasp of the Hebrew Scriptures and the biblical languages, his work here is an important supplement to similar works from the field of New Testament studies.

A critical reader of this volume could rightly conclude that in many cases Shepherd makes but does not demonstrate and/or explain the connection between two or more texts. While generally acknowledging this conclusion, a sympathetic reader will also recognize that Shepherd has located hundreds of intertextual goldmines and provided guidance for how they might be gainfully excavated by students, scholars, and pastors.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this work, then, is that it forces the reader to consider the textual logic of a large swath of biblical literature and offers a compelling model of close reading.

Also in Southeastern Theological Review 6.2 (Winter 2015): 236-38.

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