Monday, April 14, 2014

The Textual World of the Bible, Book Review

Title: The Textual World of the Bible
Author: Michael B. Shepherd
Publisher: Peter Lang, 2013
Price: $70.95 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 130
“The Bible is the real world.” 

With this provocative claim, Michael Shepherd begins this volume. Shepherd understands biblical theology to be the “theology of the Bible and its representation of reality” (p. 1). The biblical authors are “in the business of world making,” Shepherd argues, and “they insist that theirs is the only real world” (p. 1). Shepherd’s aim in this work, then, is to grapple with the way the biblical authors themselves grapple with other “biblical authors’ representation of reality” (p. 1).

One of Shepherd’s primary contentions is that the theological freight of the Bible is a feature of the texts themselves. In this regard, “an explanation of the composition of the text in its present shape is at the same time an explanation of the Bible’s theology” (p. 1). Considering biblical theology to be “exegesis done faithfully” (p. 2), Shepherd seeks to uncover the compositional strategies that the biblical authors use to communicate their theological message. To this end, Shepherd selects intertextually rich passages that include “biblical-theological summaries” of previous biblical narrative.

The structure of his book follows the canonical location of the texts he exposits. Shepherd identifies biblical-theological summaries from the Law (Deut 6:20-25; 11:1-17; 26:5-9), the Prophets (Josh 24:1-15; Judg 2:1-5; 6:7-10; 10:11-16; 1 Sam 12:6-17; Jer 2:1-13; Ezek 20; Amos 2:6-3:2; Mic 6:1-8), the Writings (Ps 78; Pss 105-106; Pss 135-36; Neh 9), and the New Testament (Acts 7; 13:13-41; Heb 11). Though these passages have often been understood in terms of tradition history or “salvation history” (Heilsgeschichte), Shepherd argues that these texts present themselves as exegetical in nature.

In his succinct interaction with these strategically chosen passages, Shepherd highlights each author’s own highlighting of key events and texts in Israel’s past. The biblical writers, he argues, proclaim the Word of God by composing interpretive portrayals of significant events that have already been interpreted by previous biblical authors. For instance, Shepherd observes that when the prophets rehearse Israel’s history, they typically forefront God’s faithfulness in the exodus and also the people’s unfaithfulness following the giving of the Law at Sinai (e.g., pp. 26-27). For Shepherd, this accords with the Pentateuch’s own interpretive commentary on these events. In this sense, the prophets and poets of Israel are providing an “exegesis of an exegesis” (see e.g. pp. 1-2, pp. 16-17, p. 28).

Shepherd argues that this textual feature is crucial because these strategic passages help shape the larger context of the biblical canon. In this way, the biblical writers provide guidance for biblical readers in understanding the nature and significance of the overarching storyline of the biblical narratives. This theological and text-immanent context, in turn, functions as “the framework of the real world into which the reader must fit” (p. 2). The specific shape of the biblical canon is therefore enduringly relevant to the life of readers seeking to affirm the authority of God’s Word and submit to its claims on their lives (see pp. 87-94).

One strength of this volume is Shepherd’s laser focus on the particular textual pattern of subsequent texts summarizing and interpreting previous biblical narrative. Shepherd’s first chapter provides a helpful overview of the way images of specific events (e.g., creation, flood, exodus, exile) are interpreted and portrayed by the biblical authors in order to describe the past, present, and future of Israel and the nations. The biblical authors, in this sense, set their understanding of the world within the framework generated by the biblical narratives. More specifically, they represent reality through “a pattern of figuration based on the sequence of events narrated in Genesis-Kings” (p. 1). 

This feature, Shepherd posits, is “what makes the very fabric of biblical historiography and prophecy” (p. 5). Shepherd’s work thus furthers the hermeneutical discussion regarding the nature of biblical narrative in general and the interpretive value of these intertextually rich biblical-theological summaries in particular.

This focus, though, also means that the volume is highly selective. For example, Shepherd’s discussion of the New Testament is unfortunately abbreviated. In a volume that highlights the manner in which subsequent authors make use of the “textual world” generated by the narratives of the Old Testament, the brevity of Shepherd’s discussion of the Gospel narratives is disappointing. He notes that the Gospels are like “theologies of the Hebrew Bible in narrative form” (p. 83) but does not expand on this promising notion. Further, in the chapter on the New Testament, Shepherd devotes only four pages (83-86) to exposition of Acts 7, Acts 13:13-41, and Heb 11 (Paul’s letters and Revelation are only mentioned in passing).

Consequently, a more accurate title might be “The Textual World of the Hebrew Bible.” In this vein, Shepherd’s systematic reflections and “practical implications” (pp. 87-94) are insightful but take up more than half of the last chapter and would function better as a conclusion following an expanded section on the New Testament.

Readers convinced of Shepherd’s overall approach to the narratives of the Old Testament will miss further development of these New Testament passages. An important feature of Shepherd’s end game in this volume is the training of “more textually-oriented church members” (p. 88) who recognize the hermeneutically rich terrain of the biblical narratives and read with eyes adjusted to this textual topography.

Shepherd has clearly not mapped the bulk of the Bible’s textual world, but he has successfully opened up a number of promising paths into this area of study that sojourners seeking to inhabit this world will heartily welcome.

Also in JETS 57.1 (March 2014): 149-50.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Ezekiel: The Priest who became a Prophet

Five years into the Babylonian exile, "the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest" (Ezek 1:3). For Ezekiel, his training as a priest must have prepared him to translate the vision that he sees by the river in Babylon.

Christopher Wright reflects on the "radical theocentricity" (God-centeredness) of Ezekiel's message:

We may, of course, trace this characteristic of Ezekiel to the impact of his phenomenal vision by the Kebar Canal, when he was overwhelmed by 'the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord' (1:28).

Even for a trained priest, familiar with the theophanic ambience of the temple, the experience left him shattered and virtually paralysed for a week (3:15). However, when God touched and summoned Ezekiel through that amazing vision, he was breaking powerfully into a life and an intellect already thoroughly shaped by the centrality of Yahweh that was intrinsic to Israel's covenant faith and the very raison d'ĂȘtre [reason for being] of Israel's priesthood.

We may be sure that the encounter at the water's edge transformed what may have been for Ezekiel a matter of intellectual worldview and professional training into the most intensely personal and experiential core of his whole life and identity.

Recognizing his training as a priest, we now can consider the "theological shock" that he must have experienced by witnessing the fall of Judah, by being taken to Babylon, and finally by being called by the Lord to speak against the institution he had been trained his whole life to guard with his life, the Temple!

He must now convey "the Word of the Lord," a word with the Temple and its priesthood directly in the path of its bullseye.
So while we can value all the positive contributions that Ezekiel's education and training as a priest brought to his prophetic ministry, we must also appreciate the immense personal, professional and theological shock it must have been to him when, in his thirtieth year, the year he ought to have entered on his ordained priestly career, God broke into his life, wrecked all such career prospects, and constrained him into a role he may himself have viewed with considerable suspicion—the lonely, friendless, unpopular role of being a prophet, the mouthpiece of Yahweh.

No wonder the anger and bitter rage to which he honestly confesses disoriented and overwhelmed him for a full week (3:14-15). God would use all that he had built into Ezekiel's life during his years of preparation, but he would use it in radically different ways from anything Ezekiel had ever imagined.

Such is sometimes the way of God with those whom he calls to his service.
—Christopher Wright, Message of Ezekiel, 23, 27.

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Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Mark of a True Prophet: Holy Fear

Speaking of the vision that Ezekiel sees by the river Chebar in Babylon (Ezek 1-3):

This was the setting for his commission to prophesy, and from it he carried with him through the whole of his ministry a sense of awe and holy fear. It is the true prophet's hallmark in every generation.

The false prophet can chatter glibly about God, because he has never met Him. The man of God comes out from His presence indelibly marked with the glory of his Lord.
—John B. Taylor, Ezekiel, 41.

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

Drudgery is Part of the Cost of Discipleship

Calling transforms things by reminding us that drudgery is part of the cost of discipleship.

No one has written on this more persistently and bluntly than Oswald Chambers. Repeatedly he hammers home the point that "drudgery is the touchstone of character."

We look for the big things to do—Jesus took a towel and washed the disciples' feet. We presume the place to be is the mountaintop of vision—he sends us back into the valley. We like to speak and act out of the rare moments of inspiration—he requires our obedience in the routine, the unseen, and the thankless. Our idea for ourselves is the grand moment and the hushed crowd—his is ordinary things when the footlights are switched off.
—Os Guinness, The Call, 190.

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Friday, April 04, 2014

When Learning Greek Isn't Enough

I like Andy Crouch's reflection on his initial motivations and initial disappointments when learning Greek (in his latest CT editorial).

He tells the story of how in High School he interacted with a missionary named Dan who knew Greek and helped him grow in biblical knowledge. So, Andy learned Greek in part because he wanted to by like Dan. His first realization was that NT Koine Greek is not the same as Classical Greek. He continues:

More disturbing, while my facility with Greek was growing fast, my spiritual life seemed to be changing far too slowly. Perhaps most alarming was realizing that much of the New Testament was far too easy to translate. When Jesus says, "Take up your cross and follow me," what that means in the original Greek is—well, "Take up your cross and follow me." It was not understanding the meaning, but obeying it, that was hard.

My adolescent self had latched onto something Dan carried—his well-worn Greek New Testament—as a substitute for what I was really looking for. Dan was a follower, who invited us kids into a deep and real conversation about following. He was not just a student. He was a disciple.
Andy draws his reflection to a close by noting:
Information is not formation. And the real heart of the Bible is in its plainest texts, which are both the hardest and the best. To truly understand them, you don't need just a database. You also need a Dan.

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Imitating our Heroes who Imitate The Hero

Hebrews (12:2):

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.
Paul (1 Cor 11:1):
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
Father Zossima (Brothers Karamazov 1.6.2):
What is Christ's word without an example?
Guinness (The Call, 81):
Modeling—observing and copying—is vital to discipleship because of the biblical view of the way disciples must learn. There is always more to knowing than human knowing will ever know. So the deepest knowledge can never be put into words—or spelled out in sermons, books, lectures, and seminars. It must be learned from the Master, under his authority, in experience. When we read in the Gospels that Jesus chose twelve men "to be with him," their being with him was not some extra privilege they enjoyed. It was the heart and soul of their discipleship and learning.

We grow through copying deeds, not just listening to words, through example as well as precept, through habit and not just insight and information. Calling therefore creates an ethic of aspiration, not just obligation.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Glory as the "Intrinsic Weightiness" of Yahweh

Commenting on the call to worship in Ps 29:1-2:

The glory of Yahweh speaks of his honor or eminence, and also of his awesome visible manifestation.

Glory, then, is the intrinsic weightiness of Yahweh, which serves as the factual basis for the response of praise to which he is rightfully entitled.
—Dan Estes, Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms, 160.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Perfect Office

My inner introvert is drooling over this dream space, a perfect private library.

The architect had three simple requests from his client:
  • A Table 
  • A Place for Books
  • Peace
What more could you ask for?

He chooses to build the library right at the edge of an open field, where the primary workspace overlooks the woods and actually juts out into them, surrounded by the trees and the field. As he articulates it, the building was designed to be "a framework to experience what's here." The entrance to the library is through a simple door, an "enigmatic presence" when viewed from a distance.

The architect envisioned going to work as a journey, the end of which was a sort of "arrival." Fittingly, the video has her begin to read Homer's Odyssey as soon as she sits down. For her, the arrival is not an end, but a beginning.

The journey to this place enables an arrival at a space which embodies departure into story-lines a world away. 

What a perfect architectural metaphor for the task of writing and creativity. The design of the building embodies the writer's endgame: You take up the written word and push it as far as it will go into the thicket of meaning.

Making your way through the tangles, you glance back to catch a fading glimpse of yourself: perched, at peace, but nevertheless lingering on the threshold. 

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Book of Judges as an Illustration of
Joshua's Insight

One interesting feature of Joshua's farewell speech in the book of Joshua is its surprising pessimism. He urges the people to remain faithful to the covenant, the people respond positively, but then Joshua dampens the mood with a pessimistic mood that seems overly dour: "You will not be able to serve the Lord . . ." (Josh 24:19). In this way, Joshua's final speech echoes the somber tone of Moses' final speech at the end of the Pentateuch (Deut 27-33).

For the people of Joshua's day, these words serve as a stern reminder about the immediate consequences of disobedience in the land; For readers of the book of Joshua, Joshua's last words both sum up the preceding narrative and lay  the groundwork for the very next book of Judges, where "there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel" (Judg 2:10-11). This generation "did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served Baals."

In this light, Joshua's last words gain interpretive significance. At the end of the Book of Joshua, Joshua himself prepares the readers for what they will encounter in the Book of Judges.

Chris Miller draws out the significance of this element for the period of the Judges:
Just before Joshua died, he warned the people three times to get rid of their foreign gods in order to properly serve Yahweh (Josh 24:14-24). Three times the people responded that they would indeed serve Yahweh, but, conspicuously, they never agreed to give up their idolatry. Their silence in the matter was deafening, and the story of Judges displayed Joshua's insight into the tendencies of his people. Instead of destroying the pagan culture of Canaan, they absorbed it and became just like the nations around them, losing their unique identity as the people of God. . . Ultimately, the problem was Israel's lack of faith and not the power of the opposition.
—Chris A. Miller, "Judges," What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About, 187-88.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Mistaking the Blessings of the Covenant for the Requirements of the Covenant

The Message of the Prophetic Literature:

In approaching the question of the central message of prophetic literature, we should begin with the understanding of the prophets as messengers of the covenant God. Sent to a disobedient people, they were like modern-day revivalists, calling the people back to the faith of their fathers, the faith of the covenant promises to Abraham, Moses, and David. Thus they were not so much innovators as revivalists.

In their day, the people of the covenant had largely failed to keep its commands. They had fallen away from God and his covenant. The problem that the prophetic literature faces is that Israel did not realize or did not want to realize that they were living in apostasy.

They had mistaken the blessings of the covenant (God's presence in the Temple) for the requirements of the covenant (their own obedience). Rather than returning to the Lord in repentance and in obedience to his law, the people presumed upon God's presence among them saying, "Is not the Lord in our midst? Calamity will not come upon us" (Mic 3:11; cf. Jer 7:1-7).
—John Sailhamer, NIV Compact Bible Commentary, 362.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Isaiah as a Summary of Biblical Theology

There is no other book in either Testament which comprehends the whole of biblical theology so completely as does Isaiah.

Here the terrifying holiness of God is depicted as clearly as it is anywhere in the OT, but also the unchanging grace of God is depicted as clearly as it is anywhere in the NT. Thus in many ways the book of Isaiah offers a summary of biblical theology.
—John Oswalt, "Isaiah," New Dictionary of Biblical Theology217.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Review of NBA Jam: Tournament Edition

I recently realized an omission in my Amazon Reviewer profile: I had never reviewed NBA Jam.

Accordingly, below is my attempt to remedy this malady, to close this gaping whole in my scholarly portfolio, to contribute valuable critical engagement on a cultural artifact of utmost importance in a timely and cogent fashion:

Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars NBA Jam = Heating Up!February 11, 2014
Are you kidding me? NBA Jam speaks for itself. I.e., It's on Fire.

The graphics will have you BoomShakalaka-ed with stunning rapidity.

No lag-time, only hang-time with this gaming experience.

If you're not still using a SNES system, then you've put up a brick, and you need purchase a ticket for a magic carpet ride: Destination = DownTown!

PSA, if you play this game, expect to be razzle-dazzled for the duration of your flight to funky-town.

As I said, enough said.

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