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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"This Strange and Sacred Scripture" (Matthew Richard Schlimm)

TITLE: This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities
AUTHOR: Matthew Richard Schlimm
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015, (272 pages).

Some people call it the "Hebrew Bible." Others call it the "First Testament." Unfortunately, both usages have problems. Not all the books were written in Hebrew because there were some whose origins were Aramaic. Calling it the "First" testament is also incorrect as it may cause confusions about origins among many. In order to avoid calling it anything that would place it under the same category of the Book of Mormons, author and Associate Professor of Old Testament at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary chooses to keep the title "Old Testament" and to help us explore and to wrestle with issues. Issues like how modern minds can interact with odd events in the OT. How do we make of:
  • A Talking snake?
  • Abraham having multiple wives?
  • Lot's incest relationships with his daughters?
  • Why is the eating of pork forbidden?
  • Violence and warfare?
  • Why God judges Israel and also loves the Jewish people?
  • Harsh judgments and killings in the Old Testament?
  • Difficult ethical issues?

The problem why the Old Testament are less preached upon and read is due to a lack of understanding of the issues and how to interpret these tough matters. At the heart of the book is to see the Old Testament as a friend, not a foe. It is to see it as a neighbour and companion, not an distant text.  When we see it as a friend, we learn how it can dispel loneliness; how it is fun to be around it; useful; and it makes us better people. This perspective of seeing the Old Testament as a friend is crucial to how we view it. For so many people tend to view with suspicion the Old Testament stories. Others cut and paste passages depending on where their modern sensitivities lay. The question is: What if this friend upsets us? What then do we do about it? Schlimm gives us several tools.

First, there us the genre question where we can ask about the type of literature or passage of concern. Is it an allusion or allegory? Is it a narrative or a parable that sheds light on the main point? Is it a symbolic representation or a historical statement? However, pointing out genre characteristics is not an easy task. There are also mixed genres. This is especially so for Genesis and the creation narrative. Some see it as symbolic while others insist on a scientific or literal interpretation. Schlimm gives us the second tip: theological understanding of the texts is key. How does the narrative play into the whole counsel of God? How does it contribute to our identity, our worldview, and a way of life? The third tool has to do with making sense of the strange parts of Scriptures that are "R-rated." Make sure we know the difference between reading out from the text (exegesis) and reading into the text (eisegesis). We learn that the reality of life is involves the bad been mixed in with the good. It is also a laboratory of life to see how ethics of different kinds play in the arena. We see the world's limitations, the extent of sin, the nature of human imperfections, and God's grace in all of it. Fourth, making sense of the killings and violence involves understanding the purpose of the stories. It is not to tell us to copy exactly the character of interest. We must not simplistically imitate every little detail of what God did or the heroes did. Neither should Christians be compelled to know every answer to every question. Under the Sovereignty of God, we need to acknowledge that the stories prompt us toward humility, toward prayerfulness, and toward a commitment to keep conversing with texts that we may disagree strongly with. The author also shares with readers, Eryl Davies's five pointers are helpful when dealing with "morally problematic texts" such as Joshua 6-11.

  1. People dismissing these texts outright as "primitive and inferior" to New Testament. (Just because we don't understand it, does not mean we give ourselves permission to do away with it)
  2. Saying such texts are irrelevant today. (Just because it seems so ancient does not mean we cannot learn principles from it)
  3. Preferring other verses over the problematic ones. (Who gives us the right to rank them?)
  4. Applying only principles (Is the Bible a self-help manual?)
  5. Conversing and critiquing the texts when necessary (Davies's position)
Fifth, we have tools on gender matters. How can we affirm modern sensitivities over gender equality without compromising on the Word of God which are largely patriarchal. For Schlimm, we should not reject these texts. Neither should we mindlessly use these texts prescriptively on modern settings. Instead, we ought to "recover neglected texts" and remain with the texts as a friend. The sixth tool deals with strange laws from dietary restrictions to rituals; severe punishments to bizarre occurrences. Avoid breaking them into some simplistic "Grace vs Law" distinction as if the old had been replaced by the new. While some of us may re-categorize the laws into what are relevant now and what are not, it is far better to learn to stay with the texts to keep considering them, to keep probing them, studying them, and not become too impatient as to rush an immediate judgment.

Other tools include tackling the question of whether the law is engraved in stone and inflexible. Is the Old Testament law still essential today? What about the wrath of God? Are there many sides to truth? How do we make sense of Old Testament authority?

I am thankful for this book. Schlimm knows what it means to struggle with the difficult texts of the Old Testament. While many still verbalize their assent to the authority and infallibility of the Bible, they are still afraid to study the Old Testament as they do not know how to accept the oddities in the Bible with modern sensitivities. With this book, we have a way: "The Old Testament is Our Friend in Faith." Like friends, we do not forsake them at the first disagreement or the umpteenth argument. Neither do we cut away the friends we don't like and paste back only the friends that we like. Like friends, after we learn to journey through the rocky and pleasant terrains TOGETHER, we grow in understanding. We increase in appreciation of one another's perspective. We learn what it means to be friends. This metaphor of friendship is a really powerful way to help readers stay faithful to the Old Testament. I believe that if readers care to read this book, not only will they be given new eyes to see the Old Testament, they would be excited enough to stay with the texts, even those they strongly disagree, and to invite friends to journey with them.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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