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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Tough Questions About God and His Actions in the Old Testament" (Walter C. Kaiser Jr.)

TITLE: Tough Questions About God and His Actions in the Old Testament
AUTHOR: Walter C. Kaiser Jr
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2015, (176 pages).

Not many people like the Old Testament especially when compared with the New Testament. They talk about the violence in the book of Joshua. They mention the wars that God had instigated. How do we explain the amount of killing and bloodshed sanctioned by God? They are stumped by acts of deception and polygamy happening. They wonder whether the God of the Old Testament is the same as the New Testament. They even accuse the Bible of being not only patriarchal but devalues the role of women. What kind of freedom does the Bible espouses? These tough questions are put to one of the most recognized and renown professors of Old Testament, and former President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Dr Walter C. Kaiser Jr. In ten chapters, Kaiser covers major "tough questions" that seem to impress on people that the New Testament is to be preferred over the Old Testament. Based on their uneasiness over Old Testament teachings that appear to them as so out-of-date, so harsh, and so "negative," they have often chosen a few approaches. The Early Church had people like Marcion who puts the New Testament over and above the Old. Despite Paul's exhortation in 2 Tim 3:16, Eusebius of Caesarea created a separation of testaments into the "Old and New" that we have today. The 19th Century theologian, G.L. Bauer aimed to distinguish the Old and New Testament on the basis of "two different inspirations." When modern sensitivities are rudely irritated, some contemporary interpreters have simply divided the two testaments into the heretical OT as representing the law while the NT representing grace. In this book, what Kaiser is saying is that there is no need to separate the two, as long as we honestly address the concerns of the modern mind and the reality of God's character in both testaments. He warns us:

"To go first to the New Testament interpretation as the source for the original and final meaning of an Old Testament text, reading that alleged New Testament meaning back into the Old Testament, is methodologically flawed and wrong-headed."

The solution is neither avoidance nor careless interpretation of the OT according to our modern preferences. The way forward is to deal with the challenges head on, and to honestly look at the text and how the texts reveal who God actually is. For the author, "God’s name, character, reputation, works, and purposes were beautiful, righteous, just, fair and upright." He invites us to discover that in the midst of addressing the ten challenges, we learn exactly that.

First, is God merciful or wrathful? Addressing the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens head on, he points out the errors and fallacies of these accusations that tarnish the character of God. Such negative views come about via an erroneous comparison with modern definitions of love. Going to the text, Kaiser shows us that the Hebrew word "hesed" (loving kindness) is used far more frequently than the narratives of violence and judgment. Many have failed to grasp the righteous nature of God's anger, choosing to insert human understanding of anger into God. God is holy, just, righteous, and loving.

Second, Kaiser addresses the question of whether God is peaceful or more interested in "ethnic cleansing." The issue of genocide and killings in the Bible continues to be questioned. At the heart of the controversy is the desire to make sense of how God can be loving when He actually sanctioned the killings of the Canaanites. In response, Kaiser points out the character of God that is both just as well as merciful; how evil the Canaanites were, where they would even practice child sacrifice to their gods and all manner of incest. It is this patch of evil that if not eradicated would destroy anyone entering into the land. He gives a helpful contrast between the Islamic version of "holy war" versus the Jewish version of "Yahweh wars."

Third, he tackles the question of truth and deception. What do we do with verses that say God permitted a "lying spirit to enter" the enemies of Israel? Is God then tolerating false testimony? Kaiser works through each word definition, analyzes the philosophers both ancient and modern, before arriving at the conclusion on the basis of God's sovereignty, that if He is indeed sovereign, He must be allowed to permit whatever that He deems permissible, according to His character, His understanding of the entire world, and the mystery that might only be revealed at a future time.

Fourth, we face the question of evolution vs creation. Working through the days of creation, and studying the Hebrew behind the acts of creation, the language of the Bible fully supports the creation narrative. Kaiser is convinced that evolution theories are not supported in the Bible. Arguably, this is a controversial chapter, given that opinions are still split with regards to a literary or literal interpretation of the Bible. 

Fifth, we see an expansion of the law vs grace debate. Kaiser describes the different ways in which the law has been interpreted. There is the "Theonomy" or "Christian Reconstructionsm" that insists the OT laws are completely applicable today. The "Dispensationalists" on the other hand believe that the Mosaic law of the Old Testament are already past and not relevant anymore, like Charles Ryrie who had said "the Mosaic Law is done away." Against these two is "Covenant Theology" that stresses the laws as for those who had experienced the grace of God. Without being held hostage to any of these views, Kaiser develops his own "threefold division of the law" of 1) Justice; 2) Mercy; and 3) Faithfulness.  This is followed by a paradigmatic approach that searches for basic principles in the laws. Principles that view God's law as a gracious gift and as guidance for holiness. 

Sixth, there is a popular question about polygamy, especially among those who claim that the Bible does not specifically prohibit polygamy, other than certain leaders of the church. One can point out the examples of polygamy in the Old Testament but must also recognize the problems that come with it. Moreover, the Bible never gives explicit permission for polygamy. Kaiser goes farther by showing five New Testament passages that built on the original teaching in Genesis 2:24.

Seventh, there is the question of whether God is ruling over or battling Satan. He probes the origin of evil, the heavenly scenes, and the serpent that was mentioned in Genesis 3. The eight question is about God's omniscience, and whether God really know the future. With the rise of "Open Theism" where some theologians like John Sanders and Clark Pinnock who teach a doctrine where God does not know the future, Kaiser looks at the various interpretations of prophecies, and concludes that God knows but also has the ability to "deliberately limit his knowledge of the future" to allow free human choice. The ninth question will be of interest to those who are keen on knowing if God elevates or devalues women. With a keen eye on contexts surrounding the verses about women, Kaiser concludes that God treats women highly, and together with men, are "joint heirs of the grace of life." The final question deals with the choice of food and how much freedom we actually have. Are unclean foods ok to be eaten?

The ten questions are well thought out and debated throughout the book. There are three things I appreciate about the book. First, the issue is brought out clearly right from the start with two contrasting questions. With clarity, readers can intuitively know the issue right from the start which also allows this book to be used as a convenient reference. In this manner, readers can opt to turn to the relevant chapters without having to read the entire book. Second, Kaiser gives a fairly good explanation of the surrounding views before providing his take on the matter. It is both enriching and educational. Kaiser gives a good summary of the alternative views and guides the reader along as he develops his own. Third, the chosen issues are important ones and can be an important apologetic for those who tend to speak with disdain regarding the controversial parts of the Old Testament.

Kaiser has competently argued from Scripture that the God of the Old Testament is the same as that of the New Testament. Yet, there is much more than can be described and this book alone only manages to scratch the surface of the issues. For a book so brief that tries to cover so much material, it is near impossible to expect even the best of professors to argue comprehensively for each of them. That is why the questions are that tough in the first place. For the effort and desire to condense the issues clearly and concisely, I give this book a thumbs up. Otherwise, the issues certainly deserve a lot more discussion. This is not Kaiser's best book but sure contains pockets of brilliant argumentation. Use this book as a supplement or as a launchpad to research on these tough questions.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


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

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