Book Reviews

Sinai and the Saints

IVP has just come out with a new book which could be very helpful to people trying to figure out how to understand the laws of the Old Testament, Sinai and the Saints: Reading Old Covenant Laws for the New Covenant Community by James M. Todd III.

IVP asked me to give an endorsement, and the first half of it ended up on the back cover.  So, I thought I’d include my full endorsement here, for any one who’s interested.

“Many readers of the Old Testament struggle to understand all those random, bizarre, strict, and oppressive laws.  What’s a Christian to do?  Start by reading James Todd’s Sinai and the Saints.  Todd offers his readers engaging stories, provocative insights, and a compelling interpretation that offers a way forward, one that makes sense of the Law, and helps people understand it in light of Jesus and the rest of Scripture.”

Here are the other endorsements that appeared on the back cover:

“The failure to understand the relationships of the old covenant to the new is probably one of the most important areas where Christians need good help–and they will receive good help here.”  – Peter Gentry, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Anyone grappling with how to approach the laws of Exodus to Deuteronomy from a Christian perspective will find this book an invaluable introduction.” – T. Desmond Alexander, Union Theological College.

I hope you can check it out.

 

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Kierkegaard: A Single Life

As we were driving down the highway recently as a family, I informed my college-age sons that a recent album (Reflektor) released by one of their favorite bands (Arcade Fire) was inspired by Soren Kierkegaard’s work, The Present Age. In his interview with Rolling Stone, band front man Win Butler speaks of how relevant Kierkegaard’s writing is today, “It sounds like he’s talking about modern times…He’s talking about the press and alienation, and you kind of read it and you’re like, “Dude, you have no idea how insane it’s gonna get.”  This quote comes from Stephen Backhouse’s new biography of the Danish Christian/existentialist/philosopher entitled Kierkegaard: A Single Life.(p. 205).

I had to read Kierkegaard as a freshman in college in my Western Civilization class (I think it was Fear and Trembling-but it’s been 36 years), and while I found some of his ideas compelling, most of it went over my head.  But over the past few decades, I’ve come across his writings in various places, perhaps most recently in Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer (see my blog and Backhouse’ discussion, p. 197), so when I saw this new biography from Zondervan, I happy picked it up.

I was not disappointed.  Backhouse is a Kierkegaardian scholar who can write for a more popular, non-specialist audience, moving easily between anecdotes of a man who life was largely tragic and encapsulations of his profound writings and philosophy.

While it took awhile for his writings to gain traction in broader circles, his impact goes way beyond Arcade Fire and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to include Franz Kafka, Karl Barth, Charles Williams (friend of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers), Thomas Merton, Albert Camus, Richard Wright, FDR, and Martin Luther King Jr (although the often-cited link between Kierkegaard and Frederick Nietzsche seems rather tenuous).  Backhouse’s final chapter detailing these influences makes fascinating reading.

Soren Kierkegaard’s goal to “reintroduce Christianity into Christendom” seem tragically appropriate today.  Here’s a journal entry, “A modern clergyman [is] an active, adroit, quick person who knows how to introduce a little Christianity very mildly, attractively, and in beautiful language, etc.–but as mildly as possible.  In the New Testament Christianity is the deepest wound that can be dealt to a man, designed to collide with everything on the most appalling scale–and now the clergyman is perfectly trained to introduce Christianity in such a way that it means nothing…How disgusting!” (p. 171-172).

Kierkegaard’s views profoundly challenge me as a seminary professor in my occupation of training “clergymen.”  God help us reintroduce Christianity into Christendom.

The King and the Land by Stephen Russell

Stephen Russell’s new book, The King and the Land: A Geography of Royal Power in the Biblical World (Oxford, 2016), discusses the various ways the rulers of Israel and Judah used geographic spaces to assert their power.   It’s an interesting look at an under-studied topic in the realm of Old Testament research.

Russell begins by examining how Solomon built his temple in a Phoenician style (see 1 Kings 5:21-28; 7:13-45), which was consistent with his pattern of expanding his power base by engaging his neighbors through intermarriage and trade.

In chapter two, he observes how Solomon’s father, David, used the purchase of the land of Araunah (2 Sam. 24) to emphasize his special relationship to YHWH, which was a common pattern among ancient Near Eastern rulers.

His third chapter looks at Jehu (near and dear to my heart–the subject of my doctoral dissertation) and his decommissioning of the temple of Baal (2 Kings 10:18-28). Russell concludes that, while Jehu’s pious deed was celebrated in the biblical record, his power was limited in comparison to ancient Near Eastern rulers.

His fourth and fifth chapters discusses how Absalom (in the gate; 2 Sam. 15:1-16) and Hezekiah (with his tunnel; 2 Kgs. 20:20) helped legitimate their power within their social contexts.

Baruch Halpern says, “Well worth reading.”  Thomas Romer declares, “A must read for everybody interested in the question of kingship in the Bible and the ancient Near East.”

Particularly for those of you who share my interests in these issues, I hope you’ll check out The King and the Land.

(I have known Stephen Russell since he was a student at Penn in the early 1990’s.)

The Historical Writings

“It sets the standard for a new generation of introductions to the Bible.”

This endorsement comes from Mark Boda (McMaster Divinity College) about The Historical Writings: Introducing Israel’s Historical Literature, which has just been released by Fortress Press, co-written by Mark Leuchter and myself.

My fourth book, not as academic as my dissertation, but more academic than God Behaving Badly, or Prostitutes and Polygamists.

Here is how it begins,

“The historical books of the Bible contain some of the best known stories of Scripture. Rahab the prostitute from Jericho helped the Israelite spies, providing vital insider information on the state of the nation (Joshua 2, 6).  Gideon the judge from Manasseh defeated the massive army of Midian with only three hundred men armed with trumpets, jars, and torches (Judges 7).  David the shepherd from Bethlehem nailed the Philistine giant Goliath in the noggin with his slingshot and chopped off his head with the giant’s own sword (1 Samuel 16).  Elijah the prophet from Gilead talked trash with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel before his drenched altar was scorched by a flame sent by YHWH (1 Kings 18).  Nehemiah the cupbearer from Susa was granted leave by King Artaxerxes of Persia to return and rebuild the wall around Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2). Manasseh the king from Judah, whose idolatry was legendary, prayed and repented from his Babylonian prison and was restored to his throne in Jerusalem.”

Then we give an overview of the less familiar and more disturbing stories, the conquest/genocide of Canaan (Joshua 6-12), the rape of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19), the cursing and hair-pulling of his country-men by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13).  How is one to understand these stories?  There there are many ways, but we’d recommend reading, The Historical Writings.

Mark and I wrote the introduction together.  I wrote the chapters on Joshua, Judges and 1, 2 Kings. Mark wrote the chapters on 1, 2 Samuel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1, 2 Chronicles.  It was a new experience to co-write a book, but Mark’s a good friend and we complement each other well.

Since it is a textbook, we were able to include a lot of extra stuff (which also makes it a bit more expensive that my last two books, $49 currently on Amazon).

There are 81 maps and images.   Art by Tissot, Poussin, Rembrandt, and many others. Images of the Merneptah stele, the Amarna letters, the Cyrus Cylinder, and many others.

There are 85 sidebars, including “The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter” and “‘Satan’ as a Cosmic Figure.”

There are 30 tables.  My two favorites are “External References to Rulers of Israel and Judah” (19 extra-biblical sources including the Kurkh Monolith, the Mesha Stele, the Black Obelisk–on the cover of Righteous Jehu) and “Seals Mentioning Names of Biblical Characters” (29 names including Jezebel, Hezekiah, Manasseh, and Jehoahaz).

The cover image is of the Tel Dan Stele which contains what most scholars consider to be the oldest reference to King David.  The letters highlighted in white on the lower right (see image here for more details) read “house of David.”  Reading from the right of the white letters, the fourth and sixth characters look like the Greek delta (triangle-shaped), that’s how the Hebrew/Aramaic letter dalet–the first and last letters of David’s name–were written at that point in time.

So, technically, there are two Davids mentioned on the cover, an author, and a king.