There are 39 books in the OT. The Bible is a unity, but how do they all fit? How does Proverbs fit with Kings? Isaiah with Chronicles? Leviticus with Ecclesiastes? Stephen Dempster, Stuart E. Murray Professor of Religious Studies at Atlantic Baptist University, New Brunswick, Canada, writes an OT theology on the final form of the canon. He reads the OT through a ‘wide-angle lens’ and looks at the overarching story of the OT.
Dempster begins the book discussing approaches to the OT made by other OT theologians (the concept of this chapter is explained in the Recommended? section below) along with his rationale for his approach, to view the OT (and the Bible) as a unity. The OT is not a ‘ragbag’ of differing themes and ideas about God, but is connected by the ideas of dominion and dynasty (or genealogy and geography). Not only this, but Dempster’s OT theology is based on the Hebrew OT, mainly the Babyonian Talmud: tractate Baba Bathra 14b [BB], saying that the details are best interpreted in light of the full text, the “Story” seen from Genesis to Chronicles. The Hebrew OT (the Tanakh) is divided into three ways, the Torah (the Law, or Pentateuch), Nebi’im (the Former and Latter Prophets), and Kethubim (Writings).
Chapter 2 gives a short summary approach to what will follow in the book. Chapter 3 covers the beginning of the story seen in Genesis and the themes that will be unrolled throughout the book. Chapter 4 continues the storyline seen in Exodus through Deuteronomy, covering Israel’s relationship with God and the Promised Land. Chapter 5 covers the Former Prophets (Joshua through Kings) dealing with gaining the land, receiving a king, and then off to exile.
Chapter 6 brings us to the storyline suspended, the poetic commentary of the earlier OT narrative, the Latter Prophets (Jeremiah to the Twelve) dealing with destruction, life, hope, and the future eschaton. Chapter 7 continues the poetic commentary with the Writings (Ruth to Lamentations) covering the return from exile, David, and being governed by wisdom. Chapter 8 ends the poetic commentary of the Writings and continues the narrative storyline (Daniel to Chronicles) which speaks of the coming kingdom of God and the end which points to the future hope. Chapter 9 is short, but it covers typology and OT connections to the NT.
The Spoiled Milk
One aspect of this volume that I’m uncertain about is why/how Dempster chose this particular reading of the OT. If you don’t already know, the Hebrew OT is ordered differently than our English OT (which follows the LXX, the Greek translation of the Masoretic text [i.e., MT, the Hebrew OT]). Yet, as stated above, Dempster follows the OT order of books according to Baba Bathra 14b. I don’t have space to write out the MT order, but in the order Dempster follows Isaiah is placed after Ezekiel, and Ruth before Psalms. What I don’t understand is why Dempster chose this order instead of the common MT order. I understand that Scott Hafemann also chooses this order, and Roger Beckwith argues for it in his book The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism. But it still strikes me as odd, especially since Dempster argues that order and placement in the canon does matter (In the English OT, Ruth is after Judges, which leads us to think differently about how it fits in the canon compared to its placement before Song of Solomon or Psalms).
However, in the end, the difference between BB and the MT seems to only be the different placement of two books, Isaiah and Ruth. For the most part Dempster’s interpretation would be similar to what it is now. And with a book like this, Dempster spends the time making connections rather than defending them (which, while interesting, would make this book much larger and not so layman-friendly). Most connections work, but some seem stretched. But really, the good far outweighs the bad.
Dempster does what many OT scholars have not done (due to their presuppositions). As he says in the first chapter, “[T]he fact remains that, of the approximately sixty biblical theologies written during the last century, there are almost as many theologies as there are theologians…. The ‘Bible’s own theology’ has turned out to be the interpreters’ own theologies” (15). Yet there is an appropriate way to read the text. We must immerse ourselves in the Bible to understand their culture, their mindset, their words.
Something that everyone’s opinion is valid, thereby making all readings of the text invalid. Taking a cue from Judges, “there was no king (no true reading) in Israel and everyone read what was right in his own eyes” (17). It’s the same with sports: “‘No matter how much the golfer with a sand wedge or cleated shoes wants to play squash, the squash court expects something else: rubber soled shoes, a squash racket, and a player who has come to play squash'” (19, quoting Seitz).
While Dempster has his own interpretation, he looks through a lens that views the OT (and the whole Bible) as one unity, a “Story,” rather than an ‘alien’ lens. And a book that looks at the thematic connections of the OT and how God’s story plays out across the ages is well worth considering. I have returned to this book numerous times when needing OT thematic and canonical connections.
- Series: New Studies in Biblical Theology (Book 15)
- Author: Stephen G. Dempster
- Paperback: 267 pages
- Publisher: IVP Academic (December 7, 2003)
- PDF Sample
- Interview with Justin Taylor from The Gospel Coalition
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Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.