Book Reviews

Book Review: God’s Messiah in the Old Testament (Abernethy/Goswell)

Does the Old Testament look forward to a divine Messiah, a heavenly Davidic King, a Godman?

Andrew Abernethy, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and Gregory Goswell, Academic Dean and a lecturer in Old Testament at Christ College, believe that “Davidic kingship must be seen in light of God’s kingship; the royal messiah in the Old Testament is God’s agent for fulfilling God’s kingdom purposes” (Preface). As they write in their Introduction, the terms “‘messiah’ and ‘messianism’…are understood to refer to the hope of the coming of a royal agent who will serve God’s kingdom purposes, an expectation that Christians believe finds fulfillment in Jesus Christ.”

Their definition of the messiah “is only one of several strands of the Old Testament expectation that leads to Jesus.” Other strands would include Jesus as ultimate prophet, the true priest, or even God himself. The authors’ focus, then, is on kingship, with there being a close relationship between Yahweh and his “anointed royal agent.” God is the King, and he anoints a human king to rule over Israel as his representative. This king acts (and shares power) alongside God’s prophets and priests. He is depicted as “the model Israelite.” One of the Psalter’s main themes revolves around kingship of both God and the human king. When Jesus bursts on to the scene in Mark’s Gospel, he proclaims that God’s kingdom is at hand.

The authors make the effort to allow each OT book have its own unique voice. They don’t want every messianic text to sound the same. The books create a symphony, and each is an instrument with its own specific voice. Yet they both agree that “the Bible as a whole provides a unified testimony to the coming of Jesus Christ, who is both the Divine King and the hoped-for Messiah.”

Many will probably be surprised at how seldom the authors see a text pointing to Jesus, or some kind of divine king. They believe that “the seed [zera’] of the woman” in Genesis 3:15 refers to humanity in general, “a battle for humans to obey God in spite of temptation.” Given that the other curses and consequences in Genesis 3:15-19 “are perpetual and long term,” the authors think it makes more sense if verse 15  refers to an ongoing issue rather than to an isolated occasion of the woman’s seed crushing the serpent’s seed. There will be a perpetual enemy between humans and evil. Victory comes when humans obey God, which results in “restored relationships with one another, God, and creation.” Rather than specifically pointing to a messiah, this text gives “hope that the sons and daughters of Eve will overcome evil.”

Some may be put off by this, but it doesn’t make sense. When Adam and Eve heard this, would they have thought of a future messiah? We see in Genesis 4 that “God has appointed for me [Eve] another offspring [zera’].” Those from Seth “began to call upon the name of the Lord.” The narrative hones in on Seth’s line and points to the hope of Eve’s offspring overcoming evil. (Noah, in Genesis 6:9, is described as being righteous and blameless.) The authors also take time in assessing other views (such as Desi Alexander’s view that Gen 3:15 refers to a “royal Messiah who would fulfill the promise to Abraham of a future king from the line of Judah.”

These two opposing views will be ones that teachers, pastors, and scholars with have to weigh to see what they believe makes the most sense of the text. The authors agree that Jesus does fulfill these texts. He is the true King who is both human and divine. The question is, in the Old Testament, who was expected to come and rule over Israel as God’s king? For Abernethy and Goswell, Genesis points to a collective people coming from Eve who will stand against evil. From Jacob comes Judah and his line of kings who play a role as God’s representatives to overcome Israel.

Jeremiah talks about future “shepherds” and a “sprout” who will come, the rebirth of the Davidic dynasty. These Davidic kings will serve God’s purposes to promote justice and righteousness. They contribute “to a set of messianic expectations rather than being messianic oracles in and of themselves.” Yet in their section Postlude: Canonical Reflections, the authors show that both ideas are fulfilled in Jesus. There is no Davidic king on the throne when Jesus comes on to the scene. Yet here is the king, Jesus, coming up like a “sprout” out of the ground, one who shepherds Israel as God would, caring for the poor, women, and children.

The final chapter looks forward to the New Testament. The authors believe that “all the Old Testament’s messianic expectations have found and/or will find their fulfillment in Jesus.” They show ways in which the authors portray Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament’s expectations, only more so by also being divine. Due to that, we see more of Jesus than we expected because “everything said about God can be applied to Jesus.” Jesus not only fulfills the expectations of the coming human Israelite/messianic king, but he is also the Divine King. He is more than what anyone expected. He does what only God can do, while his humanity is essential to his office. The OT provides a messianic mosaic. Nobody expected the Messiah to be both human and divine, as well as to suffer, die, and rise from the dead!

The authors chose to follow the Hebrew order of the OT instead of following the LXX order (which our English Bibles follow). The exception is when they place Ruth between Judges and 1 Samuel (its position in the LXX; in the Hebrew ordering it sits between Song of Songs and Lamentations). The authors exclude Joshua, Haggai, and Ezra-Nehemiah because they don’t see anything strictly “messianic” in there (per their definition of messianism). Aside from the Psalms, the Wisdom books don’t receive their own chapter either.

Recommended?

This book wasn’t what I initially expected, but I found it to be well-argued, enlightening, and a great read! On the one hand, the Bible is one book. Yes, Jesus fulfills Genesis 3:15. And when God spoke that to Adam and Eve, he knew Jesus would crush the enemy! But that doesn’t mean that the text doesn’t also refer to a collective group fighting evil until the faithful Israelite, the faithful man came, obeyed God perfectly, served and loved those around him, suffered under evil, and conquered it through his death and resurrection. As I said above, teachers and pastors (and hopefully scholars) should get this and wrestle with the arguments.

Lagniappe

Buy it from Amazon or Baker Academic!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic and NetGalley. 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.

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