Rolf Rendtorff, The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament.
(Trans. David E. Orton; Tools for Biblical Study, 7; Leiden: Deo Publishing, 2005). Pp. xiv + 813. Paper, £39.95, US$59.95, €59,00. ISBN: 90-5854-020-0.
Reviewed by Stephen Dempster
Atlantic Baptist University

Rolf Rendtorff’s book is the fruit of a lifetime of research and study in the Old Testament. It does not disappoint. Rendtorff not only provides many insights into particular texts and theological themes, but he also develops a different methodological approach that highlights areas in biblical theology. The author combines the historical methodology of Gerhard von Rad and the canonical perspective of Brevard Childs. Consequently Rendtorff follows the historical outline of the text itself (in von Rad’s words “from Adam to the Son of Man”) while paying close attention to the biblical books in their final form.

The book is divided into three unequal parts: 1) a retelling of the biblical story in the canonical order of the Hebrew Scriptures (414 pp.); 2) Major Themes (301 pp.); 3) Hermeneutics of an Old Testament Theology (39 pp.). An extensive bibliography (22 pp.) and helpful indices (31 pp.) complete this finely produced volume.

In choosing the Hebrew order to structure his theology, the author shows that “the most important theological event in the second half of the century is Christian theology’s discovery of Judaism” (p. 740). He believes that Christians have frequently hijacked Israel’s Bible and imposed upon it their own alien categories. (B. Childs, who helped inspire Rendtorff’s approach, is also the target of his criticism at times [p. 755]). The arrangement of Israel’s Bible—the Law, Prophets and Writings—is viewed as providing a natural interpretive framework for communicating Israel’s understanding: God’s action (Law), God’s speech (Prophets), and Israel’s response (Writings). Rendtorff thus uses this structure to provide the outline for the retelling of the biblical story (Part 1), the presentation of major themes (Part 2), and the content for many methodological reflections (Part 3). Rendtorff seeks as much as is possible an “inside” view of Israel’s theology, an emic versus an etic viewpoint.

With little orientation, Rendtorff begins with the biblical story-line and the resulting insights come from a mind that is attuned to the developing story as well as the completed one. The reader learns that Abraham is directly encountered by God in Genesis 18 in a way that has not happened since the Garden of Eden; the expression ha’elohim is used only once in the patriarchal narratives (Genesis 22); Israel is first described as a people by the Egyptian Pharaoh; Exodus 32 is the second time in human history that “God breathed such a radical plan of destruction”; Samuel’s call to prophecy is the first time God has entered into conversation with anyone since Moses; David is the most frequently named person in the entire Hebrew Bible; the genealogy concluding Ruth echoes those found in the patriarchal narratives. And so on. These are just a few of the insights that await the reader of Rendtorff’s book and many of them are the result of the Bible as a book, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The only issue I would have with this section is that certain books merit more treatment than others, which simply indicates the obvious—that the author is working with a principle which relegates more importance to some books. For example, the Megillot receive seventeen pages of reflection; the book of Genesis thirty-one. The marginalization of apocalyptic is shown by the scant two pages given to Daniel. This can be compared with the twelve pages given to the reconstruction movement reflected in Ezra-Nehemiah. One wonders whether a certain strand of Judaism—namely later Pharisaic Judaism—has influenced Rendtorff more than others.

In the second part of the book, Rendtorff treats themes as they emerge in their canonical order. The following themes are discussed: Creation; Covenant and Election; the Fathers of Israel; The Promised and Entrusted Land; the First and Second Exodus; The Center of Israel’s Life: The Torah; The Location of Life before God: the Cult; Moses; the Kingship of David; Zion; Speaking of God; Israel in Conflict; Prophecy; Israel at Worship and Prayer; Israel’s Wisdom; Israel, the Nations, and the Gods; How Does Israel View Its Past? What Does Israel Expect in its Future? Rendtorff is able to bring the various voices of scripture together with these important themes. Thus in dealing with creation, the statements in Genesis are dealt with along with those of the Psalms and Isaiah 40–55, but because of their canonical priority, the Genesis passages are given more profile. Some sub-themes of creation are highlighted while others are omitted. For example, there is a focus on the full equality of the sexes while surprisingly little attention is given to ecology. Major themes are also omitted, perhaps because of the Jewish emphasis. The introduction of chaos and evil plays a large role in the early chapters of Genesis, and in other portions of Scripture but there is no substantial discussion of these concepts. Some of the thematic sections are also uneven. Israel’s worship and wisdom receives four pages in total, while the Torah has 30 pages. Thus it is clear that while Rendtorff has followed his mentor, von Rad, in eschewing a centre for Old Testament theology, it does not mean that all themes are equal.

The last section of the book should have been placed at the beginning, for here Rendtorff sets out his method and how it contrasts with others while also dealing with the topic of a Jewish versus a Christian theology. This material would have functioned as an excellent orienting introduction to the book as a whole. Rendtorff argues that contrary to the views of some, Jews are really interested in biblical theology just not the Christian variety “with its efforts to systematize and unify the polyphonic voices of the Hebrew Bible and of its interpretation of OT statements in the context of Christian theological schemes” (p. 745). There follows a discussion of terminology for The Old Testament, namely “First Testament,” “Hebrew Scriptures” and “Israel’s Bible.” As evident in the book’s title, the problem of terminology is never fully resolved.

Rendtorff’s ambivalence about terminology carries over into the discussion of biblical theology. Perhaps some would argue that Rendtorff has already laid his cards out on the table by specifically not treating the New Testament. Yet as a Christian scholar he at least needs to consider the relationship between the Testaments. Rendtorff emphasizes both continuity and discontinuity: continuity is reflected in the long and variegated revelation reaching its climax in Christ; discontinuity in that long and variegated process itself. In my judgment, Rendtorff stresses the discontinuity more, specifically distancing himself from Childs, who sees the importance of seeing the Old Testament in the light of the New.

This “discontinuity” perspective thus has to leave areas of tension in the Old Testament unresolved. One such tension runs through Rendtorff’s theology like a connecting thread, namely the tension between God’s Torah and justice and God’s mercy and grace. Thus Rendtorff remarks about Israel in the wilderness: “The book of Numbers is dominated by the tension between divine commandments which Israel received on Sinai and Israel’s constantly reemerging inability to live up to these commandments…[consequently both are revealed] in the punishment of God and the longsuffering of God with which in the end he keeps to his covenant and does not reject Israel” (p. 73); “Repeatedly, and in quite different contexts, the Hebrew Bible emphasizes that despite everything Israel does, and despite all the punishments that he will visit upon Israel, God will keep to his covenant, remember and not forget it.” (p. 76, cf. pp. 272, 634, 689). But when does this triumph of mercy over judgement come about? Moses staves off the inevitable in the Torah; the prophets cannot intercede for Israel in the judgments that befall the Northern and the Southern Kingdoms. Later Rendtorff makes the point in Deuteronomy that Israel will be unable to live unless it keeps the divine Torah. But that is precisely the problem even though a passage in Deuteronomy 30 suggests that it is an easy thing to keep the Torah (30:10–14) (pp. 683–84). Rendtorff makes the suggestion that Deuteronomy 30 here refers to the fact that this is possible when the heart will be circumcised in the last days (cf. Jer. 31:31). This of course sounds very much like the New Testament, but it is a tension never fully resolved in the Hebrew Bible.

Rendtorff’s theology with its stress on discontinuity between the Testaments probably does not emphasize enough the discontinuity that exists at points within the Hebrew Bible itself. For example, the prophets are regarded as commentary on the Torah (p. 660) but more might be said about their radical newness which exceeds the boundaries of their inherited traditions.

Overall this volume is a learned and fascinating study. Despite the criticisms above, in my judgment, this is one of the best Old Testament theologies ever written. It attempts to give more of an “inside” view of the Hebrew Bible, presenting themes in the context of the story of ancient Israel.

The errors in such a voluminous work are kept to a minimum. That the nation of Israel was (always) viewed as the suffering servant in Jewish tradition (p. 194) is not quite true; the Targum of Isaiah and the LXX suggest a Messianic figure. There are a number of typos and mistakes which should be corrected in another edition of this book: Here is a short list: