Erhard Gerstenberger is a familiar name in OT scholarship. Some of us may remember matching his name to words like “Sippenweisheit” and “apodictic” on an exam somewhere long ago and far away. Gerstenberger has long insisted that wisdom and law should be conceptualized not simply in national and monarchical terms, but also (and primarily) in terms of family and village and clan and tribe. For decades he has stood in the vanguard of those European scholars responsible for making older European work on wisdom and law accessible to newer generations of biblical scholars—and for this we all stand in his debt. His Theologies in the Old Testament, however, is not so much a magnum opus as a reworked collection of sociological/anthropological reflections.
In this book sociology persistently trumps theology. So focused is it on the sociological approach, in fact, it often leaves the impression that the social sciences alone are sufficient for conceptualizing and bringing to life the Old Testament’s pulsating theological core. The overall thesis appears on page 163: “Social structures are extraordinarily important for religion, whether this is lived out or reflected on. Consciously or unconsciously, faith relates to the institutions, roles, and balances of power in society and is also shaped by them.” While such a thesis is at one level true, and while it is sometimes necessary to use social science research to correct the sort of conservative confessionalism which too often substitutes for serious theology, one also needs to critique the presuppositions upon which the social sciences are based.
Yet such a critique is lacking in this book. In the book’s discussion of divine revelation, for example, Gerstenberger does not simply define the concept of divine revelation—he redefines it in naturalistic categories. For Gerstenberger, “revelation” has to do with biblical writers’ attempts “to present their theology and ethic as “ ‘old,’ ‘well tried,’ and ‘objective’; not as produced by themselves, but with the label ‘revealed’ ” (p. 279). He thinks “the biblical reports” of the Exodus are “exaggerated by faith” and “virtually unusable for reconstructing the history of Israel” (p. 112). This modernist skepticism continues into the book’s discussion of historiographical concerns. For example, Thorkild Jacobsen has made a serious attempt to conceptualize ancient Near Eastern religious history by dividing it into periods: a focus on nature deities (3rd millennium), a focus on national deities (2nd millenium), and a focus on personal deities (1st millennium). Yet Gerstenberger argues the other way, insisting that “the creative, practical ‘theology’ of the families of the ancient Near East … has to be seen as the source and inspiration of the later, wider notions of faith” (p. 61). Why this thesis is preferable to Jacobsen’s is never argued, simply asserted, and this is not an isolated example of Gerstenberger’s preference for assertion over argument.
Sometimes these assertions are embarrassingly parochial—that is, possessing their own logic, but isolated from and dismissive of other discussions. When Gerstenberger discusses the history of the monarchy, for example, he makes no attempt to engage the historical work of B. Halpern on The Constitution of the Monarchy (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981) or the fascinating literary possibilities raised by Stuart Lasine in his work, now summarized in his Knowing Kings: Knowledge, Power and Narcissism in the Hebrew Bible (SBL Semeia Studies 40; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001). Even the sociological work of L. L. Grabbe (Priests, Prophets, Diviners, Sages [Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1995] 20–40) finds no conversation partner here.
Thus Gerstenberger sometimes draws conclusions which look more idiosyncratic than persuasive. For example, in his zeal to “prove” that contemporary Old Testament theology has forgotten and ignored “the small, the familiar and the near” in order to overemphasize “the wider society and the state,” he rightly criticizes Wallis for overemphasizing the latter in lieu of the former (p. 87, citing G. Wallis, “ ‘ahab,” TWAT 1.105–208). Yet the deeper question has to do with the text’s religio-historical context. Instead of examining, say, the notion of “love” (or “justice” or “covenant”) in the Canaanite, Anatolian, and Mesopotamian literature, then interpreting the Hebrew literature against this known literary-historical context, Gerstenberger simply attacks any and all theologies which (in his opinion) slight the “small” world of family and village for the world of “the state.” As W. Brueggemann pointed out in his remarks at the 2002 SBL meeting in Toronto, this preference for Gemeinschaft over Gesellschaft smacks more of “romantic idealism” than balanced theology.
In many ways this book reads more like C. Barth’s God With Us: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) than, say, W. Brueggemann’s magisterial Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997). Barth’s book was written “on the field” (Indonesia); this book was also written largely “on the field” (Brazil), and both books suffer from a lack of depth and focus. Both books keep dialogue with other viewpoints to a minimum, and not just in matters of history and theology and comparative ancient Near Eastern studies. Theologies in the Old Testament even ignores much recent work on the sociology of Israel, like V. Matthews and D. Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993) and the very important essay by F. M. Cross, “Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel,” in From Epic to Canon (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1998), pp. 3–21.
Still, much of this volume is valuable and relevant and highly applicable (even eerily applicable) to contemporary theological debate. To the tendency among historical minimalists to eliminate the word “premonarchical” from all scholarly discourse, for example, Gerstenberger scoffs: “Must the recognition that “evidently the OT is not a source of history at all in the ordinary sense of the word” (citing Lemche) prevent us from wanting to take into account the period before the origin of the monarchy? I believe that the opposite is the case … for states do not simply drop down from heaven” (p. 116). To the ham-handed way many theologians and politicians deal with international problems of violence and terrorism, Gerstenberger responds with a refreshing even-handedness:
In many parts of the world ethnic, cultural and religious minorities are being oppressed and their existence is threatened … Any use of violence, even by the marginalized and oppressed, has evil consequences for those not involved … Probably there is no case in which terrorist attacks on the public can be approved … but if no democratic means are available by which an oppressed and threatened minority could improve its situation … then acts of resistance like boycotts, strikes and campaigns extending to armed battle must be considered. Minorities have the right to call for their independence (p. 158).