For over 35 years Terence Fretheim has been exploring the theme of creation in the Old Testament. Through previously published monographs, biblical commentaries and numerous journal articles and essays, Fretheim has distinguished himself as the most prolific biblical scholar on the theology of creation, and in recent years he has come to interpret this theme as requiring an understanding of God as relationally involved with the world. God and World in the Old Testament can be considered his magnum opus, the fruit of a lifetime’s interpretive work on biblical texts, in which Fretheim brings together insights he has sketched elsewhere into a new synthesis of how the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures conceive the relationship between God and creation and the network of intra-creational relationships (especially between humans and the non-human world).
This remarkable book makes—and documents—two substantial theological claims about the Old Testament (this is Fretheim’s preferred terminology, as a Christian writer). First, Fretheim clearly shows that a theology of creation underlies the Old Testament as an indispensable foundation for its understanding of salvation and redemption. A careful reading of Scripture reveals not only that God is creator of the world before he is redeemer, but that redemption is always for the sake of creation—its healing, its fulfillment. Second, Fretheim ably demonstrates that God is not conceived in the Old Testament as immutable or unaffected by the created order; rather God has entered into genuine relationships with the world, relationships that have an important effect on God. The second claim derives integrally from the first. Fretheim’s attention to the God-creation relationship is an attempt to take seriously the importance of creation (both human and non-human) as a genuine other to God, such that what the creature does matters to God.
The book is framed by an Introduction and Conclusion. In the Introduction, Fretheim explains why the theme of creation has been under-developed in biblical scholarship. He situates the book in terms of both academic Old Testament studies and various cultural and ecclesial currents in the world. Indeed, the book is not written just for scholars. It is accessible to a wide variety of intelligent readers. The book ends with a brief Conclusion with some “implications” of a relational theology of creation. Every chapter is rich in citations of secondary literature and the book is accompanied by an author index and a scripture index.
The first main chapter, entitled “Theological Perspectives,” lays out the main theological assumptions that will guide the more exegetical discussion of later chapters. While it is often useful to sketch one’s assumptions in advance, I found this chapter somewhat schematic and less than satisfying without the exegetical discussions that constitute the chapters that follow.
These exegetical chapters, however, are superb studies of important blocks of biblical material that are worth reading and rereading for their rich insights. Indeed, they are worth assigning as required supplementary reading in biblical studies courses that cover Genesis, Exodus, the law, the Latter Prophets, wisdom literature or the Psalms.
In his first exegetical chapter, “The Creation Accounts of Genesis,” Fretheim mines biblical texts explicitly devoted to originating creation (Genesis 1–2) for the way they conceive the complex relationality of God and the world, emphasizing the significant roles given to humanity and the non-human creation vis-à-vis God. These texts set up the normative characteristics of the world and the God-creation relationship that holds for the rest of the Bible.
Having addressed Genesis 1–2, Fretheim continues the canonical order with chapters on “Creation at Risk: Disrupted, Endangered, Restored” (on Genesis 3–11) and “Creation and the Foundation Narratives of Israel” (on Genesis 12–50 and the non-legal sections of Exodus, including the narratives of deliverance and the Tabernacle account).
After that, the focus becomes thematic, with a chapter on “Creation and Law” (covering both explicit legal material and implicit law in non-legal material), followed by “Creation, Judgment and Salvation in the Prophets” (a section on judgment in the Latter Prophets, then a focus on texts in Amos, Jeremiah and Second Isaiah), “Wisdom and Creation” (focused on Proverbs 8 and the book of Job) and “Nature’s Praise of God” (which explores this theme in the Psalms).
Fretheim’s task throughout these chapters is both to demonstrate that creation is the implicit (and sometimes explicit) foundation for understanding the texts at hand and to show the way God and creation are related in these texts. One fascinating theme that Fretheim develops is the incomplete, open-ended, or—we might say—eschatologically-oriented character of creation. He shows that God is not yet finished with creation, and that this is rooted in God’s faithfulness and commitment to the world. One important place where the unfinished character of creation surfaces is in Fretheim’s marvelous study of changes in the legal corpus recorded in Scripture. That Torah is flexible or adaptable is not a new insight in biblical scholarship, but Fretheim makes this insight available to the non-specialist through pertinent exegesis and discusses its contemporary implications.
However, the prime value of this book is its clear demonstration that a coherent worldview underlies the diversity of Scripture, a worldview that unites creation and redemption, and that connects Scripture with life in the world as we experience it. This worldview is not just an oddity of antiquarian interest for scholars of ancient Israel; it is a normative, life-giving worldview for communities of faith today.
This is not to say that I find all of Fretheim’s exegesis equally persuasive. In particular, I wondered if he did not work a bit too hard at finding God’s “relationality” in Job. And I am not fully convinced by all of his theological distinctions. Nevertheless, this is a refreshing book that could invigorate biblical scholarship. And preachers or teachers of Scripture who read Fretheim along with their own careful study of the biblical text will discover many illuminating insights and could find their sermons and classroom discussions immeasurably enriched.