Translating Revelation Gooder

By Garrett Best

In the last post, I briefly discussed the solecisms of Revelation. If you didn’t read the last post or want the summary version, a solecism is a grammatical irregularity in the morpho-syntax of a sentence. Revelation has the reputation of having the worst Greek in the New Testament. The book contains numerous grammatical irregularities.

One of the main debates concerning the solecisms in Revelation is whether the author intended them or not. Many have argued that that they are unintentional on the part of the author. Give him a break; Greek is not his first language they say. The irregularities are slips or instances of unsuccessful bilingualism. It happens. The author is thinking in Hebrew/Aramaic while writing in Greek and accidentally produces several grammatical mistakes.

Others have argued the solecisms are intentional. I find this to be a very provocative idea- that an ancient author intentionally employed ungrammatical syntax for a specific purpose. Today, authors and screenwriters commonly use intentional solecism. For example, the 2011 film The Help was based on a 2009 novel by that name, and the main character Aibileen Clark famously coined a popular solecism that became associated with the novel and film: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” The author employed the solecism to give the story the historical realism of the diction of an African American woman living in Mississippi in the 1960s. Kathryn Stockett knew that was grammatically incorrect when she wrote it, but she intentionally used it for a purpose. So the idea that an ancient author did something similar is not unreasonable.

Allen Callahan argued the author intentionally did violence to the language to subvert the colonizing powers of empire. G.K. Beale has argued the solecisms point to Old Testament allusions. Others have wondered if the solecisms were meant to give the document an “ecstatic” feel.

Regardless of authorial intention, the solecisms had an effect on the original recipients of the Apocalypse. Are we robbing modern day readers of having the experience of first century hearers by producing grammatically pristine English translations of Revelation?

For example, in the last post, I chose a random example from Rev. 3:12. There, I noted that John uses the nominative participle ἡ καταβαίνουσα to modify the genitive phrase τῆς καινῆς Ἰερουσαλὴμ. Because the participle is modifying a genitive antecedent, it should be in the genitive (τῆς καταβαινούσης).

Modern English translations smooth over the solecism:

  • “the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven” (NRSV)
  • “the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God” (NIV)
  • “the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven” (ESV)
  • “the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from my God.” (CEB)

You would never know there’s a solecism here. Perhaps it would be more reflective of the original text to translate it: “the new Jerusalem, that come down” or “the new Jerusalem, which coming down” to indicate the awkwardness and dissonance of the underlying Greek.

I personally am on-the-fence about Beale’s suggestion that the solecisms point to Old Testament allusions as the correct explanation for all the solecisms. I do think this might explain some (maybe many) of the solecisms such as Rev. 1:4 and 1:5. However, if Beale is even partially right, then by having grammatically correct English translations, modern day readers are missing out on a significant literary device the author has embedded within the very fabric of the Greek syntax of Revelation.

Or maybe I’m crazy and Revelation is complicated enough without adding ungrammaticality to the picture. Maybe I should just keep my crazy ideas to myself.


The Greek of Revelation

By: Garrett Best

Note: A solecism is a grammatical mistake in the morpho-syntax of a sentence (Example: “You is one of three people reading this blog.” In that sentence, ‘is’ is a solecism because the correct form would be ‘are’).

As early as the third century C.E., Dionysius of Alexandria said about the Greek of Revelation: “I observe his style (διάλεκτον) and that his use of the Greek language (ἑλληνίζουσαν) is not accurate (οὐκ ἀκριβῶς), but that he employs barbarous idioms (ἰδιώμασίν τε βαρβαρικοῖς χρώμενον), in some places committing downright solecisms (σολοικίζοντα).” (Eusebius Hist. eccl. 7.25.26-27)

In a recent monograph, Laurențiu Moț has calculated that scholars have proposed as many as 232 individual solecisms in Revelation. While the real number is not nearly that high, there are many solecisms in Revelation adding to the mystery and already complicated nature of understanding this apocalyptic work. What kind of solecisms do we find in Revelation? There are singulars for plurals and vice versa; disagreements in case, number, and gender; incorrect use of prepositions; and, incongruent use of verbal tenses and moods. Although scholars disagree as to which individual occurrences constitute solecism, all scholars agree there are many solecisms. After Moț analyses all proposed solecisms, he concludes there are 45 actual solecisms. Other scholars would identify more.

What fascinates me about the solecisms in Revelation is that for the most part, you can demonstrate the author knows how to write correct Greek, but for whatever reason uses irregular forms and constructions on many occasions.

I’ll provide two examples that demonstrate what I’m talking about:

  • In Rev. 3:12, John uses the feminine nominative participle ἡ καταβαίνουσα to modify the genitive phrase τῆς καινῆς Ἰερουσαλὴμ. Because the participle is modifying a genitive antecedent, it should be in the genitive (τῆς καταβαινούσης). The fascinating thing is that John uses the participial form of καταβαίνω five times elsewhere and in each occurrence, uses it correctly (10:1; 18:1; 20:1; 21:2, 10). In 21:2, there is an almost identical phrase as 3:12, and it’s correct. Fascinating.
  • In Rev. 21:9, John uses the genitive participle τῶν γεμόντων to modify the accusative phrase τὰς ἑπτὰ φιάλας. It should be in the accusative form (τὰς γεμούσας). The fascinating thing is that John uses the feminine participial form correctly elsewhere (4:6; 5:8; 15:7), and in 5:8 and 15:7, he uses the accusative form γεμούσας to modify φιάλας. Fascinating.

What Accounts for the Solecisms? (The main scholarly explanations)

  1. Semitic Transfer
    • There’s several different versions of the Semitic transfer explanation, but they all have in common that Greek is the author’s second (or third) language, and the solecisms are instances when his primary Semitic language (Hebrew and/or Aramaic) comes through the Greek. R.H. Charles famously wrote, “While he writes in Greek, he thinks in Hebrew” (Apocalypse, 1:cxliii).
  2. Greek Idiolect
    • Other scholars explain the solecisms without recourse to Hebrew or Aramaic since the writer was writing in Greek to Greek speakers. There are examples of the same kinds of errors occurring in other Greek literature (especially the papyri) which clearly cannot be considered to be influenced by Semitic languages. Rather than resulting from unsuccessful bilingualism, the Greek should be considered a Greek idiolect within possible 1st century Koine registers, no matter how rare it is judged to be.
  3. Anti-Imperial Rhetoric
    • Allen Callahan argued that the author seems to know how to use correct grammar which means the solecisms appear to be intentional. He argues the author was intentionally employing insurgent language. The solecisms are part of the author’s anti-imperial subaltern voice. He intentionally transgressed the grammatical rules of the colonizing power.
  4. Old Testament Allusions
    • G.K. Beale has made a provocative argument that is fleshed out in his commentary. He argues that the solecisms are meant to point to OT allusions. The irregular syntax causes dissonance which points the hearers to an OT passage. Beale takes his cue from the most famous solecisms in Revelation 1:4 and 1:5. Beale argues the solecism in 1:4 occurs because the author is alluding to Ex. 3:14, and the solecism in 1:5 occurs because the author is quoting from Psalm 89 (88 LXX). For the example listed earlier in 3:12, Beale believes the solecism is due to an allusion to Isaiah 64:1.
  5. Prophetic Ecstacy
    • A few authors have suggested that the syntax gives the document an “ecstatic” feel and thus lends credibility to John’s authority as a prophet. I have yet to find substantiation for this claim.
  6. Another Explanation?
    • In my opinion, there is more work to be done on this particular topic. Perhaps the truth is a complicated mixture of several different explanations. I don’t think the last word has been said on the solecisms of Revelation. I, for one, find the solecisms to be a fascinating phenomenon in the NT.

Stay tuned for my musings on the implications of this phenomenon for English translations.

Podcasts for Students of Scripture

Recently a friend asked me to recommend some of my favorite podcasts. Most of the podcasts I listen to are in the world of Biblical studies. Instead of just sharing with my friend privately, I thought I’d share my recommendations publicly in case anyone else is interested.

  1. Unbelievable with Justin Brierley
    • This is absolutely my favorite podcast! In each episode, Justin brings together two people (and in many episodes two reputable scholars) to debate both sides of an issue. Justin is an excellent host and most of the time the discussions are civil and informative. He has had scholars such at N.T. Wright, James D. G. Dunn, James Crossley, Gary Habermas, Tim Keller, Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, Bart Ehrman, Craig Evans, Robert Gagnon, John Walton, Craig Keener, and many others on his show. Each episode is about an 1 hour and 20 minutes long. I usually fast forward through the advertisements and commercial breaks.
  2. OnScript with Matthew Bates and Matthew Lynch
    • These guys interview recently published scholars about their research. If you’re like me and don’t have time to read all the newest books, these guys will help you out! Each interview is about an hour long.
  3. Kingdom Roots with Scot McKnight
  4. NTPod (A Historical Approach to the New Testament) with Mark Goodacre
  5. Theology in the Raw with Preston Sprinkle
  6. Word Matters with Trevin Wax and Brandon Smith
    • This podcast is sponsored by the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). Each episode is about 15-20 minutes long, and they usually tackle a thorny Biblical passage like “Who were the Nephilim in Gen. 6?” or “Why did Jesus say to hate your father or mother?”
  7. The Paulcast with Kurt Willems
    • This podcast is all about the Apostle Paul. The episodes are usually about 40 minutes long. Listening to these podcasts will give you some idea of where current Pauline scholarship is with regard to Paul in his Jewish and Greco-Roman context. He occasionally interviews published scholars and those interviews tend to be my favorite episodes.
  8. Read Scripture with Jonathan Collins and Tim Mackie
    • I LOVE what the Bible Project is about. They exist to encourage people to read their Bibles and read them well. They have developed a reading plan that includes informational videos to help you understand various texts and issues in the Bible. This podcast is just another accompanying resource to all the other great things they make available to the church for free.

What have I missed? Feel free to comment and suggest podcasts that you find helpful!


Preaching Nadab and Abihu in Lev. 10

By Garrett Best

If I ever heard a sermon on a passage in Leviticus other than Lev. 10:1-2, I don’t remember it. Since Leviticus is composed of mostly legal material that is other-worldly to a contemporary reader, it makes for difficult reading and even more difficult preaching. Leviticus has destroyed many a New Year’s Resolution to read through the Bible starting in Genesis.

In my faith-forming years, I heard many sermons that referenced the brief episode in Lev. 10:1-2. The story seemed pretty straight forward and made for a powerful point. Nadab and Abihu offered “strange” fire to the Lord “which he had not commanded them”, and they were struck down for their sacrificial violation.

The sermon illustration usually went something like this: “The Bible tells us everything we need to know about how to worship God. We should have a Bible reason for everything we do in worship. Nadab and Abihu show us the danger of disobeying God’s commands about worship. They offered ‘strange fire which the Lord had not commanded them.’ They were struck down for their improper worship. This story teaches us that we should be careful to worship God in the ways He has commanded us or we will be punished as Nadab and Abihu were.”

That illustration always affected me. I was afraid God would punish me for worshipping in a way I couldn’t back up with book, chapter, and verse.

My goal is not to question the idea that God takes the worship of his people seriously. That idea does not stand or fall with this text alone. I am questioning whether that was the primary function of this short passage and whether the sermonic illustration listed above takes the context of Lev. 10 seriously. In the remainder of this post, I want to point out a few of the complexities involved in interpreting this enigmatic episode.

A Few Questions About Lev. 10:1-2

  1. Why did they do this? There is no explanation in the text for why these brothers made this incense offering. In the preceding episode, Aaron successfully installed the sacrificial cult proscribed in Lev. 1-7, and the Lord approved of the sacrificial inauguration by sending down fire to consume the sacrifice on the altar (9:22-24). Without further explanation we are simply notified, “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD” (ESV). Did this sacrifice take place immediately after the events of 9:22-24? What motivated them to do this? Ex. 30 says there were two daily incense offerings made on the inner altar and we will learn in Lev. 16 that an incense offering was made once a year by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Is this offering by the two brothers somehow related to these two acceptable offerings?
  2. What does “strange fire” mean? The Hebrew adjective zārâ has been translated into English as “unholy fire” (NRSV); “unauthorized fire” (NIV; ESV); “profane fire” (NKJV); and “strange fire” (NASB; KJV; NET). It is used elsewhere to describe non-Isrealite people or things (i.e. “foreign”; cf. Is. 1:7; Ps. 44:20). Does the adjective indicate they were trying to introduce a pagan worship practice into Israel’s cult? Does it refer to a faulty composition of the incense (cf. Ex. 30:9)? Does it refer to the hot coals taken from a source other than the inner altar? What made the offering strange/unauthorized/profane/unholy/foreign?
  3. What does “which he had not commanded” indicate? Here, there are basically two interpretive options. First, it could be taken to mean that Nadab and Abihu violated an existing command God had given. Ex. 30 is the only passage prior to Lev. 10 which discusses incense offerings. Did they violate something in Ex. 30? Was it a command God gave which isn’t recorded in the Pentateuch? Second, it could be taken to mean that God had given no command on this issue and the brothers offered incense where there was no command. Their sin was their presumption to act where God had not told them to act. What is at stake here is determining the nature of their crime. Were the brothers guilty of willful disobedience (option #1) or were they simply ignorant (option #2)?
  4. Why are Nadab and Abihu punished for their ritual violation while Eleazar and Ithamar are not punished for their equally(?) serious ritual violation in the same chapter? Literarily, there are two sets of brothers who both commit ritual violations in the same chapter which begs for the two stories to be compared and contrasted. In verses 1-2, Nadab and Abihu are struck down for violating some command. In verses 12-15, Moses gives Eleazar and Ithamar very specific instructions about how to make an offering. He specifically proscribes which portions should be waved and eaten and which portions should be burned and offered; however, in verses 16-18 Moses is “angry” with Eleazar and Ithamar because they had violated Moses’s explicit instructions. They had burned the sin offering instead of eating it. In contrast with Aaron’s response to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu (“Aaron remained silent”; v. 3), in verse 19, Aaron speaks up to defend his two remaining sons. “And Aaron said to Moses, “Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD, and yet such things as these have happened to me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would the LORD have approved?” And when Moses heard that, he approved.” (ESV) What accounts for the fact that the first set of brothers died for violating a command about an offering and the second set of brothers were shown grace for violating a command about an offering?

Concluding thoughts:

  • Context, Context, Context- I was always taught that studying the entire context of a passage is important. I doubt any of us preachers deny this although our sermons may sometimes betray our belief. Lev. 10 is constructed literarily so that these two stories are juxtaposed. Readers/listeners are supposed to interact with both stories together in the same context. There are two sets of brothers. Both sets of brothers violate a command about a sacrificial offering. In several ways the stories are similar; however, there is an important difference. The first set of brothers die violently for violating a command concerning sacrifices and the second set of brothers do not. Since the stories are intended to be juxtaposed in this way, to take the shorter, enigmatic text as a sermon illustration while making no mention of the second, longer, more detailed text makes for ill-advised praxis especially when the second story might contradict or challenge the point you are attempting to make by using the first story.
  • Wrath with no Grace?- Let’s cut to the chase. The reason the second story isn’t preached is because it doesn’t fit into the narrative, “God will punish those who don’t follow his commands about worship.” In the second story there is no punishment for their sacrificial violation. Eleazar’s descendants go on to become the dominant priestly line in Israel (cf. Num. 3:2, 32; 20:28). Isn’t that what grace is? Forgiveness when wrath is deserved? I believe this text provides us with a wonderful opportunity to ponder and teach the mysterious juxtaposition of grace and wrath, even in a book like Leviticus filled with a preponderance of legal material. “Grace in Leviticus”- What a sermon title! I certainly haven’t figured out the grace/wrath mystery. I’m thankful God is in control of that, not me. As a faithful preacher of the Scriptures, it is my job to preach the whole text, both grace and wrath. I want to teach Lev. 10:1-2 as well as Lev. 10:3-20.

At the risk of being accused of deconstruction, I hope to share what I think Lev. 10:1-3 is doing in Lev. 10, the book of Leviticus, and the Pentateuch as a whole. Stay tuned for the second post.

Nadab and Abihu Pt. 2

By Garrett Best

In the last post, I raised several questions about the enigmatic story of Nadab and Abihu in Lev. 10:1-2. Why did the brothers do it? Why did their crime deserve such a violent death? What does “strange fire” mean? What command did they violate? The story raises more questions than it gives answers. In this post I hope to deliver on a promise I made to explain what I think the Nadab and Abihu episode is doing in Lev. 10, the book of Leviticus, and the larger Pentateuch.

If you are expecting answers to all these questions, prepare to be disappointed. After studying this passage up and down, frontward and backward, I don’t think we will ever know with certainty the answers to the “Why?” and “What?” Nadab and Abihu did. At best, we can make educated guesses. A few scholars believe that “unauthorized fire” means Nadab and Abihu took hot coals for the incense offering from a source other than the inner alter which made the heat source “unauthorized” and therefore illicit. If this is the answer, where they got the coals or why they did it still remains a mystery.

I believe the story is too enigmatic for us to know what happened exactly. Without further information, we just won’t ever know. However, I actually came to think that observation was significant. I realized that the author/editor’s interests lie elsewhere and he was not exactly interested in answering all my questions. He had his own agenda. In what follows, my thoughts are heavily indebted to James Watts’s research.

I think Lev. 10:1-3 is intentionally ambiguous for literary/rhetorical purposes. It is precisely because the story is short, enigmatic, and outrageous that it calls our attention. Leviticus is a book filled with detailed laws about the sacrificial system, but the truth is that no matter how detailed a code of laws may be, that code of laws will never be able to address every eventuality the priests would face. Inevitably, an issue would arise for which there would be no explicit instruction. This is a problem because a priest’s job is very dangerous. A mishap could result in immediate and violent death.

I believe it is precisely because of the ambiguity of the story and the danger involved in serving as a priest that the reader/listener asks, “If Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, can die so violently for violating some command, then who will be there to interpret the law so that this doesn’t happen again?!”

Here is an important point I became convinced of after studying this chapter: Leviticus 10 is more about Aaron than it is about Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, or Ithamar. The two stories which bookend the chapter are foils by which the writer/editor of Lev. 10 is trying to teach something significant about Aaron. Thus, it is important to note Aaron’s response to the death of his oldest sons.  In verse 3, the text simply says “Aaron held his peace.” He doesn’t say or do anything. Remember that.

The death of Nadab and Abihu points to the need for ritual and legal interpretation. “We don’t want to die like those two brothers for doing something wrong. Who will tell us what to do when there is a ritual ambiguity?” The short three-verse story at the beginning of the chapter sets up the question that the rest of Leviticus 10 answers.

The answer is given in Lev. 10:10-11. These key verses are the central verses of the chapter.  YHWH speaks directly to Aaron and says, “You [Aaron] are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses.”

This is significant. In Leviticus, YHWH speaks directly to Moses no less than 28 times. This is the first and only time YHWH speaks directly to Aaron in Leviticus which calls our attention to the importance of what is taking place. YHWH gives Aaron the responsibility of distinguishing between the holy and the common and teaching Israel. In essence, God is giving Aaron the responsibility for the problem that was raised by the Nadab and Abihu episode. Aaron, the high priest, has been granted interpretive authority by YHWH so that the Nadab and Abihu incident never happens to another priest.

In the second story, Eleazar and Ithamar violate Moses’s instructions about making a sacrificial offering. Stated succinctly, the brothers did not eat a part of the sacrifice Moses commanded them to eat. Again, I don’t think it’s important to dwell on the details of what they actually did wrong. I think the point is to focus on the debate that ensues between Aaron and Moses.

Moses inquires whether Eleazar and Ithamar followed his instructions. When he learned they had not eaten the portion of the sacrifice he had commanded, Moses became angry. Remember, after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu Aaron remained quiet; however, in verses 10-11, YHWH has spoken directly to Aaron and given him greater responsibility as a ruler in Israel. With his newly endowed interpretive authority, Aaron speaks up and in essence, challenges Moses on the interpretation of the law regarding this incident. Whoa! Aaron is challenging Moses’s interpretation of the law!

Moses was rightfully angry because under normal circumstances according to the laws regarding sacrifices, Eleazar and Ithamar should have eaten the portion of the sacrifice. Aaron says to Moses, “Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD, and yet such things as these have happened to me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would the LORD have approved?”

I believe Aaron is saying something like this: “Yes, Moses, if today had been a normal day, you are right to be mad that they did not eat that portion of the sacrifice, but today was not a normal day. Today, two of my sons were struck down and the laws do not provide instruction for such an unusual situation. Did not the dead bodies of Nadab and Abihu laying in the sacrificial area render all the sacrificial meat unholy? This situation was difficult so give my sons a break.”
Both Moses and Aaron are appealing to a law. Moses is appealing to the instructions given for making sacrifices and Aaron is appealing to an exception in which a dead body would render a sacrifice unholy. Both men were right in a sense. The situation was unusual and the right thing to do ambiguous. Which law trumps the other? Apparently, Aaron wins the interpretive dispute. Verse 20 says, “When Moses heard that, he agreed.” With that, the chapter ends.

Summary of what I believe is happening in Lev. 10:

Leviticus 10:1-3 highlights the need for interpretive authority in Israel’s priesthood. Leviticus 10:10-11 addresses the problem by giving Aaron (i.e. the high priest) interpretive authority. Leviticus 10:12-20 shows Aaron asserting his new interpretive authority and winning an argument with Moses over a legal matter. Lev. 10 has been constructed in such a way to show that Aaron has taken a step up the ladder in importance in Israel’s leadership. Prior to this incident YHWH only addresses Moses directly. In 10:10-11, YHWH addresses Aaron directly for the first time. After Leviticus 10, YHWH address Moses and Aaron together (cf. 11:1; 13:1; 14:33; 15:1). In essence, Aaron has been promoted to a prominent role. He has taken on the responsibility of teacher and interpreter of the law which previously had only been Moses’s responsibility. This is what I believe is happening in Leviticus 10, the larger book of Leviticus, and the larger Pentateuch. Aaron and his descendants rise to prominence in Israel’s cult. Leviticus 10 is part of that larger program of boosting the importance and authority assigned to Aaron, the high priesthood, and the Aaronic priestly line.

Want to Understand the Old Testament Better? Read This Book…

Book Recommendation by Garrett Best

Sandra Richter, Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament. IVP Academic, 2008. (233 pages)

Okay, so I’m a few years late discovering this book. I happened upon it at a Half Price Books store, but I guess better late than never.

I often hear Christians bemoan the fact that they don’t know, or better yet, don’t understand the Old Testament. Even Christians who regularly read the Bible can’t seem to understand the point of all the names, dates, genealogies, wars, kingdoms, and kings. They can’t keep all the super-powers and centuries together. Was it they Egyptians, Amorites, Moabites, Jebusites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, or Babylonians? Was it the 9th century or the 7th? And, what’s the point of it all anyway?!

Richter calls this the “dysfunctional closet syndrome”. We all have a dysfunctional closet somewhere in our lives: “clothes hanging from their hangers, accessories dangling from the shelves, shoes piled in disarray on the floor.” (18) Given her years in ministry and teaching, she has found this is a great way to express the way most Christians think about the Old Testament. We may know facts about people and dates and times, but we don’t really know how to get it in order. We know David killed Goliath, Cain killed Abel, Noah saved the animals, and David committed adultery with Bathsheba, but we don’t quite understand the point of those stories. So, we end up closing off this closet and opening it as little as possible, only when necessary.

Richter to the rescue. “My goal in writing this book, therefore, is to deal a mortal blow to the dysfunctional closet syndrome. I am convinced that the key to the problem above is order. Until a believer is able to organize what they know about the Old Testament meaningfully, they cannot use it… So my goal in this book is to provide structure. Metaphorically speaking, to pick the clothes up off the floor, get some hangers, a pole and some hooks, and help you build a closet of your very own.” (19)

What I loved about this book is that it has something for everyone, the novice and the mature Christian alike. Even if you’ve read the Old Testament before and basically understood it, there will still be gems in the book. She has included detailed footnotes for those who want to dig deeper. However, this book will be most beneficial to Christians who find it difficult to understand the basic story of the Old Testament and to understand why that story is important to new covenant Christians. Richter provides a “general law” through which to read the whole Bible and give the story some order. She traces this general law through a series of covenants God made with five different men to affect his plan of redemption for the world.

There were a few things I especially loved about this book. First and foremost, it is a book chock full of good theology. Not all theology is good theology. Richter has a knack for good, big-picture theology. She understands the grand story of the Bible and she communicates it effectively and engagingly. The book contains many charts and diagrams that aid in getting a fuller picture of the grand narrative of Scripture. You will leave this book with an appreciation of Jesus messiah as the “son of Abraham, the son of David” (Matt. 1:1) rather than the view of many evangelicals that Jesus is “my personal savior here to tell me how to get to heaven”. Richter helps us transcend these naive views with a more mature faith in Christ informed by the whole of Scripture.

Second, Richter has a way of dealing with controversial issues in Old Testament studies in a respectful and helpful way. She helps move the conversation forward without getting mired in the disagreements. Heated debates over the controversial issues have obscured us from understanding the story of the Old Testament. Was the creation in Genesis seven twenty-four hour days or millions of years? Did characters in the Bible really live to be several 100’s of years old? Did the exodus event happen at the early date or the late date? Was Noah’s flood local or universal? Richter is able to address these issues and others in a way that is respectful to those who won’t see eye to eye with her conclusions. She is able to take these “controversial issues” and show their import in the story of redemption.

Third, Richter aptly incorporates epigraphy and archaeology from the Ancient Near East in order to bring to life the world and culture of the Old Testament. Richter makes the material accessible and interesting. She certainly has the right credentials to do this. Most chapters have a section where Richter delves into the real time and real space of the people she is discussing. In order to understand the Old Testament, we must understand the culture of ancient Israel.

With any book, there will be negatives. There will certainly be some who won’t agree with some of Richter’s interpretations, but this should not take away from the overall value of the book. One shortfall of the book is that it has the ambitious undertaking of summarizing the entire Old Testament story in 233 pages. In one sense, the book falls short because no 233 page summary of the Old Testament could ever be adequate. In another sense, this book is as good a summary as could be done in such a succinct, engaging manner. Although Richter is attempting to summarize the Old Testament, there are some notable absences of important Old Testament material. I don’t recall any mention of the Wisdom Literature. How does Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or Job fit into the grand narrative of Scripture? Unfortunately, Richter does not deal with this.

Despite the shortfalls, Richter fulfills her general purpose of providing a basic framework to understand the Old Testament, and not just understanding it, but making that story our own. I am grateful for having stumbled upon this book. I highly recommend it.



A Scathing Letter To A Preacher Who Doesn’t Read

By Garrett Best

Sometimes you stumble upon gems like this from the past. John Wesley was one of the most influential Christian thinkers in Europe and North America in the eighteenth century. He was an Anglican minister who lived from 1701-1791. He is credited with beginning the Methodist Church and several other Methodist-heritage churches. His teachings were also instrumental in the formation of the holiness movement and Pentecostalism.

In 1760, Wesley wrote a letter to a preacher named John Premboth. Here is an exert from the letter:

“What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear, to this day, is lack of reading.  I scarce ever knew a preacher who read so little.  And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it.  Hence your talent in preaching does not increase.  It is just the same as it was seven years ago.  It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety; there is no compass of thought.  Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer.  You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this.  You can never be a deep preacher without it, any more than a thorough Christian.  Oh begin!  Fix some part of every day for private exercise.  You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterward be pleasant.  Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily.  It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher.  Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow.  Do not starve yourself any longer.  Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether.  Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you, and in particular yours.”

NOTE: I have attempted to trace this letter down. Apparently, it was first published in the Arminian Magazine in 1780. I encountered this letter in Ben Witherington III’s Is There a Doctor in the House? (pg. 71, 2011). It is also printed in Letters Along the Way by Don Carson and John Woodbridge (pg. 169, 1993).