Big Picture

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.