Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book Review: Disturbing Divine Behavior by Eric Seibert

Seibert, Eric A. Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.
pp. xii + 347. $22.00. ISBN 978-0-8006-6344-5. ★★☆☆☆

I have recently started picking up every book that I can find about divine violence in the Old Testament (a probable Master's thesis). The first, thanks to my friend Matt for lending it to me, was Eric Seibert's Disturbing Divine Behavior.

Seibert does a good job explaining the importance of thinking rightly about God (or, at least, not thinking horribly about God), citing examples of people using violent depictions of God to justify their own violent purposes. He also provides a strong case that the ways of looking at disturbing divine behavior in the OT proposed in the past are inadequate and we are in need of a new perspective.

That being said, his suggestion does not provide us with anything better. He essentially makes the case that the narratives of divine violence in the OT are not actual historical accounts, and that Israel was operating under a flawed theological worldview; furthermore, Jesus shows us who God is, and that in many ways the way Israel thought of God is simply wrong and should be rejected.

I sympathize with this view to an extent. I understand the OT as consisted of the people of Israel trying to find out who God is, formulating different theologies as they go along. To the Jewish people, Yahweh is, in many ways, a mystery; and Jesus, for Christians, solves that mystery. So while I sympathize with this aspect of his argument, Seibert's perspective has problems.

For one, he spends too much time on the historical problem. The majority of his argument is spent defending a negative view of the "historical" narratives in the OT. This fails to address Walter Brueggemann’s focus, which is undeterred by historical criticism and deals mainly with Israel’s testimony about Yahweh.(1) Or as Peter Craigie says, "although the historical reality of the wars of conquest may perhaps be removed . . ., the theological ideal remains."(2) Saying it didn’t happen does not even begin to solve the problem.

I suspect he spent so much time with the historical question because of his audience, which clearly consists of undergrads and lay people; the way he writes, and the fact that most of the book consists of introductions to concepts, attests to this. He could imagine how difficult it would be for any normal, Bible-believing Christian to face his view of OT history. If this is a true assessment of his purpose, it is hard to imagine his attempt to be successful. In many places, Seibert is far too bluntly negative to inspire Evangelical Christians. Throughout the book, he says things that most church-goers would be shocked to hear. Peter Enns, in Inspiration and Incarnation, did a good job meeting Evangelicals at their level, and gently leading them to his understanding.(3) The same cannot be said of Seibert.

This leads me to the next problem with Seibert's perspective: his view is too minimalist to be adopted by even a good portion of Christians today. Does he really expect a lot of Christians to go along with a view that outright rejects most OT portrayals of God? They would be forced to discard views espoused in the majority of their canon. Seibert's perspective rides too close to Marcionism for it to be widely accepted in churches.

Another problem with Seibert's view is that it cannot provide anything for Jewish people. I can’t imagine a Jew being okay with any of the points Seibert makes, and I find it odd that an OT scholar like Seibert displays such a lack of regard for Jewish sentiments, as he demeans the ancient Jewish testimony about Yahweh, and is definitely guilty of supersessionism.

My final problem with Seibert's book is technical, rather than ideological. I can't tell if Seibert was, for lack of a better phrase, dumbing down his language, or if he just isn't a very good writer. I don't think I've read a book in which someone repeats phrases as many times as Seibert does. Also, he often included unnecessary asides to remind the reader of something that was not in need of reminding. For example, in a small section on the incarnation, he repeated again and again that Jesus was God incarnate, God in human flesh. At one point, I sarcastically asked my wife, to whom I was reading the book, "Hey, do you think he believes that Jesus is God incarnate? I can't tell." I often felt like this. (Also, he must have had a horrible editor; the book has errors on practically every other page.)

Despite its flaws, Seibert’s book does have many strengths: his recognition of the importance of facing violent passages instead of ignoring them, as well as the importance of addressing this problem appropriately, in a way that inspires good moral behavior and a consistent theology. Also, the fact that he faces the barbaric nature of many passages in the OT, rather than pretending that they’re not as bad as they are. He also assesses well the inadequacy of several other perspectives on this issue, and is refreshingly open to the findings of OT historical criticism (although, he may be going too far). Finally, I respect the amount of weight he puts on the need for a Christocentric hermeneutic. Disturbing Divine Behavior does not provide a bad assessment of divine violence, but it does provide another inadequate explanation. While this isn’t the most well-constructed argument, nor is it the most well-written book, it certainly offers a lot of good insight on this issue, and provides an angle that, at least, needs to be on the table.

(1) See Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997)
(2) Peter Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1978), 50.
(3) Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).

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