God and Earthly Power: An Old Testament Political Theology Genesis–Kings
J. G. McConville, professor of Old Testament Theology at the University of Gloucestershire, is well known for his work in the Old Testament’s primary history, particularly Deuteronomy. As stated in the preface, this particular volume was formulated out of a dialogue with Professor Oliver O’Donovan of Oxford University over the topic of ethics and politics in the Bible.
God and Earthly Power “aims to contribute to a discussion of how the Old Testament might be understood politically, both in its own terms and in relation to the modern world” (p. 1). It contains ten chapters, including two chapters devoted to methodological concerns, as well a concluding chapter. McConville’s argument is developed in the seven central chapters: (3) Genesis, (4) Exodus–Numbers, (5) Deuteronomy, (6) Joshua, (7) Judges, (8) 1 and 2 Samuel, and (9) 1 and 2 Kings. The book concludes with a nine page bibliography, and three useful indices: biblical references, subjects, and authors.
In chapter one, McConville sets forth his methodology against a backdrop of various approaches to reading the Old Testament. Acknowledging that dating the Old Testament is “approximate and provisional” at best (p. 7), the author nonetheless argues for a reading that takes into account the entire context in which it was likely produced. This is what he calls the [End Page 401] world behind the text. Another hermeneutical step involves reading of / within the text. Most readers would recognize this as understanding the literary context. Recognizing the debate involving the Tetrateuch, Hexateuch, and the Deuteronomistic History, McConville identifies Genesis– Kings as a singular literary unit. Finally, the world in front of the text takes into account the various inherent uses and abuses for readers of all generations.
Chapter two begins with a critique of modern pluralistic readings of the Old Testament, which tend to find monotheism “exclusive and repressive” (p. 12). Although McConville questions the usefulness of the term “monotheism,” he argues that Deuteronomy, with its insistence on obedience to Yahweh alone, “is a dominant religious programme which has silenced other voices, and repudiated diversity” (p. 18). At the heart of this exclusivism was Yahweh’s one-ness, which lies behind the polemic against iconism. Yahweh could not be represented in idols, but in humanity (Gen 1:26). In this chapter, McConville demonstrates his familiarity with the cognate literature, showing how the primary history of the Old Testament contrasts starkly with the worldview represented in Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, and Egypt.
The thrust of McConville’s argument is expressed in chapters 3–9. Here he attempts to demonstrate his thesis that the primary history (Genesis– Kings) “places Israel in relation to the other nations. Israel is at once with, separate from, and for the other nations” (p. 31). At the crux of this argument is the assertion that several common theological threads weave through the narratives. Among these threads are creation, land possession, and justice-righteousness.
According to McConville, “Creation is not in one category while history, politics and salvation are in another. Rather, salvation is restoration of how things ought to be” (p. 32). This restoration is manifest in Yahweh’s interest in all of humanity bearing the image of God, as well as in “the Old Testament’s assertion of the unrivalled power of Yahweh in the cosmos” (p. 55). Yahweh’s (pseudo-) rivals are not only other deities, but also kings and their armies.
From a modern perspective, land possession in the Old Testament appears despotic. However, McConville argues that it operates under the assumption that Yahweh owns the land, and it is his only to distribute. In contrast to Assyria’s expansionistic campaigns, Israel’s ideal was to maintain the specific boundaries allotted in Deuteronomy. Moreover, land possession was directly related to the justice-righteousness of its possessors.
Justice-righteousness is central to McConville’s thesis that Israel is “for” the nations. “Law is not an abstract concept, but an obligation laid upon Israel to perform justice in accordance with its relationship with God” (p. [End Page 402] 68). Despite Israel’s unique call to exemplify justice-righteousness, she rarely met the expected standards, ultimately inducing her exile.
Undoubtedly, some scholars will take issue with various aspects of God and Earthly Power. At issue is the apparent focus on theological themes at the expense of higher critical analysis. For these critics, the marriage of biblical studies with theological interests diminishes objectivity and removes critical analysis from the process. Moreover, a study of broad thematic elements leaves one prone to the charge of selective research. While these concerns can be notable in some cases, they are unfounded here. McConville has presented his arguments not from an ideological vacuum, but within the broader context of the ancient Near East, the Old Testament canon, and the history of scholarship.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of God and Earthly Power is likely the point at which it will receive its strongest criticism. One of McConville’s over-arching themes is that Genesis–Kings should be read as a unified narrative (p. 9). Furthermore, the so-called Deuteronomistic History is not Josianic in origin. The author asserts, “The political vision in the books is misread if one tries to force them in advance into apologia for one political agenda or another” (p. 100). With respect to Deuteronomy itself, “I think it important to comprehend it first as the final book of the Pentateuch, rather than under the influence of its supposed role in Josiah’s reform” (p. 82). Of course, this goes against the grain of much of modern scholarship, which sees Deuteronomistic History as a Josianic creation. But McConville takes issue with the uneven portrayal of Josiah in Kings. In reality, “there is no apparent connection between Josiah’s righteousness and his unexpected end in a vain attempt to resist the advancing Pharaoh Neco” (p. 154). For McConville, Josiah’s untimely demise merely reiterates the narrative’s persistence—stated clearly in Deuteronomy itself (Deut 17:26)—that ultimate allegiance belongs to Yahweh, rather than in military strength.
J. G. McConville’s God and Earthly Power is a welcome addition to the study of the Old Testament’s primary history. His ideas are sound, his research thorough, his arguments cogent, and his scholarship impeccable. While there will be points of disagreement, McConville’s ideas cannot be dismissed outright. Time will tell whether his analysis of the current understanding of the Deuteronomistic History will stand. [End Page 403]
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