This Week in the Context of Scripture, or, Why Erhard Gerstenberger is Simply Wrong

This week I want to use something that came up in our readings to address a criticism of Mark Boda’s recently published book, A Severe Mercy by Erhard Gerstenberger’s in his RBL review. While I am still short of getting halfway through Boda’s book myself, I can already agree with Jim West that this is “a very good book,” and its goodness seems to have been unnecessarily lost on Gerstenberger.

Gerstenberger recognizes at the outset that Boda is “a diligent, resourceful, and productive expert.” His criticism is not as much directed at Boda as it is the project Boda has undertaken. He writes,

He points out a “dominant concern” of canonical Scripture for the theological topic of “sin and its remedy” (4; the formula occurs an estimated five hundred times in the course of the study). The reader stands aghast at the volume and depth, variability, and sternness of this theme. Is that the core matter the Bible is about? A severe mercy, indeed! The guide chose the motif at hand “because it is an area of personal interest” (4; no more comments), and his persistent focus on it, mostly without reference to other possible theological perspectives of a given unit, make his predilection (a veritable Protestant instead of a personal one?) hard to digest. Thus, all the advantages and dangers of the presentation come to the fore: a wealth of insight into a limited area of theological thinking bereft of full life connections.

Gerstenberger’s first mistake is in equating a “dominant concern” with the dominant concern of Scripture. Boda never claims that sin and its remedy is “the core matter the Bible is about,” nor has he hinted to his readers that such is the case. What Boda does say is, “Admittedly, this theme has been chosen because it is an area of personal interest, but most would agree that it is also a major feature in the textual world of the Old Testament” (4).  Contrary to Gerstenberger’s claim–“no more comments”–Boda includes a footnote to the Anchor Bible Dictionary entry “Sin, Sinners,” that deserves to be quoted in full.

The plethora of Hebrew terms and their ubiquitous presence in the Hebrew Bible testify to the fact that sin was a dominant concern of the Israelite theologians. Indeed, their highlighting of human failure, deficiency, or offense in the cultic, ethical, and moral spheres constitutes a central theme of OT theology. (ABD 6:31)

Boda is essentially embarking from a consensus view, one that need not proceed on terms beyond the fact that “most agree” this is a major feature of the Hebrew Bible (with emphasis on the indefinite article). Moreover, his ability to remain focused on his theme, rather than be distracted by other unique theological features of the text, is to be commended, not criticized as Gerstendberger does. This is perhaps the most ridiculous claim Gerstenberger makes, that Boda’s persistent focus is a protestant predilection, which brings me to tonight’s word this week in the context of Scripture. Is it characteristically protestant to be concerned with sin and its remedy? Perhaps, if Humpty Dumpty redefines the term protestant to include the Hittites. In the introduction to The Wrath of Telipinu (1.57) we learn:

In the Hittite view, the operation of the universe required that each deity and human conscientiously perform his or her proper function within the whole. Calamity manifested in some sector of the cosmos was an indication that the god or goddess responsible for it had become angry and had abandoned his or her post. The remedy for this evil situation was the performance by both human and divine practitioners of an expiatory ritual which included a mythological account of the diety’s displeasure, departure, and reconciliation. Such “disappearing god texts” (Parker 1989) are attested for at least a dozen Hittite divinities.

The myth of the Wrath of Telipinu belongs to the larger thought world of the ANE, that deities can become incensed at human behavior (sin) and that some kind of remedy can provide expiation. That Boda would investigate this where it surfaces in the Hebrew Bible has little to do with Boda’s protestant perspective and much to do with Boda’s scholarly inquiry into the literature and theology of the Hebrew Scriptures (which is, after all, what the Siphrut series published by Eisenbrauns is pursuing). Gerstenberger is simply wrong to attach Boda on these grounds.


13 thoughts on “This Week in the Context of Scripture, or, Why Erhard Gerstenberger is Simply Wrong

    1. My pleasure, James. Boda has produced an excellent book, and it is too bad that the reviewer was not able to get past his ideological differences to fairly review and criticize the contents.

  1. A bit late to the party here, Joseph. You probably know this already, but Gerstenberger essentially prefaces every presentation he does by extolling the virtues and values of form criticism. If one is not doing form criticism, one is de facto automatically not getting the whole picture. The prejudice, however, should not affect his total assessment of a very fine volume.

    1. I’m always glad to have you chime in! I thought about applying form criticism to your response, but then I realized I don’t really care about “getting the whole picture.” Thanks for your thoughts. Have you consulted Boda’s tome yet?

  2. Form criticism to me is one of the more ‘useful’ of diachronic tools because I think it applies so much to synchronic approaches. Look at Alter’s discussion of the biblical “type-scene” in his The Art of Biblical Narrative. It is essentially the exact same thing as form criticism, save for properly emphasizing the innovative tilt that is placed on things and not necessarily how things fit the form. Divergence is key for Alter.

    Anyways, I have not looked at Boda yet. I hope to, but life is insane. I’m still waiting to hear back about my dissertation. Hopefully I will hear a positive word soon. But all of the Siphrut volumes pique my interest in one way or another. Especially Lohr’s.

  3. John,

    The Lohr volume is great; I haven’t tackled the Boda one yet, but it is on my list—problem is that the list is too long : (

    Excuse my ignorance, but what is your dissertation on?


  4. Hi James,

    Eisenbrauns actually has my manuscript under review right now for the Siphrut series. I am hopeful!

    Very very very (very very) thumbnail sketch, I argue for what I call a ‘theology of deception’ in the Jacob cycle in Genesis, which means that I don’t believe God can be separated from Jacob’s many deceptions. I employ a literary hermeneutic (a la Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg) with theological aims, and show how the literary artistry of the text connects God to these deceptions in various ways. At bottom, so as not to simply say “God is complicit in deception/God deceives,” I argue that the purpose for the deceptions that are usually so problematic is concerned ultimately with the perpetuation of the ancestral promise (Gen 12:1-3), which ultimately has cosmic implications.

    Put another way, I am convinced Gerhard von Rad is wrong that the ancestral narratives are simply unedifying tales of human misconduct and thus one struggles in vain to draw any sort of theological profundity from them.

    I was delighted to have Walter Brueggemann as an enthusiastic reader, supporter, and advocate for the piece at all stages. A tremendous gift.

    I’m looking forward very much to hearing from Eisenbrauns.

    1. Ah yes, I recognize it now. I remember seeing the synopsis of it. Can’t say that I know anything about its disposition, though; that’s not my area of influence. Personally, I find the thesis attractive, though.


      1. I am glad to hear of your attraction to the thesis, James. This is always encouraging!

        Perhaps if I am fortunate enough to get it published, it can be added to your (ever-increasing!) reading list! And hopefully at that point, upon reading, you will remain convinced!

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