Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Stephen L. Cook, The Apocalyptic Literature (Interpreting Biblical Texts; Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), pp. 233. Paperback. ISBN: 0687051967. $ 19.

Perceptive as always, Cook offers a study of apocalyptic literature in two parts: 1. Issues in Interpreting Apocalyptic Texts; and 2. Reading the Apocalyptic Texts of the Bible. In Part One he adopts the SBL Apocalyptic Group's definition of "apocalypse," agrees with research that locates apocalypses among millennial groups and suggests that any group can become apocalyptic. He traces the rise of apocalypticism out of the prophetic collection in the MT, and warns against interpretations that attempt to "domesticate" apocalyptic literature. Specifically he objects to interpretive stances that he thinks "spiritualize" apocalyptic literature by refusing to take seriously its cosmic overtones and that treat them as merely metaphors. He also objects to futuristic readings that deny ancient relevance to the texts or historical readings that speak only of the historical referents in the text. He advocates instead a "new" literalist approach that takes seriously the canonical context of biblical apocalypses, particularly the biblical texts on which apocalyptic literature draws; the theology of apocalypses; and the "liberationist" leanings of apocalypses that portray salvation in "social and political terms rather than individualistic and spiritual terms" (p. 75). In Part Two Cook interprets a variety of apocalyptic texts, beginning with parts of Ezekiel, Zechariah, Joel, Isaiah, and Malachi. Then he addresses Daniel, apocalypticism within the Jesus group and Paul, and concludes with interpretive comments on the book of Revelation.

Many of Cook's positions seem to be correct, so this review will only address a few specific issues. The first point of issue is this: Cook argues that millennial groups can arise from any social group, not exclusively from marginal groups. Many scholars researching apocalyptic literature would agree, but some at least would mention that the real issue is whether groups perceive themselves as relatively deprived, not whether others in their society would agree. A case in point is Cook's treatment of Ezekiel, whom he identifies as part of the Zadokite leadership in Exile. It would seem obvious that when Ezekiel was ministering in the temple in Jerusalem he was part of the upper-class elite. When, however, he was carried into Exile, he was a displaced priest living among a small, displaced group. Regardless of Ezekiel's standing in that group (and we do not know that standing), he and the group were classic examples of those who would perceive themselves as deprived. The same holds true also for the post-exilic prophets Zechariah (first and more if there were more) and Malachi. Prophecy fundamentally changed, though did not die out, with the end of the Davidic monarchy. Mere association with the temple in Jerusalem in 520 BCE did nothing to erase the obvious truth that it could be seen as peripheral in its own culture (cf., Hag 2:3), let alone the Persian Empire. Likewise, Malachi gives every indication of being the work of Levites (as Cook recognizes) struggling to preserve their perks.

A second issue for quibbling is Cook's treatment of Daniel. Cook castigates those who treat Daniel as "less a book about the future than about the past and present" (p. 140). With respect to Daniel 7 in that connection, Cook rightly observes that Daniel 7 never identifies the four beasts that arise from the sea, and then disagrees with modern scholars who see the fourth beast as the Greek Empire. He does so even though he agrees that the Daniel group that possessed the book "doubtless hoped the fourth beast of chapter 7 was Greece" and would have understood the "little horn" as Antiochus (p. 144). Cook thinks, however, that the chapter had an "elastic" and "spongy" quality, which indicated to perceptive readers that its final fulfillment lay elsewhere (p. 144). Cook then charges scholars who make that identification with "interpretive 'gymnastics.'" Cook's point seems to be that the beasts still roam the earth (p. 141), and the mythic description of such beasts should not be limited. It would appear, however, that Cook mixes what earlier generations would have called exegesis with exposition. He is concerned that modern readers not be "let off the hook" (p. 141). That is a concern with which many readers would agree, but it is not clear that a desire not to let moderns "off the hook" is an interpretive device for uncovering what the book of Daniel might have meant to its original readers. (Granted such a critique reeks of "authorial intention" and other "sins" of the past, but such exegesis still seems to this reader the place to start an interpretation.)

Finally, Cook argues that an interpretation that sees the Greek Empire as the fourth beast in Daniel 7 makes "even Jesus fundamentally mistaken." Cook has in view the Synoptic Apocalypse, specifically Matthew 24. In response, one can only point out that we are not in possession of how Jesus understood Daniel 7. Mark and Matthew refer to the Abomination that makes Desolate, Matthew even adding (24:15; cf. Mark 13:14): "Let the reader understand." Hardly the words of Jesus to those gathered about him listening. Even if Cook is correct (p. 165), however, that Jesus understood himself to be the coming son of Man and the one to fulfill the prediction of Daniel 7:13-14, that would not constitute evidence that Daniel 7 had Jesus in view. The NT frequently applies to Jesus scripture passages that are not even predictions and says Jesus fulfilled them (e. g., the historical retrospects in Jer 31:15 and Hos 11:1 quoted in Matt 2:18 and 2:15 respectively). In this endeavor, Cook's intentions may be better than his interpretation.

Paul L. Redditt
Georgetown College