Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids\Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2005). Pp. x + 206. Paper, US$16.00, UK£9.99. ISBN 0-8028-2864-7.

In The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story, Frank Spina investigates the insider-outsider dynamics of the “metastory” of the Bible in which God selects one people—Israel—to be the chosen people through whom the fallen world will be restored (p. 1). The impetus for this book was Spina's experience of lecturing to university students and church groups (twenty-five groups are listed) and he has preserved the informal style that these talks no doubt warranted. Although his writing is casual and approachable, Spina does not reduce the intellectuality of his prose, keeping his discussion at a level that both scholars and the academic “laity” can appreciate. Since he hopes to keep the text accessible to all readers, the endnotes to each chapter are not necessary for following his discussion (p. 12), however they are replete with informative references and should not be missed.

Faith of the Outsider comprises seven chapters wherein Spina takes a simple observation—that Israel's election by God results in two groups of people: the elect and the non-elect—and demonstrates how various biblical stories challenge and play with this datum in order to make theological statements about God's actions in the history of Israel and the world. Each chapter focuses on a different biblical story through analysis of events surrounding individual characters, and the selections have been chosen with care to provide representation from each part of the Hebrew Bible, Torah, Prophets, and Writings (p. 137). The characters who form the basis of chapters one through six are Esau (Genesis 25, 27, 33), Tamar (Genesis 38), Rahab and Achan (Joshua 2, 7), Naaman and Gehazi (2 Kings 5), Jonah (Jonah 1-4), and Ruth (Ruth 1-4). In chapter seven Spina turns to the New Testament, applying the insider-outsider theme to the Johannine story of the woman at the well (John 4). Some readers may be surprised by this final shift to the New Testament; however it must be remembered that the original audiences of these lectures were predominantly Christian, and Spina manages the inter-religious aspects of his discussion with respect and sensitivity. For example, since he is in a Christian context he uses the term “Old Testament,” but an asterisked note alerts the reader that “Jews do not, of course, refer to their Bible as the “Old Testament,” but instead as the Tanak or Scriptures (p. 1). Faith of the Outsider encourages Christian readers to approach Scriptures from a new perspective and they will benefit from a non-typological experience of the Hebrew Bible.

In each chapter Spina investigates individuals outside the exclusive community of Israel who actually further God's plan through their words and deeds. By their confessions of faith (Rahab and Naaman), their cleverness (Tamar and Ruth), their perseverance (Esau), and by their receptivity (the woman at the well), the characters witness to the fluidity of the boundaries of “Israelite-ness,” demonstrating that it is not enough to be born an Israelite, one must also have faith commensurate with one's chosenness. The figure of Esau shows how even within the family of promise some are chosen over others, the primary goal of the biblical metastory being to promote one, and only one, line of promise. This is how Spina justifies including Tamar in his discussion, since, he argues, without her cunning the Davidic line would not have existed (p. 51). Conversely, the missteps of Israelite “insiders” such Achan, Gehazi, and Jonah serve as warnings to avoid the worship of worldly goods over Yahweh (in the case of Achan and Gehazi), and to avoid over-righteous exclusivity (in the case of Jonah).

Spina points out many lexical issues that are lost during the translation process, noting nuances and word plays in the Hebrew that would otherwise be unapparent to readers of English versions (pp. 17-18, 63). He also notes where English translations differ, offering the reader comparisons between the JPS's translation and the NRSV when the situation warrants (pp. 20-21). Spina's sensitivity to lexical concerns and his ability to draw attention to humour, irony, and metaphor provides the reader with very rich details of the texts that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Despite his attention to the nuances of the text, however, Spina does not entertain the notion that the dichotomy—insiders versus outsiders of Israel—may itself need to be nuanced. According to Spina, outsiders (for example, the Canaanites), are always second-rate citizens and it is only when they begin to act in an Israelite manner (for example, through a confession of faith), that they warrant being viewed as Israelite (p. 63). The danger is that readers may understand non-Israelites as merely puppets of God, useful only in order to preserve the line of promise. Spina himself falls into this when he says of Tamar (who does not make a confession of faith, but instead, through her sexual wiles, ends up ensuring both the eventual birth of David, and later Jesus), “God used her to ensure that the insiders and their mission had a future” (p.51, italics mine). This seems to place Spina within the same patriarchal systems that he accuses Judah of supporting (p. 39-41). The notion of using one person or group to fulfill the eschatological goal of another is precisely the criticism that Jews have levied at Christians for centuries. More critical discussion is needed to explain how the Hebrew Bible is, itself, an ideological collection of texts that often does not accurately portray the culture and value of other nations.

Another way the book might have been improved would have been to have a brief concluding chapter to draw all the various threads of the discussion together. Since most of the book deals with insider-outsider relationships in the Hebrew Bible, chapter seven (the woman at the well [John 4]), adds a new layer of meaning to the dichotomy, and Spina is at pains to avoid entangling himself in a “Jews vs. Christians” debate. The sudden proliferation of explanatory footnotes in chapter seven indicates that the subject is perhaps too complex for such a brief treatment. A summary chapter may have aided him here.

Nonetheless, Faith of the Outsider is, above all, a very well-written and informative book that will no doubt prompt its readers to explore the topic further in both academic and pastoral fields. It is a fine book for interested lay groups, undergraduates, and seminarians.

Andrea K. Di Giovanni, Faculty of Theology, University of St. Michael's College