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

Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005). Pp. xvii + 398. Paper, US$38.99. ISBN 0-687-34296-1.

Biblical studies have too long underestimated the importance of the theology of creation in the Old Testament. Terence Fretheim wishes to remedy the situation with this work . The subtitle of the work is “A Relational Theology of Creation.” The word “relational” signifies in this context that God shares the divine project of creation both in its origins and its continuation with creatures. It also indicates God's deep personal involvement in creation, illustrated, for example, by the molding of the human creature in the second creation account. Creation is the hands-on work of the potter and extends to the taking of a human rib to build a companion for Adam like in flesh and bone.

A brief introduction explains why the place of creation has been diminished in biblical studies. Many reasons are cited, but they are all limited to the influences affecting Old Testament theologians after the birth of modern biblical theology. Fretheim's explanation would have gained historical perspective if it had included, however briefly, the long theological debates about nature and grace, faith and reason, which preceded modern biblical theology and led its initiators to eschew any speculation that might smack of Greek-inspired philosophy.

Fretheim's understanding of creation in the Old Testament includes “…the work of originating, continuing and completing creation….It also includes the activity of creatures (human and nonhuman) in and through which God works to create in ever new ways” (p. 4). He realizes that his comprehensive definition will not find acceptance among many scholars who shy away from such a broad designation of the term. Yet he will show that the Old Testament uses the word in this broader sense.

What follows is a detailed investigation into the Pentateuch, not only Genesis but the Pentateuch's exodus, Sinai and wilderness traditions with special attention to Israel's law, where the question of natural law comes up. Israel's worship as a reflection of creation is also treated: the significance of the Sabbath and the account of the construction of the Tent in the wilderness modeled on the account of the creation of heaven and earth in Genesis 1. Next he turns to the creation theme in the prophets, beginning with the oracles against foreign nations. God's universal judgment shows the divine relation to all peoples. “To put it succinctly God is present on every occasion and active in every event. All people have experienced God's presence and activity in their lives. They may not realize it, of course, but God's activity has indeed been effective among them” (p. 167). Predictably the creation doxologies of Amos and the linking of creation and salvation in Isaiah 40-55 receive particular consideration. More unexpectedly, Jeremiah's emphasis on the effect of sin on the land, particularly in Jeremiah 12, is examined at length.

In the wisdom literature, which is generally acknowledged to direct its focus toward creation and its God, Fretheim concentrates on the Woman Wisdom in Proverbs and that image's significance for a theology of creation that is relational and in which the creature has a substantial role to play. Job is the other center of attention and here the work offers some of its most enlightening comments, pointing out how God's response to Job highlights the wildness and unpredictability of creation as a suitable backdrop for human freedom, thus indirectly answering Job's demand for strict correspondence between just action and its rewards. Finally, the praise of creation in the Psalms receives the author's consideration.

Undoubtedly this book makes an important contribution to the shift in opinion concerning the important place of the creation theme in Old Testament theology. Based on sound exegesis, attention to detail and inclusion of many seldom considered biblical texts, it shows the pervasiveness of that theme. The down side of his broad definition of creation is that it blurs the distinction between creation and salvation, general and special providence and revelation. No doubt this is done to some extent purposely, yet a blurring that depends on broadening a word's definition saps at least in part the credibility of the interpretation. Fretheim is aware of the danger of harmonization but the sort of holistic interpretation he practices does by its very nature downplay the detection of difference and development. Nowhere in the Old Testament, so far as I can tell, does he suggest that creation plays a minor role or a developing one. But in a pioneering work such weaknesses should be expected and can easily be corrected.

William H. Irwin, CSB, University of St. Michael's College, Toronto School of Theology