Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Boda, Mark J., A Severe Mercy: Sin and Its Remedy in the Old Testament (Siphrut, 1; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2009). Pp. x+622, Cloth. US$ 59.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-164-1.

This attractively produced book is a welcome contribution to the renaissance of a biblical-theological movement, which seeks to explore the unity of the biblical witness despite its obvious diversity. Boda's book is a comprehensive study of a central theme of the Old Testament. He limits the scope of his inquiry to the common denominator of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures in order to hear its distinctive voice. He then traces the theme as it unfolds in the canonical arrangement of the Hebrew Bible (Tanak), introducing each major division and its books. Helpful summaries of results and conclusions are provided at the end of the major sections. A final chapter concludes the study, synthesizing the results.

“Sin” is provisionally defined as “an offense against a divinely ordered norm.” The book's title, A Severe Mercy, tips the author's hand about the remedy; he emphasizes that God's mercy is involved but it is never “cheap” or “easy.” The OT texts approach sin with gravity, describing it as a dynamic force which ruins the divine-human concord present at the beginning. According to Boda, while it initially seems to be an external condition that must be mastered, it becomes a lethal power contaminating human relationships both on the horizontal level, and on the vertical, intergenerational level. The author argues that if it were not for the grace of God—understood in its Protestant sense—sin would destroy the human community and the divine-human relationship. Despite the wide variety of data—and Boda's study covers virtually all of it and stresses the variety—he sees a basic pattern that emerges with respect to sin and its remedy in the biblical storyline: human sin followed by divine discipline elicits a human response of desperation, which then results in divine grace. Alongside this dominant model are other more minor ones. Sometimes absent is the human response, a situation that leads to further discipline, divine abandonment, and/or discipline mixed with grace or grace alone. It is central to this book's thesis that the key to any of the processes is ultimately the character of God particularly as described in the divine character creed (Exod 34:6–7) and which is always under the control of a sovereign will (Exod 33:19). While mercy there is, it is both severe and sovereign (pp. 521–23). The hermeneutical centrality of Exodus 32–34—to which I will return later—is an important result of this study.

The Torah stresses, according to Boda, both the beginning of sin in the Garden and its corrupting force in the Primeval History. It is not only a dynamic force that destroys relationships, but as the Torah story unfolds, it is a contagious disease polluting people and things, threatening humanity's relationship with God. This is predominantly stressed in the Priestly material. Furthermore, sin is a violation of basic justice, a breach of a covenant relationship, which necessitates punishment in kind. Boda posits that the remedy for the problem is sketched in the grace of God, which elects Abram and creates Israel from him and Sarai to mediate blessing to the nations. Abraham's intercession for the righteous in Sodom is one manifestation of this role. Sin is judged, but the righteous escape. But later, even Israel itself is faced with its own “original sin” at Sinai in a flagrant breach of covenant. The situation is remedied by a mediator to whom both God's sovereignty (Exod 33:19) and God's grace-exuding character (Exod 34:6–7) are revealed. Boda gives this grace a fundamental place in the interpretation of the OT texts: it becomes the raison d'être for Israel's continued existence. As a result, the gracious presence of God that Israel now experiences frequently mitigates divine punishment for continued sin through the means of mediators (e.g. Numbers 14). It also requires a sacrificial system aimed at eliminating impurity and laws restricting the influence of sin. By the end of the Torah it is also clear that penitence must accompany sacrifice, since a transformed life and not just forgiveness is the intended goal of a relationship with God. There is also a growing pessimism about human nature's ability to respond positively to the will of God. For this to happen, divine heart surgery is required (Deuteronomy 30).

Boda reads the next division, the Prophets, as highlighting the need for such a surgical operation. A number of principles are given to explain sin and its remedy in Joshua–Kings. The idea of sin as a breach of covenant demonstrates the personal, relational aspect of sin. It is disobedience in the face of gracious divine initiative. Secondly, retribution flows from the covenant (but not exclusively) and from the divine character which upholds justice. Thirdly, sin is remedied through faithful political and spiritual leadership (judges and prophets) as well as divine judgment, discipline, and—if all else fails—grace (cf. 2 Samuel 24). The Latter Prophets, which complement Joshua–Kings, sound their own distinctive contributions, often focusing on repentance in the face of divine threats. But Boda notices an overall movement in which the ultimate hope for deliverance shifts to a “divine gracious and transformative initiative” (p. 355). As a result, he then sees this divine initiative as the foundation for any renewed calls for repentance on the part of the people. In Isaiah, the hope becomes embodied in a suffering servant; in Jeremiah and Ezekiel in a Torah heart, in the Twelve in simply the divine mercy, as reflected in the character creed (Exod 34:6–7).

In the final section of the Tanak (the Writings) Boda further develops this central theme. An initial wisdom collection is seen as focusing on divine discipline to punish sin and awaken repentance in order to facilitate the reception of grace and inner transformation. Although different terminology is used and forgiveness is strikingly absent from Proverbs, the book argues that the remedy for sin resembles the prophetic solution. Moreover, there is hope for a Davidic ruler in Zion to bring about a new world order founded on righteousness and justice (Psalms 2, 72). A second collection of books stresses divine discipline (Lamentations) and patience (Daniel's “Seventy Weeks”) as well as the importance of community mediators (Lamentations 3, Daniel, Nehemiah). Nevertheless, God's grace cannot be controlled; it is sovereignly dispensed. Boda sees Chronicles as an appropriate end to the canon with “the longest sustained overview of the history of Israel in the Old Testament” (p. 512). Chronicles accentuates divine discipline, divine grace, prayer at the temple, and the emergence of the prophets to stimulate penitence. In addition, Boda emphasizes an eschatological dimension to Chronicles which dovetails with the Davidic hope of the Prophets and Psalms in a Davidic figure to restore the ideals of Genesis 1–2.

This first volume of Eisenbraun's new Siphrut series on literature and theology of the Hebrew Scriptures sets a high standard. It is refreshing to read a work which seeks to uncover the distinctive nuances and development of the biblical theme rather than the purported agendas of competing sociological groups behind the text. I am quite impressed with Boda's command of the literature as well as his exegetical instincts. For whatever else this book is, it is a book with great exegetical and theological value. It sets texts within their immediate literary and historical contexts and provides clear and sound explanations, while at the same time noting emerging principles and patterns in the larger canonical storyline. Despite the book's daunting size and comprehensive scope, Boda's writing and organization keep the big picture from being lost in all the detail. Numerous charts and tables contribute to the study.

Many sections provide insight into problematic texts. For example, the frequent reference in Judges to the link between moral autonomy and the absence of kingship is connected to the only other biblical occurrence of this expression in Deuteronomy, where it is associated with the absence of a central sanctuary (p. 142). Both canonical contexts shed light on each other. Another example is the reference in the Torah to the insufficiency of the sacrificial system to atone for certain sins (e.g. Numbers 15). This is echoed in Samuel with a statement regarding the inexpiable nature of the sins of the house of Eli (p. 150). Links like these are fruitful for stimulating the interpreter to see other connections between the hardness of heart in Isaiah's audience (ch. 6), the end of the divine patience in Amos 1–2, and the incorrigibility of the mocker in the wisdom literature.

After reading the book I found myself reflecting on three salient exegetical insights. First, Boda makes the comment about Kings: “The theme of sin and its remedy drives the agenda and structure of this book” (p. 165). This statement could also be argued for the entire Old Testament, for without sin, and in particular its remedy, there would be no Hebrew Bible as we know it. Secondly, Boda makes it clear that this issue was something the biblical text took very seriously.

Thirdly, biblical theology can be seen as a “bridge” discipline between exegesis and systematic theology, providing wisdom for both the former and the latter.[1] Wisdom is concerned to give both a sense of integration and proportion, and neither exegesis nor systematic theology can do this.[2] Since biblical theology seeks to trace the development of a concept within the biblical storyline and within larger biblical text complexes, it is able to connect all the dots and show the relative importance of each within the larger text. This can greatly enrich all attempts at a systematic theology, which tend to level the importance of each topic within its categories. What emerges supreme from Boda's map of the biblical landscape is the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai of the character creed in Exod 34:6–7, which not only towers in its original literary context, but whose shadow Boda sees extending to the Prophets and the Writings as well! This stress on divine mercy and grace, which is frontloaded before the focus on justice, is understood as providing both the reason for the rest of the biblical story and yet also the reason for taking sin seriously—God always prefers mercy, but sin cannot be ignored (“Yet he will by no means clear the guilty”). Boda's approach avoids the pitfall of exegesis in failing to understand the significance of this text's theology within the overall biblical story, while also helping systematic approaches by showing, for example, that the doctrine of God's mercy is far more important within the biblical storyline than God's omnipotence.[3]

In spite of my high praise, the book does leave me with a few lingering questions. While there is a stress on the use of the biblical context to indicate meaning, I would have appreciated in a volume like this a section, perhaps as part of the conclusion, devoted to the biblical vocabulary for sin and the relative semantic domain for each particular word. Boda also rightly points out regarding the wisdom literature that “Wisdom is… deeply concerned with sin and repentance but has little to say about forgiveness” (p. 363). Is the absence of forgiveness from the wisdom literature largely dictated by its genre? Aimed at a more youthful audience, an emphasis on forgiveness might rob the warnings of their critical urgency.

Moreover, in dealing with sin as a violation of the divine order, I was left thinking about some nuances of sin that might have been helpfully included, such as its disruption of the cosmic order. After all, sin affects the ground in Genesis 3, which experiences the divine curse, and the earth has an allergy to ingesting innocent blood in Genesis 4. Texts speak of the land vomiting up the sinful Canaanites from the land in order to purge it (Leviticus 18), and a curse consuming the earth because of the evil of its populace (Isaiah 24). Furthermore, in the Psalms and Prophets when the Messianic king comes, the earth will be transformed because of righteousness. In an ecologically sensitive age, this aspect of sin could be emphasized.[4] The book of Ecclesiastes—a conspicuous omission from the study considering its emphasis on the oppressive life under the sun, its preoccupation with death and vanity, and its mention of a bent world that cannot be straightened (also important features in Genesis 3–4)—might have added to this understanding in helpful ways, particularly since one of its texts can be interpreted as describing the origin of the problem in human sin (Eccl 7:29).

Finally, I was left wondering about the almost unbearable tension at times between the exercise of divine justice and mercy in the Old Testament. Moreover, in Exod 34:6–7, the tension virtually amounts to outright contradiction (A God of mercy and grace…yet by no means clearing the guilty). Such a conviction ascribed to a deity to exercise both qualities over such an extended period of time is unique in the ancient world. The tension is partially resolved by repentance on the human side in texts like Jonah and by judgment on the divine side in stories like the flood. The Christian theological tradition, often reading the OT text in this way, has perhaps for this reason highlighted Isaiah 53, understanding that mercy and justice are both extended to the sinful “many” at the expense of the divine servant, who resolves the tension.

These remaining questions do not detract from the value of this superb study, which I recommend highly.

Steve Dempster, Crandall University

[1] Charles H. H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 6, 14, 44. reference

[2] For wisdom as combining both proportion and integration see Bertrand Russell's famous essay, ”Knowledge and Wisdom” in idem, Portraits from Memory and Other Essays (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956) 173–77. reference

[3] For a superb essay which develops this precise point see Graham A. Cole, “Exodus 34, the Middoth and the Doctrine of God: The Importance of Biblical Theology to Evangelical Systematic Theology,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12:3 (2008): 24–37. reference

[4] See Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). reference