Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Kessler, John, Old Testament Theology: Divine Call and Human Response (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013). Pp xxiv + 599. Paperback. US$59.95. ISBN 978-1-60258-737-3.

Religious history reveals the task of biblical interpretation to be both dynamic and creative. Since Johann P. Gabler first gave expression to a distinctly biblical form of theology, numerous interpreters have made it their task to provide a comprehensive (though provisional) articulation of this theology. Despite the numerous interpretive challenges presented by a project of such enormous scale, we continue to observe the ebb and flow of the Old Testament Theology genre. John Kessler's Old Testament Theology: Divine Call and Human Response represents one of the most recent contributions to this stream of tradition.

Kessler writes to a Christian audience who is embarking on their academic study of the Old Testament. This audience appears to have been sheltered from or to have recently discovered the “muddy trenches and impenetrable walls” that complicate the theological terrain of the Old Testament. He writes with a conviction that these obstacles are real—including moral and philosophical challenges—and are not easily resolved. (Kessler admittedly does not attempt to resolve all the challenges that he raises in the book.) He writes as one dissatisfied with past attempts to respond to these problems but firmly convicted of the value of undertaking such a task.

Kessler aims to develop a strategy for reading the Old Testament that produces theological understanding and spiritual formation. He draws attention to ways in which the theological content of the Old Testament and the discipline of Old Testament theology focus, among other things, on the concept of a divine-human relationship that invites various patterns of response. These patterns of response are not all identical. For Kessler, these distinct patterns are part of the theological diversity of the Old Testament, a diversity he emphasizes and embraces. He describes it as a “systemic diversity,” a diversity of different theological systems.

Taking these diverse systems or “theological streams” as his point of departure into the text, Kessler examines different ways in which the Old Testament understands what it means to be in relationship to God. It is at this point that Kessler's approach directly engages biblical criticism. Kessler combines his interests in Old Testament theology with “traditions history” to identify six theological streams: creation theology, Sinai covenant theology, promise theology, priestly theology, the theology of divine accessibility, and wisdom theology. These Israelite/Judean traditions represent major complexes of tradition that were woven together to form the Old Testament. By focusing on theological streams as conceived by traditions history, Kessler avoids the all-too-convenient route of final-form exegesis. This latter approach, popular among those disturbed by biblical criticism, redirects the theological discussion away from complications introduced by a historical investigation of the biblical text and its development.

However, one might have hoped to discover in this volume a more thorough historical discussion of each theological stream than what is provided. For example, Sinai covenant theology appears to incorporate Deuteronomy, but there is no discussion of what distinguishes the Book of the Covenant from Deut 12–26, not to mention the different hermeneutical solutions that could explain the development of this complex tradition. The volume also generally neglects to attend to the plural and rival political loyalties of these traditions. Kessler does pen an excursus on the Canaanites that discusses at length the way in which the biblical traditions of conquest can too easily be abused. Still, a broader discussion on those disadvantaged by the hegemony of certain political ideologies embedded in these theological streams deserves careful attention.

Kessler has written an Old Testament Theology that will challenge those who continue to regard with suspicion the methods and conclusions of biblical criticism. It is written with the patience and clarity necessary to articulate interpretive challenges presented by the Old Testament, fully aware of the insufficiency of past responses to these challenges. His method invites interpreters into the dynamic and creative history of reading the Old Testament theologically, but now in conversation with biblical criticism and the best ways available for understanding the historical development of the biblical text.

Joseph Ryan Kelly, Tempe Preparatory Academy