Friday, May 3, 2013

Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible (Book Review)

Dempster, Stephen G. Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible. New Studies in Biblical Theology, 15. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003. 267 pages.

The impetus behind Dempster’s work is what he regards as too many opposing interpretations in the field of biblical theology. He says that “of the approximately sixty biblical theologies written during the last century, there are almost as many theologies as…theologians” (p. 15). The result is that “the Bible’s own theology” has become the “interpreters’ own theologies” (p.15). Dempster suggests that the crux of the problem is that individual theologians use different interpretative lenses to study biblical theology, which naturally give way to competing theologies. With regards to Old Testament theology, the varied approaches have largely ignored studying the Hebrew Bible (an important term which will be addressed below) as one literary cohesive document. Rather, theologies of the Hebrew Bible have been built upon zoom lenses by which theologians have lost “sight of the overall message of the Text…because of all the little texts” (p.27).

Dempster’s thesis is that when the Hebrew Bible is read and reread with a wide-angle lens—that is studying the parts in light of the whole—that a purposeful pattern becomes apparent in the literary structure. When interpreted through this literary approach, the Hebrew Bible is seen as “an interconnected unity rather than a collage of diverse documents” (p.30). This literary approach in turn reveals recurring patterns of creation, exile and return which give way to its overarching theological message. With his thesis in tow, Dempster sets out to discover a theology of the Hebrew Bible that is true to the entire text, from Genesis to Chronicles.

Critical to this approach is studying the Hebrew Bible in what Dempster believes to be its final and correct canonical order, which is arranged significantly different from the Christian Old Testament. His ordering of the canon is based upon a Jewish tradition in a portion of the Talmud titled, Baba Bathra 14b (pp.33-34). He argues that this arrangement is a well-structured document with a clear beginning (Genesis-Kings), middle (Jeremiah-Lamentations) and ending (Daniel-Chronicles) through which an overall plot becomes evident. This narrative plot line is built on striking similarities between the bookends of Genesis and Chronicles. These two anchors of the text are saturated with genealogies that point to the Davidic dynasty, but are also deeply focused on land, the result of which is a storyline—or theology—of the Hebrew Bible that is centered on the dual themes of “dynasty and dominion—being realized through the Davidic house” (p.49).

This narrative plot line is fueled by the relationship between God and the human race, whom God made in his image at the beginning of the narrative and whom he commanded to fill and subdue the earth as coregents. However, when this relationship fails at the beginning, humans are subdued by the world instead of subduing it as commanded by God. “The rest of the story recounts the restoration of the relationship through the twin themes of geography (dominion) and genealogy (dynasty)” (p.49). This narrative is interrupted during the middle (Jeremiah-Lamentations) to provide commentary and reflection on the tragedy of it all. But the middle section also points forward to the resumption of the narrative—a time of “building and planting”— and toward a future hope when all things will be as originally intended (p.50).

The first chapters of Genesis are the most critical to Dempster’s argument. In the creation account the reader is made aware that mankind is the goal of creation—that is “the royalty of creation”—for the purpose of subduing and exercising dominion over the earth (p.59). But the first royal family fails in the Garden of Eden, their geographical home and the “throne room of the universe,” resulting in exile from the land and their throne (p.67). Despite their failure God promises to restore the lost dominion to its rightful heirs through the seed of Eve, who will eventually crush the seed of the serpent. The seed of the woman is traced from Seth through Noah, Shem, Abram, and eventually to Judah at the end of Genesis, where the text foreshadows an eventual conqueror and ruler from the seed of Judah.

Eventually Judah and the other tribes of Israel conquer land and later install King David, a descendent of Judah, on the throne. But as before, the human dynasty fails and is exiled from both land and throne as the first section of the narrative comes to a close. At this point in the narrative one could conclude that,”From a theological perspective…God is finished with Israel” and the serpent has won (p.154). But again, not all is lost. As the book of Kings closes a seed of David, Jehoiakim, is given a kingly seat in Babylon. “A Davidide still has a throne”— hope is not lost for dominion and dynasty (p.156).

At this point Dempster argues that the story line is suspended in favor of commentary and reflection in the middle section of the cannon (Jeremiah-Lamentations). Important to this section is the theme of “building and planting.” Despite all that has gone wrong, God’s destruction of the land and exile of the people has a purpose: “to clear away the old for the building of something new” (p.160). Although this section is teeming with oracles of judgment, it also routinely promises that a “new plant growth from David” will one day rule a new kingdom (p.188). Importantly, the prophets predict that the future king will be different from before. He will be a “servant-king,” who will bring peace instead of war. He will come in obscurity, bringing hope to the hopeless, and his greatest achievement will be “offering himself as an atonement for the sins of many” (p.189).

According to Dempster the narrative resumes with Daniel and ends with Chronicles, both of which have important echoes of Genesis. Chronicles echoes Genesis in its lengthy genealogies which focus on David and his descendents (p.226). But Chronicles also has a strong geographical focus that is centered in Jerusalem and the building of the temple—a place of God’s presence where people from all the earth can come. Thus, “the world’s hopes are found in genealogy and geography,”—dominion and dynasty (p.226). There is hope at the end of the Hebrew canon, a hope that will “radiate to the ends of the earth” and one that will be revealed in the sequel (p.227).

Overall Dominion and Dynasty is a thorough and thought provoking study of the literary unity of the Hebrew canon. However, there are times when the thoughtful reader will question whether Dempster has forced the dual themes of dominion and dynasty onto the text. In fact, one could argue that his emphasis on the early chapters of Genesis colored the rest of his interpretation, thereby resulting in a biblical theology that is ultimately born by Dempster’s use of a zoom lens on the first three chapters of Genesis. That’s not to say that dominion and dynasty are not evident in the Hebrew canon. They clearly are, but at times his interpretation seems forced, rather than naturally flowing from the text. The theme of building and planting in the commentary section, and how he connects that with the Davidic dynasty in Jeremiah 1:10 is one possible occurrence.

Yet another concern is Dempster’s arrangement of the canonical order and his seemingly arbitrary threefold break of beginning, middle and ending. The sequence of the books mentioned in Baba Bathra 14b is not regarded by all in the Jewish tradition to be the correct order. It’s well worth considering if Dempster’s choice of canon, which has significant differences in the sequence of important books such as Isaiah-Jeremiah and Ruth-Esther than other Hebrew arrangements, better fits the story line of dominion and dynasty than other Hebrew or Christian arrangements. Such an exploration is beyond the scope of this work, but one worth asking nonetheless.

On the whole, however, Dominion and Dynasty provides the reader with a solid overarching view of the Old Testament. The strength of Dempster’s work is that it demonstrates how all the little texts of the Old Testament are interrelated by several constant themes that are woven through the fabric of the canon as if there is in fact one divine author who stands behind each human author. What is especially attractive is how Dempster connects the storyline to the New Testament in a brief concluding chapter. Of particular interest is how he sees yet another threefold arrangement of beginning (Gospels-Acts), middle (Letters), and ending (Revelation) in the New Testament canon (p.232). This threefold division develops the plot in the same way as the Hebrew canon: story (beginning), commentary (middle), and resumption of the story (ending). In the final chapter, as short as it is, Dempster makes a compelling argument that the twin themes of dominion and dynasty, realized through the Davidic house, is the overarching plot (theology) of Scripture.

Regardless if Dempster’s conclusion is correct, Dominion and Dynasty has altered the way in which I will forever approach reading and studying not only the Old Testament, but the totality of Scripture. Dempster’s thesis demonstrates the importance of reading the Bible with a wide-angle lens, zooming in when necessary, but always keeping in mind the big picture. As a next step, this work compels me to read the Old Testament from beginning to end in the arrangement that Dempster suggests, with an eye toward locating and deciphering any additional overarching themes. Further, this work has impressed upon me the importance of reading and rereading the entire Bible from beginning to end with the purpose of discovering God’s overall story. The lesson gleaned is to never lose sight of the forest for sake of the trees.

And that really is the strength of Dominion and Dynasty, which was inspired in part because too many theologians have failed to consider the entire canon as one text, with one overarching story line. At the very least, Dempster has shown that when read as one cohesive document the Bible reveals an astonishing and purposeful literary structure that cannot be denied. To be sure, the twin themes of dominion and dynasty, traced through the Davidic line, permeate the text. But there may be other themes that are just as prominent, and perhaps there is one theme above all that better fits the entire scope of Scripture.

This book, then, should be of tremendous value to anyone with a surface-level understanding of the Old Testament, for it spurs the reader to consider how all the little parts of the canon fit together to form one literary whole. It also forces the reader to think about the Bible from God’s perspective, rather than a human one. Dominion and Dynasty also has much value for pastors and teachers of the Bible, for it offers a hermeneutical approach to understanding the Bible’s meta-narrative that should not be ignored. As Dempster notes, reading and interpreting the Bible through a wide-angle literary lens holds much promise for the future of biblical theology. If nothing else, Dominion and Dynasty skillfully demonstrates that the use of a literary lens in discovering biblical theology is “an imperative of responsible hermeneutics” (p.43).

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