Reviewed by Brandon Myers
How should Christians approach and understand the Old Testament? Not only have there been thousands of years of separation from when the ancient text was written to today, there are massive cultural gaps, laws that seem bizarre and dozens of other seemingly otherworldly aspects in the text compared to our world. Matthew Richard Schlimm, assistant professor of Old Testament at Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa and an ordained pastor in the United Methodist Church, seeks to address the strangeness of the sacred Old Testament. Schlimm writes as a liberal protestant who does not hold to the inerrancy/infallibility of scripture but prefers to view the OT as a “friend in the faith” in whom he invites reader to be a good friend to as well (chapter 1).
Schlimm argues that “as our worlds collide, new realities crack open. We are no longer stuck in the same old boring existence. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Despite its age, the Old Testament can give the church fresh ways of thinking about God, humanity and creation” (10). The thrust of Schlimm’s argument is that “Even in the face of perplexing questions, we can still see the Old Testament as our friend in the faith…at the heart of this book is the basic idea that the Old Testament is our friend in faith” (5-6). A good (and free!) discussion question companion to the book is available online. This book consists of twelve relatively short chapters (on average 18-20 pages each) in which Schlimm tackles a number of difficult topics from the Old Testament. It is remarkable how much ground Schlimm covers.
In chapters 2 and 3 Schlimm’s focus is on the genre of Genesis and in particular a focus on the creation and fall narratives. Starting with a humorous example of misidentifying genres from Humpty Dumpty, Schlimm argues “if we misjudge genre, the Bible can become nonsensical” (14). He then moves to address the historical and symbolic possibilities of Genesis. He argues “when one studies the Bible closely, it becomes clear that the writings themselves sometimes want us to understand things literally, but other times they clearly do not” (15). The resurrection of Jesus is clearly supposed to be understood as historical, but Genesis has “signs it is highly symbolic” (18, 28). The signs that point to symbolism include the Hebrew names of Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel, when animals were created, the talking snake and the symbolic nature of the trees, Eden (“garden of delight”), the many elements of Hebrew poetry found in Genesis 2:4b-4:16. According to Schlimm we are to see ourselves in the Genesis story and take a literary approach to Genesis rather than a literal one. The Old Testament is our friend in the faith who helps us see ourselves with remarkable clarity in its characters (26) and a friend who “was open to surrounding ideas in its culture” and “critically assessed these ideas” (43).
In chapter 4, “The R-Rated Bible,” Schlimm writes on the great immorality by many individuals in the OT and how to relate to them. The Bible is not what we expect and after addressing common approaches to the OT he finds them wanting (these include Benno Jacob’s “moral exemplar” approach, Waldemar Janzen’s “putting together the best qualities,” and an approach that finds principles in the text). Schlimm argues for reading stories well and seeing them as “reflections of life” where we can identify our lives in the characters (52). He argues the OT gives us “story experience which is more than we could ever live on our own” and with it we gain real experience our own lives lack (54-55). The OT teaches us “how difficult upright living is” and “how our best moral principles come in conflict with each other”(57). Finally Schlimm notes that for those who sense they have lacked access to God’s will the OT characters share with and agree with us that life is downright difficult (58-59). Schlimm concludes the OT is “a friend who is unafraid to talk about R-rated material…” and “we need to hear these stories because we like the characters in those stories are sinners” (60).
In chapter 5, “Killing All That Breathes,” Schlimm tackles particular OT violence passages (Exodus 15:3; Deut 2:33-34, the stories of rape in Genesis, Judges, and 2 Samuel, the prophets foretelling of destruction) and the imprecatory Psalms. Schlimm argues the focus on violence is precisely because violence is part of the fallen world we inhabit (64). We should not imitate the characters or even God who fights on our behalf (66). Rather Schlimm says we should see the OT as our friend in the faith who provides a way forward and gives us permission to question the Bible even as we take it seriously, respecting it as we would a friend (82).
In chapter 6, “Male and Female God Created Them,” Schlimm examines perceived gender inequalities in the OT and points out how contemporary cultures around Israel viewed women far worse and would not dignify women with the “image of God” language. He concludes “in every friendship, we sooner or later realize that the other person has limitations. They do things that make no sense to us. They let us down” (101). Schlimm argues one should “counteract bias interpretations, by searching for life-giving ways to read the Bible, by questioning troublesome texts and by recovering neglected texts that work against male domination” (102). Schlimm notes the irony in certain passages in the OT (i.e. Esther commanding a king who wanted to make women submit more to their husbands), but also struggles with what to make of other texts (Lev. 27:1-8)
Chapter 7, “God Commands Us to Do What?!,” looks at the strange OT commands and in particular three common options Christians take to approaching the OT: 1. Splitting Grace and law, 2. Dividing the law into categories, 3. Sticking with it and advocates the last approach encouraging readers to read slowly and carefully even through seemingly “crazy laws”. Schlimm encourages readers not to order our lives rigidly after each individual precept but to be “inspired by legal examples of how God’s people chose to be faithful amid changing times” (111). He helpfully advocates seeing the “parts in light of the whole” by which he means reading individual laws in light of God’s desires for his people to be “holy” and “compassionate” (112-113). With its laws, the OT is like a friend from another country. Its ways don’t’ always make sense to us but by spending time with the OT we find common humanity beneath and the significance of coming into God’s presence (120).
Chapter 8, “Is the Law Engraved on Stone?,” addresses the similar theme of the nature OT law and Schlimm argues the OT laws essentials (holiness, disgust, caring for the poor, tabernacle, sacrifice) remain the same, other parts are reshaped in different times and seasons (122). The OT is a friend who is more like a “law professor who reminds us that God’s law is alive and dynamic, changing as the living God interacts with the different needs of God’s people” (137).
Chapter 9, “Truth is Many Sided,” looks at the meaning of truth in the OT and Schlimm argues there are many tensions. Any “inconsistencies (like the “number of warriors David had” —2 Samuel 24:9 and 1 Chronicles 21:5) are not especially significant because good doctrine is not based on a single detail (139). He concludes as our friend in the faith, the OT law is like a friend we can continue to talk with late into the night. It always offers us more than we could consider on our own. We find ourselves pondering some of the things it says, embodying other parts, and debating still other words” (158).
Chapter 10, “Drowning in Tears and Raging at God,” might be worth the price of the book and is Schlimm’s best in my opinion. He looks at how to handle prayers of suffering and rage toward God in the OT and gives voice to deep suffering and the times the hearts of God’s people are in deep despair (160). Schlimm looks at why parts of Job, a few Psalms, and sections from Lamentations are very important to the life of faith and concludes the OT is bolder than most of our friends when it comes to prayer. We have much to learn from this friend who teaches us how to pray even when prayer is most difficult (178).
In chapter 11, Schlimm addresses what to make of the wrath of the Lord, giving a quote from Rob Bell’s Love Wins a nod (182) and points out how in the NT and OT divine anger is present (184-185). The OT is our friend in the faith in the sense that the Bible speaks of God’s anger in “complicated and intricate ways” with a God “deeply concerned about evil and firmly opposed to it but also slow to anger” (195). Schlimm describes God’s anger in the OT as: 1. God’s anger is real, 2. God’s anger needs to be taken seriously 3. God is slow to anger and 4. This anger does not endure. And if one places an emphasis on one of the other a twisted picture emerges (196).
In the final chapter, Schlimm addresses how one ought to view the authority of the OT. Schlimm rejects inerrancy (mentioning the word “inerrant” explicitly in this chapter) and reduces the authority of God’s word to a model that has more to do with healthy relationships and is our friend. For Schlimm the ability to disagree with the OT is having a high view of scripture. The OT according to Schlimm is our “quirkiest friend,” whose words “we take with great seriousness even if we sometimes question or doubt what they say” (205).
Schlimm is an excellent writer and very engaging throughout. He constantly refuses simplistic answers when dealing with the OT that too often seems to characterize many Christian (and non-Christian) approaches or attitudes. Many Old Testament professors and pastors will appreciate this book and find it helpful and sharpening in this way.
A weakness of the book is that it falls prone to the classic “disjunctive fallacy” that scholars so often struggle to avoid. Why must something be either inerrant (reliable, true, correct) or a friend in the faith? Why not both inerrant and our friend? Schlimm wants to state that the OT “tells us the truth about God” (207) but only to a point. “Thus saith the Lord”, or its equivalent occur some 4000+ times in the Bible (mostly in the OT) and is very different from “thus saith our friend” no matter how one qualifies it. Schlimm makes qualifications such as: “quirkiest”, “possibly wrong”, “confused”, “difficulty keeping things straight”, and “speaking in contradictory ways.” Though not Schlimm’s intent, he undermines the authority of the word of God in the life of the church by reducing the Old Testament to a friend.
Additionally, each page typically contains a pithy quote or two from other authors related to the relevant topic Schlimm is addressing. These quotes are mostly helpful and stimulating but at times can be disruptive to the flow of the argument as readers have to turn back and forth to find the quote box.
Finally, another weakness is in chapter 8, where readers will see and may be disappointed Schlimm avoid the issue of the sinfulness of homosexuality because “the church has spent too much time on it” (118). Schlimm encourages the church the church today “to try to figure out how to embody purity in all facets of its life, rather than focusing so narrowly on purity in conjunction with this one topic. Only after the church has adopted purity as a way of life will it be able to determine whether the OT’s homosexual prohibitions are more like its prohibitions of incest (something the church adheres to today) or more like its commandments about circumcision (something the church doesn’t adhere to today” (118). In one sense it’s easy to understand why he punts on this but avoiding it breeds confusion among God’s people who need to hear with clarity that God is holy while we are not. He defines sin and what we must repent of.
Overall, I would recommend this book as helpful (with cautions) to seasoned, discerning pastors, church members and professors who are wrestling through the OT and seeking to minister to those coming out of or in a mainline denomination. In the final assessment, this book’s best purpose may be for discerning evangelical leaders, pastors or scholars who are curious about what mainline Protestantism currently believes and has to offer about the nature and authority of the OT. However, there are certainly other better books that deal with the difficulties of the OT from a more orthodox perspective. Examples include works by Gleason Archer, Walt Kaiser, Paul Copan, and a number of excellent OT essays in both Dennis Magary and James Hoffmeier’s 2012 book and the very recent volume edited by D.A. Carson. For an accessible popular level see Is God a Moral Monster book by Paul Copan. One hopes more evangelical OT scholars and pastors write popular level books in response to Schlimm and others so that the tower can be taken to and bless those in the pew who must have confidence that God has spoken.
Brandon Myers serves as Pastor of Congregational Life at The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, IL.
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This Strange and Sacred Scripture