Bible Review 15:6, December 1999

Can We Find God Without History?

The story of one scholar’s failed attempt

By Paul D. Hanson

How can we discover—or uncover—the Israelite God in the text of the Hebrew Bible? That is the problem scholars refer to as Old Testament theology. A recent book that has created quite a stir in the academy, written by the prominent Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, answers the question in a way that I believe is quite misguided. For Brueggemann, history is irrelevant to this subject. He doesn’t care what really happened; he doesn’t think it profitable to explore the real-life context in which the Israelite God was revealed. His approach is ahistorical.

To find the Israelite God, Brueggemann, of Columbia Theological Seminary, in Decatur, Georgia, would look only at what is said about God: His is an exclusively rhetorical approach. That’s why his new book, Theology of the Old Testament, has the subtitle Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.1 “What we have in the Old Testament is speech, nothing else,” states Brueggemann. From this bold claim arises the structure of his theology. Brueggemann’s entire book is framed as a “courtroom trial,” in which “the theological substance of the Old Testament [is seen] as a series of claims asserted for Yahweh [the Israelite God].”

The issues raised are important not only to theologians but to every person who takes seriously the religious message of the Hebrew Bible.

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