Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible
Dempster, Stephen A. Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible. New Studies in Biblical Theology, 15. Leicester: Apollos; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003. ISBN 0-8308-2615-7. pb $22.00. 267 pp.
This volume is part of a series designed to deal with important issues in the field of biblical theology. The author, who is a professor at Atlantic Baptist University in New Brunswick, Canada, explains in the preface that he began his project to understand the shape and movement of the Hebrew Bible (more on the choice of this term later) in 1993. Dempster has published several articles since then that lay much of the exegetical and theoretical foundations for Dominion and Dynasty.
It might be helpful to understand what this book is not. It is not a survey of the proposals by other scholars in the discipline. In fact, there is not extensive interaction with other works anywhere in the volume. Footnotes are kept to a minimum, but an extensive bibliography is provided (pp. 235-50). I suspect that one of the reasons for this lack of dialogue and documentation in the body of the work is that the series is geared to ‘thinking Christians,’ for whom such details might prove to be a distraction and an unnecessary obstacle. Neither does Dominion and Dynasty offer a systematic treatise on various topics related to the Old Testament, such as the nature of God, covenant, sacrifice, and eschatology.
Dempster presents a different kind of approach than what most are accustomed to. His is a literary reading of the text. The first chapter is dedicated to defending the legitimacy and the appropriateness of such an approach: To begin with, there is a conceptual unity that binds all of the varied material together, a reality that was recognized with the creation of the canon. The ancient authors, he says, believed in this coherence because of their shared faith in a divine Author of revelation. The evidence of intertextuality between books demonstrates that clear awareness of unity. Dempster is conscious that his project is unlike almost all other Old Testament theologies, though he finds a kindred interest in the publications of R. E. Friedman, D. N. Freedman, and J. Sailhamer (as well as in individual literary studies of particular passages and books). The more traditional approaches, he says, that focus on historical settings and backgrounds or on the diversity within the canon have missed the ‘forest for the trees.’
In Dominion and Dynasty the author makes a structural decision, on the basis of which he develops a narrative spanning the entire canon. The structural framework for his theology comes from the order of the books in the Jewish scripture, or Tanak (the acronym for the three-part canon: the Torah [the Law, or Pentateuch], Nebi’im [the Former and Latter Prophets], and Kethubim [Writings])—hence, the preference for the label ‘Hebrew Bible’ instead of ‘Old Testament’. Significantly, he opts for a particular order within the Jewish tradition that he deems the ‘correct’ one: that which appears in a portion of the Talmud, Baba Bathra 14b (pp. 33-34). The sequence defended in that passage differs from what one finds in the Hebrew texts used by most. Specifically, the change in order comes with the Prophets and in the Writings. In the Prophets: after 2 Kings, there follows Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and then the Twelve, or Minor Prophets (instead of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve); in the Writings the order is Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles (The usual order is Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniels, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles).
The narrative, or ‘storyline,’ is previewed in chapter two. The Hebrew canon is divided into three parts (and so is the exposition): Genesis-2 Kings, ‘Dominion Lost: The Rise and Fall of Israel’ (chs. 3-5); Jeremiah-The Twelve and Ruth-Lamentations, ‘Retrospect and Prospect’ (chs. 6-7); Daniel-2 Chronicles, ‘Dominion Regained: The Fall and Rise of Israel’ (ch. 8). The themes that will be traced throughout the volume are genealogy, geography, and dominion. Everything begins with the Creation and Fall in the opening chapters of Genesis, where the relationship between God and humanity and the mandate for humanity to live as is vice-regents within Eden are doomed. The storyline will recount the restoration of that relationship through the people of Israel, even more particularly the Davidic king, in the Promised Land. The middle section is said to be a commentary on the narrative until 2 Kings; a storyline picked up again in Daniel. The final chapter of Dominion and Dynasty briefly connects this theological movement to the New Testament, where Jesus, the new and final David, creates a new Israel. The Book of Revelation closes the Bible and points to the ultimate goal of the divine plan: a redeemed humanity living with God in a new world, a wondrous Eden.
The strength of this volume is the consistent tracing of those several crucial themes throughout the Old Testament, constantly demonstrating the intertextual interconnections and developments across biblical books. The threads of this argument are too varied and fascinating to reproduce here. For this reason, I will happily recommend it to my students. Many come with little or no familiarity with the Old Testament. Dominion and Dynasty can provide them with a golden theological thread that can help them see how the canon can hang together. The short, final chapter can show them, too, that all of this is important for them as Christians in order to understand what the New Testament is trying to do. I appreciate the literary sensibilities of the author, and his writing style is an easy read for those who might be intimidated by the Old Testament’s length and multiple genres. The bibliography also can lead them to other sources for further study.
Nevertheless, there are several weaknesses to the work that I will mention to my students as well. I indicate three here. To begin with, the canonical order Dempster chooses is in many ways an arbitrary one. Why choose a sequence from the Talmud without entertaining the Hebrew canon that students will have in their possession? It would be an interesting exercise to see how this book might look if that were the basis of this theology. Nevertheless, at least he raises the issue of a different Jewish canon, something most students are not aware of. In addition, one wonders if the claim that the Major Prophets, the Twelve, and a good portion of the Writings were designed to serve as a ‘commentary’ on the historical material is not also arbitrary. Second, I would tell students that this book can serve as a good introduction to the riches, both literary and theological, of the Old Testament. It is just that, though: a door into an amazing world of other studies that can provide more information on other theological themes, historical data, and archaeological backgrounds. Finally, and this is inevitable, I disagree with some of Dempster’s readings and interpretations. For instance, I would stress much more the centrality of the Philistine pressure for 1 and 2 Samuel; his treatment of the Twelve is relatively short and overly selective; and my premillennialism leads me to disagree in some measure with the New Testament exposition.
In conclusion, I would recommend Dominion and Dynasty to Bible college and seminary students and to ‘thinking Christians.’ It is a helpful entry point into the Old Testament and provides wide handles with which to grip a part of the Bible that many do not know very well.