The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament
Richter, Sandra L. The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008. 263 pp. Paperback, $15.99. ISBN 978-0-8308-2577-6.
Dr. Sandra L. Richter, Robert H. Gundry Chair of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, provides a remarkable means of access to the Old Testament for the Christian believer. The language communicates in a manner that plays on the ear (or in the mind) with expressions, phrases, and illustrations that are fresh and effective. They resonate with lived experiences and a passion for the whole counsel of God and all it has to offer. While I normally do not publish reviews of books that are more than a decade old, I feel it worthwhile to share this particular work with DJ readers. One can also purchase videos and a Study Guide, but these will not be reviewed here.
I was sold on this book when I read the first page. Who writes an Old Testament “entry” book with the first chapter’s title, “Introduction: The Dysfunctional Closet Syndrome?” Everyone can identify with that closet(s) where our things are in a mess. It at once both draws in the reader with a relatable word picture and provides a clear connection with the third challenge of why the Old Testament is often unreachable for students. There are too many disorganized facts and theories in this huge book. The second reason is also easy to connect with. The Old Testament seems too far removed in time and place. This is one of the better known problems that I often try to address in classes. But when I miss the other two, I miss many students. What then is the first reason? Borrowing from Mary Fisher, it is “Christian Alzheimer’s disease.” Richter admits this is a painful metaphor, but it captures the loss of connection with this foundational material of our faith. It is this first reason that is so “heartbreaking” for the author, “Christians have not been taught that the story of the Old Testament is their story” (p. 16). It seems so obvious when put that way. But Richter has placed it front and center where it belongs. Unless the Old Testament becomes our story, it will never reach more than a few. The excitement and passion of one class will give way to the tedium of the next.
This is the best introductory chapter to a study of the Old Testament I have ever read, not because it is clever or even because it tells a wonderfully personal account of the author struggling with organizing her wardrobe. The Epic of Eden is epic making because it simplifies into three points the goals of Old Testament teaching and it leads these with owning the story. And, of course, that very point about making a personal connection with the Bible is exactly what Richter models when she connects with us through the Dysfunctional Closet Syndrome.
I will move through the remainder of the book, pointing out especially significant contributions and of necessity glossing over so many other good things. The review is already too long! I will also provide updating of some areas. Let me emphasize that I am in full agreement with well over 90% of Richter’s work, often pleasantly surprised by many views expressed and often learning much from her insights.
Chapter 1, “The Bible as the Story of Redemption,” begins with the challenge of Jesus as the pale, white man in which he is often encountered. Accepting neither this ethnocentrism (we always have it right) nor the opposite, the canonization of culture (they always had it right), Richter seeks to present, with helpful illustrations, that ancient society. She introduces the bayt ʾab “house of the father” as the extended family headed by the patriarch and as the basic unit of society. This was led by the eldest male and would be passed on to the firstborn male. I am sure many bayt ʾabs were just as described. There are also examples where it was composed of a nuclear family, as Richter recognizes (p. 28) where in Gen. 13:11 Lot, with wife and children, moves away from Abram and becomes a separate bayt ʾab. This is a nuclear family, although in possession of assistants and shepherds who are not part of the family. I think eldest male leadership was common but wonder about Joshua 2 where Rahab represents her bayt ʾab and negotiates for their survival. The firstborn male was most often heir, perhaps more by custom than legislation. Certainly, the entire story of Abraham and Sarah’s family delights in overturning these expectations. Through the whole book of Genesis the firstborn virtually never receives the primary inheritance. The patrilineal aspect of Israelite society, especially seen in the eldest male’s inheritance of the double portion of real estate (only found in law in Deut. 21:17 which has more to do with treatment of an unloved wife), is part of the vision of holding together the inherited land for families as well as clans and tribes.
Richter shines with reflections on the role of a woman’s identity and on the matter of levirate marriage. Genesis 38 takes on new meaning as she explains it. The same is true regarding patrilocal connections and her provocative explanation of Gen. 2:24. The famous four-roomed / pillar house receives important attention. It is not clear whether this architecture lasted beyond the Exile (586 BC) and so whether it was what the disciples envisioned when Jesus spoke of his father’s house (John 14:1-3; cf. Richter’s own note of the absence of this structure by time of the Persian period inter alia in S. Richter, “The Question of Provenance and the Economics of Deuteronomy: The Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods,” Catholic Biblica Quarterly 82 , p.557, referring to David Vanderhooft). Richter’s presentation of what happened between Boaz and Ruth at the threshing floor may not be the only possible reconstruction, but it must be one of the most exegetically attractive. The same is true of the powerful story of Gomer and Hosea: “The woman with a past became a woman with a future” (p. 44). Then I read the conclusion which uses all this discussion to bring into focus God’s gift of his Son.
Chapter 2, “The Bible in Real Time and Space,” begins with some helpful perspectives on history. There is a problem however, in Robert Wilson’s statement that genealogies have fluidity. Wilson provided a useful review of ancient and modern tribal and other genealogies. The problem lay in his tacit assumption that all societies can have the same sort of fluidity in their genealogies. They do not. Even in the ancient Near Eastern king lists, some societies changed from one emphasis (always father to son) to a different emphasis (more “fluid”) and yet remained consistent in the earlier period and the later one. The Bible provides examples of genealogies where some names are absent (or skipped over) but there is no evidence in the major lines of a father being changed to an uncle or cousin or even a member of another tribe or nation. Biblical genealogies did not operate in this way. Nor (against Wilson) did the genealogies of Cain and Seth in Genesis 4-5 originate as a single genealogy. This approach is not only misleading, it is theologically problematic if the line of Jesus does not go back directly to David and that of David does not go back directly to Abraham (and Adam). The claim of Jesus to be the Messiah (the Christ) is compromised. On the differences between ancient king lists and biblical genealogies, see R. Hess, “The Genealogies of Genesis 1-11 and Comparative Literature,” pp. 58-72 in R. S. Hess and D. T. Tsumura eds., “I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood”: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11 (Sources for Biblical and Theological Study 4; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994); reprint of “The Genealogies of Genesis 1-11 and Comparative Literature,” Biblica 70 (1989) 241-254; and see an updated examination of two of the genealogies, idem, “The Genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 and Comparative Studies: Evidence for a Seam,” pp. 145-56 in R. E. Averbeck and K. L. Younger Jr. eds., “An Excellent Fortress for His Armies, a Refuge for the People”: Egyptological, Archaeological, and Biblical Studies in Honor of James K. Hoffmeier (University Park: Eisenbrauns, 2020).
Richter’s review of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David as the five benchmarks for putting one’s “closet” together is excellent. The same is true of her sympathy with those challenged by geography and yet her stress on its importance (p. 55). Simplifying this into Mesopotamia, Israel, and Egypt is another great organizing idea. While Richter sees all of Genesis 11 taking place in Mesopotamia until the family migrates to Haran, I would prefer to see Harran as the family center with Ur as a satellite for the family business (based on the names in Genesis 11; R. Hess, Studies in the Personal Names of Genesis 1-11 [Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009]). But ignore that small point and listen to the author’s telling of the story of Joseph and Jacob – “Hear the emotion of this story” (p. 61).
We pass on to ch. 3 “The Concept of Covenant.” Behind this Richter describes the ancient idea of adoption or as she terms it, “fictive kinship.” It is into this social category, that Richter introduces the concept of the suzerain/vassal treaty, first as geopolitical treaties in the Bible (e.g., Joshua and the Gibeonites) and then as transformations of this into God’s personal covenant with Abraham and with all of Israel. She walks us through all the major elements and show how they conform to a text like Deuteronomy. She notes the second millennium BC date for the inclusion of the Historical Prologue and of Blessings, which are not found in first millennium BC treaties. The footnote regarding the curses of Deuteronomy 28 should be updated in light of the evidence that calls into questions many assumptions about the association of these curses with seventh century Assyrian treaties. See Mark Steven Francois, “Something Old, Something Borrowed, or Something New? The Relationship Between the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon and the Curses of Deuteronomy 28,” (PhD diss., The University of St. Michael’s College, 2017).
An invaluable and precious part of this picture is p. 89 where Richter applies so much of this “transformed medium” to Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper.
Chapter 4, “God’s Original Intent,” turns us toward Genesis 1-2 and the manner in which these two accounts complement each other with a cosmological and then an anthropological focus. Genesis 1 is best understood as a carefully structured literary piece. Richter does a fine job of presenting many options as well as discussing this literary approach, which can accommodate some of the other interpretations. I like the idea of toledoth (Gen. 2:4, “account”), elsewhere identifying genealogies as structuring devices, applied here so that the seven days replace the “father-son” genealogy (R. Hess, “Genesis 1–2 in Its Literary Context,” Tyndale Bulletin 41  143-153) at the beginning and the Sabbath becomes the climax and goal of creation (in the first week and in all of history). Richter also emphasizes the rest of the Sabbath, its unique place in Israel, and the role of stewardship of creation. In this she anticipates her later work, including Stewards of Creation (Downers Grove: IVP, 2021), as well as the latter part of this chapter with the promised restoration of all creation. She has a nice, although brief, presentation on the image of God. Her observations on Eve are great and, along with her section on Adam, represent an accurate reflection of the text. If I may pause here, I would want to say how much I appreciated her connection with Eve and giving birth, and especially her own personal sharing of the significance of becoming a mother (p. 108). As a male, I found that here and in many other places in the book I benefit immensely by her perspective and her personal openness about resonating such experiences with the Old Testament text.
With ch. 5, “God’s Final Intent,” Richter turns to the new Jerusalem and begins her journey with the Eden of Genesis 2-3 and its presence in the Tabernacle and Temple. Cherubim as guardian figures (with the “mercy seat” of the Tabernacle/Temple as a place of God’s enthronement among his people), trees, and rivers all with their significance in the first place of meeting God and renewed in the final place. For more of this imagery the reader might consult Gordon Wenham, “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story,” pp. 399-404 in “I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood”: Ancient Near Eastern, Linguistic and Literary Approaches to Genesis 1-11, ed. R. Hess and David Tsumura (Sources for Biblical and Theological Study 4; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994).
Richter shows how each successive covenant extends to more and more people until with Christ all humanity is included. The beautiful description of the river of life in Ezekiel 47 and its realization in Genesis 21-22 picture the fulfillment of all the Eden promised. It will come but it is still to come. “The ‘not yet’ is what we live for” (p. 132). Finally, in recognition that “we need to be somehow lifted from our depravity long enough to say ‘yes’ to God” (p. 134), the author introduces Christ’s atonement and reconciliation in the great texts of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.
The remaining chapters of the book take us through the covenants, beginning with “Noah and Abraham” in ch. 6. I admire attempts to connect the Flood with various layers of sediment in and around Ur, but I more strongly agree with Richter’s earlier comment, that “With Abraham we at last step into datable history” (p. 53). Clearly there is a memory in the world and some parallels in ancient Near Eastern myths and the account of Genesis 6-9 that are more than coincidental. More than that becomes speculative. With regard to the Creation accounts of Genesis 1-2, there may be some “overlap” with Enuma Elish, but I do not see it. The flood accounts have closer parallels but different motivations. It is the wickedness of humanity that uniquely causes the flood in the Bible, as Richter notes. She reviews key texts associated with the sea, from the parting of the Red Sea right up to Jesus calming the waters on the Sea of Galilee. For those who understand the chief deity of the West Semitic world and his control of Sea, this is indeed “one of the clearest declarations of Jesus’ deity” (p. 146).
The changes in stewardship of the animals, with rules about consuming meat, are discussed. Richter looks at the cursing of Canaan and the important distinction that it is Canaan, not Ham, who is cursed. She turns to Gen. 6:1-4 and the Nephilim. She follows Sailhamer in connecting this with what precedes (ch. 5). Genesis 6:5 is all the reader requires to understand the reason for the flood. The sons of God could not be angels here because Matt. 22:30 indicates that angels neither marry nor are given in marriage. So the Nephilim are those who have fallen in battle, great warrior heroes of old, with human parents. It seems we all have our own view of the Nephilim. I appreciate Richter’s well researched work and agree with almost everything, including connecting 6:1-4 with what precedes (although I would also see it as transitional for what follows). See R. Hess, “Nephilim,” Anchor Bible Dictionary (Garden City: Doubleday, 1992)4.1072-73. I do, however, see the sons of God as angels, in line with the usage of this term elsewhere in the Old Testament. Matthew 22:30 describes angels “in heaven,” not those who have come to earth and “left their home” (Jude 6), perverting their God-given ability to appear in human form on earth. I do agree in my article that Nephilim is best understood as from the root npl with the sense of “fallen in battle” (cited already in the Amarna texts of the 14th century BC Canaan). Richter is correct that this is the #1 issue that people ask about in Genesis 1-11.
The author provides important discussions on Abram’s covenant and on circumcision. My take on the names of Abram and Sarai (pp. 161, 243) agrees with Richter on the former and now goes a different direction on the latter.
On the basis of Amorite (early 2nd millennium BC names from West Semitic peoples like Abram and Sarai) names, Abram was an originally polytheistic name meaning “Ram is divine Father” or, less likely, “the divine Father is exalted.” Ram was a known deity used in Amorite personal names (R. Hess, Amarna Personal Names [Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1993], p. 239). Sarai is sar “prince” + -ai. -ai is a suffix indicating that the name of a deity has been dropped and the name has been shortened. The second element is not a feminine suffix (so that the name matches Sarah). It occurs in both masculine and feminine names in the second and first millennia BC (F. Gröndahl, Die Personennamen der Texte aus Ugarit [Rome: Pontifical Bible Institute, 1967], pp. 50-51; R. Zadok, The Pre-Hellenistic Israelite Anthroponymy and Prosopography [Leuven: Peeters, 1988], p. 163; Hans Rechenmacher, Althebräische Personennamen [Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2012], pp. 65, 75). Sarai means, “(a deity) is prince.” Abram and Sarai are both polytheistic names (cf. Josh. 24:2), transformed into the confessional names of Abraham “father of a ‘multitude’” and of Sarah “princess,” reflecting what God was about to do in their lives.
Chapter 7, “Moses and the Tabernacle” moves us forward to the background and context for Joseph and then for Moses and his bringing Israel out of Egypt. As Richter notes, “For all of history God has chosen to be identified by this singular even” (p. 174). We need to understand this event to understand the God of our salvation. At Sinai Richter’s comments on law, calendar, and a cultic system are valuable as are those on typology and on the who cultic system. Using the example of a model airplane and a Boeing 747 (for those who are younger, think of the biggest plane ever), Richter sees the cultic system as a model of the much greater work of atonement that Christ provided. This is an important chapter as we read how Jesus does not do away with the law. The problem was not the law but the people. Christ now provides the manner to change the people by the power of the Spirit.
Chapter 8, “David and the Monarchy,” sets out the rest of the Old Testament story wherein the covenant with David is part of the Mosaic covenant. So Richter reviews the failures of the Judges and the absence of God’s direction in the choice of Saul as first. It is God who chooses David (again not the firstborn). Then, in a grand panorama, the author reviews his many accomplishments and the manner in which this set the direction for the Monarchy. Nevertheless, the failures of Solomon and so many of the later kings do not result in what could have been. Still, to the people and land promised to Abraham (along with being a blessing to others), there now appears the presence of Israel’s God located in Jerusalem. The failures of the kings and the resulting exile pushed forward the hope, expressed in Richter’s beautiful prose (p. 208), “…every faithful Israelite turns toward this singular hope. If only God could forgive us. If only he would send us a champion, a king born of the line of David, a just and righteous leader, perhaps this broken people could regain their lost inheritance and find peace.”
Chapter 9, “The New Covenant and the Return of the King,” borrow both a title from Tolkien and much of the spirit of that book. So the exile leaves Israel waiting for centuries. Then the angel appears and addresses him, “Joseph, son of David.” What a wonderful phrase for Richter to catch and develop, and what a wonderful story behind how she came to see it! The last Adam has come and has brought the kingdom. If we call upon the name of the Lord and endure, we will be saved. This life will not consist of wealth and fame as the great goals (p. 221). The individual believer has become the temple. What began in Eden ends in Eden (though Rev. 21:1 is so much more than a garden) and God dwells with us.
An appendix concludes with some observations on the law of Moses for Christians and on the role of the modern state of Israel. It is difficult to overestimate the value of this book for bringing students and other enquiring readers to value the whole of the Bible, but especially of the Old Testament, and for pointing directly to the work of Jesus Christ. You will not learn much about the Psalms and Wisdom Literature, and there are other texts that are not treated; but this is not intended to be a survey. Instead, one has a sense of Richter walking alongside us as readers and opening before us new pictures, understandings, and feelings that allow us to see and appreciate what we are reading. If you are interested in the Bible, I commend this work as the first “port of call” for reading and understanding the Old Testament as a Christian.
Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages