AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 58, 2010
MARK J. BODA, A Severe Mercy. Sin and Its Remedy in the Old Testament (Siphrut; Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures 1; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009). Pp. x + 622. Hardback. $US59.50.
The rather unusual title of this hefty tome attempts to capture in a concise way two keys aspects of “God’s character,” which is identified “as both gracious and just; God forgives and yet punishes, that is, he displays a severe mercy” to sinners (522). God’s punishment of sinners is disciplinary, an integral part of the remedy for sin. Boda defines sin as “a violation in thought, word, or deed against another party (divine, human, creation) that breaks a divinely ordered norm” (11). His analysis is guided by the form and shape of the canonical Old Testament and not the various pre-canonical layers postulated by historical critical scholarship. Nevertheless, historical analysis has convinced Boda that one needs to be critically aware of the distinction between the world that produced the canonical text and his stance as a reader. The latter enables insight but also exposes limitations. His aim is to “enter the imaginative space of the ancient canon of the Old Testament in order to highlight the ‘world views’ and ‘literary shapes’ of the ‘texts taken individually and as a whole collection’” (the phrases in single quotation marks are taken from K. J. Vanhoozer, “Exegesis and Hermeneutics,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology [Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 2000] 52–64).
The book is divided into Part One on the Torah, Part Two on the Prophets, and Part Three on The Writings. The discussion of each book and the relevant terminology is extensive: the only book not considered, understandably in this context, is Ruth. To facilitate things for the reader, useful tables, summaries and conclusions are provided at strategic points. There is an impressive bibliography of which Boda makes extensive use, plus an author and Scripture Index. Even in an undertaking as mammoth as this, selections have to be made and there are gaps—the inevitable limitations to which Boda refers in his introduction. To take an example of a biblical text, he identifies God’s punishment of the couple in Genesis 3 as the factor “that introduces difficulty into humanity’s ability to fulfil the creation mandate of Gen 1:28” (19). But this overlooks the consequence of their transgression that comes before God’s intervention. As a result of eating from the forbidden tree they have a distorted perception of themselves and God; this is not God’s punishment (on this see Antony F. Campbell, Making Sense of the Bible. Difficult Texts and Modern Faith [New York: Paulist, 2010] 23). To take an example of bibliography, Boda refers to Norman Whybray’s book (Reading the Psalms as a Book [JSOTSup 222; Sheffield: Academic Press, 1996]) in his outline of the shape of the Psalter (448–50), but on my reading Whybray’s book seeks to outline the problems and limitations of hypotheses about arrangement and order in the Psalms rather than to endorse them.
Another limitation—or problem—is one that arises from the canonical approach itself. It tends to look for connections whereas the historical critical approach—which of course has its own limitations—tends to see diversity and even contradiction. An interesting connection that Boda mentions is the one between Achan’s sin in Joshua 7 and Genesis 3: the first offence in the land echoes the first in creation (131, n. 8). A less convincing one is the hypothesis of “two seeds” (reflected in the genealogical lists of Genesis) which leads Boda to link Gen 6:1–7 to the sinful line of Cain and 6:8 to the favoured line of Seth. However, there seems to be no evidence for it in the text and on p. 117 he seems to downgrade it to ‘possibly.’ On p. 198 he proposes that Isaiah 6 is in continuity with two prophetic patterns in Isaiah 1: the first in vv. 2–20 with its indictment of sin, reception by people, repentance and restoration; the second in vv. 21–31 with indictment, followed by severe discipline with the purpose of renewal (holy seed). On my reading the message of Isa 6:9–10 is quite different: it is to rule out the possibility of return and repentance. At the more general level of Old Testament biblical theology, Boda concludes that God’s display of “severe mercy” is consistent throughout (522). This does not address the lament psalms, Job or Ecclesiastes that complain how the wicked frequently get away with blue murder.
The value of such a vast survey is that it prompts one to think about certain texts again, as in the above examples. Overall this is an informative contribution to the biblical theology of sin; it is Boda’s first phase of a larger project (11, n. 28).
Mark A. O’Brien
St Dominic’s Priory
816 Riversdale Road
Camberwell VIC 3124