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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Online review only, listed in Volume 57, 2009

JOHN L. THOMPSON, Reading the Bible with the Dead. What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis That You Can’t Learn from Exegesis Alone (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). Pp. xi + 324. $US23.00.

The focus of Reading the Bible with the Dead is a critical examination of difficult and unpreached biblical texts through the ages. The book consists of nine case studies of biblical texts that are difficult to explain to twenty-first century Christian readers. The ‘problematic’ passages discussed in the book are: (1) texts of violence and abuse: stories of Hagar (and Ishmael); the sacrifice of Jephtah’s daughter in the pre-monarchial period of Israel’s history; the story of Hosea and his wife, Gomer; the imprecatory psalms; the immoralities of the forefathers; and stories of sexual violence and abuse of such women as Dinah, Bathsheba and Tamar; (2) domestic relations, mainly the socio-theological attitudes of key biblical characters to the divorce laws of Moses, Jesus and Paul; (3) women in church leadership in the light of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 and 1 Timothy 2. John L. Thompson intends to show us how old and ‘precritical’ commentators made sense of these troubling texts, and their attempt to handle them appropriately vis-ŕ-vis the reader, laity and the Zeitgeist.

Thompson starts with “Hagar in Salvation-History” (13–32). First, he discusses Hagar’s character in the view of contemporary interpreters (mainly, feminist and liberation theologians). Then, he turns to survey the history of how Hagar’s character has been interpreted by the commentators, starting with Philo and ending with Luther. Here, Thompson analyses primary interpretations, exploring the biblical texts regarding Hagar, her behaviour, and relations to Abraham, Sarah, and God (Gen 16:1–16; 21:8–21). He discusses the history of interpretation of Gen 21:9 (Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham laughing at him). In his discussion of the meaning of Gen 21:9 he utilises the ancient Jewish interpretation found in Gen. Rab. 21:9. In this midrashic commentary, the rabbis understood the verb ‘laughing’ in a negative sense, as related to Ishmael’s physical and mental abuse of Isaac, which might have consisted of sexual harassment or pagan worship. What exactly Ishmael was doing is not clear. In either case Sarah saw it as a real danger to her son’s well-being. Thompson suggests that the midrashic interpretation influenced the latter generations of Christian theologians (starting with Paul’s allegorical interpretation in Gal 4:21–31).

While Thompson’s reading of Gen 21 relies on the hermeneutical presuppositions of some Jewish exegetes, he does not consider other rabbinical attempts of handling the biblical text. Rashbam, Nahmanides and Obadja Sforno interpreted Gen 21:9 in a very different way. According to them, Ishmael was trying to express his supremacy as the legal heir of Abraham’s legacy (see Sarah’s reaction in v. 10). His argument would have been stronger if he had appealed to a wider range of Jewish post-biblical sources. The contribution of such exegetical analysis would greatly enhance the discussion of the history of biblical interpretation.

The concluding part of each case study aims to “distil … historical details, good and bad, and reflect on their implications for interpreting the Bible’s hard texts” (10). This section is particularly addressed to readers interested in exploring the meaning of the text for today. In the final chapter entitled “Conclusion: On Cultivating the Habit of History—Reading the Bible in the Presence of the Past,” Thompson summarises the historic-philosophical dimensions of exploring the history of biblical interpretation. It gives readers two directives: (1) explore your roots; (2) read the writers who influenced your ancestors. By reading with the dead the reader will learn to avoid the mistakes of the past and present. The final chapter is followed by useful and practical addendums such as “Glossary of Biblical Commentators and Other Writers or Writings,” “A Finding Guide to English Translations of Commentary Literature Written before 1600,” Bibliography, and Indices of Subjects, Names and Scripture References.

Thompson’s book would have been enhanced if he had included arts as a ‘window’ to a wide range of past Christian interpretative traditions. In the case of Hagar’s stories, numerous eminent artists can be mentioned here: Peter Lastman (1583–1633); Gustav Doré (1832–83); Frederik Goodball (1822–1904); James Eckford Lauder (1811–69) (see recent works on Hagar in arts: Christina P. Sellin, Fractured Families and Rebel Maidservants: the Biblical Hagar in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Literature [New York: Continuum, 2006]; Exum J. Cheryl, “The Accusing Look: The Abjection of Hagar in Art,” Religion and the Arts 2 (2007) 143–71). Indeed, paintings of the sacrifice of Jephtah’s daughter and some scandalous scenes of the patriarchs might be a good exegetical tool to recover either forgotten or marginalised voices of the past generations.

Thompson’s book is generally clear, well-written and well-documented. This book achieves its purpose to analyse some of the most obscure texts found in the Holy Scriptures. I would recommend it as a guide to all who dealing with the hard biblical passages discussed in the book. Thompson’s thoughts on biblical exegesis may be relevant not only to church historians, but to OT and NT scholars as well. Reading the Bible with the Dead is a significant contribution to the growing field of ‘Reception History of the Bible.’ Much lends itself to further research and debate; however, Thompson’s survey will provide an enduring resource for scholars engaged in research of the history of biblical interpretation.

Review by
Igal German
Wycliffe College
Toronto ON Canada