Sandra L. Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008. 263pp. $24.00. Paper.
Sandra Richter, associate professor of OT at Asbury, is married to Steve Tsoukalas, and according to the back cover of this volume she regularly speaks on the topic of The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament. Richter’s likeability comes through in her writing style, which is conversational and non-academic in this book. There is a lot to like about Epic of Eden. The layout is clear and her approach inviting: she begins with an introduction meant to encourage believers to tackle the Old Testament. From there she has nine clean chapters followed by a brief FAQ. There were points reading the book when I found myself stopping to admire not only the content of what Richter said but the way she said it. The major concern I have with the book, however, will be the focus of this review.
Can you imagine a book on the Old Testament beginning with a chapter titled “The Bible as the Story of Redemption” and not saying anything about God redeeming Israel for himself at the exodus from Egypt? This may seem unfathomable, but it’s exactly what Richter does. Right before she discusses what “Israel’s Tribal Culture” was like—a discussion dealing with the entirety of Israel’s history not just pre-exodus patriarchs—she writes that redemption “and the concepts associated with it emerged from the everyday, secular vocabulary of ancient Israel. ‘To redeem’ . . . in its first associations had nothing to do with theology, but everything to do with the laws and social customs of the ancient tribal society of which the Hebrews were a part” (24–25). How does she know this? The laws in the Pentateuch, laws which regulated and resulted in Israel’s social customs, all purport to come after the exodus from Egypt. How can Richter be certain that redemption and all its associations were not dominated by the reality that God had redeemed Israel from Egypt?
Richter states, “the idea of redemption was intrinsically linked to the familial responsibilities of a patriarch to his clan” (40), then she discusses Ruth and Boaz. Here again I wonder why she has not appealed to the exodus from Egypt. She could establish patriarchal truths from the exodus, with God identifying Israel as his firstborn son, and these realities would seem to be the foundational ones that give meaning to the familial relationships Richter does discuss (cf. Eph 3:14–15). Rather than seeing what Yahweh has done as the reality that gives meaning to human relationships, Richter starts with human relationships and moves from there to Yahweh: “So now we have come full circle and are ready to define the word redemption. We are also ready to understand why this word was chosen by the Old Testament writers to describe Yahweh’s relationship with his people” (45). I submit that Richter has it backwards. What Yahweh has done for Israel at the exodus, identifying himself as their father and redeeming them from slavery, gives meaning to Israel’s society, rather than Israel’s society giving meaning to the exodus. Yahweh does not present himself as acting in accord with ancient social and cultural norms. Rather, he calls Israel to act like him because he has set them apart for himself (e.g., Lev 11:44–45; 20:8).
As she does with redemption, so she does with covenant. Richter writes, “we find that the etymological roots of this term are ancient, packed with significance and completely secular in their original associations” (70). Remarkably, on the same page she says that God’s “agreement with Adam and Eve in Eden” was a “covenantal interaction” (cf. also her discussion of “Eden as a Covenant,” 103–104). If the very first covenantal arrangement was between God and the man and woman in the Garden of Eden, how did the word covenant originally have secular associations? Richter makes a similar move with the word hesed: discussing the loyalty required in suzerain/vassal treaties under the heading “Covenant-Making in the Ancient Near East,” Richter declares, “In the Bible, the term for this sort of loyalty is hesed” (74).
These examples prompt a question: does the Bible define the world, or does the world define the Bible? Admittedly this is a false dichotomy, but it gets at the issue. Clearly background knowledge informs our understanding of the Bible, but should what we learn from extra-biblical writings and archeology determine our understanding of the Bible? Might it not be the case that there are unique realities described in the Bible that are better discerned from biblical usage of a term than from ancient Near Eastern parallels and backgrounds? Might it not be the case that the biblical authors mean to explain to their readers what redemption is or what hesed is or what a covenant is by relating what Yahweh has done for his people? Similarly, Richter seems to assume that God intended to teach Israel about himself by means of their prior knowledge of politics: “How would Yahweh make his people understand that they were to worship him alone? By putting the idea of monotheism into terms they would understand: political terms” (86). Did God mean for Israel to learn theology from politics or politics from theology?
I contend that the Biblical authors mean to communicate to us the way God made the world, judged the world, promised to redeem the world, and set about doing just that. As later biblical authors bring out their writings, they are presenting their interpretations of earlier Scripture. The biblical authors are thus modeling an interpretive perspective in their writings. Those who embrace the message of the Bible should seek to learn that interpretive perspective. We want to learn how to interpret both the Bible and the world from the biblical authors. Understanding biblical backgrounds can aid and inform our understanding of what the biblical authors have written, but extra-biblical parallels and archeology are not determinative. Too often Richter starts with background then moves to Bible.
Richter’s discussion of background realities is informative, her attempt to organize the OT and familiarize Christians with it is admirable, and as noted above, at points her prose is thought provoking, even beautiful. The book’s intended audience seems to be those who are unfamiliar with the OT, however, and such readers should be warned of the way that biblical backgrounds and ancient parallels control Richter’s approach to everything from redemption to covenant to the lovingkindness of the Lord.