Cover Image: The Faith of Israel

The Faith of Israel:
A Theological Survey of the Old Testament

William. J. Dumbrell (Baker/Apollos, 1988, 2002)

Blurb Review by Edwin Tay

Review by Edwin Tay

Dr Dumbrell is no novice to the discipline of biblical theology. His work on the OT covenants entitled Covenant and Creation (1984) is already well known and is published in the Biblical and Theological Classics Library series. He has also worked on how OT motifs are taken up in Rev 21-22 in The End of the Beginning (1985), and OT eschatology in The Search for Order (1994).

In this second edition of The Faith of Israel, first published in 1988, he brings to us the fruit of many years of labour. In it, Dumbrell takes his readers on a ride through the OT theological landscape as Israel presented it within the structure of her canon. He begins with a treatment of the books of the Law, followed by the Prophets (former and latter), and ends with the Writings. This means that the books of Chronicles, with its promise of temple reconstruction and the gathering of God's people for worship (2 Chro 36:23), closes the theological movement of Israel's expression of faith instead of the Elijah-type prophet of Malachi who calls for cleansing of the people as a prelude to covenant renewal. Issues of dating, sources, and textual integrity are not ignored but kept to a minimum. This is because his primary concern is not to engage with text-critical issues but rather to crystallize the theological thrust of each book and to relate its peculiar contribution to the wider concerns of the Hebrew canon on the basis of the received Masoretic text. Those who want more extensive treatments of exegetical and historical issues will need to complement it with other standard texts in OT studies.

"By beginning with creation, the biblical account makes it clear that whatever follows in revelation must be understood within this comprehensive first movement of Genesis 1" (p. 13). With this inaugural note as his point of departure, Dumbrell proceeds to trace the movement of Israel's expression of her faith from Creation to the prospects of a New Covenant, and consequently a New Creation. This is achieved by demonstrating the interconnectedness of the various sections of each book in an attempt to make plain its inner logic and relating them to the logic and themes of other OT books. As such, the unity of the OT is wonderfully affirmed without resorting to asides of a more technical nature in which up to date scholarship materials are critically discussed in support of that unity but which inevitably breaks up the sense of literary and theological movement.

Since the book is subtitled "a theological survey of the Old Testament", some observations on its theological approach are in order. Theological themes are identified and developed as and when they arise within the flow of the text. Whenever necessary, they are isolated and given more extensive treatments (see pp. 63-8). Great care is taken to avoid pushing the explication of these themes beyond what the context of the passage under consideration allows. This sensitivity applies equally to OT texts which are often employed for doctrinal formulations in the field of systematic theology. In this respect, it is worth keeping the following question in mind as we digest the book's contents: "To what extent can we move from biblical theology to systematic theology at this point in the OT's theological movement?" The tension this question raises is not foreign to Dumbrell. For instance, while he rejects common interpretations of the plural address of Gen 1:26 ("let us") as referring to various interpretive nuances of the doctrine of the Trinity (be it the Trinitarian council, or as an evidence of distinctions within the being of God, or as an address to the Spirit), he stops short of providing his own positive explication of it. His answer to the above question, it seems to me, is to leave the doctrinal possibility open with a dose of qualifications. Hence his caveat: "in final biblical, trinitarian terms, an address to the Spirit may well be true." (pp. 15f.) (cf. also his treatment of the identity and atoning work of the Servant in Isaiah 52-55. [pp. 123-6]).

While it is bound to be the case that not all will be satisfied with Dumbrell's "theological survey", particularly those who are familiar with thematic treatments of OT theology (e.g. William Dyrness, Themes in Old Testament Theology), nevertheless, in the light of his stated aims to "present the theological movement of each book" and "to indicate how each book's content contributes to that book's purpose" (p. 10), there is no doubt that he has more than ably accomplished them. Furthermore, his succinct prose is eminently readable and treatment of each OT book in a few pages (apart from Genesis and Isaiah) gives ready access to the crux of each book. My only quibble is the choice of in-text references instead of footnotes, which of course does not affect the high quality of this eminent work. I do recommend it highly to all who do not want to miss the wood for the trees in OT interpretation.

One major reason for the tension identified above is the incomplete account of how theological themes in the OT are worked out in the NT. Dumbrell has started to paint that landscape in The New Covenant - The Synoptics in Context: Matthew, Mark and Luke (The Bible Society of Singapore, 1999). I am sure readers who are familiar with his work are waiting, as I am, in eager anticipation for the completed terrain which will doubtless contribute towards the resolution of that tension.

Review by Edwin Tay

Originally from Singapore, Edwin is engaged in doctoral research at New College, Edinburgh, Scotland.

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