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The End of the Beginning: Revelation 21-22 and the Old Testament William J. Dumbrell

(Baker Book House, 1985)

In most homiletics courses it is drummed into the aspiring preacher that a text out of context is a pretext. Prof. Dumbrell has sought to set Revelation 21-22 in its widest context in order to provide its fullest meaning. He shows the section is not only an appropriate way of concluding the Book of Revelation, but indeed provides the proper conclusion for the entire Bible. He does this by observing the use of the main literary motifs in the passage. As such this is an important work, being one of the first full-length treatments on the use of motifs. He gives substance to Michael Fishbane's contention (Texts and Texture: Close Readings of Selected Biblical Texts [New York: Schoken Books, 1979]) that recurrent motifs are what gives the Bible its coherence.

The format of the study is to take five of the major motifs that appear in Revelation 21-22, trace something of their origin and development through the OT, briefly view how they affect the NT writers, and then conclude by showing how Revelation 21-22 gives the fullest eschatological expression to the motifs. His five motifs, and therefore chapters, are The New Jerusalem, The New Temple, The New Covenant, The New Israel, and The New Creation. Whilst some of these do not occur as words in the passage, Dumbrell argues that these are the concepts around which the passage is molded. He also shows that together these five form a major theme of the whole Bible.

In developing the ideas of each chapter he has adhered to one particular stream of evangelical interpretation and dating. The book is worth reading just to note some of the exegetical work he has done on selected passages. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the stream of interpretation, one is compelled by the vigor of his thought to follow through as he formulates his thesis. As he traces each motif one becomes aware of the power and usefulness of his technique. With some passages he is able to justify a particular interpretation because of the wider context of the motif being used. The way he uses the technique to draw meaning out of some OT passages suggests that it may soon be used to aid in dating questionable passages. (Such and such a motif is present in the passage and has developed to an extent that it must be after period A but before period B.)

Whilst the concepts Dumbrell develops are important to biblical studies, a number of strange inconsistencies detract from the work. The author shows that he is aware of recent work that has gone on in this area of interpretive technique. He will therefore be aware that students entering this field struggle, since different authors use different words to try and express the same concept (for some "theme" or "type" is the same as "motif" for others) or use "motif" to mean slightly different things. Yet nowhere is the reader given Dumbrell's definition. The study would have been more defined and more useful to future researchers if the conceptual developments had been allowed to lead to a clear definition of motif. This reader found the English style quite difficult. The concepts of this work need to be passed to the reasonably educated layman. This seems to have been a target group in that technical details are in smaller type. However, the style is such that only those who are used to scholastic reading are likely to persevere. This is sad since the author has a good turn of phrase and is able to present some of his interpretations better than I have seen elsewhere. This edition lacks page references on the "Contents" pages, and the addition of an index would have been useful.

The author argues that the first four motifs serve as preparation for the ultimate character of the eschatological age, that is, the completely new creation. Thus the final redemptive act is seen to be a creative act. One wonders if the evidence bears this. The thrust of Revelation 21-22 is not simply to do away with the imperfect world, but to restore and complete the fullness of the relationship between God and his people. "They will be his people and God himself will be with them." The desire of the believer is not a new pure environment, even if that be the sanctuary. Rather it is an eternal relationship with his God. Thus I would suggest that the new covenant is the "ultimate character."

This highlights the difficulty in motific studies in their infancy. They are like a rope. The various strands (motifs) depend upon each other for strength, they all go in the same direction, and people will argue as to which is the most important!

In all Dumbrell successfully argues for the unity and continuity of certain divinely revealed concepts through the various ages of the OT, through the NT period, and on to providing eschatological expectations. This is a good "Weekend away" book that will stretch one's imagination and force one to see the Bible in big overarching pictures again.

Michael Kreft

This review first appeared in Westminster Theological Journal 50:1 [Spring 1998] and is used here with permission. No part of this review may be copied or transmitted in any form without the prior permission of the publisher. See WTJ for subscription and pricing information.