A Review of
Being Human in God’s World:
An Old Testament Theology of Humanity
J. Gordon McConville
Hardback: Baker Academic, 2016
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Reviewed by Nick Jordan
J. Gordon McConville’s central question, repeated at regular intervals throughout this book, is a Biblical question: “What is the human being, that you [God] should call him to mind; or the son of man that you should pay attention to him?” (Psalm 8:4). He explores this question not only as a Biblical scholar and theologian, but as one who wants to help Christians. As he writes in his Preface, “what follows should be regarded as an essay in reading the Bible in pursuit of oneself, individually and in one’s various communities, as a human being.”
The first two chapters explore Genesis 1-3, which McConville insists must be taken as a single whole. He introduces the concept of the imago Dei, referencing the Genesis 1 creation of the human being in the “image of God.” He writes that the imago Dei possesses two razor-sharp edges which are revealed in Adam and Eve’s temptation: we humans manifest God in the midst of Creation and as such truly have been made to be godlike, yet at great cost we try to seize for ourselves what we believe to be godlikeness.
Chapters Three and Four begin by addressing the Hebrew terms which the Old Testament uses for our human depths—heart, soul, body, mind—then turn toward looking at the way the language of the Old Testament plays back-and-forth with speaking of humans as individuals and as members of a social body, in the process developing an anthropology in which humans cannot be understood as solely individuals or as anonymous group members. Here McConville interacts with various theories of the self, citing Charles Taylor and Marilynne Robinson in seeing “religious and intellectual ancestry” behind not only the work of Thomas Hobbes but also of Richard Dawkins.
Chapter Five looks at questions of how the Old Testament is to be read, and McConville convincingly argues that through their own storytelling and work of reinterpretation, the books of the Old Testament invite us to join in their vision of God, humankind, the land, and the rest of Creation. It is not only later interpreters who try to find contemporary meaning in ancient stories; we also see the Old Testament authors doing that work with repeated reflections on stories like the Exodus, as well as “spiritual readings” throughout the history of interpretation. McConville argues that such readings are legitimate because they imitate the Old Testament’s understanding of itself.
Chapter Six on embodiment (in dialogue with Ellen Davis, Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson, Craig Bartholomew, and Terence Fretheim) is a highlight, including not only an emphasis on the physicality of human bodies but on the physical Creation, especially the land. Right relationship to other people and to the land are tied to right relationship with God, who chose a particular people and a particular place to dwell. Conversely “placedness is most acutely revealed when people are displaced by famine, disaster, or war,” as certainly happens both in the Biblical narrative and in our world.
Chapter Seven looks at the interaction of the imago Dei with politics. Because of the Creation of humankind, McConville argues that there is a fierce democracy at work even in the Old Testament, by virtue of the worth of each human. He points out the equal access to the land, the treatment even of fruit trees as an example of how the common good is to be served when people relate to one another and the Creation according to God’s reign. It is only as Israel and Judah grow faithless that the kings and upper classes become richer and richer at great cost to the poor. The prophet’s call is consistently to remind the people and their kings of who they are in relation to one another, God, and the land.
Chapter Eight is titled, “Male and Female.” It is marked by a running conversation with Phyllis Trible, as well as interaction with other feminist scholars, across several Biblical narratives. McConville is convinced and convincing that love and desire are part of human createdness, and he makes his way through the difficulties of Hosea, Ezekiel, and Song of Songs. Of all the sections of this book, this seemed overly tentative at times, and I wished it spoke not only of sex but more deeply of gender, especially in returning to Genesis 1-3.
Chapter Nine was most surprising and challenging to me. It’s discussion of creativity as part of bearing the image of God was not new, but it is incredibly well-conceived. Then McConville ties creativity to all work (drawing on Miroslav Volf). By the end of the chapter, McConville has provided a lovely image of a Creation in which God and people are at joyful play in their work, whether that is poetry or an eight-hour shift.
Over the course of the book, McConville continuously widens his net, bringing more of the Old Testament narrative into developing our understanding of “being human in God’s world.” Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Saul, David, the kings, exile, the prophets, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms are all not only mentioned but thoroughly explored and excavated for their treasures. McConville is a tremendous exegete, bringing together historical critical sources, alongside literary readings (especially Robert Alter), alongside feminist readings (especially Phyllis Trible), alongside environmentalist readings.
Chapter Ten is where McConville brings the various threads to their culmination. He sees in the Psalms the basic work of human formation that God and humans are doing together. Using Bruegemann’s framework for understanding the Psalms, as well as the basic content of the Psalms—from joy to sadness to despair to hatred, McConville sees a picture of how humans become human. He has argued from the beginning of the book that the imago Dei is something we have been given and something we are growing into. In the drama of the Psalms and in the faithfulness of God throughout them, he sees this reality.
By the end of the chapter he also makes clear what he has been aiming for all along. This is not another book for Bible scholars, but a book to help us become Christians: “This present essay has been offered, not as a theory but as a preamble to a practice, and in part a practice itself…we do not find formulas for steady progress in the spiritual life, but rather an invitation to a practice of living centered on worship, as a response to the paradoxical condition of being human.”