A Feature Review of
Opening Israel’s Scriptures
Paperback: Oxford UP, 2019
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Reviewed by Amy Erickson
In Opening Israel’s Scriptures, the sure hands of a world-class theologian gather the harvest from a lifetime of preaching, dialogue, and study to navigate the “spacious world” evoked by ancient Jewish writers. At once comprehensive and detailed, accessible and academic, engaging and learned, Duke Divinity School’s Ellen Davis indulges her readers with expansive new vistas of the Old Testament.
Her tome consists of relatively short and digestible essays, each of which treats a whole or part of a biblical book. Overall, Davis opts to follow the order of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Former and Latter Prophets, and Writings. On occasion she departs and resorts to the Protestant ordering. Placing Ruth after Judges, for examples, capitalizes on the books’ shared chronological setting. Some related books, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, are treated together. Others are paired to strike notable interpretive chords: Job and Song of Songs reveal “the agony and the ecstasy” of life with God. Chronicles is treated, as it is in the Jewish ordering, last, to show how the close of Israel’s scripture is an “aspirational” one which recognizes that, despite Israel’s recurrent failure, they are still God’s people, waiting expectantly for his coming work.
In each essay, Davis resolves to attend to the distinctive theological contribution of every portion of the canon. These treatments are leavened throughout by voices that stretch across history and around the globe. Ancient rabbinic interpreters and modern African ones, among renowned artists and theologians, all gather in this volume to illuminate facets of the biblical text. Archaeological, comparative-literature, historical, and linguistic resources all find their places too. While Davis refuses to confine herself to modernity’s obsession with ‘what actually happened,’ neither does she throw the historical-critical baby out of the hermeneutical bathwater. Instead, such questions are engaged, but bracketed. An excursus between Joshua and Judges considers the historical context of the Canaanite upheaval in the 13th century BCE, for example, to compare the theological implications of Joshua’s rhetoric with what historically appears as something more like a “settlement” than a “conquest”.
Davis brings these multi-disciplinary insights to bear on contemporary concerns with pastoral sensitivity while refusing to shy from potential contentiousness. In her treatment on Ezra-Nehemiah, for example, Davis evaluates Rev. Robert Jeffress’s Inauguration sermon to President-elect Trump which likened Trump’s intent to build a Mexican border wall with Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild those of Jerusalem. In Davis’s assessment, Nehemiah is better likened to African leaders seeking reconstruction in postcolonial Africa, although even this resourcing of the biblical text must be subject to scrutiny and discernment. Davis ultimately questions how heavily we should heed the exclusivist note of Ezra- Nehemiah without attending to the inclusivist counterpoints struck elsewhere in the canon.
Davis admirably refuses to ignore difficult Old Testament texts or their misuse to justify historical atrocities. Instead of downplaying these passages, Davis recommends “slowing down” for violent texts, considering how they aim to “disturb in ways that prove edifying” (95). Davis suggests that Numbers 5’s jarring prescription for a suspected adulterating wife indicates YHWH’s suspicion that Israel is the one who has “gone astray” (97). Davis’s stunning treatment of Joshua wards off valid concerns that the book’s descriptions of war justify genocide, deftly noting how Joshua surprisingly destabilizes its own claims of victory while blurring the ‘us’ and ‘them’ boundaries that usually structure accounts of its kind elsewhere in the ancient world. Ultimately, Davis suggests that Joshua was written to avoid religious assimilation in a time when Israel was the one who was conquered. In a similar manner, Davis dismantles feminist concerns with patriarchal undercurrents of the Old Testament text by taking note of the startling fact that the Israelite nation as a whole opted “to see themselves in the same way the Bible represents women, as relatively powerless yes not inferior” (160).
Throughout, Davis’s research and readings are relayed in fresh writing and original translations that awaken the reader to the biblical text afresh. In Leviticus Aaron enters the inner sanctuary equipped with a “smoke machine” (73), Numbers 16:3 shows how Korah is a “rebel with a pedigree” (89), Samson’s parents are alarmed by his associations with “Philistine schmucks” (157), Amos heads up a “verbal sting operation” (224), Esther is “carnevelisque” (381). Contemporary parallels alert the reader to portions of the text oft-yawned over: the long lists of names which front Chronicles share a “cool” form with the Vietnam War memorial (408). Her crisp diction grants the reader a new purchase on the text as the direct fruit of Davis’s resolve to experience scripture anew herself. Davis recounts how she once “walked” through the names of Chronicles while reading on her elliptical: “With my body thus fully engaged, I understood; this is a walk through much of Israel’s world and distinctive story” (407).
Though this reading of Israel’s scriptures is unapologetically Christian and presumes that the person of Christ is their fulfillment, New Testament references are kept to a minimum. Davis allows the Old Testament’s distinctive voice to come through, and she refuses to allow simplistic Christological readings to smother the text. Davis puts all the possible references of Isaiah’s servant songs on display, noting that “no single line of interpretation exhausts the possibilities” (275).
There are few criticisms to leverage against this masterful work. However, it would have been nice to benefit from Davis’s treatment of the Minor Prophets as a whole book, as much contemporary scholarship is beginning to do. Also, Davis surprisingly fails to make explicit note of the split between Israel and Judah. This is not only a significant turn of the biblical story with reverberating repercussions throughout the canon, it is also a glaring theological theme with potent implications for a contemporary world riddled by division across a swathe of societal domains, and one for which Davis’s insights would be of service.
But overall these are minor quibbles, as Ellen Davis has compressed a wealth of biblical interpretation and knowledge in an economy of length on a book whose meanings, as she well notes, are inexhaustible. It is this inexhaustibly which begins to account for the strange fact “that thoughtful people in sizable numbers would pay close, sustained attention to writings from a distant millennium and culture.” (6). Nevertheless, this fact remains “a miracle, or at least a profound mystery,” a mystery and miracle which are perhaps only surpassed by the mystery and miracle of a God who seeks to be known by humans (46) and who, for some reason, has some stake in a relationship with them (31). Ellen Davis has offered readers a gift in continuing the canonical conversation on these mysteries; we can hope that she inspires more of its kind.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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