A Review of
Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence
Tremper Longman III
Reviewed by Rob O’Lynn
There are few names in biblical studies, especially Old Testament studies, that are as influential as they are unrecognizable to even scholarly circles as is the name Tremper Longman III. His name is not recognizable as classic scholars such as Oscar Cullmann or Gerhard von Rad, or even as recognizable as modern scholars such as Walter Brueggemann, Peter Enns or Iain Provan. He mentions how he often gets confused with friend and occasional co-author John H. Walton, another notable Old Testament scholarly who is much more influential than his name may let on. Longman (and Walton) have long stood in that narrow gap of scholarship between conservatives and progressives, espousing a more “moderate” theological position, a position that submits itself to the authority of scripture yet also engages the difficult conversations regarding biblical studies. Longman’s list of books is long, including commentaries on Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Jeremiah and Daniel, several “how to read” volumes, and one introduction that has been a standard in the field for over twenty years. His influence is wide-ranging, we just have not realized it.
This is why a scholar such as Longman has the authority to author such a work as the one being presently considered. As mentioned above, Longman has made a life as a moderate scholar, meaning that he upsets conservatives for not advocating a fundamentalist view of the Old Testament just as he upsets progressives for not advocating a liberal view of the Old Testament. Both views, generally and surprisingly, abdicate the authority inherent in the Bible. On the one hand, conservatives reject any conversation that strays from literal seven-day creationism, a 400-year enslavement period (it was more like 70 anyway, just read the text) or the book of Isaiah was written by Isaiah (which means Isaiah would have been about as old as Yoda when his book was finished). On the other hand, progressives reject any conversation that supports the moral fiber of the Mosaic law, the clearly pro-life theme of the Old Testament or the nationalist songs that funnel through the Psalms and Prophets.
In fact, as Longman notes in his introduction, this is exactly why he pursued a professional course in Old Testament studies (xv). As he notes, “The present book, the first written after my retirement from full-time teaching, intends to help Christians appreciate the continuing relevance of the Old Testament in the light of current controversies over its teaching” (xv). It is the controversies of evolution, how one articulates history, gender, and the necessity of violence that draws Longman’s attention, now free of an employer’s concern, because these are the conversations that many are now having about the Old Testament.
In Chapter One, Longman engages in a discussion regarding theories of creation and evolution, regarding how the universe began. Longman opens this chapter with an appropriate subtext: how one reads and interprets the Bible. Various surveys note that young people are turning aside from the Christian faith because it is commonly believed that Christianity is opposed to science. Yet, the Bible is not opposed to science; it is just not interested in modern science. As Longman argues here and throughout the book, “The Bible, including Genesis 1-3, is the Word of God and thus true in everything it intends to teach us” (25). The key phrase in this statement is the second half of the statement: “thus true in everything it intends to teach us.” This opens the conversation regarding canonicity, inerrancy and clarity. The argument of creation and evolution is more than justifying entry prices for a faith-based museum or justifying teaching supposed competing theories of how the universe got started in faith-based science textbooks. The argument of creation and evolution is about how we read God in the pages of the Hebrew scriptures. Regardless of whether it is the literality of “days” of creation, how evil could already be present before God created the universe or who the “us” in when God speaks about making humanity is God’s image, the point is that God is who scripture is about, and that we cannot nor should argue.
In Chapter Two, Longman engages in a discussion regarding theories of exodus and conquest. Here the question is whether the exodus and conquest events actually happened. Although the history described in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua was long accepted as both legitimate and accurate, Longman argues that even contemporary evangelical scholars are doubting both the legitimacy and the accuracy of these texts. The question is no longer if these narratives happened but why they were recorded to begin with. The narratives serve a nationalist purpose, staking claim to land owned by others. Many could lay claim to the name of Abraham, however the Jews did so by pressing swords to throats, or at least the argument goes. The question today, then, is what purpose do these texts serve?
This leads into Chapter Three, where Longman engages in a discussion regarding the violence purported on the pages of the Old Testament, specifically in the conquest literature. Again the argument is not whether these events actually happened, as even the conservative stance is that they did not, but for what purpose were they recorded.
In Chapter Four, Longman concludes by engaging in a discussion regarding gender and sexuality. This is likely the more perplexing of Longman’s discussions for at least two reasons. First, much of the conversation seems forced, as in to align with more progressive or liberal arguments regarding a biblical view of sexuality and sexual ethics. There is a revisionist bent too much of this conversation, seen most notably in the excursus on David and Jonathan (which claims, on one hand, that they engaged in an openly homosexual relationship, or, on the other hand, that Jonathan retained homoerotic thoughts regarding David). Second, when it comes to answering common objections, Longman seems wary about landing on either side.
While Longman addresses each topic with a great swath of content and articulates his thoughts with great thoughtfulness, at the end of the day, it is difficult to know exactly where Longman falls on any issue that he discusses. This is, admittedly, a drawback to being a theological moderate, as this reviewer also admits to belonging to a more moderate stance. The design of each chapter presents problematically, as each chapter contains at least one excursus, material that could have either been easily incorporated into the larger discussion as an additional subsection or eliminated altogether as unnecessary to the larger discussion. Overall, however, Longman does present the arguments for the reader in such a way that one has plenty of evidence for coming to her or his own conclusions, which the extensive bibliography provides plenty of follow-up reading.