Mark MCENTIRE, Portraits of a Mature God: Choices in Old Testament Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013. Pp 251, $30.38 Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-8006-9941-3.
Reviewed by James ZEITZ, Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, Texas 48207
A creative and helpful contribution to the theology of the Old Testament based on the premise that the second temple period in Israel’s formation of its canon formation—and the Chroniclers’ history and Ezra/Nehemiah—deserves center place for a theology of the Old Testament: theology, that is, reframed as a narrative of God’s dealings with his people, and God, whose character in this narrative “matures” in the course of the time line of the Hebrew Bible: from creative, energetic (in Genesis), to “commanding and delivering” (in Exodus and Deuteronomy), to “nation-building”… “punishing-destroying”…before finally revealing his mature characteristics as “restoring.” The final mature phase of God’s portrait (the “end brought to the center” p.206) is in dialogue with the earlier phases: the later parts of the Hebrew Bible return to and recast earlier parts. Thus earlier theologies of the Old Testament (based on creation, law-giving, punishing) are adapted to a more complex world of the twenty-first century. Previously Torah and the Prophets were used to establish God as Creator and his authority and manner of dealing with sin; but today we see that “the physical world …has some limits, and …the vastly different experiences of people around the globe produce disparate ways of viewing the biblical text and the world” (p.209).
This book began (McEnire tells us) with his 2009 essay—now the first chapter, “The God at the End of the Story,” which he presented at the Society of Biblical Literature. The beginnings of a new approach to a theology of the Old Testament based on the divine portrait in the Bible’s narrative about God and his people go back a quarter century. He acknowledges especially Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Disappearance of god: A Divine Mystery (1995) which compares the historical trajectory with a narrative one. He also notes that this was the same time as Jack Miles’ God: A Biography, which sketches a portrait of God as the divine character in all the parts of the story, including Ezra-Nehemiah “a resumption of the narrative of God and the chosen people, left off in 2 Kings.” McEntire notes (and later uses) Miles’ observation that with Ezra-Nehemiah “the roles of the two (God and his people) are nearly reversed.” Earlier (Abraham, Moses, Joshua…David) “the Lord took might action on behalf of Israel. In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, Israel takes energetic action on behalf of the Lord.”
McEntire’s last chapter expands on this role change, now seen as a sign of God’s “maturity.” The “restoring God” restores not only in the covenant renewal ceremonies of Ezra/Nehemiah (see Nehemiah 9: 6-37: God’s Actions in the Past… and in the present (Ezra 1 – YHWH stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus), but also in other late books of the Writings. First in the Psalms: Psalm 90 – only psalm “of Moses”—and then the following psalms that proclaim YHWH as king—a response “to the failure of the returnees to establish Zerubbabel as king” and celebrate restoration in the Songs of Ascent (Pss.120-134). Then, in the Book of Daniel and Esther, read (according to Peter Haas) as Israel’s international perspective , focused now on faithful Israelites living in the diaspora.
These two chapters, chapter 1 and chapter 6 would be sufficient to understand the author’s thesis: a new approach that integrates recent approaches to the Bible as narrative (see “Narrative criticism - the recent Berit Olam commentaries) with mid-twentieth century theologies of the Old Testament (Eichrodt, Von Rad…Brueggemann).
The intermediate chapters 2-5 treat what is found in traditional Old Testament theology: creation (both a dogma and a theme), the patriarchal stories, Exodus, Moses and Mt. Sinai covenant, then the monarchy—along with the Prophets’ role encouraging Israel to remain faithful to its covenant. However McEntire’s focus is God as character who interacts with the characters in the story. Although he accepts the canonical order of the books, he does not begin by reordering texts within the Pentateuch according to historical-critical analysis (nothing about the Yahwist or the Priestly editors). He begins rather with creation as the beginning of the story and how this poses problems for analyzing the interaction between God and the humans, including the problem of the “second creation” story (Gen 2:4b) is a phase of the divine character acting differently. How is this part of the portrait related to God in Genesis 1-2? Important evidence for answering this problem is the Flood story as the undoing of the first creation story and the theme of creation elsewhere in the psalms, Isaiah and Job.
Throughout chapters 2-5, McEntire’s focus is the portrait of God that emerges from the stories rather than the sources, structures, and historical background of the story. This enables him to read the Bible in a fresh way and opens up new perspectives for understanding both God’s initiatives towards his People and a diaspora people’s realization of what God means for them as they continue to live in new situations trying to maintain their traditions under foreign rulers, who are now seen as God’s agents.