Book Review: Walter Kaiser, Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament

Kaiser, Walter. Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2015. 176 pp. Pb; $16.99.   Link to Kregel

First-time readers of the Old Testament are often shocked by the grittiness of some of the stories, especially those in which God commands actions which seem ungodly. The most obvious example of this is the command to destroy Jericho and kill every man, woman and child in the city. This “holy war” is difficult for Christians to understand since Jesus blessed the peacemakers and Paul command his readers to not seek revenge on one’s enemies. The “Angry God” passages in the Old Testament are especially problematic use of similar language in modern fundamentalist Islam. Is a difference between the language of Deuteronomy 7 and 20 and the rhetoric of ISIS when they call for jihad against the west? How are we to handle these difficult texts?

Tough QuestionsWalter Kaiser offers some suggestions for this kind of question in his Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament. Kaiser wrote Towards an Old Testament Ethic (Zondervan, 1991) and contributed to Hard Sayings of the Bible (IVP, 1996). This new book is an update and expansion on these earlier works.

The two chapters of the book concern the problem of God’s wrath and the command to destroy the Canaanites. Kaiser points out the Old Testament describes God as both gracious and wrathful. These two sets of attributes are not contradictory: God is neither a god of love nor a god of hate. The Old Testament describes God as “slow to anger” and not as a capricious, vicious, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser (alluding to Richard Dawkins’s famous description). Kaiser says one of the greatest comforting facts about God is that he really does care about creation and his people. Because of his great love and compassion, his equally great wrath is sometimes necessary (p. 24).

He covers several other apparent contradictory teachings in the Old Testament. For example, God seems to permit polygamy while commanding monogamy?  While it was never God’s intention, polygamy does appear in the Old Testament. It is not endorsed or encouraged, and the New Testament makes monogamy quite clear. A second potential contradiction reflects a New Testament reading of the Old, “Is God a God of Grace or a God of Law?” Here Kaiser describes the principles of the law as good and the God-centered ethic of the Old Testament as a model for “personal holiness” (p. 85-6). Although he references both Dispensational and Covenant theology, I find his description dated (citing Ryrie, The Grace of God [1963] and Scofield) rather than more recent dispensationalists Kaiser knows very well having responded to papers collected in a progressive dispensational text.

One issue covered in the book is the extent of God’s knowledge. There some things in the Old Testament which make it appear as if God does not know the future. Here he is interacting with Open Theism, the idea God does not know the future because it has not happened yet. Kaiser affirms God’s omniscience by examining the typical evidence offered by Open Theists. Occasionally God expresses his knowledge using “perhaps” and occasionally he does not follow through on prophetically announced judgments because people repent (Jonah, for example). Kaiser argues these conditional prophecies do not “count against” God’s knowledge since the possibility of repentance was embedded in the prophecy in the first place.

Another very difficult issue for the modern reader is whether God elevates or devalues women. This particular chapter appeared in the Priscilla Paper (2005). He deals with two key verses in Genesis (2:18, 3:16) and shows these statements are far from devaluing for women if properly understood. He also points out the Old Testament allowed woman to serve in the Tabernacle and Temple (Exod 38:8, 1 Sam 2:22, although to be fair the women in 1 Sam 2:22 are not models of holiness!) From this basis he reads 1 Tim 2:8-15 as an affirmation that woman can lead in public prayers after they have been taught. For Kaiser, Paul’s “let a woman learn” was the real cultural bombshell in the Jewish or Roman world of the first century (p. 147).

Conclusion. This is a very readable introduction to difficult questions about the Old Testament and is aimed at a popular audience. Although there are few footnotes, there is a bibliography which will provide the interested reader with further resources on the major topics of the book. I do not find anything groundbreaking or new in the book. Kaiser’s goal seems to be to provide an update of his earlier (more academic) work in a popular format.

These short chapters are thoughtful, evangelical responses to very difficult questions Christian readers have when they read the Old Testament. Since each chapter ends with a few discussion questions this book would make a good resource for a ten-week Bible study or Sunday School Class. In fact, I would highly recommend this book for a serious Old Testament Bible study in conservative and evangelical churches.

NB: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Walter Kaiser, Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament

  1. I would also suggest John Dominic Crossan’s “How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian” for a different approach, contrasting and comparing distributive justice versus retributive justice in the Bible (including the NT, which doesn’t get off scot free. There is that little book at the end called The Apocalypse of John which contains the most violent imagery in either Testament). Also; James L. Kugel’s “How To Read the Bible” for a less fraught approach.

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    • I cannot think of two more opposite scholars than Kaiser and Crossan! An OT Evangelical and a NT Jesus Seminar fellow. Nevertheless, I have always enjoyed Crossan’s writing, even if I disagree with him. Obviously this book does not treat the NT since it is is specifically on the Old, but he does occasionally default to a kind of “New Testament reads the Old” method.

      Kugel is also good, especially at the literary analysis of the OT.

      Good recommendations, thanks.

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  2. Thanks for the review. Sounds to me like Kaiser is not doing any more rigorous thinking and re-visioning of the inadequate ways traditional orthodoxy, whether Covenant, Dispensationalist, Lutheran, RC, etc., has dealt with the “violence” of orders and laws attributed to God in the OT. (Violence also somewhat in the NT, as “robwaltoon” points out above.)

    Very unfortunate and sad to me.

    The Process theology and related progressive Christian approaches I find to much better explain what was going on in the complex creation of the Hebrew Scriptures… And how one can trace theological development to provide a consistent basis for understanding BOTH Jesus and his Father as non-violent. As you well know, that does require a major “paradigm adjustment” for many Christians… one well worth it in my experience, via thousands (literally) of hours of study and reflection.

    I’ve been reading him only well after my “transition”, but I’d throw Peter Enns into the mix as a great source on OT interpretation, backgrounds, etc… and an entertaining writer to boot! Enns is formerly of Westminster (!) Seminary and now, last I know, at Eastern U. (Pa.)

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    • I will defend Kaiser a little here – the book is not intended as a rigorous defense of the faith, but a basic intro giving some insight into how conservative evangelicals (like Kaiser) think about the problems of the OT. I do not think he would ever accept a process theology approach to the OT, given his clear commitments to a more-or-less conservative evangelical approach. In that sense, it’s not the book *you* would write.

      This book is an example of “preaching to the choir” to a large extent. If that is the purpose of the book Kaiser succeeds. If the goal was a fully nuanced theological and philosophical approach to the OT, then it fails. (I would point to Kaiser’s other, more robust OT theology texts, although even there Process theology is not given any consideration.)

      I think Peter Enns belongs at the table here since he does offer a more radical approach to the OT, although he might end up answer some of Kaiser’s questions similarly (polygamy, *maybe* women), although he has more to say on violence in the OT than Kaiser and he is far more in touch with the Canaanite backgrounds as “solutions” to these problems.

      My guess is someone like Enns might not even consider the same issues as “problems to be solved” but more like, examples of the way the OT reflects a totally different culture and worldview than this side of the Cross, and perhaps much of it can/should be dismissed as no longer applicable to Christian life.

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      • Thanks. I wouldn’t really expect someone like Kaiser to do much different. And I appreciate the acknowledgement of Enns. I see him as representing an increasingly common phenomenon of the movement of a great many Evangelicals, tho most of them not from the PhD ranks of biblical scholars… though a good number of pastors, lay leaders and “lesser” scholars. For those who may be gravely concerned, this, to me, is not abandonment of “truth” but a deep search for it.

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  3. Looks like a great introduction to difficult OT questions. I should check this out, it would greatly help for when someone asks that ‘one’ question. I don’t want to misrepresent God!

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