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.