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Spring 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 1 · pp. 68–70 

Book Review

God's Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology

Elmer A. Martens. 2d ed.. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994. 320 pages.

Reviewed by Douglas B. Miller

Elmer Martens, professor of Old Testament at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and author/editor of numerous books and articles on the Old Testament, organizes this work around a central theme, “God’s design.” This theme is articulated in a “pivotal” text, Exodus 5:22-6:8, which expresses four components: “deliverance, community, knowledge of God, and the abundant life” (p. 11). After a brief introduction to this text, and a discussion of its anticipation in the Genesis material, Martens traces this four-fold design chronologically from its implementation prior to the monarchy, through its testing during the monarchy (introduced by Hos. 2:14-23), and into the post-monarchic era where it is reaffirmed (introduced by Ezek. 34:17-31).

Along the way, Martens gives succinct yet thorough overviews of important issues in the Old Testament, such as land, social and religious law, kingship, prophecy, messianism, liberation, apocalyptic, and missions. His confidence in the Old Testament’s relevance is evident in sections titled “Theological Reflections” which concern important theological and ethical implications, e.g., war and violence, sacrifice, racism and tribalism, the corporate {69} dimension of sin, the secular/sacred dichotomy, and lifestyle.

Publisher’s constraints limited changes in this new edition. As in the first (1981), a concluding chapter (here slightly revised) describes the continuation into the New Testament of God’s four-fold design. New are two chapters which respond to criticism of the first edition: one gives fuller comment concerning creation, and the other addresses the particular (Israel as a people) vs. the universal (all of humanity) in the divine plan. These do not move the work in a new direction, but seek to better substantiate what was said earlier on these important topics. Also new is an appendix discussing the role and value of biblical theology, and bibliographical material has been updated (unfortunately with a number of minor errors).

The call for a second edition speaks well for this work’s quality and demand. In addition to its merits as an Old Testament theology, it is a well-written introduction to issues in the Hebrew canon. Though Martens is conversant with biblical scholarship, he largely succeeds in avoiding jargon so that this work is suitable for upper level undergraduates and educated lay persons.

While Martens’ proposal for an Old Testament theology is as open to criticism as any which attempt to defend a central message or “canon-within-the-canon,” he substantiates his thesis well and rightly points to its heuristic merits (p. 302). His proposal allows for diversity within the biblical material, while providing a sharper focus than current “polarities and tensions” or “canonical” approaches.

A strength of his proposal for a theology of the entire Hebrew canon lies in his claim that God’s relation with Israel is one manifestation of God’s overall design. Correspondingly, his discussions of covenant are kept largely within the bounds of only one of his four themes: community. This enables Martens to incorporate the wisdom material (esp. Prov., Job., Eccles.) more easily than, say, Walter Eichrodt (who makes covenant the center of his proposal). Even the complexities raised by the books of Job and Ecclesiastes may be seen as a clarification of what it means to know God, and to participate in abundant living.

However, a form-critical difficulty arises concerning Martens’ three principal texts, since each is rooted in covenant. That is God’s covenant with Israel embraces all four “design” components which he rightly finds in these texts, and not just community. The use of these three texts would appear to leave Old Testament theology restricted within God’s relations with Israel.

The emphases of Martens’ two new chapters, however, suggest a possible resolution. The canonical sequence begins with creation, which situates Israel’s role in the broader perspective of God’s universal concern (cf. Gen. 10-12). The covenant with Israel through Moses may then be seen as one {70} manifestation of God’s four-fold activity. It makes explicit what was largely implicit in both the primeval (Gen. 1-11) and ancestral covenant material (Gen. 12-50).

In addition, as with Martens pivotal texts, so Genesis 1-3 makes clear that God’s design for the universe involves not only God’s role but also the role which the creation is to play. It is a pattern of complementary divine purpose and human responsibility that may be traced through the Old Testament, in Exodus 5:22-6:8 and the other texts to which Martens directs us, and on into the New. Humankind’s role is evident in each of the four components: 1) to be delivered by God but also to be liberator, 2) to partake of God’s community but also to help establish it, 3) to know God but also to make God known, and 4) to receive God’s abundant life but also to share the wealth with others. In short, humans are to be blessed by God and to be a channel of God’s blessing (cf. Gen. 12:1-3).

It remains for lay persons and scholars together to continue testing this proposal, both for its insight into the heart of the Bible, and for its ability to enhance the relevance of the scriptures for Christian living. This is an exciting and suggestive work, highly recommended.

Douglas B. Miller
Asst. Professor of Biblical & Religious Studies
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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