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Spring 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 1 · pp. 95–96 

Book Review

Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy

Walter Brueggemann. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997. 777 pages.

Reviewed by Ben C. Ollenburger

Over the past two decades, no one in the field of Old Testament studies has been more prolific than Walter Brueggemann. In a given year, he probably writes more books, articles, and reviews than I read. And Brueggemann’s audience is much larger than the guild of biblical scholarship. Pastors, for example, tend to find his work more useful and instructive than that of any other OT scholar, or all of them (us) combined. They ought to read his Theology of the Old Testament.

Brueggemann did not write his latest and biggest book expressly for pastors; indeed, he orients his discussion to the discipline of Old Testament theology, whose history he reviews in great detail. But even that historical review isolates issues whose theological significance extends well beyond the scholarly discipline he addresses. In it, Brueggemann identifies various causes of and potential cures for the malady—call it modernity—that has afflicted Old Testament theology and kept it from being a robustly theological endeavor.

One of those nefarious causes turns out to be Christian theology, which Brueggemann believes has conspired unwittingly with such very {96} different things as historical criticism to mute the full chorus of the Old Testament’s—which is to say, Israel’s—various and disputatious witnesses. These are, he argues, witnesses to Yahweh. More than that, these texts that constitute the Old Testament also, in and by the “odd rhetoric” of their testimony, constitute Israel and Yahweh: “there is no Yahweh outside the text.” The term “odd” occurs frequently in Brueggemann’s work, as a compliment. Israel’s rhetoric about Yahweh is odd, because its testimony—in what it asserts and what it elicits—contradicts the version of reality sponsored by modernity’s “military consumerism.”

He uses the concept of testimony, and the metaphor of a trial, to order his presentation. First, Israel offers “core testimony,” with Yahweh as the subject of “strong, transformative verbs,” e.g., creating, delivering, commanding (Part I). Texts from the Torah figure prominently in this core testimony, which is then cross-examined with “countertestimony” (Part II), especially from Psalms of complaint and from the wisdom literature.

“Unsolicited testimony” comes from Yahweh’s “partners”: Israel, “the human person,” the nations, and creation (Part III). Finally, Israel offers “embodied testimony” in its practices of cult, kingship, prophecy, and wisdom (Part IV). In a concluding section of the book Brueggemann appeals for courage in pursuing theological interpretation of the Old Testament in our current, pluralistic context.

Brueggemann stresses the pluralism of both the Old Testament and contemporary scholarship. And in both he sees the opportunity for constructive argument that resists “excessive closure.” Foreclosing argument will always be premature, he suggests, because Old Testament theology has God as its subject. Now that’s truly odd.

This is a bold book, written with urgency and passion, and provocative, offering much to argue with. You would do well to read it.

Ben C. Ollenburger
Prof. of Biblical Theology
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana

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