The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament

By Egger, Thomas | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2007 | Go to article overview

The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament


Egger, Thomas, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament. By Rolf Rendtorff. Translated by David E. Orton. Leiden: Deo, 2005, 813 pp., $54.00.

For the last twenty years, Rolf Rendtorff has been working out his canonical approach to OT theology, with Gerhard von Rad and Brevard Childs as crucial stimuli (pp. 71719). The culmination now appears in English.

The Canonical Hebrew Bible stands as a significant achievement-a rich description of the canonical texts, their interrelationship, their themes, their people, and their God. On every page the author's lifetime of study, his depth of insight, and his love of the text are apparent.

Rendtorff rejects both thinly-veiled Christian dogmatic approaches to OT theology as well as Religionsgeschichte approaches that isolate and describe the theology of every postulated stage of Israel's religion. Instead, the horizon of his theology is canonicalthe theology of the text as it stands.

Rendtorff views the canonical texts as theological compositions in their own right and dates their composition just after the Babylonian exile, an experience that significantly shaped them. Gerstenberger and others have questioned whether this "canon-forming period" should be granted unique authority or special focus. Unlike Childs, Rendtorff offers no theological rationale; he simply notes this is the text Jews and Christians have used.

In part 1, a 400-page "retelling" (Nacherzahlung), Rendtorff paces through the canon from Genesis to Chronicles, lingering at key chapters or passages and noting the key theological phrases that are being introduced or developed. He cites an impressive spectrum of interpreters, from Hans Walter Wolff to Moshe Greenberg to David Clines to Barry Webb. As he proceeds, the Torah is never left far behind, functioning as a touchstone and hermeneutical key in each book of the Prophets and Writings. "Most of the books of the Hebrew Bible could not be fully understood without knowledge of the Pentateuch to which they frequently directly or indirectly refer" (p. 6).

This retelling considers the various elements of each book in full literary/canonical context. The Abraham narratives, for example, are firmly rooted in the first eleven chapters of Genesis rather than treated as a separate tradition. The genealogies and tables of nations set the stage for the promise in Gen 12:3 that through Abraham's descendants "all the families of the earth will be blessed." The narrowing focus on Abraham as family (and soon after on Israel as nation) is thus set within the narrative of the Creator God and his dealings with all humanity and all creation. Likewise, Abraham's story is illumined by later portions of the canon: the prayer in Nehemiah 9 in which "the election of Abraham is regarded as the second fundamental act of God after creation" (p. 21).

Isaiah's vision in chapter 6 is "not a 'call' to become a prophet but a commission with a very particular message." Why? Because in the first five chapters "Isaiah has . . . already been working as a prophet and speaking in the name of God" (p. 172). This approach is not naively chronological; rather, the canonical clues for interpretation are afforded their full weight. The "hardening" of Israel implied here is illumined by reference to Exodus 4, and the ray of future hope suggested by the "holy seed" is read in the context of its brighter realization in Isaiah's final chapters.

Part 2 is arranged thematically, yet still according to Rendtorff's rigid canonical concern.

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