This is a compelling, insightful contribution to the Believers Church Bible Commentary (BCBC) Series. Gerald Gerbrandt situates the text in its ancient context and elucidates the literary and rhetorical structure of the work, passage by passage. However, historical and literary tools serve his wider goal of inviting readers into the theological vision of this Pentateuchal book. Thus, Gerbrandt guides the reader in seeing God and the world through the lens of Deuteronomy, an ancient text situated canonically.
According to Gerbrandt, Deuteronomy is a "sermon for today" (21). While not a standard translation of "torah," "sermon" seems appropriate in the context of this biblical book, which primarily consists of Moses' speeches to the Israelites prior to their entrance into the Promised Land. The Book of Deuteronomy envisages that its readers will act in particular ways, but the book is not so much an instruction manual as it is exhortation. "For today" refers to the book's address to the second generation of Israelites--those who are about to enter the Promised Land--as experiencing the Horeb covenant firsthand (cf. 5:3, "Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today," 21). Deuteronomy insists that this generation of Hebrews worship the LORD exclusively and treat one another with justice and compassion. In the context of the written text, the "today" of Deuteronomy addresses the current reader: "In the face of apathy and amnesia and countless competing modern-day gods, Deuteronomy calls for the exclusive worship of the one God, with a reminder of what that God has done for us. In the face of individualism and greed of our time, it presents a vision for a community of brothers and sisters who treat each other with justice and generosity" (22).
Gerbrandt's Anabaptist-Mennonite context shapes his discussion appropriately. The admonition that death awaits those who would lead the Israelites to worship other gods in Deuteronomy 13 leads Gerbrandt to discuss the historical Anabaptist practice of shunning, in which he concludes, "It is the responsibility of the people of God to struggle within this tension over how to appropriately name and recognize the poisonous impact of serving other gods, whatever they may be, along with being a people of grace and love" (256). While Deuteronomy contains much that is amenable to Anabaptist theology, Gerbrandt is clear that the text also challenges his tradition. For example, the discussion of festival and the cult in Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17 leads Gerbrandt to ponder the formational significance of liturgy, which Reformed and Anabaptist churches may be missing, to their detriment (312-313).
One expects a volume in this series to have insight into how to handle violence in the biblical text, and Gerbrandt does not disappoint. While clearly stating that "Yahweh war" in the Old Testament does not provide rationale for modern-day violence, Gerbrandt views war and violence in the Old Testament, and God's implication in some of that violence, as occasions to remember "that we can never fully grasp and describe the mystery of God" (33; cf. 91-92). His essays on "Yahweh war" and "HEREM" contextualize Deuteronomy 7 within an ancient community, where the notion of a god fighting on behalf of a nation was common, and within a Christian historical perspective, where figurative readings abound. Gerbrandt then follows Walter Moberly, advocating for reading Deuteronomy 7 as a vision of exclusive worship of the LORD, which leads Gerbrandt to a reflection on the church's place in the world (election, mission, culture) rather than on war. Similarly, Gerbrandt observes that the (seeming) command to "blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget" (Deut. 25:19) may not be so much about how Israel should treat this nation as it is a "veiled warning to Israel of what will happen to it if it treats the weak poorly and does not fear God" (429). While these discussions will not ease the discomfort of all readers (nor should they!), Gerbrandt manages difficult texts with nuance and presents them in a way that draws the readers' attention toward love of God and neighbor.
As should be clear from the review thus far, Gerbrandt brings insight from critical scholarship to bear on his commentary, without bringing scholarly discussion to the forefront, so that the volume is accessible to a wide audience. Throughout, Gerbrandt addresses translation issues at key points where translation matters for interpretation. Following the layout of other BCBC volumes, the author includes a series of in-depth essays toward the end of the book, and Gerbrandt's essays are a highlight of the volume. For example, his summary of arguments explaining the dietary regulations of ancient Israel is both brief and comprehensive (550-553).
Also near the end of the volume are two maps, which might have been more helpful had they been aligned better with Gerbrandt's argument. For example, of the key geographical terms mentioned on page 49, where the map about page 571 is referenced, only Egypt appears on this map (cf. 81). Moreover, the map traces the "exodus route," from Goshen to Canaan, while Gerbrandt says little about the geographic locations of the early portion of the route, and (rightly) states of the later portion, that "[t]he journey is described in such detail not so that the exact route can be traced but rather that in the telling of it, Israel can learn about God and Israel and the nations" (70) (to say nothing of the debatable locations of the Sea of Reeds and Mt. Horeb/Sinai!).
For all of Gerbrandt's astute discussion, his theological reading lacks nuance at a few points. For example, one wishes that the kind of nuanced account of loyalty to God and the unity of God he presents in his discussion of the shema (Deut. 6:4; 159-162) would also characterize his discussion of the first commandment, which, he argues, "is not an abstract or metaphysical statement about reality but a practical directive dealing with the dynamics of daily life for Israel" (134). Differently, Gerbrandt's claim that Deuteronomy is "ecclesiology," which he defines as "a reflection on what it means to be one people as the people of God" (25), does not seem fair either to Deuteronomy or to ecclesiology. Relatedly, it is unclear whether the Hebrew use of the term for "brother" to mean any (male?) relative, or even member of the community, can bear the theological weight Gerbrandt puts on it (24-25, 53). Finally, Gerbrandt overuses the term "chiasm," finding this concentric literary structure in the text with remarkable frequency. In a couple of instances, it would be more accurate simply to observe that a passage contains an introduction and conclusion, with more detailed instruction in between (e.g., 259; cf. 325-316).
Still, Gerbrandt's Deuteronomy is a marvelous contribution to the BCBC series. I would recommend it to anyone looking to grasp better the theological vision of this Pentateuchal book in the Christian context.
Andrea D. Saner Eastern Mennonite Seminary
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|Author:||Saner, Andrea D.|
|Publication:||Mennonite Quarterly Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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