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Wilderness in the Bible: Toward a Theology of Wilderness.

Wilderness in the Bible: Toward a Theology of Wilderness, by Robert Barry Leal. Studies in Biblical Literature 72. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2004. 357 pp. $76.95.

Leal wishes to address the growing ecological crisis in the West through a study of the wilderness theme in the Hebrew Bible and its reflex in New Testament literature. The aim of the study is to construct an "ecotheology," which addresses the Australian context. Nine chapters are organized into three sections: "The Context of a Biblical Study of the Wilderness," "Biblical Attitudes Towards Wilderness," and "Towards a Theology of Wilderness."

"The Context of a Biblical Study of the Wilderness" includes a review of the current research and debate surrounding the relationship of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the natural world. Chapter 1 is a helpful overview of recent literature that criticizes the anthropocentric focus of the Judeo-Christian tradition (e.g. Lynn White) as well as the emerging voices that are seeking to reclaim a natural theology within the biblical tradition (e.g., Sallie McFague, Max Oeschlaeger, P. Santmire, J. Nash, N. Habel, D. Tracey). Chapters 2-3 explore the biblical language of the wilderness, focusing in particular on the Hebrew word, midbar, translated as "desert, wilderness, steppe." Leal provides a helpful caution for readers by distinguishing the biblical view of the wilderness from current western perspectives (chap. 2) and by noting the fluidity of meaning in the Hebrew Bible surrounding the term midbar (chap. 3). Wilderness is viewed both positively and negatively. It can be a place of testing, revelation, and nurture, as well as of rebellion and destruction. The important role of the wilderness theme in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament literature is indicated by its wide distribution and its diversity of meaning.

"Biblical Attitudes Towards Wilderness" is the heart of the book. Leal provides a broad overview of the theme of the wilderness throughout the diverse literature of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Chapter 4 is a catalogue of the negative views of the wilderness as a place of chaos, destruction, and rebellion. Chapter 5 examines the instances where the wilderness is the setting for encountering God. This tradition begins with Hagar (Genesis 16, 21), continues through the story of Moses (Exodus 3), to the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19). Chapter 6 explores the instances where the wilderness is the setting for divine acts of grace. The story of Hagar returns as an instance of grace in the wilderness along with the prophet tradition of the remnant (e.g., Isaiah, Hosea, Amos) and the transfiguration story of Jesus (e.g., Matthew 17). Chapter 7 explores the idealization of the wilderness as God's good creation. Leal advocates a modified form of the wilderness or nomadic ideal first suggested by K. Budde and developed further by J. W. Flight. He concludes: "The tradition of the wilderness idyll persists, albeit in fragmentary form, into the sixth century" (p. 187). The chapter concludes with an extensive reading of Genesis 1 as the paradigm of the "good creation."

"Towards a Theology of Creation" provides an organizing summary for the many attitudes toward the wilderness in the biblical tradition. Leal's aim in this section is "to evaluate the potential contribution of the Bible to a contemporary theology of wilderness" (p. 228). He concludes that the diversity of attitudes toward the wilderness must be maintained in any contemporary application of the biblical material. The negative view of the wilderness in the biblical tradition highlights the danger of human ignorance. The traditions about the encounter with God in the wilderness provide the springboard for a contemporary theology of creation as a place of wonder, silence, limitlessness, self-knowledge, grace, transformation through discipline, refuge, and spiritual haven. Leal concludes his study by turning specifically to the context of Australia, exploring the terms "bush" and "desert" in the cultural history of Australian writing and painting, while also noting points of contact with the biblical tradition.

This is a very useful book. Leal has provided the most extensive study of the word midbar in print. He has utilized successfully past research (e.g., S. Talmon), while also expanding the previous research. The result is a useful summary of the wide range of attitudes in the Hebrew Bible toward the wilderness as compared to the Israelites' settled life in the land. Leal is also to be commented for addressing the implications of his research for a contemporary theology of the wilderness. The drawback of the study is its strict adherence to a canonical methodology. Lead writes at the outset of chap. 4: "The approach taken in this and later chapters is that of canonical criticism: the recognized canon of the Bible is taken as an object of literary study but is examined without any attempt to probe such questions as authorship or the relative antiquity of the various traditions that the Bible contains" (p. 66). The study of the wilderness in the Hebrew Bible requires an examination of its growth and transformation in the composition of the literature. The prophetic Hosea has a very different view of the wilderness than Jeremiah or Ezekiel, not only in thematic content, but also in its theological development. The fully developed theology of the wilderness in the Pentateuch goes beyond all the prophetic literature. Thus the theology of the wilderness grows during the exilic and post-exilic periods. The significance of such an expansion in theology would require more than a strict canonical approach to the subject matter. A diachronic methodology is also needed. The use of a diachronic methodology would also require a more thorough evaluation of the nomadic ideal, which Leal has retained in a modified form.

Thomas B. Dozeman

United Theological Seminary

Dayton, OH
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Author:Dozeman, Thomas B.
Publication:Shofar
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
Words:952
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