The Strange and Difficult Testament: a book review

The Old Testament is Scripture, but not easy reading. It is full of disturbing passages, strange laws and unsavory characters. Anyone who would dare take up and read will be faced with questions, interpretive challenges and hard texts. Matthew Richard Schlimm has written an entertaining and informative book exploring the difficult questions and  how to read the Old Testament well. This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities is basically a undergrad level exploration of the First Testament. It was as fun to read as David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly, though far more comprehensive. Schlimm doesn’t cover the wisdom literature or prophets much, but he does a good job of exploring law, narrative and various themes that run through the Hebrew Bible. His purpose is not to make the Old Testament simple for us to digest, but to help us grapple with it in a more substantial way.

Schlimm’s twelve chapters take us through various issues that relate to the Old Testament. Chapter one discusses the uneasy history Christians have had with the Old Testament. Chapters two and three explores the creation account. Chapter four describes the ‘R-rated’ stories of the Old Testament’–the messy reality that the scriptures inhabit where even the saints behave badly. Here Schlimm describes how stories work on us as readers. For example, many failed attempts at reading through the Bible have been wrecked on the shoals of the book of Numbers. Schlimm is worth quoting at length:

As we read Numbers, we shouldn’t expect to feel uplifted. We shouldn’t look for inspiration. Instead, we should expect to feel like the Israelites did out in that desert wasteland. Ironically, you’re reading Numbers well if you’re sick of the characters and want to stop reading. You are reading well because in that moment you begin to understand in new ways what things were like for the Israelites and for God.

Through the trials of reading Numbers, we can emerge as better people. Someone might rattle off a cliche like “Count your blessings.” Or we might admit, when we stop and think about it, that complaining is not a great way to go through life. However, many of us need something more to put our grumbling aside.

When we read Numbers, something interesting happens. We are exposed to constant complaining. We are forced to suffer alongside Moses and the people. We grow sick and tired of their bitterness. And hopefully, complaints in our own mouths begin to taste like ash. (56)

Chapter five explores the violence in Old Testament texts, such as the imprecatory psalms and Joshua and Deuteronomy. Schlimm addresses several faulty premises that Christians bring to interpreting these texts: (1) that we should imitate Bible characters’ actions, (2) that we should imitate God, (3) that we should apply every text to our individual life, (4) that we should read individual passages in isolation from one another, and (5) that we should have an answer for every question raised by disturbing texts. Against these, Schlimm invites us to a way of interpreting passages that is humble, communal and dialogical.

Chapter six tackles gender and the role of women. Schlimm admits that the Old Testament is androcentric and sometimes misogynist; however he refuses to give up the sacredness gender or the sacredness of the Bible. He reads egalitarian texts like Genesis 1:26-27 in tension  with texts like Leviticus 27:1-8 where women are valued as less than men. Far from ignoring these texts, he grapples with the contradiction and asks God why a text like Lev 27:1-8 is in Bible. Schlimm goes on to explores the nature of Biblical law (chapters seven and eight), the multifaceted nature of truth (chapter nine), sadness and anger of God expressed in the Old Testament (chapter ten), God’s wrath (chapter eleven) and the authority of the Hebrew Bible (chapter twelve).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Schlimm imparts his love for the Old Testament. His prose is winsome. He doesn’t provide i easy answers on how to sort through genres, horrifying tales and difficulties. Instead he invites us to a conversation with the Old Testament where we name the exclusion of Ezra, place it conversation with the inclusion of Ruth (and the apostle Paul). Schlimm isn’t bothered by contradictions and the sometimes disparate witness of the Old Testament. For him it is bringing these texts into deep conversation and wrestling with them that we begin to see the truth about God and ourselves. Rather than avoiding strange and difficult texts, Schlimm posits that the texts that are most difficult for us, may be the texts that we most need to hear.

If you find the Old Testament difficult and are not always sure what to do with certain passages, this will be a good book for you. Of course by focusing on oddities and interpretive difficulties, Schlimm doesn’t spend as much space exploring covenant, mercy, and justice as he may otherwise. This would be a lopsided introduction to the Old Testament if read as a stand alone treatment, but for those who have read and struggle, this is pretty great. I give it four stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review

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