Interviewed by Andy Naselli
Stephen Dempster is Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, and author of this book:
(Cf. the master Scripture index for the entire NSBT series. It places an asterisk by each page number where there is a discussion rather than merely a reference or brief comment.)
1. How would you summarize your book’s argument in one sentence?
God created humanity to rule the world in his image, and humanity was dethroned from that rule and will be re-enthroned as kings and queens of creation.
2. How would you summarize your book’s argument in one paragraph?
The Crown of God’s creation is clearly humanity, which is made in God’s very own image and invested with regal authority to rule all of his creation on planet earth. In the beginning there was perfect harmony between God, humanity, and the world. Adam and Eve fell from this regal position when they rebelled against God by listening to the Serpent. The world was plunged into death and chaos under the Serpent’s rule. God promised to restore the lost glory of humanity and creation by sending a human descendant to dethrone and defeat the Serpent, thus reinstalling humanity to its rightful regal role over creation. Consequently, two important themes that dominate the Old Testament stories are land and lineage, and are thus inextricably interconnected. Thus the concern for both in the early chapters of Genesis. Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden, and their hopes focus on a child. Genealogies become extremely important. At the end of the first major genealogy of the Bible, there is a hope expressed in the birth of a child for salvation from the curse upon the creation (Gen. 5:29). When Abram and Sarai appear on the scene, they are chosen by God to be the agents through which the lost glory of creation will be restored, and thus two of the major promises to them are land and descendants. In fact in the ensuing narrative, which focuses on the nation of Israel, the ultimate threats will become exile and barrenness. Eventually the hopes crystallize on the promise of a royal descendant through whom the lost glory of humanity and creation will be restored. Thus the storyline points to David and his line. The lengthy genealogies in the first book of the Bible that point in this Davidic direction are resumed in the last book of the Hebrew Bible, showing that every hope is pinned on David. This last book, Chronicles, begins with nine chapters of genealogies. The genealogies essentially summarize history from Adam to David. With David, the story begins!
3. Methodologically, what role does the NT play in your OT theology?
This is a good question. I try to bracket it out as much as possible, but of course it is there always in my consciousness. Nevertheless, I think it is important to argue with Brevard Childs that the Old Testament must have its own discrete witness. That is why, for example, I use the structure of the Hebrew Bible in my Old Testament theology. In my theology this distinctive structure is an important part of the argument. For example, I don’t think it is an accident that the first half of the Hebrew Bible ends with Israel in exile with its Davidic king in prison in Babylon. All hope seems lost! However the last four words of the first half of the Bible describe the king’s liberation, his being clothed with regal dignity, and his exaltation in exile by the Babylonian king (2 Kings 25:27–31). These words clearly resonate with the promise at the beginning of the Hebrew Bible that God would apply a lethal blow to the Serpent (Gen. 3:15). These texts are engaged in important hermeneutical dialogue. To use jargon from the world of boxing, the promised descendant is “down but not out.” Thus important prophetic texts speak of a shoot rising from the stump of Jesse, corpses being raised, etc.
To answer the question in another way, I think that if I didn’t try to bracket the New Testament out as much as possible, I am sure I wouldn’t have stressed the importance of land in my study, which does not seem to be important—at least on the surface—in the New Testament.
I resonate with the works of all these authors, and I have learned much from John, Paul, and Bruce.
All of these scholars stress the importance of working with the canonical text, and in particular John stresses the importance that there is an editorial shape given to the canon that needs to be taken into account in coming to an understanding of the theology of the Old Testament. Where my book differs from John’s is that his goes into much greater exegetical detail (as does Bruce Waltke) into showing the importance of his themes in the emergence of a coming king to rule the world. He also does not stress the importance of land as much as I do, and he somehow feels that Israel rejected a relationship with God at Sinai and opted for a priesthood instead. I think he is in some ways influenced by dispensationalism here, and I do not follow him. I think I am also more open to the insights of historical criticism and arguing that there must be a historical minimum for any theological maximum.
As for Paul, he likewise uses the Hebrew order of the books in his theology but is much more systematic in pausing after each book to summarize the theology of the book and its contribution to the whole. My book stresses more the storied nature of the text and less the description of God’s characteristics.
Bruce’s work is very sophisticated and extremely exegetical and often shows how large complexes of texts have an artistic structure that contribute to the overall meaning of the “irruption of the kingdom of God” into this world—a theme that resonates completely with my work.
I have not really read Eugene’s book, but if I understand his argument, it is very similar to mine. I am not really competent to judge Eugene’s work, but I am looking forward to reading it.
It is an honour for me even to compare my work with these other distinguished scholars!
5. IVP published your book in 2003. After seven or eight years of additional reflection (including reading reviews and getting feedback from readers), are there any notable ways that you would alter your book?
Most certainly! One of the very legitimate criticisms has been my neglect of Wisdom Literature. Part of the problem here is that the publisher limited me to some degree, but it is really no excuse, especially since my favourite course in teaching the Old Testament is Wisdom Literature. I really feel that Wisdom Literature reveals in significant ways the importance of humanity ruling the world. I think that humanity must subdue the earth and have authority over it with the use of the mind inspired by the fear of Yahweh. “The glory of God is to hide things; it is the glory of kings to search them out” (Prov. 25:2). This rule, this mastery of creation, is what Wisdom Literature is all about, especially Proverbs. Yet somehow there is an ineluctable, transcendent quality about this mastery that humans fail to grasp. I think this is what Ecclesiastes and Job teach, and they point finally in an eschatological direction to a time when everything will finally be put under humanity’s feet: even Behemoth and Leviathan (Job 40–41) and Death (Ecc. 12:1–7)!
Secondly, I should probably have stressed more the divine motivation for the Dominion and Dynasty. Thus, by stressing important texts such as the revelation of the divine name (Ex. 34:5–6) and divine soliloquies (Gen. 1:26–28; Hos. 11; etc.), I might have shown more that Dominion and Dynasty is finally one incredible Love Story in the final analysis. My mother recently passed away, and I was profoundly moved by her tattered Bible placed in her hands in the casket. The Bible as a profound Love Story came alive for me in a new way in that one moment, which is now frozen forever in my mind. This made it absolutely clear to me that the Scripture is linked to life, for the Bible was written on Mom’s heart because she had responded to its Author’s love.
6. What other writing projects are you currently working on?
I am writing a personal project on the Formation of the Hebrew Bible. I have entitled it From Ten Commands to Tanak: The Evolution of the Hebrew Bible. It is a study essentially on canonization.
I am also writing a theological commentary on Micah for Eerdmans’s Two Horizon series and a commentary on Genesis for Zondervan’s forthcoming series entitled Hearing the Message of Scripture, which utilizes the insights of discourse analysis for exegesis.
Another project that I am currently working on is the importance of biblical theology as a transitional prerequisite for doing sound systematic theology.
7. Thanks, Steve, for serving the readers of Justin Taylor’s blog with this interview!
You are welcome! My pleasure!