Friday, November 13, 2009

Review of Chosen and Unchosen

Chosen and Unchosen

Chosen and Unchosen
Conceptions of Election in the Pentateuch and Jewish-Christian Interpretation
Siphrut: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures 2
by Joel N. Lohr
Eisenbrauns, 2009
xviii + 254 pages, English
Cloth, 6 x 9 inches
ISBN: 9781575061719
List Price: $39.50
Your Price: $35.55

Chosen and Unchosen is the second book in the new Eisenbrauns series Siphrut: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures. The book is a revision of Lohr's doctoral dissertation, but it doesn't suffer from dissertationitis—the tendency to footnote every other word and repeat the same thing 27 times. Indeed, it is a good read, although slow going at times because of the content.

The book is divided into two sections: section one (about 1/3 of the book) is devoted to an overview of Christian and Jewish work on election in the last 50 years. The second section is a close reading of four sections of the Pentateuch where the chosen encounter the unchosen. Lohr chose the Abimelech/Abraham story, Pharaoh's daughter, Balaam, and Deuteronomy 4, 7, and 10, which features the herem, or ban.

The section on Pharaoh's daughter saving Moses is a textbook example of what a close reading should look like. Lohr picks up details that most interpreters miss; the story is richer after reading Lohr's exposition.

Balaam has suffered some bad press in the history of interpretation, including inner-biblical interpretation. Lohr seeks to read the Numbers account of Balaam on it's own terms, ignoring the later interpretation as much as possible. The result is a prophet who knew and feared God; a prophet who dared to stand up against a king and bless Israel when he had every reason not to. If we did not know the later history of Balaam, how he ended up betraying Israel into sin, we would never guess that he would die the death he did at the hands of Israel. I would say that this is the strongest section of the book and worth the cost of the book by itself. I will never read the Balaam story in Numbers the same.

Turning to Deuteronomy, Lohr confronts the issue of herem head-on. While you have to admire someone who is willing to take on the challenge of explaining herem (the ban) and trying to understand it, it still is less than satisfying. Despite an excursus and an appendix, I felt like he could have said more. Lohr himself admits that herem makes no sense to the modern mind. In my opinion, this is the weakest chapter. I would like to have seen him develop Deuteronomy 10 further, with the stranger dwelling among Israel and how that affects the unchosen theme. But, in the introduction he said this was but a first step in exploring the ramifications of being chosen and unchosen. As a first step, it is admirable.

On the whole, this book is well worth reading, especially the chapters on Pharaoh's daughter and Balaam. The weakest chapter, Deuteronomy, perhaps couldn't have been written any other way; there is just too much happening in Deuteronomy 10 to easily distill it down. Indeed, whole books have been written, and even they fail to do it justice.

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