The Bible is for Living: A Scholar’s Spiritual Journey
Richard S. Hess's review of "The Bible is for Living: A Scholar's Spiritual Journey" by Philip J. King
Philip J. King, The Bible is for Living: A Scholar’s Spiritual Journey. Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2008. xviii + 181 pp. Hardback, $24.95. ISBN 978-0-9796357-9-3.
I have known the author of this book for 23 years as both a personal friend and a mentor. He is widely admired and respected as a biblical scholar and as an archaeologist; and the only person to have held the presidencies of all three major American professional organizations representing those areas: the American Schools of Oriental Research, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the Society of Biblical Literature. For health reasons, King believes that this book will be his last; something that the rest of us hope will not be the case. The book represents a summative and synthetic perspective of a believer and his Bible. Written by a scholar, it remains eminently readable throughout. But there is more. King not only writes from a lifetime of study. He writes as a visitor and friend of the poor and the outcast. In page after page, one reads of time spent in coffee houses and meeting places for the indigent and needy of every social background. The title of this book describes more than an intellectual journey. It identifies a life lived as a reflection of the true purposes of the gospel of the Bible.
King begins with the many disciplines one must study and master to understand properly the Bible. Noting that “the Bible is still the best known and least understood book in literature,” he emphasizes the need to develop a different way, a Semitic way of thinking in order to interpret it. Thus he refers to often repeated dangers of taking texts out of contexts and of proof texting. He then touches on a variety of topics foundational to Old Testament study: the difficulty of defining myth despite its presence in biblical imagery; the methodological errors of trying to reconcile Genesis 1 and modern science; the meaning of Yahweh and of other names for God; and the relationship of the New Testament to the Old Testament as one of both continuity and discontinuity. And all this is covered before the reader begins page 1!
The first chapter examines the great themes of faith, hope, and love. Abraham is the example of faith throughout the Bible. King emphasizes that faith is a struggle, one that can include a serious cost such as found in Genesis 22. Hope occurs in many of the Pauline epistles. Although Hebrew lacks a single word for hope, the idea is present. King traces it through the terrible events of the eighth century B.C. and finds it in the prophet Hosea and his oracles of salvation and hope. Another key source of hope can be found in the psalms of lament, where it becomes an expectant waiting for God. The theme of love appears in the Hebrew word, hesed, a powerful expression of the steadfast, committed love that God graciously gives. In the New Testament the focus of love is found in the John’s gospel and epistles, especially in 1 John.
King next turns to prayer. He introduces this chapter with the peerless description of God’s attributes in Exodus 34:6. He notes that this self-revelation lists seven positive attributes and only two negative ones. Turning to the Psalms, which he describes as the Bible in miniature, King finds it a source of comfort and of teaching on justice. Surveying the comments of believers ranging from Bonhoeffer to Scharansky, he observes how the Psalms teach us to pray and offer examples of prayer in every possible emotional situation. Further examples from across the pages of Scripture illustrate prayer and praying.
In chapter three, “Covenant and Hospitality,” King recognizes the key to the Bible in its covenants as they are made, broken, and remade. Modeled on Hittite and Assyrian treaties, they exemplify the boundless forgiveness of God toward Noah, Abraham, Israel (at Mt. Sinai), David and his dynasty, and finally in the new covenant announced by Jeremiah and fulfilled in the blood of Jesus Christ. King delights in describing the Bible’s teaching on hospitality toward strangers; both as a command (Isaiah 58:6-7, where God prefers it to fasting) and as part of the lifestyle of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:1-15). Above all, he describes Jesus’ teaching and practice (as guest, host, and servant). When discussing this matter in the law (Exodus 23:9), King applies hospitality to immigration concerns, promoting compassion without advocating policy.
The fundamental character of God as holy, or different from the world, begins chapter 4. King surveys the prophetic call passages such as those concerning Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Moses. Yet holiness is also evident in divine love. Here King turns to Hosea 11:1-9, “a mountain peak of biblical spirituality.” In the New Testament the ethical component of holiness is emphasized (Colossians 3:12-13). Alongside this, the component of forgiveness is key so that the holy God might relate to sinful people. Psalm 51 illustrates this quality of divine mercy. Pp. 70-72 of the book provide a wonderful description, listing the many instances of forgiveness in the Bible. Holiness and forgiveness lead to the emphasis on servanthood and its illustration in the Servant Songs of Isaiah.
With his special interest in the prophets of the Old Testament, King understands that they speak on behalf of God and that they address their own generation as much as any. The premier example is Isaiah. Although describing the scroll as a literary unity, King considers each of the three traditional divisions (1-39, 40-55, and 56-66) in turn. In the first part of Isaiah themes include: the futility of empty ritual, God’s future restoration of Israel, and the future time of peace and justice with the coming of the Messiah’s reign and his banquet for all to enjoy. The Messianic reign moves us into the second part of the scroll of Isaiah where the emphasis on God as Creator and Redeemer becomes prominent. In the last part of Isaiah, King again finds the call to social justice (Isaiah 58:6-7). However, the fundamental emphasis here is on the rejection of any limitation to the worship of God. All are welcome.
King then considers briefly some of the more important remaining prophets: Jeremiah and serving, Micah and serving others, Amos and social justice, Hosea and love, Ezekiel and personal responsibility, and Jonah and repentance.
King devotes a chapter to discussing important women in the Bible: Miriam, Ruth, Huldah, Esther, and various females in Jesus’ life and in the early church. He sees the description in Proverbs 31 as the “ideal wife,” concerned with the needs of her family and with the poor. The mother of Jesus is best understood according to the dignity that the New Testament assigns her, rather than with the accretion of later Church tradition. In an important note on the Magnificat, King observes that what God has intended for Mary is extended to all who fear God, including the lowly. The great passage of equality in Christ, Galatians 3:28, “amends” the Jewish prayer that thanks God for not having been created as a gentile, a slave, or a female. Corresponding to his chapter on the women of the Bible, King also considers the figures and characters of major men of the Bible. In this context he looks at Paul and John and some of their letters.
After a brief consideration of wisdom literature and the history of the doctrine of the resurrection, King composes a final chapter on “Key Aspects of the Spiritual Life.” In this chapter one will find an emphasis on the Word of God, on the relational knowledge of God and of others, on the presence of God, on the fear of God, on the worship of God, and on the creation of humanity in the image of God. In the latter he distinguishes the sin and the sinner. Noting the absence of any condemnation of gay people, he observes the unity of Old and New Testament teaching in identifying the practice as sin.
King’s conclusion returns to his personal observations. Identifying with Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” he observes:
My own love of Scripture, fleshed out in The Bible is for Living, has sustained me in this “valley of tears.” Perhaps you, too, may gain from it some support along the tumultuous journey through life. If the reader finds this exposition by one biblical scholar as beneficial as did the writer, its purpose has been achieved…Le shana ha-ba’ah b’Yerushalayim (“next year in Jerusalem”).
This reader commends the book to all students of the Scriptures for a readable but profound understanding of the Bible’s message, and for an inspirational example of a life conformed to living out its message.
Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages