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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 52, 2004

Antti Laato and Johannes C. De Moor (eds), Theodicy in the World of the Bible. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2003). Pp Liv+830. €119.00.

In their ”Introduction,” Antti Laato and Johannes De Moor briefly trace the discussion of ‘theodicy’ from its theological beginnings to its much broader philosophical and sociological discourse. They note that the term, after Leibniz, has come to indicate ‘different existential problems when people have to confront evil and suffering’ (p. xi). Considering theodicy in this wider sense, this volume aims to ‘trace back the theodicy problem to its earliest roots in the polytheistic religions of the ancient Near East and pursue its further development through the Bible and ancient Judaism’ (p. xi). The project is limited to written sources that tackle the issue. Apart from trying to keep the project manageable, the presentation of literary evidence aims to fill a perceived lack of tradition lying behind philosophical treatments of theodicy.

Laato and Moor set out the methodologies of the various contributions as follows: (1) Most articles are descriptive, analysing the texts presented as objectively as possible within the ideological world-view of the texts themselves; (2) Some articles employ ideological criticism to ‘avoid non-commitment’ and challenge the reader to take a stand with regard to the objections raised. This approach recognizes its risk of anachronism, but feels the risk is worthwhile to promote conversation with modern ideology; (3) The final approach is existential, regarding the ancient text as important and valuable still. This approach uses methods such as literary-theoretical and semiotic readings. The editors’ introduction includes a brief outline of various typologies of theodicy, especially in monotheistic, Jewish-Christian (and Islamic) contexts.

This large tome is divided into six sections. The first, “General,” consists of the above-mentioned “Introduction” by Laato and Moor, and an essay by M. Sarot, “Theodicy and Modernity,” which explores the question of whether it is feasible to apply the term ‘theodicy’ to pre-modern thinking. Sarot concludes that, while it is important to address the lack of clarity of the term, the argument that it should only be applied to modern reflections on evil cannot be defended in the light of the lack of uniformity in pre-modern thinking, and the patterns of thought in the Old Testament (OT) that have much in common with modern approaches to evil.

The second section, “Ancient Near East,” begins with Antonio Loprieno, “Theodicy in Ancient Egyptian Texts.” This enlightening essay examines the differences as well as the similarities between theodicean discourse in ancient Egypt and other civilizations of the time, located in the ‘cosmotheism’ (p. 31) that was the Egyptian loose synthesis between monotheism (treating the theological qualities of their gods fairly homogeneously) and polytheism. This discussion covers a wide historical scope, describing a great breadth of positions. Karel van der Toorn, “Theodicy in Akkadian Literature,” offers a similarly descriptive study, including a detailed analysis of the Babylonian Theodicy among other well-known Babylonian texts. Harry A. Hoffner Jr, “Theodicy in Hittite Texts,” and Johannes C. de Moor, “Theodicy in the Texts of Ugarit,” continue this descriptive survey of relevant texts, with de Moor in particular providing an exhaustive overview of theological issues in the kingdom of Ugarit and the possible influences of these on the developing monotheism of Israel.

The third and largest section, “The Hebrew Bible,” contains ten essays covering broad sweeps of OT literature as well as specific books. Cornelis Houtman, “Theodicy in the Pentateuch,” considers Pentateuchal responses to the statement of Genesis 18—‘Shall he who is Judge of the earth not act with justice?’ Material covered includes trials arranged by YHWH, YHWH’s pedagogical intents, YHWH’s participation in individual suffering, the issue of human freedom in the light of YHWH’s sovereignty, collective and individual retribution, and the state of flux of images of God. Antti Laato, “Theodicy in the Deuteronomistic History,” considers key theological ideals presented in Deuteronomy and how these ideals were rejected or realised in post-Mosaic times. Special attention is devoted to the role of Josiah in presenting theodicies that include free-will, educative and mystery models. James L. Crenshaw, “Theodicy and Prophetic Literature,” presents an ideological critique of various theodicies, which he suggests are difficult to maintain in the face of the reality that Israel and Judah were defeated by stronger enemies. As always, Crenshaw highlights the difficulty of affirming divine justice in the presence of atrocity. Fredrik Lindström, “Theodicy in the Psalms,” considers two aspects of theodicy: (1) how God engages with evil, and (2) whether suffering is intelligible or irrational. Karl-Johan Illman, “Theodicy in Job,” recognising that the Book of Job is a theodicy itself, chooses to explicate specific problems presented by the text: why God, knowing that Job is a just man, chooses to treat him so harshly. Much of this essay explores the relationship between the prose and poetic parts of the Book, finding cause for reflection in the literary figure of Job. Marjo C. A. Korpel, “Theodicy in the Book of Ruth” and “Theodicy in the Book of Esther,” reads both books literarily to see how they address issues of divine justice in post-exilic communities. Anton Schoors, “Theodicy in Qohelet,” considers various moral conundrums raised by Qohelet and asks if Qohelet can be said to have a theodicy. He concludes that, for this writer, God is not the problem—rather, the problem lies with human rational discourse about God. John Renkema, “Theodicy in Lamentations,” concludes that while human sin is to a large extent seen as an adequate theodicy, it cannot cover the extent of the misery experienced by a community in exile; the sense of desperation in the book keeps the topic open and refuses the inertia of resignation. Finally, Sara Japhet, “Theodicy in Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles,” reflects on late biblical historiography’s attempts to re-establish identity and continuity and the differing place and function that each body of writing gives to theodicy.

The fourth section, “Early Jewish Writings,” begins with James H. Charlesworth’s essay, “Theodicy in Early Jewish Writings,” which is a careful overview of theodicy in the Jewish Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Qumran Scrolls. The survey continues with P.C. Beentjes, “Theodicy in the Wisdom of Ben Sira,” D. Winston, “Theodicy in the Wisdom of Solomon,” K. Atkinson, “Theodicy in the Psalms of Solomon,” and David T. Runia, “Theodicy in Philo of Alexandria.” Each of these engages with the historical context of the writings; the last, possibly appropriately, takes the discussion from the mainly descriptive into the more philosophical mode.

This shift to engaging philosophically leads us into the last two sections, “The New Testament” and “Rabbinic Judaism.” Tom Holmén, “Theodicean Motifs in the New Testament,” centres his discussion on the death of Jesus, in response to philosophic-theological issues surrounding the suffering of God, and the centrality of the death of Jesus in NT proclamation. Anssi Simojoki, “The Book of Revelation,” reviews modern critical interpretive strategies of the Book of Revelation and attempts to explicate the importance of the book’s message for contemporary Christians. Jacob Neusner’s essay, “Theodicy in Judaism,” argues that Judaism is theodicy, given Rabbinic Judaism’s basic issue, namely: how can one, all-powerful God be deemed just, given the state of Israel, his people in the world? Neusner provides a dense and well-illustrated survey of data drawn from the ‘Oral Torah’ (p. 685): the Mishnah, Tosefta, two Talmuds, and the ‘sages of blessed memory’ of the first seven centuries CE. Bruce Chilton completes the collection of essays with “Theodicy in the Targumim.” The book includes extensive indices of authors, biblical texts, other texts from antiquity, early Jewish writings, rabbinic sources, and subjects.

This is a monumental overview of the subject. On the whole, the approach is descriptive. One would need to look elsewhere for critical and philosophical treatments of the issue of theodicy, especially in the area of OT literature. However, it is a valuable addition to any collection of resources because nowhere else has such a range of literature been examined on the important issue of theodicy in one volume. As such it is a welcome addition to any theological library.

Review by
Merryl Blair
Churches of Christ Theological College
Mulgrave VIC 3170, Australia