Understanding the Old Testament Story

Seriously Dangerous Religion

Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014.

The Old Testament is a much maligned book. Atheists and secular people despise the Old Testament because of what they perceive to be its violence, its intolerance, and its antiquated laws. In addition, they do not like the God of the Old Testament since they attribute all kinds of evil actions to him.

Many Christians believe that the Old Testament is old and that it has little relevance to the church today. Some Christians seldom read the Old Testament and when they do, they do not understand what they read.

This is the reason I believe Provan’s book is a book that Christians and non-Christians should read. Provan’s goal is to show that many people misunderstand the teachings of the Old Testament. To him, God’s story as presented in the Old Testament “provides the most secure foundation upon which to build the better future for humankind (and for the planet) for which many of its detractors are looking” (p. 409).

This is a rich book, one that has much to say to people who want to understand the story of God’s work in the world, a story which Provan calls “the Old Story.” Since it is impossible to discuss the content of the book in the limitation of one post, I will introduce the book in the present post and then discuss the content of two or more chapters in later posts.

Provan begins his book by saying that the book is about a “seriously dangerous religion.” Provan says that biblical faith is dangerous only to people who are confused about the nature of God and his purpose for creation. Biblical faith is dangerous because when people discover the real God of the Bible and truly understand his purpose for creation, they will be transformed and forced to acknowledge that their views of God and human beings have been wrong all along.

One of the aims of his book is to help people discover the place each individual has in this old story, a story that is being told by God. Provan recognizes that there are many different stories being told today. These stories are told by Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Marxism. In discussing the old story, Provan compares the biblical story with the other stories and then shows similarities and differences between the stories.

In discussing the stories being told today, Provan covers three modern stories and one ancient stort. One of the modern stories is the so-called “axial age.” The “axial age” concept was developed by Karl Jaspers. According to Jaspers, the axial age was a period in antiquity that has become the basis for the proper understanding of modern thought (p. 6).

According to Jasper, the axial age saw the emergence of the great world religions (800-200 B.C.). This is the reason he believes the axial age presents a story “with which all human beings can identify” (p. 380). According to Jaspers, “it is to this common past that we ourselves must now return, as we strive to make the unity of humankind concrete in the present” (p. 6). We must return to this axial age in order to build a new world, an age of peace. This concept of axial age has come into our days in the call to move beyond absolutes to a more pluralistic view of truth.

Jasper’s view has influenced biblical scholarship. William F. Albright wrote about the great nationalistic movements that was present in the ancient Near East in the 8th-6th centuries B.C., including Josiah’s reform (7th century B.C.). Mario Liverani speaks of the axial age in the history of Israel in the 6th century B.C.

The second modern story is what Provan calls “The Dark Green Golden Age.” It is the idea that in the past there was a golden age. This golden age takes people today back to a primitive time when people living in a hunter-gathering society were much happier and took better care of the environment.

The third modern story is the story of the scientific new age. This is the story told by modern atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. This modern story is hostile to religion. They believe the world would be a much better place if the idea of God could be eliminated from society.

The two previous stories look at the past to recover a religious perspective of the past in search of models that can help civilization move ahead into the future. The third story is different because it is hostile to religion.

To the adherents of the third story, the world would be a much better place to live if society could abandon the idea of God and accept the views of science as a better guide for true knowledge of the world and our moral obligations. They believe religion is bad for society and for the individual and that by abandoning religion, people would be happier and find satisfaction in their lives.

These three stories seek to provide an account of what it takes for people to live a happy life. They also serve as the basis for the moral and spiritual life of each individual. What Provan seeks to demonstrate in his book is that these three stories have one thing in common: they all agree that the ancient story, the biblical story, is neither “true nor good nor beautiful” (p. 9).

These stories seek to displace the old story, what Provan calls “this dominant Old Story of Western Culture.” The problem is that in the world in which people live today, this old story is no longer effective. Although in the past this old story could guide the daily life of people, in this modern world, the old story no longer works.

Some critics of the Bible believe that the old story is dangerous. “Such critics of the Bible are often particularly antagonistic to what Christians call the Old Testament and Jews call the Tanakh” (p. 9). Those people who criticize the Old Testament say that its story is not true, that its teaching is bad for people, that its story has plagued human beings for centuries, that it teaches war, genocide, violence, and that its teaching about monotheism is very dangerous. This is the reason people should reject this old story and not follow its teachings.

But Provan invites people to reconsider their views of the Old Testament, of the old story.
This is the reason he wrote his book. Many of the people who criticize the Old Testament do not understand it very well.

Provan says that either accidently or deliberately, people have misrepresented the biblical story in pursuit of their own agenda. They have misrepresented the story so much that it is no longer recognizable, even to people who teach the Old Testament. The biblical story has been seriously distorted (p. 10). He also has written his book for those who read the critics and accept their views without evaluating their claims.

Many Christians have little knowledge of the Bible; some do not even read the Old Testament, It is for this reason that the basic story of the Bible is not known, even by people who attend church regularly. The problem of biblical illiteracy is the reason most readers of the Bible do not have the basic knowledge to respond to those who criticize the Bible. Many of those people who think that the Bible is bad got their idea from reading people who declare that the Bible is bad.

In trying to persuade people to reconsider God’s story found in the Old Testament, Provan seeks to answer several questions that he considers to be the basic issues one must know to properly understand the biblical story. He provides answers to the following ten questions:

What is the world?
Who is God?
Who are man and woman?
Why do evil and suffering mark the world?
What am I to do about evil and suffering?
How am I to relate to God?
How am I to relate to my neighbor?
How am I to relate to the rest of creation?
Which society should I be helping to build?
What am I to hope for?

Provan seeks to provide answers to these questions because these are the questions people are asking and these are the questions that religion and philosophers have tried to answer. Provan follows the example of Leon Kass in his book The Beginning of Wisdom. Both Kass and Provan use the book of Genesis to provide the basic answers to these important questions.

Provan discusses what the Bible says about these ten questions and then compares the biblical teaching with alternative responses from non-biblical religions and philosophical traditions.

In developing his argument, Provan shows what the Old Testament teaches about the universe, human beings, and how people should live and then compares the biblical teaching with what science, religion, and the modern story tellers have to say about these issues. Provan demonstrates that their claim to truth is false.

Most of Provan’s argument is based on the Torah, the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Old Testament. Although the New Testament is needed to supplement the answers to these questions, Provan deliberately limits himself to these five books because they have been maligned not only by outsiders, but also by insiders,

As Provan wrote, “Sadly, even those who have held it to be the Story that defines what is good and true and beautiful have not always read it well. There are many reasons for this, but one of them has been the unfortunate tendency to read the Old Testament only through the lens of the New Testament, rather than for its own sake. The real Story becomes, as it were, the New Testament story, making what lies beforehand only a kind of shadowy background” (p. 13).

It is this problem of neglecting the Old Testament in order to make the New Testament the book of the church that has created in the mind of many outsiders a false impression of the God of the Old Testament. This is seen when the outsider believes that the God of the Old Testament is an angry and violent God and that the God of the New Testament is a God of love and peace. The outsiders have this view of God because the insiders have misrepresented the Old Testament and the God that is revealed there.

What many Christians fail to realize is that the old story continues in the New Testament. As Provan wrote, the New Testament is that part of the story that “claims to continue, develop, and bring to completion what the earlier part has to say” (p. 14).

I enjoyed reading the book, but the book is not for everyone. Tomorrow I will quote a long section of the book in which Provan lists the kind of reader he had in mind as he wrote his book.

Personally, I believe that most Christians should read this book, but the reading is not easy. It requires discipline and perseverance. Provan will challenge and provoke the reader, but each chapter is filled with useful information. Each chapter concludes by comparing the biblical teaching with Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and other worldviews.

I highly recommend this book to readers who want a read a solid defense of the Old Story, of biblical faith, of God’s work in the world.

I want to thank Baylor University Press for making the book available for review.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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