The God Who Acts in History

The Significance of Sinai

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Craig S. Bartholomew
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdmans
    , January
     2020.
     248 pages.
     $29.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802874672.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Craig Bartholomew, who produces rigorous and prodigious tomes in hermeneutics and philosophy seemingly yearly, has written a fascinating and rewarding work on the theology of God as presented in Exodus 19–24, where Israel establishes a covenantal relationship with YHWH at Mount Sinai. The primary focus of The God Who Acts in History: The Significance of Sinai is twofold. First, there is “the theme of…divine action in history,” and second, emerging from the said theme, “a puzzle” (230). This latter puzzle derives from Bartholomew’s confusion on the contemporary interpretations of the Sinai event by biblical scholars and theologians. Bartholomew writes, “Jewish authors in particular, but also Christians, assert the fundamental importance of the Sinai event as foundational and generative for Israel and the [Hebrew Bible/Old Testament]” (230). Yet, simultaneously, these authors “are reluctant to affirm the historicity of this ‘event’” (230). Bartholomew asks, How can this supposedly pivotal, identity-forming moment be devoid of divine action and historical referent, a mere “imaginary projection” (230)?

In order to solve this interpretive paradox, Bartholomew⁠—utilizing as his foil Benjamin Sommer’s Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale University Press, 2015) (xv)⁠—undertakes a wide-ranging, historically informed analysis of hermeneutics, theology, philosophy, and biblical criticism⁠. This includes providing thorough readings and critiques of diverse thinkers from Maimonides to Colin Gunton—all for demonstrating how the denial of the Sinai event’s historicity is grounded in a thousand-year-plus intellectual tradition premised on particular notions of God and their workings in reality. Bartholomew writes, “What we make of this historical narrative and its central character will significantly be informed by our view of God” (221).

The tradition that brings about this puzzle affirms the following: that⁠ God (if God indeed exists) is a “perfect-being” divinity incapable of speaking and thus directly communicating with humans (42). Therefore, there was no giving of the law. Further, under the influence of Baruch Spinoza’s pantheistic monism (def. that God is the single substance composing all reality) and Immanuel Kant’s idealism (88–142), the tradition all but devalues the validity of historical revelation and special divine action (i.e., God’s ability to interact with the world). This, in turn, leads to a questioning of the authority, authenticity, and unity of the pentateuchal account. To what extent the biblical narrative of Sinai reflects historical reality is highly suspect⁠—the text is instead composed of various sources and editorial inserts, each reflecting distinct historical contexts. Also, reality is divided into the phenomenal world of natural order and noumenal (i.e., supernatural) world of God. Human reason cannot access the latter; it is epistemologically (def. the theory of knowledge) impossible for humans to determine when and how God supposedly interacted with the world (132).

This tradition, Bartholomew argues, informs the vast majority of contemporary “historical-critical” readings of the Bible (231). While many of those working in historical criticism affirm that the method is “neutral” or “value” free (xiv), Bartholomew’s genealogical investigation reveals the opposite: the supposedly neutral critics are indebted, consciously or not, to just as many philosophical and theological commitments as an inveterate evangelical Christian or Orthodox Jew. The main difference between the two is that the latter is honest about the presuppositions (191, 232).

Throughout the text, Bartholomew provides a countertradition of Jewish and Christian thinkers who he believes provide a more biblically informed, non-naturalistic philosophical theology of divine action⁠—one that sensibly allows for God to interact (i.e., speak) with Moses and Israel at Sinai (159–87). While Bartholomew does not agree with every figure in this tradition he believes the classical theism of Thomism to be biblically and theologically lacking (69–76)⁠—theologians such as Judah Haveli, Gunton, Karl Barth, Alvin Plantinga, and Hermann Bavinck each lend sophisticated biblical-theological arguments for the legitimacy of supernaturalism and God’s interacting with humanity.

Bartholomew concludes The God Who Acts in History with the text’s longest chapter, one distinct from all preceding sections: a defense of the historicity of the Sinai event. Employing a self-consciously theistic paradigm (191), viable through the argumentation of the pro–divine action theologians, Bartholomew uses four analyses⁠—literary, theological, historical, and philosophical (195)⁠—to present this portion of Exodus as not merely plausible and coherent but almost necessary. He writes, “One cannot escape the possibility that the Sinai event took place and that it is YHWH who accounts for the novelty for the . . . covenant” (226). Any conclusion to the contrary comes from philosophical adherences that Bartholomew does not affirm.

The primary strength of this book is that it vigorously strikes at historical criticism’s claims that the method lacks any biases, theological or philosophical. By providing a thoroughly cited, learned historical account of various notions of divine action, particularly by thinkers influential to the historical-critical school, Bartholomew has revealed that all forms of biblical studies lack neutrality. Hopefully, many within the biblical guild can follow through on Bartholomew’s criticisms and suggestions. In future research, they can be open about their presuppositions and also critically interact with the philosophy behind them.

However, Bartholomew’s strong language in his defense of Sinai’s historicity is problematic. Neutrality in reading and interpretation is impossible, but that does not entail all arguments being of the same quality. Bartholomew does not interact with contemporary archaeology or with many leading specialists in Exodus and pentateuchal studies (Joel Baden and Jeffrey Stackert are absent), and his rejection of the documentary source hypothesis is wanting. He affirms, through Herbert Britcho, that the notable inconsistencies of the account could be a display of equal ineptitude [sic] on the part of an editor as it would be if there were a sole author.

Additionally it is not impossible to believe that Sinai (and the exodus more broadly) was an identity-generative event for Israel without it historically occurring. Distant historical memories can be repurposed and refashioned to form ethnic myths of origins, as per Robert Hendel (another influential scholar without mention) in his voluminous research on cultural memory. Without seriously considering these additional and alternative aspects of the Sinai narrative and pentateuchal scholarship, I find Bartholomew’s statement that “one cannot escape the possibility that the Sinai event took place” (226) to be almost baseless.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jackson Reinhardt is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
November 5, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Craig G. Bartholomew is director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Tyndale House, Cambridge, UK. He has written several books and commentaries, including Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture.

Keywords: 

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