Christopher J.H. Wright. The Old Testament in Seven Sentences. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to buy the book.
Christopher J.H. Wright has a Ph.D. from Cambridge and is the international ministries director of the Langham Partnership.
Tremper Longman III astutely comments that this book “gives readers an essential and impressive orientation to the life-giving message of the Old Testament.” Beth Stovell of Ambrose University states that it is “A tour de force, capturing the heart of the Old Testament, its epic drama, and God’s passion for his people with clarity and depth.” I would not say that the book is particularly deep, but it is an orientation to the Old Testament, a book that presents what Wright believes is the Old Testament’s essence.
Wright bases each chapter on a Scriptural citation. The topics include creation, Abraham, the Exodus, David, the prophets, Gospel, and Psalms and wisdom. “Gospel,” of course, primarily refers to Jesus’s saving work, but Wright also discusses it in terms of the good news that the prophet in Isaiah 52:7 brought concerning Israel’s restoration from Babylonian exile. Wright’s discussions do comment on the biblical verses, but Wright does not feel bound by the verses; instead, he uses the verses as a launchpad for a more extensive discussion of the topics.
There were a few things that I learned from this book. For example, in commenting on Amos’s statement that the poor are righteous, Wright says that does not necessarily mean that the poor were morally upright but rather that they were “in the right” in God’s justice against their rich oppressors; in their case, as it existed before God, they were the right party, whereas the rich oppressors were the wrong party, so God decided in favor of the wronged poor. Wright also offers an interesting thought on the authorship of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). I read a commentary a while back that said that Isaiah of Jerusalem could not have written Second Isaiah, for its message about the Jews’ restoration from Babylonian exile would have been utterly irrelevant to Isaiah’s contemporaries. Wright says, however, that Isaiah’s disciples could have preserved Isaiah’s message in Isaiah 40-55 until it became relevant. Wright is not committed to Isaian authorship of Second Isaiah, but he does engage it as a possibility.
Overall, though, I cannot say that I learned much from this book. I found that to be true about another book by Wright that I read, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. I do have degrees in religious studies and have read academic books about the Bible, so some things that I know may not be as familiar to readers without an academic background. For instance, Wright states that Cyrus not only let the Jews return to their land but let other peoples return to their countries of origin as well. Those who think that Isaiah predicted Jesus, and that’s it, may be surprised to read that Isaiah’s prophecies that are later applied to Jesus also related to Isaiah’s own time. But, overall, I doubt that laypeople who have read the Bible cover to cover, or who have a basic familiarity with its storyline, will find much that is earthshakingly new or unfamiliar to them in this book. Wright’s conclusions may even strike them as obvious (i.e., God is the creator, God is concerned about earthly politics, etc.). This does not have to be the case with an introductory book about the Old Testament, for there are introductory works, particularly by John Goldingay, that intersperse fresh insights, such as examples, scholarly debates, or interesting biblical trivia (not “trivia” in the sense that it is unimportant but in the sense that it is a detail that people may not readily know).
In a few cases, Wright makes an interesting point but does not develop it. On page 171, he says that meditation on Scripture in the Bible is not thinking about it but rather is reciting it over and over. He calls this an “active engagement with the text, chewing it over, as we might say.” How is repeating a text over and over an “active engagement” or “chewing it over”? Should meditation not include thinking about the text’s meaning and implications, to qualify as such?
This book is still winsome and edifying, though. It lays out how the Old Testament displays the righteous character of God, and how that character plays out in God’s interaction with humans. God, in Wright’s telling, established a political order that would instruct Israel and make her distinct from the nations. Wright allows the reader to chew on that and he marinates it, as he sets forth different facets of it. I have eaten pizza before and know what it tastes like, but it is still enjoyable to appreciate its distinct flavors. Wright’s book is like pizza, in that respect.
Overall, at least in this book, Wright does not treat the Old Testament primarily as a foil for the New Testament, viewing the law as an opportunity for Israel to screw up and see how much she needs Jesus. Jesus is prominent in this book, though, and Wright affirms Jesus’s salvific work, but he seems to see Jesus as building on the institutions and principles of the Old Testament rather than correcting them or tearing them down. Such an approach may differ from how Paul treats the law in Galatians 3, but it is consistent with parts of the New Testament that present Jesus as the culmination of Israel’s story.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.