Friday, June 4, 2010

Featured Book of the Week: Israel and the Nations (Okoye)

 James Chukwuma Okoye, Israel and the Nations: A Mission Theology of the Old Testament (American Society of Missiological Series 39; Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2006). Pp. xix+179.
 Arnoldus Library Call Number: BS 1199.O36i

Critical Review by Randolf C. Flores, SVD
Originally published in Diwa: Studies in Philosophy and Theology 33 (2008): 109-117.

In August 2006, Stephen Bevans, SVD, professor of Mission and Culture at the Catholic Theological Union presented his Constants in Context (Orbis, 2004; Claretian, 2005) to the academic community of Divine Word Seminary. One of the questions asked in that forum was on the place of the Old Testament in Missiology, a topic that has always been problematic in that discipline. Back then, Fr. Bevans referred to a forthcoming book that would address the problem authored by his colleague, James Chukwuma Okoye, a Nigerian biblical scholar (graduate of Pontifical Biblical Institute and Oxford University). The book referred to is Israel and the Nations and “written for students and informed people, be they lay, clergy, or religious, who seek a better grounding in, and understanding of, the theme of mission and its development in the Old Testament,” as Okoye writes in the Preface (p. xv-xvi). The book, at the outset, could serve as an updated and upgraded companion of C. Stuhlmueller and D. Senior, The Biblical Foundations for Mission (Orbis, 1983), a standard in the list of readings of Missiology students.

In Chapter 1, “The Hermeneutics of Mission in the Old Testament” (pp. 1-17), the author explains the perennial tension between Israel’s election and the concept of mission and harmonizes them by showing that the Old Testament is not only focused on Israel but also on “other nations” (e.g. the mission of the Yahweh’s servant as “light to the nations” in Isa 49:6).  The theme of mission is the “necessary accompaniment of that of election” (p. 4).  The brief survey of studies on mission in the Old Testament shows how few studies done in this area and how divergent their ideas of mission – H. H. Rowley; R. Martin-Achard; A. Retif and P. Lamarche; W. Kaiser, C. Stuhlmueller and D. Senior,  L. Legrand, D. Bosch, A. Köstenberger and P. T. O’Brien, A. F. Glasser.  Okoye classifies mission in the Old Testament into four “faces” (1) universality; (2) community-in-mission; (3) centripetal mission; (4) centrifugal mission. The biblical texts chosen by Okoye to argue for a theme of mission somehow represent these four faces.

The short survey of trends in mission in Chapter 2 (pp. 18-23) provides the student-beginner of a quick history of mission theology after 1950’s, beginning with Karl Barth (1932) up to the Declaration,  Dominus Iesus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (2000). While this last document is controversial to some practitioners of interreligious dialogue, Okoye presumes the uniqueness of Jesus and the necessity of the church. The centrality of Jesus in the New Testament is another crucible of missiologists, but this is another story.

Chapter 3 (pp. 24-34) discusses the first of the selected biblical texts, Genesis 1 which the author considers as “Blueprint for Mission” (the chapter title), the judgment is canonical rather than chronological. The Priestly narrative (P) appears to be written during the reign of Cyrus and before 520 B.C. (J.-L. Ska, Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch [Eisenbrauns, 2006], p. 161) so that the text as such could be corrective to the extraordinary measures under Ezra and Nehemiah to maintain the identity of the post-exilic community which includes the policy of separatism and the insistence of clear boundaries between Jew and Gentile, most prominent of which is the prohibition of intermarriage. Okoye misses this point.

His emphasis on the universality of redemption in the creation story of P is not without basis however. Its difference or, better, discontinuity from the Babylonian myth Enuma Elish may indicate its bold rejection of “the aristocratic split between a leisure-class divinity and a humanity that serves this divinity through slave labor” (p. 26) and capriciousness of the deity in determining humanity’s end. (see my article “Assembly of Gods and Goddesses and the Fate of Humanity,” [Diwa 31 (2006)], pp. 24-41. P’s story is well-structured with the Sabbath and creation of human beings forming the climax of the narrative (p. 28). Some scholars, though, read the creation of human beings as literally and consciously placed at the last to de-emphasize anthropocentricism making the P story geocentric. The role of Sabbath in creation is both ethical and ontological. Although Sabbath observance is a character of separation, Okoye sees this as the means in which “Israel is holding brief for all humanity” (p. 29). Indeed, such ethical dimension is clear in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:10-11) when the father must allow rest during Sabbath to members of the household including the resident alien (Gër) working with him. In Enuma elish,  the conclusion of creation is the building of the palace/temple for the victorious god, Marduk. In the P creation story, the building of God’s house is ontological – Sabbath becomes God’s residence in time. The creator’s residence in space is to be realized first in the construction of tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 39-40) and finally in building of the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 6-8). What is established here is not only a physical building but the sovereignty of God over all creation. Thus, “the Sabbath of Israel hangs over all creation” (p. 32).

The creation of the human beings in the “likeness” and “image” of God affirms the universality of redemption.  Following Westermann, Okoye understands the Hebrew synonymous words celem and DémûT “as qualifying human beings in their ability to enter into relationship with God” (p. 33) and so the command to “trample down” (rDh) and “subdue” (KBš) does not carry the nuance to dominate as the literal meanings of these terms imply but to “’green’ the earth, subdue and beautify it” (p. 33). From here, Okoye should have drawn some points for a reflection on ecology and doing mission today (although he would mention it briefly in the next chapter, in p. 41).

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