Book Review: Roots: Let the Old Testament Speak, by Alec Motyer
The problem of attempting to write a midsize book surveying the entire Old Testament is obvious from the outset â€“ there is simply too much information that could be put into it profitably, but that will simply not fit. Is it best to deal at length with the historic culture and context of the original writings, taking into account archeological discoveries and ancient near eastern scholarship? Would it be better to interact with the various approaches to Old Testament exegesis in Church history? Does one give a basic survey of each book in chronological order, or else in the order in which they exist either in our bible or the original Hebrew arrangement? Would it be better to provide a more detailed exegesis of the most significant passages, or an analysis of the different structural elements and over-arching motifs of the various writings? Alec Motyer has clearly wrestled with these issues, and the result has been a fairly balanced mixture of all of the above, although he gives more emphasis to certain elements than to others. The result is a survey that gives the briefest introduction to a plethora of OT related studies, while providing a much fuller treatment of the Old Testament writings themselves, with an eye for overarching structure and a fine sensitivity to the differences between authors and genres within the OT.
Motyer loves to talk about the OT, and his enthusiasm spills over on just about every page â€“ but at the same time, his intimate knowledge of the OT as a whole and his mastery of the Hebrew language provide a scholarly depth beyond that which many one-volume surveys or introductions might evince. This combination of sensitivity to the richness of the Hebrew language and a comprehensive knowledge of his material make for (in my opinion) Motyer's greatest strength: an ability to analyze the various books according to their literary structure, original intent, and distinctive emphases. And nowhere is he better at this than in the prophets. The array of prophetic writings that have been left to us in the OT is dazzlingly diverse. It is remarkable that such deep and masterful writings, all bound together by the same great subject and theme, can be so amazingly different from each other â€“ and it takes one of Motyer's caliber to paint those fundamental and yet harmonious differences within an overarching, Messianic unity. To Motyer, the prophets are real, living personalities, utterly different from each other, and yet transformed even within the confines of their own personalities and idiosyncrasies to the larger-than-life figures that we cannot help but love. But not only are the prophets real and vibrant â€“ so also their writings are alive with a thousand marvels and intricacies. Motyer has a knack for seeing patterns, themes, intentional structures that make texts come alive, but that are easy to miss even in the original, and sometimes virtually impossible to pick up on in translation.
I love Motyer's theological conservatism on such vital doctrines as justification by faith alone, the penal, substitutionary atonement, the imputation of Christ's righteousness, and other such things. â€œThe blood of the lamb is propitiatory because it is substitutionary,â€ he affirms; â€œThis is a truth intrinsic to the way the story is toldâ€. But even more important than this is his conviction that all of those things looked ahead to Christ. â€œJesus is the 'end grain' of the prophetic scriptures. He is what was there and intended from the start,â€ Motyer explains elsewhere. â€œIt will be one of the most fascinating aspects of our study of the Old Testament to see this probing and deepening at work, always moving forward to the climactic flowering in Jesusâ€.
It is perhaps to be expected that there are a few points upon which I tend to disagree with Motyer; one of those ways is that, in spite of his Christ-centeredness in principle, and his very commendable and explicit Christ-centeredness on certain key texts (his expositions of Psalm 110 and Isaiah 53 are superb!), I still would have liked to see a little more done to make this connection more apparent in more places. In some places, in fact, I would positively take issue with the level of Christ-centered understanding portrayed as existing among the Old Testament faithful. For example, his assertion that, â€œWe need to remind ourselves that the Old Testament believer did not use the sacrifices as symbols, nor as an interim provision awaiting a perfect sacrifice, nor as a foreshadowing of that sacrifice. The sin-offering was a divine provision (Lev. 17:11) to which was attached a divine promise (of forgiveness); in making his offering the believer rested in faith on that promise. It took the genius of Isaiah to see that ultimately only a Person could substitute for persons in the matter of sin: hence Hebrews 10:1-18. Old Testament believers rested in faith on what God promised, exactly as we rest in faith on the promises he has centralised at Calvaryâ€. I couldn't disagree more â€“ did not Abraham see the day of Jesus and rejoice? Was not even Abel's sacrifice offered up in faith in the coming, promised Seed? If the Old Testament believer did not have faith in the promised Christ, but rested only in the gross outward symbol alone, how could he have been saved? This sounds to me dangerously close to Ryrie's problematic assertion that faith alone saves in every dispensation, but the content of that faith differs.
One other point at which I saw a weakness, is ironically due to the very same ability which gave him such insight into the different prophets: and that is, his penchant for psychological character studies, based upon the sacred texts. Motyer's treatment of the histories is a little heavy on character studies as opposed to tracing the progress of redemptive history; and while he is usually very perceptive in this regard, I became uncomfortable in some places, the most notable being his discussion of kings David and Saul. Whereas it seems to me that the bible intends to portray them in a vastly different light, David's character being, basically, after God's own heart and Saul's being very nearly the opposite, yet Motyer sees Saul in a much more sympathetic light, and David in a much more skeptical. In fact, if one were to read Motyer's description alone, it would be easy to assume that Saul was the man of much better character and nobility. At the end of his very predominantly negative assessment of the life of David, Motyer gives the (inaccurately) harsh conclusion, â€œDavid's life just tumbled into ruin, and he ended up in the indignities of extreme old age (1 Kings 1:1-4), a pawn in the hands of power-hungry interests within the palace (1:5-53), and the author of the horrifying vengefulness of his 'last will and testament' (2:1-11). The history of David is every bit as heartbreaking as that of Saul.â€ But of Saul, by contrast, he concludes, â€œDear Saul! He forsook the way of obedience and walked deeper and deeper into the valley of deadly darkness, but the Lord never deserts those to whom he has given a new heart (10:9). He brought Saul out of despair, delusion and failure to where 'the wicked cease from turmoil, and the weary are at rest, and those in bondage take their ease' (Job 3:17-18).â€ I think this assessment of Saul is as wrongly optimistic as his assessment of David was pessimistic â€“ and in exchange, the contrast between the two, so vital for understanding one of the main points of the histories of Israel's â€œGolden Age,â€ as well as David's character as the outstanding type of the Messiah, is obscured.
Quibbles aside, though, there is a whole treasure trove of information in Roots that will more than repay the reader who gives of his time to study it. I know I have been well rewarded for my time invested, and I suppose I am not alone in saying this.
Available at Monergism Books.