A Review of Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty

31147.jpgDempster offers a superb analysis of the Hebrew Bible. Dominion and Dynasty supersedes other works in its field in the area of clarity. Unlike the chaotic English translation of Vos, who offered us over a century ago the first explicit introduction to Biblical theology, Dempster’s exploration into the theology of the Hebrew Bible is fresh, stimulating and in most cases an easier journey for those interested in exploring the central themes of the Old Testament.

The author does not negate the consequences of this monograph; rather he states that there are “significant theological implications for all the book.” ((Dempster G. Stephen. Dominion and Dynasty. Intervarsity Press, 42.)) Dempster sees a literary/theological hermeneutic when reading through the Tanakh. This means that the interpreter will seek to understand the text how the first readers understood the text. Further, many scholars have given up on the idea of finding a unity among the books, nevertheless it is Dempster’s theses that “literary unity is rarely considered perhaps due to the loss of the concept of an Author.” ((Dempster, 37.)) He argues that if there is both an implicit an explicit cohesion among the books, there is a case for fresh insights into Old Testament Biblical theology. Hence, discovering a fundamental theme that undergirds the interpretation is imperative.

The contention is this tome is that the literary approach to Scripture is a necessary element that has been largely forsaken. If the reading the Bible is similar to reading other great works of Literature, then the reader is urged to look at it the same way. As in any great literary work, the Bible also has a beginning, middle and an end. Since this is the case, the Scriptures “require a literary perspective.” ((Dempster, 24.))

This does not mean that the Bible is to be seen as another great literary work such as Shakespeare, (since we know that unlike other literary works, the Bible is divinely inspired) rather, the author’s contention is that the failure to see the literary features will be a hindrance to understanding some of its most central themes. Though Christians bring assumptions to the analysis of the Bible that is quite different from the unbeliever or liberal scholar, nevertheless, if we overlook the humanness of the Scriptures, we overlook the fact that the writers themselves were humans. The Bible by nature is an anthropomorphic book. It was not made for the overly intellectual, nor was it made solely for the Biblical scholar trained in linguistic studies. In short, the Bible “is not an esoteric ‘heavenly language’, but simply a message expressed in ordinary, human speech.” ((Ibid., 25.))

Many scholars have erred in seeing the Tanakh ((The Tanakh is an acronym, which points to the alleged unity of this material as well of its three subdivisions: the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Ketuviml; see page 36)) as providing a lens of law. Generally, by doing so such scholars end up with a very negative view of the law, since their hermeneutics is based on a negative view of the law or some sort of necessary or dark groundwork/background for the glorious New Covenant era. The basis of this study is not like the one mentioned, rather Dempster views the Tanakh as one text and not as three separate texts, nor does he see the Tanakh as merely a dark background to the new, but rather as a beautiful picture of the overall structure of the Scriptures. The point is not to minimize the influence of one book to its particular time, rather to see one book in light of the magnificent expression of God throughout the Scriptures, particularly in the manifestation of the second person of the trinity.

 

The two themes that unfold throughout the book are the themes of dominion and dynasty. The dominion refers to the geography. The purpose of humanity from the beginning is to exercise dominion over all the lands, indeed to rule the world. This dominion, however, does not occur through one generation, but through dynasties, that is, genealogies. The genealogy begins with Adam and Eve, who failed to exercise dominion over the garden. Nevertheless, it does not thwart the divine plan, but continues through their children, to Noah, to Samuel, to David’s line, and ends in Malachi with a note of hope for the future generations, particularly as expressed in the New Covenant people of God and their seed.

Inherent to this dominion and dynasty is the idea that God the Creator has entered into a relationship with His creation. Hence, the “goal of creation is anthropological.” ((Dempster, 57.)) As a result, the literary hermeneutic approaches the task from a reader’s point of view and how he would have understood the text in light of his culture and the unfolding themes of dominion and dynasty. The great hope for the reader was the genealogical hope of all peoples from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant: that “the seed of the woman would restore the lost glory.” This restoration would begin in the manifestation of the kingdom of God established in the Messiah, who would ultimately establish dominion over the entire world. ((In Romans 4:13 Paul asserts that the promise is not in a plot of land, but the whole world.))

Dempster analyzes carefully the different periods of Old Testament history, while asserting that the reader is to view the Bible in its larger literary context (220). This is necessary because the Bible is a Book, not a disassociated or severed list of historical treatments disconnected without a central goal, rather as a unified corpus it takes the reader to the latter days of restoration.

The great Sinaitic event in the history of Israel that decidedly distinguished Israel from all the other nations is according to Dempster a “moral dead end.” ((Page 112)) It does “something profoundly negative to Israel.”(112) Dempster seems to infer that Israel is treated more severely after Sinai than before. He cites the example of “murmuring” from
the people after Sinai and how it leads to more severe punishment from God. Dempster seems to overstate his case. Even if the assertion that Pre-Sinai was less severe is true, that does not change the fact that the law is holy, right and good (Psalm 19, 119, and Romans 7). Hence, the giving of the law does not entail greater punishment from God; rather, it entails a more civilized people and a less chaotic nation. It is true that the people of God failed and many did not enter the promise land, but it is not because of the giving of the law, rather, it is so that God should be glorified and we should learn from their examples (I Corinthians 10). Furthermore, Sinai is a gift from God. It is based on grace (as we read in the preface to the law). The law is to be a proper response to God’s deliverance. In light of this it can be said that the Pre-Sinai the people of Israel lived in greater distress without guidance and under oppression and after Sinai the people lived freely under God who provided for all their needs. It must be mentioned that if the same disobedience were to take place in Egypt, they too would have died under Egyptian rule.

 

The law of God is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psalm 19); it serves as a sanctifying grace to the people of God so that they may live righteously and serve God faithfully; it also is a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ. Dempster seems to overlook the other uses of the law. The only use of Sinai according to Dempster is that it presses us to look for a Savior (234). The danger here is that such a negative view of the law leads to a dangerous anti-nomianism that minimizes human responsibility before God.

 

Even if punishment became more severe after Sinai, it can also be said that blessings became a greater reality than pre-Sinai. For instance, there are no promises of blessings in large proportion prior to Sinai, but after Sinai, the author promises great physical, material prosperity for the people of God unheard of prior to the Sinaitic Covenant. Furthermore, the law is not to be seen as a measuring stick by which we can never live by; since Deuteronomy 30 teaches that we can abide by it and live faithfully to Yahweh our God. Ultimately, keeping the law perfectly demands a greater Israel, the true David, but abiding by the law faithfully demands the grace of God manifested in the lives of His covenant people.

 

The genealogy and geography motifs are remarkably printed throughout the Old Testament prophets. The promise of the land through God’s children is clearly revealed in the prophetic task of Israel as the instrument used by God to establish dominion. Though Israel was called to be a light to the nations, and though God showered Israel with his faithfulness (regardless of Israel’s whoredom), they failed and received the curses of the covenant as promised by God. If they obey, God will bless them, but if they disobey, God will curse them. Indeed, the Word of the Lord came to pass. This, however, is not to diminish the eternal validity of God’s law for all ages, but rather finds exclusive fault with the people, not with the law, which represents the unchanging character of God.

 

The most significant and overlooked theme of the Bible is the covenant. Some have argued that the covenant, particularly the Edenic Covenant, was merely contractual and a legal matter (see Meredith Kline), but as Dempster argues the covenant was and is “intensely personal, alive with love, in which the relationship was primary.” ((Dempster, 162.))
All covenants are framed around the relational and gracious nature of God; therefore we can believe in His promises and trust in His Covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations.

 

Stephen Dempster argues throughout the book that dominion and dynasty opens the interpreter to see the unity of all Biblical literature. Most importantly in the book is its stress that redemptive history, (historia salutis) points us to Yahweh’s reign and sovereign dominion over all. Eden and the temple become glorious pictures of a New Heaven and New Earth and a glorious sanctuary where all the peoples of the earth will worship and adore God who is blessed forever.

The Review in Word Format (Large Font-Double-Space): dempster.doc

 

 

 

 

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About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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2 Responses to A Review of Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty

  1. Joe F. says:

    Good review…thanks Uri!

  2. Uri Brito says:

    Well, from the archives…six years ago…I think I still agree with myself.

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