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Being Human in God’s World by J. Gordon McConville

10 March 2017

Richard Briggs on the problems that began with Adam and Eve

Being Human in God’s World: An Old Testament theology of humanity
J. Gordon McConville
Baker Academic £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10


WHAT does the Old Testament think life is all about? The headline answer in Gordon McConville’s thoughtful new book might be: it’s complicated, but it should end up focused on worship.

There are perhaps three ways in which a book like this could be structured. McConville tries all of them. First: beginning at the beginning, which he does with two fine chapters on Genesis 1-3. The image of God in Genesis 1 concerns “presencing” the deity, which is about passionate relationship and representation. Amid the resultant stresses of Eden, the newly unleashed creative potential in humanity causes trouble, though not straightforwardly as a fall.

I thought we were in for an elegant probing of the canonical witness by this point, but then Chapters 3 to 5 come from an altogether different angle, offering a miniature OT anthropology (heart, soul, mind, . . .); a reflection on the situated self, after Charles Taylor; and a hermeneutical chapter on language as transformative (metaphor, typology, myth, . . .). These felt like good parts in search of a greater whole. McConville calls them “foundational elements”.

Finally, Chapters 6 to 10 turn to thematic studies of topics: place and memory; politics; gender; work; and — climactically — praise. There is hardly any final summation or conclusion, just a passing comment that “We find . . . a depiction of humanity as unfinished, not yet perfectly realized, but conditioned by eschatological hope.” All in all, it is a little under-signposted.

I wish sometimes that McConville gave more direction after reviewing multiple incompatible options. Does prophetic sexual imagery abuse women? Some say yes, some say no; and there his discussion simply stops. On the other hand, he does reflect helpfully on how Psalm 8’s question (“what are humans?”) is left as a question.

The positives and negatives of power are well handled, and there is a recurrent insight, traced back to Genesis, that, when God entrusted creativity to humans, it opened up problems as much as opportunities.

Like scripture itself, McConville offers words of balance and nuance, across multiple contexts. Like scripture itself, the resulting book is wise but demanding. There is a much transliterated Hebrew and footnote engagement with doctoral theses, published and unpublished. Those enjoying OT studies but wondering whether they might be losing sight of a bigger picture could profitably take up this book and read.


Dr Richard Briggs is Director of Biblical Studies at Cranmer Hall, Durham.

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