This book is an explanation of the thematic coherence of the Old Testament. There are several objections to this approach, which Dempster engages in his first chapter. The gist of that is that one gets what one is looking for. Because the book must be interpreted and is a large one, conflicting interpretations can be made, including those that argue for an incoherent collection. But Dempster’s argument is that the book is one whole not only because it has one Divine author who speaks through many human authors, it is also coherent because of the final editorial process. For this he provides evidence. The end result was ordered a certain way to indicate the thematic coherence of the Old Testament. This, Dempster argues, was the Scripture that Our Lord himself used. Borrowing Robert Alter’s argument that in the end we must deal with the completed books as such regardless of the editorial process undergone before their final state, since as such we have received them, Dempster argues the same for the whole OT. Whatever the writing and editorial process before, the whole exists not as a collection of unrelated and disparate books, but as one thematically coherent set of books. The theme? Dominion and Dynasty, or the Kingdom of God: “the kingdom needs a king, and dominion a dynasty” (62).
The Christian ordering of the OT has not favored this argument; Dempster argues that the Tanakh has the proper arrangement. This arrangement is similar from Genesis to Kings, but then radically changes. After this come Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah, followed by the singe book of the Twelve minor prophets. Then come Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Lamentations. This break represents a departure from the storyline of the first section. It is a section of commentary brought about by the crisis of the exile. The story resumes with Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah and concludes with the grand summary of Chronicles. The first chapter of Dempster’s book makes the case, the rest of the book demonstrates what his approach can yield by going through all the OT explaining the thematic coherence book by book in the Tanakh order.
One of the best thing about this book is how Dempster makes sense of the genealogies in the OT, specially the ones that cover the first chapters of Chronicles. In the narrative flow of the Old Testament, the genealogies we might say represent shallows. The deep, steady stream into which we are accustomed to peer for the fish of meaning suddenly rushes over rough territory, and we do not always know how to take that. It is doing—this is my metaphor, not his—what a river is doing when it runs over shallows, speeding up the current of the water. The genealogies serve to cover time quickly, and join slower but deeper sections (which is not to say they do not repay diligent study as well). If you have the order of the books properly set, the genealogies make more sense. Chronicles is a summary, but not exactly a repetition. It begins with Genealogies because it is covering the whole ground from the beginning, but it has a theme to elaborate at a more advanced stage, which is what sets it apart.
Man was given dominion in Genesis, and with dominion, a realm over which to exercise it, a geographical region. In the fall he lost this, and the rest of the Old Testament tells how God is working to recover what has been lost, through covenant and promise. Dominion will be regained by a Davidic Dynasty, and it will have a geographic center: Jerusalem, where the king will rule all of God’s people, a people from all the earth. The progress of revelation is persuasively demonstrated as Dempster goes book by book in the Tanakh order.
Here is a sample of the insight Dempster’s approach achieves: “In view of the fact that Esther follows Daniel, these claims are reinforced. The kingdom of God will eventually triumph over all earthly kingdoms. And, viewed against the broader canvas of Scripture, other details emerge. Esther’s opposition to Haman continues the major theme running through the narrative, that of the woman against the beast: Eve versus the serpent; Sarah and Rebekah versus barrenness; Tamar versus Judah; Jochebed and Miriam versus the Pharaoh; Deborah and Jael versus Sisera; Ruth and Naomi versus death; Hannah versus barrenness; Jehosheba versus Athaliah. In all these examples of struggle these women of faith are engaged in a battle to save the people of God. The victory of Esther over Haman dramatically continues the theme” (223). In that paragraph, as you read it, you are struck with the implausibility of some of what he is saying, but the end is interesting, and perhaps the whole not so implausible after all. The same with the book: there are points at which his particular argument creaks, but on the whole the case is very well made.