2014.9.15 | Gregory S. Smith. The Testing of God’s Sons: The Refining of Faith as a Biblical Theme. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2014. pp. xviii + 222. ISBN: 9780805464184.
Review by Kerry Lee.
Many thanks to B&H Academic for providing a review copy.
The Testing of God’s Sons by Gregory S. Smith is primarily an exploration of the literary theme of “testing”, a theme that is especially important in Genesis but that, Smith also argues, is a unifying theme in the entire Pentateuch and even the entire Christian Bible. Additionally, to support his case, he engages in a limited semantic field analysis of common Hebrew terms that communicate the idea of testing. He argues that underlying the use of these terms is a metallurgical metaphor, and Smith finds that one particular term that is important to his literary analysis of the theme of testing in the Bible, Hebrew bāḥan, is connected to the idea of a “touchstone”, meaning the purpose of the testing is authentication (more than “refining” or “revealing”).
The main part of the book is divided into four chapters and a conclusion, as well as two short appendices. In the first chapter, Smith introduces the three key Hebrew verbs related to testing and, by looking at their usage in the Hebrew Bible, suggests a kind of spectrum of meaning on which the three verbs tend to sit, from “quality checking” on one side (nāsāh, “to reveal”) to “quality improvement” on the other (ṣārap, “to refine”). Sitting in the middle of this spectrum is bāḥan, “to authenticate.” These three verbs roughly relate to three stages of metal processing and refinement. Smith then finds evidence of a similar metallurgical metaphor in Akkadian texts where the subject is testing of individuals rather than metals. Smith shows an awareness of reasonably up-to-date linguistic methods and concepts (e.g. in his acknowledgement of the limitations of etymology as a determiner of meaning, in his basic semantic field approach), even if his discussion makes very little use of those methods and concepts.
This first chapter is a fundamentally different kind of study from the rest of the book. It is foundational for the rest of the book, at least to an extent, mainly in its defining of Hebrew bāḥan vis-a-vis nāsāh and ṣārap. But despite its brevity, it actually feels a little bloated, especially in the way Smith spends more than half the chapter on Akkadian evidence that really plays no substantial role in the rest of the book. It seems to me that what we actually have in the chapter 1 and appendix A (where he discusses evidence from Egyptian and Syriac texts on essentially the same subject) is the foundation of another monograph altogether, one that would more consistently and thoroughly utilize contemporary linguistic methods and more comprehensively examine the ancient Near Eastern evidence as a whole in order to establish the commonness of the use metallurgical terms and imagery metaphorically in the semantic field of testing. As it is, this first chapter is more suggestive than conclusive because of its brevity and lack of a focus that is common to the rest of the book. I would very much like to see this first chapter fleshed out by Smith in its own monograph, because I think there is quite a lot that is of value in Smith’s fundamental observations.
After chapter 1, the rest of the book is more thoroughly a literary and theological analysis of texts (the theology seems mostly subject to the literary, and I greatly appreciate this). Smith begins by tracing three inter-related themes through the Joseph story (Genesis 37-50): “testing”, “fear of God”, and “good” (as a covenant concept). He examines some of the most important figures in OT Pentateuch scholarship and shows how they have approached these themes, clarifying his position and situating it among them. Even during this first segment, already Smith finds literary ties to other parts of Genesis, like the Abraham story (especially the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22), and to other parts of the Pentateuch (especially Deuteronomy). The third chapter traces the theme of testing more comprehensively through the whole of the Pentateuch, while the fourth chapter broadens the scope even more. A few pages at the end are dedicated to the theme of testing in the New Testament.
Smith’s sensitive literary analysis of the Joseph story is probably the most important contribution he makes in this book, though I think if the first chapter had its own monograph dedicated to it, it would be a contribution of similar value. My impression of the book as I read through it was that sometimes I could not understand how what I was reading fit into the book’s big picture. I think the quasi-“rabbit trail” of the first chapter (dealing with Hebrew linguistics and Akkadian texts) is largely to blame for this, though perhaps more or clearer signposts throughout the book would have helped. Overall, though, the book is very accessible. Even the first chapter only rarely requires anything like specialist knowledge. Because of this, I can see this book being valuable not only to OT scholars, but NT scholars, pastors, and informed laity, as well. Again, I hope Smith will develop his thoughts from the first chapter in a more comprehensive and focused subsequent work.