A Scholar’s Spiritual Journey
by Philip J. King
Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2008, xvii + 181 pp.
Reviewed by James F. Strange
Picture in your mind a chance meeting of Fr. King with a homeless person in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. King as priest stops to chat. King as scholar is surprised to hear that the man in question spent hours as a prisoner in solitary confinement but was never bored because “he spent all of his time reading the Bible.” The inspiration of that encounter results in this book and provides a thread of exposition. The exposition is based on experience, not abstract reasoning.
Phil King as believer and priest, but also Phil King as scholar has written the book he has always wanted to write. That means that he distills his considerable experience with the Bible, with scholarship, with archaeology, with ancient Near Eastern Studies, with the languages, the people and the times into a single narrative for all those who wish they could read such a book.
Mind you, Philip J. King was the professor of Biblical Studies at Boston College at Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. He is known as author of an introduction to and commentary on The Book of Numbers (1966), of Amos, Hosea, Micah: An Archaeological Commentary (1988), of Jeremiah: An Archaeological Companion (1993), and as co-author with Lawrence Stager of Life in Biblical Israel (2001). He was a constant luminary for scholarly bodies. Here he appears to be letting us in on why the Bible matters, and it is not just scholarship. He shows us that the Bible delivers weight, substance and meaning in the details of life.
In the introduction he briefly explains ideas such as the scientific study of the Bible, archaeology and the Bible, modern approaches to the Bible, and so on. He writes clearly and directly and with a certain humility. He is a capable scholar and knows how to talk the scholarly talk. His expositions are quite vivid and distinct, sometimes relying on his exposition of the meaning of Hebrew words. He writes to the point. He molds his sentences to answer a question implied by the title of the book, namely, how does the Bible relate to our life, our living, our daily walk? Furthermore he wants to hear the Hebrew Bible speak in its own terms without running it through a Christian black box first. Or, as he puts it, “Jesus is not found on every page of the Old Testament.” This is a Christian scholar who works with the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, though in this book he works in both Testaments. Yet he does not assume a stance of the superiority of the New Testament to the Old Testament. He sees them as an “organic unity,” although it is clear that Christ is the center of his own faith.
To lead us to seeing the relationship of Biblical ideas to ourselves, he walks us through an exposition of Faith, Hope, and Love in chapter 1. His model of faith is Abraham, and he observes that faith is described rather than defined in the Bible. This alerts the reader to expect other surprises in the Bible, such as the Psalms as sources of hope, or that the word translated “loving kindness” (hesed) appears more than 250 times in the Hebrew Bible to describe God’s relationship to Israel, or that love is something one does, not necessarily feels.
There is much in Fr. King’s book for us to think about, and he does not hand over shop-worn answers to our questions. For example, according to Exodus 34:6-7, God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and sin, yet in no way clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generation. “How does that work?” we ask. Dr. King simply points out that there are seven positive attributes of God in this passage and only two negative attributes. He adds crisply, “God imposes sanctions.”
His chapter on prayer (chapter 2) relies first on the Psalms, then on the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9ff), and finally on a series of Biblical characters at prayer. He shows the reader that prayer in the Bible is a relationship between God and people. Specifically he calls it “a personal and reciprocal relationship.” This is no abstract method of explicating prayer. Rather it is prayer as a two-way experience.
Likewise in chapter 3, titled “Covenant and Hospitality,” he shows that the covenant or agreement between God and Israel is above all a description of a relationship. Making a covenant establishes the relationship. Breaking the covenant necessitates-not retaliation, but divine forgiveness, and the remaking of the covenant.
Dr. King places an exposition on hospitality next to his words about covenant. He appears to make a point without making an argument, namely, that living in the desert results in a kind of wordless covenant between those who live there and those who visit. This, too, is presented as a kind of relationship. Those visiting are offered food, shade, lodging and washing of the feet. Dr. King points out that Abraham entertains three visitors in Genesis 18:1-5, and the first sentence drops the surprise that at least one of them is “the Lord.” As the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament puts it, “some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).
By the conclusion of the book we realize that Fr. King has shared with us a lifetime of insights from the Bible that have supported his inner self during “the arduous journey” of life. In so doing, he has established a relationship with us, even if we do not know him personally. “Relationship” appears to me to be the key to the book. His final image is that we are all pilgrims on our way to Jerusalem, and that journey is difficult enough that some never make it. We all need spiritual sustenance on that journey, including “the loving embrace of God.” He ends the book, which he says is his last, with the closing words of the Passover Seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
I think this is a book that many scholars will read, and at least some of them, myself included, will say, “I wish I had written this book.”
This book review by James Strange originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2009, 70-74.