Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Review: Five Festal Garments

Of all the many series Apollos/IVP have published in recent years, the one that I've valued most highly have been the 'New Studies in Biblical Theology' edited by Don Carson. I'm slowly working my way through the series, and Five Festal Garments by Barry Cooper was among the very best. The book springs from Cooper's two greatest passions - biblical theology and the exposition of the Old Testament as Holy Scripture. They combine wonderfully in the book.

The Five Festal Garments of the title refers to the Old Testament books of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. In the introduction, Cooper explains the festal garments through the customary Jewish usage of these books. Recognising that they were always canonical, the problem arose as to how to 'wear' the Scrolls. The solution comes in their use in the Jewish lectionary as readings for the five major festivals. But 'no consensus has emerged about their proper use, or about how they can be the word of God for us today' as Christians. Rather, they appear to be the most neglected books in the scriptures.

These Christian reflections on the books are a great little introduction to each, with their structure and content setting the tone for each chapter. The outline he follows for each asks the key questions - (i) a reading of the text to discover its structure; (ii) the relationship of the book to the wider Old Testament; (iii) how the book connects to the New Testament gospel through 'promise and fulfillment.'

The Song of Songs is the 'Garment of Love', even as it raises the question of who is speaking to whom and what do they mean; and how are we to see it as part of the Bible? His starting point is that it is love poetry, 'but it is neither a philosophical treatise... nor a sex manual.' With the different settings and voices, some may think that it's a compilation of love songs, like a greatest hits album, but Cooper argues that it's one single love poem. With its links to Solomon, the wider context points to the wisdom of Solomon and the themes of love found in Proverbs 31 and elsewhere. The theological context emphasises three important ideas: affirmation of the body and sexual relationships (in its essential goodness with links to the original creation); it doesn't idealise singleness; and it celebrates sex as a one-flesh union. Connecting it to the New Testament, Cooper sees it pointing to the new heavens and the new earth with the implication that sex is good, but it is not the greatest good, with an even better joy in heaven where there is only one marriage, between Christ and his people.

Ruth is up next, the 'Garment of Kindness.' It's a gentle book, but with turbulence in the depths - 'kindness of a radical and controversial sort; a kindness that makes ripples.' While some may see it as a romantic comedy, Cooper finds an irresistable movement in the book, from death to life, barrenness to fruitfulness, emptiness to fullness, curse to blessing.' His obesrvations of the text are marvellous, linking in to the wider context of the judges and David's kingship, a micro-history of salvation as it impacts a household (with wider implications). The wider implications are drawn out in the final section, as kindness is shown to be the very character of God, as his kindness draws in the Gentiles through Jesus the ultimate kinsman redeemer.

Lamentations is the 'Garment of Suffering' used on the Ninth of Ab, the day of fasting for the destruction of the temple. As the name suggests, it's a dark shaft of tragic loss and acute anguish, but Cooper points out that it's also a closely worked 'ordered grief', with its acrostics and a common structure. The question of its setting was surprising for me - having thought it was naturally connected with Jeremiah, it appears that there are differences of opinion, whether it comes after the prophets, as part of the historical writings. The resonance with the rest of the Old Testament is in the confusion over the impregnability of Zion in some of the Psalms, compared to the experienced reality. Over all, it 'shows us God's wrath as a directly experienced reality.' Yet alongside the darkness, there are beams of light, with the hope that comes from God, even as he displays his wrath. This becomes even clearer as we trace those lines through to the New Testament, where 'The unfailing love and righteous wrath of which it speaks find their climactic meeting point in the cross.'

Ecclesiastes is portrayed as the 'Garment of Vexation' - which is perhaps the most enigmatic book dealt with. With few footholds in the hebel (mist), there are as many opinions on the book as there are commentators! Yet there is some clarity as the structure is examined, with the narrator opening and closing the book, before coming to the Teacher's instruction. 'The positive conclusions drawn from the expose of human frailty and futility in the preceding observation complex is that human beings should fear God. And fearing God is tied, by implication, to attentiveness to his Torah.' Again, there's a link to the theme of creation in the Old Testament, but Paul sets the creation's frustration in the context of redemption in Romans 8.

Esther is the last book considered, the 'Garment of Deliverance.' In seeking to understand Esther, the first task is to try to catch her distinctive voice. 'What is of particular interest is the way that theme [deliverance] is developed here. How is deliverance in Esther different from deliverance in, say, the exodus, or Judges, or the Joseph narrative?' Here, we find 'history as story rather than history as chronicle.' Remarking on the 'absence' of God from the text of the book, Cooper urges that to use the book is 'to clothe ourselves with the truth that God is sovereign, and to be reminded that he is always with us, even when he seems most absent, and that nothing can ultimately thwart his purposes.'

I really enjoyed this book, giving an introduction to some of the lesser well known books of the Bible. His approach was very beneficial, opening out from the book itself to its OT context to its whole Bible context. There is plenty of gold in this book, for anyone wanting to get to know these books a bit better. It's also very useful for the pastor preparing to preach a series in the books - as I had previously done when preaching and leading Bible studies in Ruth. The whole series of the New Studies in Biblical Theology is great, but this might just be the crowning glory. Five Festal Garments is available from Amazon.

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