Though published 1988, Jon Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence Evil: The Jewish Drama of Omnipotence” still breaths invigorating and lively words into the hearts and minds of modern readers who seek to understand Yahweh in the ancient context of creation. From the outset, he approaches the issue of God’s mastery over the universe from a Rabbinical Jewish perspective. That’s not to say that he only uses Rabbinic sources; rather, after observing the ancient Near East context of creation, he seeks to see how those ideas are reflected within Rabbinic literature. The first section of the book is structured around understanding how God is master in regard to creation, pointing out that it ultimately comes down to creation as “the emergence of a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order” (12). Following, Levenson explores the “character”, if you will, of Chaos through the lens of the Hebrew Bible, drawing out the role of Chaos in sustaining Order and the power and reality of unchecked evil. Of course, the religion of ancient Israel expects that, eventually, God will win in that final future battle. In other words, while God’s enemies last, “YHWH is not altogether YHWH, and his regal power is not yet fully actualized. Rather he is the omnipotent cosmocrater only in potential” (38).
After briefly summarizing the previous chapters, he explores the later development of Israelite thought in regard to evil, which, based on Psalm 104, seems to be the development of God’s absolute power. However, in the midst of that absolute mastery over creation, evil is still persistent. Tracing strands important to his tradition, Levenson spends the next three chapters exploring the interrelations between seven days of creation, the temple as a microcosm of creation, and the driving purpose behind Sabbath. In synthesizing these observations, it’s observed that the cultic life of Israel was structured in such a way as to be Order within a world of Chaos. “It is through obedience to the directives of the divine master that his good world comes into existence” (127).
Transitioning into more practical issues of this exploration of the persistence of evil and God’s mastery over the universe, Levenson briefly explores the dynamics of lordship and submission in regard to how God is omnipotent. Levenson suggests, based on his developed argument, that mankind is both autonomous and heteronomous to God. Importantly, he notes that there should be no distinction between the two as it was in the ancient world, no dichotomy. With that strand, he proceeds to explore and explain these two aspects of covenant, provided by God, in terms of obedience and argument. As he puts it, “an innocent sufferer makes just claims against God and, upon submitting and recanting, comes to know anew the justice and generosity of his lord” (155). Levenson concludes that too often people attempt to make life, creation itself, a anthropocentric issue; rather, it is a theocentric issue in which evil persists, but God maintains the Order.
Levenson’s unique approach to understanding creation and the persistence of evil in biblical thought is unique because it expands beyond the realm of theological traditions. It approaches Genesis on its own terms and follows the close ties between various aspects of biblical thought. Most importantly, though, he is clear about explaining why it matters for the average Joe. His study is not an ethereal work of scholarship that goes over the head of the reader. Rather, it is a down to earth and easy to grasp study of why Genesis matters and how any person should read it. For Jews and Christians, it explores the idea of how God is master, how God is omnipotent. For me, his study and conclusion were satisfactory because it answered questions that have rolled around in my mind for years, questions no person has fully answered.
In conclusion, Levenson’s exploration of the persistence of evil is an excellent read for any serious student of biblical studies, whether scholar, student, or lay person. Although it may be a challenge for the lay person, it is definitely worth the read, as it will further a solid understanding of Scripture and also provide spiritual nourishment for relating to God’s mastery over the universe. Of the plethora of biblical literature I’ve read, Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence of Evil” by far stands as the number one book to this day. It’ll be hard to find a book that has had such an impact on my very being.
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