Stephen Dempster, in his provocative book Dominion and Dynasty, argues that the Old Testament canon develops around the twin themes of “dominion” (geography) and “dynasty” (genealogy). These two themes are particularly prominent at the beginning (Genesis) and end (Chronicles) of the OT ; thus the lion’s share of his effort is devoted to these books, particularly Genesis, so as to clarify the Text’s overall “plot.” I will briefly summarize Dempster’s argument then articulate several commendations and reservations.
Genesis begins with God’s creative action, and “humanity is crowned the royalty of creation” (Dempster 57). Man and woman are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-28), signifying that they are to rule as God’s vicegerents with God’s created paradise as their kingdom (59). The “cosmic tragedy” of their “flagrant rebellion” against the Creator in Gen 3 sets the theological and literary stage for the rest of the Story in which dethroned, exiled humanity will seek to regain lost glory in God’s land (geography) through the seed of the woman (genealogy) (66-69).
The tarnished hope of Adam is resuscitated in God’s covenantal promises of land, descendents, and universal blessing to Abraham, who is the “divine answer to the human plight” (77). Several hundred years after the patriarch’s death, God liberates Israel from Egyptian bondage with the goal of setting her in the land of promise (100). Israel’s persistent rebellion against God’s commands at Sinai highlights the need for a new covenant (104, 121). Moses, the “servant of Yahweh,” anticipates a new kind of leader for God’s people, a king: not Saul with his “height” and human approval but David with his “Torah heart” (123, 138-39). Yahweh covenants with David to build his “house,” and Dempster points out that David’s “house” brings together his dynasty (genealogical) and the temple (geographical).
After the Davidic kings repeatedly fail to lead Judah in the commands of Yahweh, the land promised to Abraham is taken away, Solomon’s temple is pummeled, and the people are thrust into exile. During the exile an eschatological expectation of a new David begins to emerge, a priest-king who would rule by service and represent the people by dying that they might live (178-79). The partial return from exile in Chronicles brings the Story to an incomplete end and anticipates profoundly the coming of the suffering servant Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matt 1:1).
Dominion and Dynasty is on the whole an excellent attempt at the difficult task of summarizing the heart of OT theology. Two strengths in particular should be highlighted. First, Dempster masterfully navigates the reader through the “forest” of the OT while carefully pointing out inter-textual allusions and literary devices in the “trees.” His argument for unity around genealogy and geography is compelling, particularly in his treatment of David’s “house.”
Second, Dempster helpfully points out that the dynasty that Yahweh blesses is not based on birth order, physical prowess, or popular opinion; rather, it is a dynasty of humility, suffering, and an obedient heart. This shows that God is in total control of human history and continues to guide it in his wisdom, which culminates at Calvary’s cross, the epitome of human folly and divine power and wisdom.
I am puzzled by Stephen Dempster’s decision to adopt an OT “canon” with a different ordering of the books from either the Septuagintal tradition, now preserved in our English Bible, or the Masoretic order, preserved in the standard modern editions of the Hebrew Scriptures. Dempster’s order, for example, puts Jeremiah and Ezekiel before Isaiah, and it is based primarily on the claims of one passage from the Talmud, which dates to the 5th-6th centuries A.D. and thus its claims should be treated somewhat cautiously.
Despite these questions over canon order and literary setting, Dempster’s book is a careful piece of scholarship that adeptly captures the repetition of the twin themes “dominion” and “dynasty” in a way that heightens the reader’s appreciation for God’s patience with a disobedient people and his wisdom not expressed by human height but by the humble triumph of the “Servant” who would give his life as a ransom for many.