The Testing of God’s Sons by Gregory S. Smith: A Review Article

Sherif Gendy

The Testing of God’s Sons: The Refining of Faith as a Biblical Theme, by Gregory S. Smith. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2014, 240 pages, $24.99, paper.

In this book Gregory S. Smith explores the theological theme of testing the faith, which emerges in the Old Testament and stretches across the New Testament. Written with a pastoral voice, yet in a scholarly manner, this book deals with tests of faith involving suffering and hardship for the sake of refinement. Smith encourages believers who experience suffering to embrace the testing of their faith. He rightly recognizes the covenantal function of testing since it reveals God’s concern for the faith of his saints, and through it God responds to the rebellion of his people. This book is divided into five chapters followed by a helpful bibliography. Here is a summary with assessment for each chapter.

1. The Language of Testing

In this chapter Smith focuses on the language of testing and explores its semantic range, drawing from both the biblical context and the world of the ancient Near East. He examines three primary biblical terms: נָסָה (nasah) for testing as revealing, בֹּחַן (bohan) for testing as authentication, and צָרַף (saraph) for testing as refining. These terms share a range of meaning that includes test, try, prove, examine, and scrutinize. Smith shows how the biblical idea of testing stems from a metallurgical background in relation to the use of the ancient touchstone for the examination of the quality of precious metals like gold. As such, testing ranges in degrees of intensity from mild, to medium, to hot.

Smith engages the concept of testing in the ancient world through some Akkadian texts. He observes a variety of categories for testing including testing by examination, verification, lifting one’s head, and refinement. In the ancient world, testing was primarily for the judgment of angry gods. Thus, the biblical portrayal remains unique as Yahweh acts as a covenant suzerain to call for and cultivate the faith and fidelity of his people.

Smith demonstrates that testing has pastoral implications since the Lord is obligated by covenant relationship to test his people. The intersection of covenant relationship with a fallen world demands it to be so. While the notion of covenant testing is comforting, one wonders how it relates to the idea of temptation. Except for a footnote in the book’s introduction, Smith does not elaborate on the concept of tempting and its relation to testing.

2. Testing in the Joseph Narrative

Here Smith focuses on the Joseph narrative and its unique contribution to the theology of testing and Israel’s understanding of her experience of testing that is presented throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. Smith discusses the works of some scholars, including Hermann Gunkel and Gerhard von Rad, regarding their treatment of the meaning of the fear of God and its relation to testing. He notes that the intent of Joseph’s testing was to illustrate the quality of faith and loyalty that would have been vital for success in the Promised Land. This intention is realized when Joseph recognizes that the testing he endured was meant by God for his good and for the good of his family. Smith reads Joseph’s experience, which anticipates Israel’s wilderness experience, in parallel with Abraham’s testing in Genesis 22, since both model covenant fidelity for Israel. Although Smith is open to reading Joseph’s narrative as a model for Israel and a type for their wilderness experience, he does not discuss its relation to Christ’s suffering and his enduring of hardship.

3. Testing as a Unified Pentateuchal Theological Theme

Smith examines the Pentateuch’s presentation of testing, which involves two kinds of testing. First, aural tests authenticate and check for faith as in the experiences of Abraham, the Israelite midwives, Moses, and Israel at Sinai. Second, experiential tests refine and enhance faith as seen at Shur and Sin, Massah, the wilderness wanderings, and the events noted in the book of Deuteronomy. Smith argues that the Pentateuch as a whole shares an internal consistency with regard to its presentation of this significant biblical theme as a basis for Israel to remember the covenant relationship she has with Yahweh. This relationship requires faith and loyalty and therefore necessitates testing as a means for quality check and quality improvement. Smith highlights the significance of Abraham’s experience for Israel by showing how Abraham functions as a model of covenant obedience who fulfills the necessary mediatorial role in Israel’s history.

Smith rightly highlights the consistency of Yahweh’s fidelity despite the inconsistency and repeated failure of his covenant people. He notices the relationship between fear and testing that occurs in testing contexts.

4. Testing of God’s Sons

This chapter demonstrates that God tests his sons—Adam, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Job, Israel, Jesus, and the church. Starting with Adam, Smith shows how testing has been an element of God’s interaction with his creation from the very beginning. The connections Smith makes between Adam and Israel’s testing and refinement of their own loyalty and fidelity to God’s commands are significant. Smith rightly describes God’s activity in Genesis as a suzerain who commands and creates a world where covenant relationship is the desired outcome. Adam’s violation of his relational status with God activates the terms that require exile in a world subjected to futility. Adam’s shattered image works with this futility as the means to further amplify humanity’s experience of refinement. Israel’s long covenant history illustrates how God works through this futility to refine the faith and fidelity of his people. It is through the experience of God’s tested sons that the church is invited to more fully and deeply understand her own experience of testing. Through testing we learn that God demands the exclusive loyalty, dependence, faith, and obedience of his people.

A discussion of how testing works in the life and ministry of Israel’s prophets is missing in this chapter. Another discussion on the testing of the disciples and apostles would have been helpful. Smith’s treatment of Christ’s testing is very brief, and he limits it to the wilderness account in Matthew 4. Moreover, while Smith makes the connection between Christ’s testing and Israel’s in the wilderness, he does not relate the testing of Christ to that of Adam.

5. Conclusion

Here Smith summarizes his study of the biblical theme of testing, highlighting his conclusions. The two categories Smith suggests for understanding testing in its biblical context are the aural test (quality check) and the test of experience (quality improvement). His investigation of the Joseph narrative, through these categories of meaning, leads him to recognize the retrospective and prospective theological vantage point for Israel. For Smith, Joseph’s testing functions as a theological link between the patriarchal narratives and the rest of the Pentateuch. The individual testing of the patriarchs functions as an example for the corporate experience of Israel’s testing as a nation. By looking at Christ’s testing through suffering, Smith is able to articulate the value of God’s love established through the suffering of the saints and authenticated through testing.

Smith provides two appendices to his book. The first appendix, “Testing as Touchstone,” provides further discussion on the relationship of the Hebrew term בחן(bohan) and its basic meaning of “touchstone.” Based on this comparison study, Smith sees a link between the stages of authentication and refining in the ancient processing of gold and the early meaning of בחן (bohan). The second appendix, “Covenant Good as Functional Good,” explains how the creation terms ברא (bara) and טוב (tub) work together in covenant context to emphasis the functionality of the created order.

This book attempts to develop a biblical theology of testing. It shows how God, in the context of a fallen world, is primarily concerned with the refining and authentication of the faith of his people. Smith limits the intent of the testing narratives in the lives of Adam, Abraham, and Joseph to providing Israel with a window of understanding and insight into her own experience. While this might be true, it is not the full and complete purpose and intent of such narratives. The canon provides the context for such narratives to be understood. In canonical hermeneutics, the narratives’ intent is not bound up with what the original audience might have understood—something that always renders speculations. Rather, the intent lies within the canonical presentation as the narratives take their final shape within the canon. For this reason, testing in the lives of these biblical characters serves a larger, theological purpose that is accessible when one considers the whole counsel of God in the Scriptures as it reaches its climax in the person and work of Christ.

From a pastoral perspective, proper understanding of testing helps us see how hardships, difficulties, and sufferings are necessary means by which God refines the believer’s faith. Smith reminds us that through suffering we share in the suffering of Christ and will ultimately share in his glory in eternity. As the perfect high priest, Christ identifies with the suffering of his people to assist those enduring testing through suffering. He offers mercy, grace, and help in the believer’s time of greatest need.

This biblical understanding of testing offers a theological basis for encouragement and hope to the faithful who struggle—even suffer—in their demonstration of fidelity both to God and to others in the community of faith. James exhorts us to consider it all joy when we encounter testing (1:2). Testing through suffering is an essential part of God’s obligation to keep his covenant promises. The sufferings we endure are part of our redemption as they serve our Spirit-wrought sanctification in our lives.

Sherif Gendy is a licentiate in the Presbytery of the Midwest (OPC), a PhD candidate at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and serving as Arabic Theological Editor for Third Millennium Ministries in Casselberry, Florida.

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Ordained Servant: January 2016

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