R. W. L. Moberly, The God of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. xiii + 282 pp. $34.99. ISBN: 9781540962997.
For the complete review of the book, visit my previous post, Book Review: “The God of the Old Testament.”
R. W. L. Moberly is a professor of theology and biblical interpretation at Durham University. He has written several books and articles in which he deals with the God of the Old Testament. Among these are The Theology of the Old Testament, The Theology of the Book of Genesis, “How May We Speak of God? A Reconsideration of the Nature of Biblical Theology,” “Justice and the Recognition of the True God: A Reading of Psalm 82,” and many others. In The God of the Old Testament, Moberly seeks to study the God who appears in the scriptures of ancient Israel.
Studying the God of the Old Testament
Moberly studies the God of Abraham and the God of Israel through a close reading of several texts which speak about God and address issues related to the character of God. He said: “I am seeking to articulate facets of the Old Testament’s own prime creedal affirmation and hope, as articulated by the psalmist: ‘Know that the Lord is God’” (Psalm 100:3). A study of God also is a study of humans and their relationship with their creator God. This is also implied in the words of the psalmist, “It is he that made us, and we are his.”
Moberly states that a knowledge of God is the first step toward the proper understanding of our humanity. He said that the Bible teaches that “an understanding of God is inseparable from an understanding of what it means to be human.” However, contemporary society does not know God because in today’s society “there has been a general move away from the Christian faith and culture that once prevailed.”
Many people abandon the Christian faith because they believe that this invisible God has “never made any real difference to anything” in the public or secular life. However, the decision to cease believing in God has dramatic consequences. According to Moberly, “to cease to believe in God, as the Bible and Christian faith understand God, is to usher in major change, over time, as to how everything and everyone is viewed and related to in practice.”
Thus, Moberly will seek to provide a broad study of the God of the Old Testament in order to address issues that speak not only to Christian faith, but also to people who need to have a basic understanding of the God revealed in the Bible. He writes, ‘Thus, in the studies that follow, where God is the central concern, much of the discussion will not focus on God all the time,because many things have to be considered to make the biblical conception of God meaningful for thought and life.”
The selected texts to be studied come from the whole Hebrew canon. The texts for consideration are taken from the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. These texts are “representative voices within the biblical witness that speak specifically about the nature of God.”
How To Read the Biblical Text
Moberly writes about reading Israel’s scripture as the scripture of the church. He writes, “I offer worked examples of how the scriptures of ancient Israel may be read as Scripture, the Old Testament of the Christian church today.” Such a view is expressed in the subtitle of his book: Old Testament Theology: Encountering the Divinity in Christian Scripture. This concern is critical to the proper understanding of Moberly’s book: “What I am trying to articulate in this book is not the way of interpreting Israel’s scriptures but a way, albeit a way that I hope will have significant resonance and traction for those whose concern is to understand Israel’s scriptures specifically as Christian Scripture.”
Moberly explains how to read Israel’s scriptures as Christian Scripture. First, “there are certain preunderstandings and expectations related to the privileged status of the ancient textual compilation, the biblical canon, as a repository of enduring wisdom and truth in relation to God, humanity, and the world. Christian faith, following the lead of Jewish faith, ascribes to the collected canonical documents special significance for the knowledge of God, knowledge that is both intellectual and relational.”
Second, “it follows that what the biblical writers say about God and humanity is best understood—when the material is read as Scripture—not only through rigorous philological and historical work on the documents in their ancient contexts of origin but also through entering into the life and thought of Jewish or Christian faith, where there is a long history of seeking to articulate what is necessary for biblical God-language to be authentic and meaningful.”
Moberly is aware that this task is not easy: “there are endless divergences both among and between Jews and Christians as to how best to study the biblical documents and how best to bring a Jewish or Christian frame of reference to bear upon the study.”
One issue that is of concern to Moberly is that of recontextualization. A biblical text must be interpreted according to its context. But this truth raises two questions: “Which context?” and “Whose context?” The reason, as Moberly explains, is that “no document that is now part of the biblical canon was written to be part of the canon; or, put differently, no text that is biblical was written to be biblical.”
Modern readers of the Old Testament create new contexts as they read the text. This new context is “canonical” and “literary” and “intertextual.” The reading of the Old Testament in Judaism and Christianity also creates new contexts because of the “constant liturgical use, study, and teaching in many forms.” Although there are different contexts that affect the interpretation of the text, Moberly says that the “primary focus of this book is the . . . biblical Israel and a Christian contexts.”
Moberly’s View of Scripture
In academic circles as well as in Christian settings, what to call the scriptures is a matter of debate. What Moberly has to say about this issue is worthy considering. I quote him at length:
When referring to the Old Testament in descriptive historical perspective, I use the term “Israel’s scriptures,” as distinct from when I am approaching the material as “Scripture.” While I appreciate the value of having a term for the material that does not imply or privilege a particular religious perspective, as do both “Old Testament” (for Christians) and “Tanakh” (for Jews), I am unpersuaded by the scholarly consensus that “Hebrew Bible” is an appropriate religiously neutral term. It privileges a Jewish meaning of “Bible” over a Christian one, it overlooks those portions written in Aramaic, and it elides the fact that most likely a majority of readers of the material, already in the ancient world, read it in Greek rather than Hebrew. “Israel’s scriptures” recognizes the historical fact that these were the documents to emerge from Israel’s history (“Israel’s”) in such a way that they became a distinct collection of religiously oriented writings (“scriptures”), but is without prejudice to the question of their historic and continuing authoritative role (Scripture / Old Testament / Tanakh) for Christians and Jews.”
My next post will review Chapter 1: “The Wise God: The Depths of Creation in Proverbs 8.”
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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