The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture
Moberly, R. W. L. The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2020. ISBN 978-1-5409-6299-7. 304 pp. Hardcover. $34.99.
This collection of studies deserves careful reflection. Attention in some detail will be given to each of the chapters. Moberly begins by noting how the Jewish and Christian faiths have historically connected a proper understanding of God with an awareness of what it means to be human. He seeks to look at the Bible as Scripture. Moving beyond critical analysis of the text (following Paul Ricoeur into a “second naiveté) Moberly explores what it means to read this Scripture so as gain a transformative encounter with God.
The first chapter examines how Proverbs 8:22-31 and its discourse on Wisdom might be understood in terms of issues today. For the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom, Moberly understands that the right response to God leads to a deeper grasp of how to live in this world, a deeper grasp of wisdom. For Wisdom (and Folly) to be connected, Wisdom should not be seen as suspicious or patriarchal. It is a useful and imaginative perspective that can be applied without needing to appropriate everything. Moberly finds Wisdom here as actively seeking us in everyday life (not just the temple). Its moral teaching is available to all. Such a good response to life puts us in touch and “in tune with the way the world really is” (p. 28). The emphasis is not on a time when Wisdom did not exist but on what it is now that it does exist. Lady Wisdom leads to her incarnation as the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 and to the subsequent application of this in the next book (according to the majority order of the Hebrew Bible) of Ruth, who is also designated as a virtuous woman (3:11). Proverbs 8:22 and “the beginning” relates to the similar “beginning” of Gen. 1:1 and of John 1:1. The world was made through wisdom. Although Moberly avoids words such as transcendent, revelation, and authority, this is the direction of his reference to Jonathan Sacks. God mediates himself through Wisdom, giving a choice of life or death. God is active in his created world through Wisdom. If monotheism does not resolve the issue of evil and sin, it does come to grips with the world we all know and a vision of what will enhance or diminish life in that world. The Creator brings trust, hope, and love as key to what being human is all about. Moberly closes this chapter by noting that Wisdom is meaningful only in the context of the people of God, and that we can only acquire this knowledge about God through engaging with God. This rather sounds like a form of loving one’s neighbor and loving God.
In his second chapter Moberly considers the voice from the burning bush that proclaims who God is. Exodus 3 sees how the focus initiates with the call of Moses and shifts to God. The bush is burning but, as is the case wherever God appears as fire, it is not consumed. Moses’ response is one of openness before God: “the more humans are open and receptive to God, the more fully they become their true selves” (p.59). There is a genuine freedom in Moses’ objections. The continuation of the account in dialogue provides a relational encounter. The revelation of the divine name as ʾehyeh ʾasher ʾehyeh is not etymological but wordplay related to sound and meaning. The burning bush provides an appropriate context for the name, “I am who I am.” When God says he was not known earlier by the divine name, Yahweh, Moberly finds an affirmation that the appearances of this name in Genesis are best understood as retrojections into the past of the divine presence. This follows the interpretation of Gordon Wenham and is summarized in R. Hess, “Cain,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 2.526. The translation of 3:14a could then be “I will be who/as I will be,” or “I am who I am.” It is not apparent what this is saying. Attempts to conjecture about motive (a là R. Carroll) are just that. The implication is that God indicates he is being there or being with. From here on God makes his presence felt in word and deed as he watches over his people. Thus, Moberly writes: “The purpose of the ‘I AM WHO I AM’ would be not to explain anything but to engage Moses in such a way that he is drawn into a deeper level of the encounter with God that is already taking place” (p. 78). This is a mystery in the sense that the reality is greater the more one enters it. Moberly goes on to describe how Moses and Aaron initially enter pharaoh’s presence with demands. When this does not work, they implore (“please”) and threaten. Pharaoh is not moved. Having failed, they return to God who speaks again. The ways of God do not conform to human expectation. They require a reordering of thought and practice.
The LXX renders this phrase with the sense, “I am the One who Is,” emphasizing the idea of being but remaining polysemous. In the NT (Revelation 1:4, 8) God is the one who was, who is, and who is to come. There is also the references in the “I am” sayings of Jesus found in John’s gospel (e.g., 8:24, 58). Compare Isaiah 40-48 and the repeated “I am he” (e.g., 43:10). Moberly also compares the interpretation of the fourth century Hilary of Poitiers: “Nothing better suggest God than Being. ‘He who is’ can have neither end nor beginning…I was assured that I could not be reduced to non-being” (p. 86). There is here the “mystery of active being” (p. 88) that is part of the name and the nature of Yahweh. If so, then this portrayal is “something beyond familiar ideologies and philosophies and conflicts, something self-authenticating, something that mediates a transcendent and life-giving reality” (p. 91).
Chapter 3 enables Moberly to focus upon the great text of Psalm 82 and the issue of the justice of God. Without any commitment to the date of the psalm, Moberly notes that God is the apparent speaker. A popular understanding in the past has been that the “gods” are in reality judges who are commanded here to exercise justice on the earth. This is supported by such rendering of Exodus 21:6 and 22:7 (English 8). However, Moberly believes that the “gods” in these legal texts are sacred objects in the home or sanctuary. Modern scholars such as Jon Levenson compare Psalm 82 to Ugaritic accounts of the Canaanite god Baal who takes his stand in the divine assembly and spits in defiance (p. 102). 2 interpretations are discussed: 1 – Yahweh takes over everyone whereas formerly each people group had their own distinctive deities as in the “modified” translation of Deuteronomy 32:8b: “he fixed the boundaries according to the number of the gods”; or 2 – a transition in which as Jon Levenson argues, “Psalm 82 thus opens in polytheism and closes in monotheism” (p. 103).
In reviewing the interpretations, Moberly notes how Mosser shows that Irenaeus read 82:6 as anticipatory of the adoption to divine sonship found in Pauline soteriology. Moberly follows Patrick Miller as finding here the statement that the whole cosmos stands or falls according to the maintenance of justice for the poor and weak on the earth. The universe has a moral character to it. There is no mention of the one vs. the many in Psalm 82, at least not in the sense of the “other gods” so frequently found in biblical descriptions of false worship; and there is no usage of the divine name Yahweh. Many assume that the latter is because of the place of this text in the Elohistic psalter (Psalms 42-83). Therefore, an original Yahweh that began this Psalm was replaced with Elohim. However, the use of Elohim may be intentional, as in Genesis 1, to identify Yahweh as sovereign and supreme over all others. The fear of Elohim is thus obedience to one’s conscience, or as we might say, listening to one’s heart (cf. Proverbs 4:23 and Solomon’s request for a listening hear in 1 Kings 3).
Much of what follows seems based on the 1969 study by Matitiahu Tsevat analyzing this psalm as a description of what was a customary assembly where the gods reported and deliberated (see conveniently, M. Tsevat, “God and Gods in the Assembly,” pp. 131-47 in The Meaning of the Book of Job and Other Biblical Studies: Essays on the Literature and Religion of the Hebrew Bible ed. M. Tsevat [New York: Ktav, 1980]). Unexpectedly, this particular assembly turned into a tribunal where Yahweh stood to judge the gods. Moberly argues that the poet has taken the notion of a divine assembly and used it imaginatively to make a point (p. 112). In this case he suggests it is an Old Testament version of “a preferential option for the poor.” The “they” of v. 5 are the poor who are victim of the lack of concern by the deities. The darkness of the poor renders the foundations of the earth insecure. It was Tsevat who referred to Psalm 82 as a Götterdämmerung, a twilight of the gods. Moberly uses this term correctly to describe the psalm (p. 115) and observes that one deity stripping divine status from (or denying it to) other deities is “unprecedented.” The pronouncement of the judicial verdict in vv. 6-7 uses two clauses where the first begins ʾănî ʾāmartî (“I said/thought/had taken you for”) and the second begins with ʾākēn (“but in fact”). Moberly notes this as a Hebrew idiom which he translates with these verses as (p. 115):
“I had taken you for gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
but you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”
There is a mistaken supposition that is placed in the mouth of Yahweh. These deities whom the world prayed to and put their hope in were not in fact deities at all. The true God’s concern for the poor and marginalized demonstrates his divine status. The absence of this concern in the other deities demonstrates their false nature. Because they are not deities they will perish. For Moberly, this is quite appropriately the criterion by which humans might be expected to recognize true deity (p. 122). He might add that it is a criterion for the recognition of all appropriate authority. The quote at note 122 from the Jewish Rabbinic source, Genesis Rabbah 12:15, serves as a fitting reflection on this psalm: “Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of judgment alone, the world cannot exist. Hence I will create it on the basis of judgment and mercy, and may it then stand!’ Hence the expression, THE LORD GOD [in Gen. 2:4]” (Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis I, 99).” Moberly might have compared Isiah 57:15 (NIV):
For this is what the high and exalted One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.
Chapter 4 examines Genesis 4 in light of the inscrutable God and the role of human choice. Moberly assumes that the story of Cain and Abel comes from a later time and was inserted into this early context. He briefly reviews the attempts to distinguish between the sacrifices of Cain and Abel but argues that none of the purported reasons are taught by the Hebrew text. Rather, he proposes to read Genesis 4 as without explanation for God’s choice, comparing it with Genesis 25:21-26 and God’s favoring of Jacob over Esau before they are born. After commenting briefly on Augustine’s use of this text in the list of Romans 9:10-12 to argue for double predestination, Moberly reflects on inequities in life that come through innate attributes that people have without doing anything to receive them and accidents that occur which are no one’s fault or responsibility. Thus, the concern he finds Genesis 4 addressing is how to cope with being unfavored. Genesis 4:7 should be understood in terms of lifting the face of the fallen; i.e., dealing with disappointment. Failure to handle this well will escalate because it makes a person more susceptible to sin. Cain’s curse “from the ground” suggests that the ground as a means of gaining food and life has been closed to him. In his response Cain expresses no remorse or recognition that at least he has his life, unlike his brother. As a “restless wanderer” Cain will move about on the edges of settled society. Moberly suggests that the sign for Cain’s protection is identical to God’s promise of sevenfold vengeance for anyone who attempts to kill him. Such a vengeance assumes a lineage which Moberly sees as people like Cain, rather than the line that the text immediately goes on to identify. This is odd because the context suggests a very different understanding tied with the increase in violence that Cain’s line eventuates in and ultimately with the judgment of the flood for all the violence that comes to the world.
Analogous to Cain and Abel is the story of Jacob and Esau (p. 146) which Moberly rehearses. When Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, the latter becomes obsessed with rage to kill Jacob. Jacob flees but when he returns years later his first recorded prayer in Scripture is one of protection from Esau (Genesis 32:11). Thus, Esau resembles Cain, but differs in that he forgives and kisses his brother. Esau’s greeting is compared with the return of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:20. While Rashi and others accept Esau’s repentance as genuine, others do not. Thus Genesis Rabbah argues that Esau attempted to bite Jacob (wordplay between the Hebrew for kissing and biting which are distinguished in their root by a similar sounding final qoph or kaph). Jacob’s neck became impervious, however, and Esau’s tears were for the pain of his teeth. Moberly accepts Jon Levenson’s adage, “not every inequity is an iniquity” (p. 154). God’s inscrutability in both Cain and Abel and with Jacob and Esau are not understood except (and then not always) by means of the correct human response. Moberly recounts John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and concludes observing how this modern take on Cain and Abel demonstrates that human freedom is real and powerful in the midst of inequities and tragedies. He recounts Viktor Frankl’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps and memory of those who served and comforted others to the end, refusing to allow themselves to be robbed of human freedom when all else was taken from them. He concludes with the account of Maïti Girtanner who served the French Resistance in the Second World War. She was caught and tortured under the supervision of a doctor who ensured maximum pain. This gave her chronic pain for the rest of her life. Unable to play the piano as she once had, she resolved to love and to live out that life of love. Thus, when the Nazi torture doctor was dying and overcome with remorse, he sought her forgiveness. She gave it and as Moberly observes, “both were changed by it” (p. 163). This is one of Moberly’s most powerful chapters as it moves into the love of God that he gives to us for others who may have wronged us.
In chapter 5, entitled, “The Only God: Surprising Universality and Particularity in 2 Kings 5,” Moberly reviews and reflects on the significance of the Naaman story. Naaman enjoyed a life of prestige and victories for his Syrian king. His wife’s Israelite slave girl was a symbol of success against that land as no doubt also other neighboring nations. Moberly finds with the slave girl the first example in this story of “the little people” or the meek (p. 169) who make the most of a situation not of their choosing. She knows the prophet, not by name, but by the life-giving power of God. The king of Aram sends a letter to introduce Aram to the king of Israel. The letter does not seem to mention Israel’s prophet who is thereby suspicious. However, Elisha sends the message to the king to send Naaman to him so that both the foreigner and the king may learn that there is indeed a prophet in Israel. Elisha’s nonappearance and his requirement that Naaman bathe seven times in the Jordan catches Naaman by surprise. His expectation, as would be normal at that time, is that the prophet should come before him and audibly invoke his God. Naaman is ready to depart in anger. However, his servants play a crucial role, similar to the slave girl. Why not respond and obey the prophet? As Moberly notes, “We are told nothing about what his immersion in the Jordan and the restoration of his skin felt like to him. What matters is that his obedience to the prophet’s words realizes the prophet’s promise” (p. 173). Naaman’s confession to Elisha uses momentous words, similar to the confession of one God in the Shema‘ (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). There is no true God elsewhere. Elisha’s refusal to accept any gift from Naaman is designed to teach that divine favor cannot be bought. Naaman needed Elisha; Elisha did not need Naaman.
When Naaman requests permission to support his king when the latter worships Rimmon in the temple in Damascus, Elisha’s response, “Go in peace,” effectively gives the general Elisha’s blessing (p. 176). Moberly is correct in this evaluation as it is difficult to interpret such a response otherwise whereas there would be many ways to object to Naaman’s request. Gehazi’s acceptance of Naaman’s gift is known to Elisha, if not the precise amount. Moberly observes that two talents of silver equates to the amount Omri paid for the hill of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom for more than a century (1 Kings 16:24; p. 178). To know that the LORD is God is a Deuteronomic concern, which is found here. Naaman’s confession is a denial of other gods to have any power to help or save, rather than a denial of their existence. Moberly is correct. Ontology is not a major concern here and elsewhere in the Old Testament. The rationale for Naaman’s request for Israelite soil to take with him evokes a lengthy discussion for Moberly, including reflections on the tradition of Helena, mother of Constantine, taking Jerusalem soil back to Rome, as well as its use for establishing synagogues outside of the Holy Land. Moberly finds the soil as clarifying Naaman’s own worship of the true God and reminding him of his faith. For Moberly, Naaman worships the LORD at his altar but merely goes through the motions when bowing down to Rimmon. Moberly reviews approaches to understanding Naaman’s attitude toward Rimmon as sinful (Henry), syncretistic (Briggs), or as freedom (von Rad). None of these is entirely satisfactory. The connection with the purifying work of Christian baptism is discussed. In the end, Moberly stresses the unexpected ways in which God works and the need to accept this freedom for God to act as he does. Even here, however, the open-ended nature of God’s choice to cure Naaman rather than other lepers in Israel (Luke 4:27; p. 202) does not exclude the purpose of the story, to show that the God of Israel is the only God and to hear Naaman renounce the worship of “other gods” (p. 200).
Chapter 7 considers the trustworthy God, finding assurance and warning in Psalm 46, Jeremiah 7, and Micah 3. Moberly identifies the symbolic language of Psalm 46 with its mythic resonance as asserting that the end of all we know can be faced with courage through confidence in God. God’s sovereignty extends worldwide. This leads to the observation that this is the only Zion psalm that does not mention Zion. Is there any place on earth that should be so identified, as the city of God? The focus is on trust in God. Jeremiah 7:1-15, turns to Jeremiah’s temple sermon, wherein he asserts that the Jerusalem temple can be reduced to ruin, just like the former sanctuary at Shiloh. Jerusalem will continue if the people amend their ways. Like God, practice steadfast love and justice, boasting in the knowledge of God rather than might and wealth. If justice is done for the vulnerable, it will also be done for others. God sees that neglect and contempt. In Micah 3:9-12 Moberly finds “a moral challenge, a critique of religious presumption, and a warning that focuses on the destruction of the temple” (p. 219). Moberly considers this similar to Jeremiah’s temple sermon.
He explores Zion theology, the belief in Old Testament Israel that God will not destroy Jerusalem and its Temple. Thus, as Jewish theologian Jon Levenson sees the implication, the Temple and the city are a symbol of transcendence. In light of the successful resistance to the attack by Sennacherib against Jerusalem and Hezekiah in 701 BC, some came to believe that merely repeating the words, “The Temple of Yahweh,” was an effecting means to guaranteeing security. It is to this event that Moberly makes use of the reflections of Konrad Schmid. The destruction of Jerusalem was unimaginable.
Moberly moves away from Zion theology for a moment and considers Jeremiah 7 and Micah 3 in the light of 1 Samuel 4. There the Israelites believe that God as represented in the ark guarantees success in their battle with the Philistines. “The seek to harness God to their desire for victory in battle” (p. 231). Promises and assurances from God have as their goal relationship and trust, not mere words or manipulation (p. 232).
Moberly rightly observes the “Come, see” (v. 8) and the “Be still and know” (v. 10) of Psalm 46 call the believer to relinquish trust in implements traditionally used to gain power and security and to replace them with God Himself. These visions of the preservation and of the desolation of God’s city require the people of God to resist complacency.
The book concludes with a summary of the previous chapters. Moberly laments his lack of incorporation of Exodus 34:6-7 in his work. He observes that Jesus is the reason for Christian interest in the Old Testament. Jesus provides a light for understanding the text even as the Christian rule of faith is also a guide. Concluding by observing that there is no single way to read biblical texts, Moberly shares his personal love for the richness and depth of the Old Testament and how much it informs the Christian understanding of monotheism. This is a valuable volume to read and ponder in terms of better understanding who God is and setting out on the course of discovering him.
Richard S. Hess, PhD
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages