Book Reviews

Book Review: The God of the Old Testament (R. W. L. Moberly)

Psalm 100:3
Know that the Lord, he is God!
    It is he who made us, and we are his;

R. W. L. Moberly, professor of theology and biblical interpretation at Durham University, writes a “grammar” about God “present in the Scriptures of ancient Israel,” that is, “ground rules for appropriate speech and action in relation to the Lord, the God of Abraham and of Israel.” Moberly provides six chapters that tell us about God’s nature. Moberly doesn’t move in canonical order (Proverbs 8 is the first chapter, and Genesis 4 is the fourth). As Psalm 100:3 states, we are to know that the Lord is God. The following sentence (“It is he who made us, and we are his“) tells us that are created and relational. Moberly uses these six chapters as a type of text case of seeing how one who reads the Old Testament today can come to a point where he or she agrees with the psalmist and proclaims that “It is God who made us, and we are his.” Moberly offers six examples of how Israel’s scriptures can be read as Scripture today. It is a way to read, not the way. Moberly reads the Old Testament as the canonical text as we have it today, rather than looking at a hypothetical story behind the text and how it possibly came to us. And, to Moberly, imagination is important. Imagination gives us another perspective. Many perspectives by which to have conversations over the text to figure out what is going on and what it teaches us about God.

  1. The Wise God: The Depths of Creation in Proverbs 8 (and Genesis 1)
  2. The Mysterious God: The Voice from the Fire in Exodus 3
  3. The Just God: The Nature of Deity in Psalm 82
  4. The Inscrutable God: Divine Differentials and Human Choosing in Genesis 4
  5. The Only God: Surprising Universality and Particularity in 2 Kings 5
  6. The Trustworthy God: Assurance and Warning in Psalm 46, Jeremiah 7, and Micah 3

In chapter 4, Moberly compares the story of Cain and Abel and asks, “Is God unfair?” Everyone wonders what Cain did wrong in Genesis 4. But how often do we ask, Did Cain actually do anything wrong? After giving an example of how the Cain and Abel story may have come from another time but was recontextualized to fit the time before the earth was populated, Moberly moves to the birth of the boys. Since the text says that Eve conceived only once but bore twice, it may be possible (though not necessary) that Cain and Abel were twins. Moberly sees it as “preferable” that we aren’t given an explanation for why God preferred Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s. God favored Jacob over Esau, why couldn’t he favor Abel over Cain? Moberly writes, “The issue is how to handle life in a world where some are more favored than others and, especially, how to cope with being, in one way or another, the one who is unfavored.” Having just looked at God as a God of justice in Psalm 82 (chapter 3), now we look at how God is impossible to fully understand.

Though Moberly points out what 1 John and the author of Hebrews say about Cain and Abel (and argues that they are basing their thoughts about Cain on the LXX of Genesis 4 which does give a reason for God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice), one still has to ask why God wouldn’t accept a sacrifice. While God does show favor to Jacob over Esau, Esau could still have followed the Lord. If Cain was actually trying to obey the Lord, why wouldn’t God accept his sacrifice? If chapter three (Psalm 82) shows us that the nature of our God is to be just, how does this jive with how God treats Cain? But the story doesn’t explain how or why God chooses Abel over Cain, only that he does. The point is to press us to think about “how best to respond in situations of being unfavored.” How will you respond when you are treated unfairly? Will you be a Cain or Esau?

People have different characteristics, abilities, situations, and outcomes. Inequity and inequality is naturally going to take place. Some people are more attractive, smart, musical, athletic, etc. In Psalm 82:3-4 (see also Deut 10:17-19), justice revolves around treating the poor, the orphan, and the widow with care and not exploiting them. God’s gracious purposes, though testing and inscrutable, “are always for good.”

Our wise God created the world in wisdom, and we are to gain wisdom “to become in tune with reality.” We are to live wisely every day according to God’s purposes. Chapter two looks at how God is a mysterious God, declaring his personal name (“Yahweh”) to Moses, “I am who/as I am.” Moberly argues that the idea behind God’s revelation here is that “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” There is truth to this. On the one hand, as I understand it, who is the Lord? He reveals himself to Israel through his saving acts. At the same time, who would have guessed what he would do? God declares in Isaiah that his ways and thoughts are higher than ours. There will never be a pints where anybody feels like they really have a handle on God. Being infinite, there is always more and more to learn. (I’ll let the Hebrew linguists argue over Moberly’s exegesis of the Hebrew here.)

There is much more that could be said. Moberly is not offering a way of reading the text as the way of reading the text. Doing so can close down interpretation, as if to say, “This is the only way you can read or interpret this text. To do otherwise is to misunderstand it.” Rather, he provides an imaginative way of interpreting the text which opens it up to see how rich it is with implications toward theology and life.

One personal downside of the book is that I found Moberly hard to understand. He is both precise and mysterious with his words. He writes precisely what he means, and yet I still don’t always really know what he’s intending to say. That certainly won’t be everyone’s problem, but if you don’t read much on Old Testament theology, this will be difficult to move through.

Recommended?

This is a fine book on understanding aspects of God’s character. Those who have a strong academic bent (and can use their imagination) may enjoy this. You may not disagree with all Moberly writes (I didn’t), but he will certainly make you think and wrestle with the text. He will help you look at the text in a different way, and you will be sharper for it.

Lagniappe

Buy it from Amazon or Baker Academic!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic and NetGalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

1. The Wise God: The Depths of Creation in Proverbs 8
2. The Mysterious God: The Voice from the Fire in Exodus 3
3. The Just God: The Nature of Deity in Psalm 82
4. The Inscrutable God: Divine Differentials and Human Choosing in Genesis 4
5. The Only God: Surprising Universality and Particularity in 2 Kings 5
6. The Trustworthy God: Assurance and Warning in Psalm 46, Jeremiah 7, and Micah 3

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