Review of The God of the Old Testament

The God of the Old Testament book cover

One thing I appreciated from studying under Iain Provan at Regent College was his emphasis on learning from Old Testament critical scholarship despite our disagreements with their theology and, as a result, many of their conclusions. Because we are looking at the same text, critical scholarship can help us Evangelicals see things that we have glossed over for any number of reasons. R. W. L. Moberly is not a critical scholar in the classic sense of the word, for he follows Brevard Childs in the desire to read the Bible as Christian “scripture,” as a document with relevance for faith and practice today. However, like Childs, this reading of the Bible as “scripture” involves building on and incorporating the best of critical scholarship towards one’s interpretation of the canonical text. In The God of the Old Testament, Moberly describes the move from the scholarly conclusions to the scriptural understanding as engaging with the text with “full imaginative seriousness,” entering the world of the text and hearing how it might inform our lives today. I was thankful to receive a copy of The God of the Old Testament from Baker books for this reason, to learn from a well-learned and experienced scholar despite significant methodological disagreements in our approach to Scripture.

In The God of the Old Testament¸ Moberly displays his general approach to the Bible through an “imaginatively serious” interaction with eight key biblical texts in six chapters. By interacting with these texts, Moberly hopes to unpack what it means “to know that the Lord is God” for contemporary readers, with an eye particularly towards Christians but also Jews. In Chapter 1, he considers Genesis 1; in Chapter 2, Exodus 3; in Chapter 3, Psalm 82; in Chapter 4, Genesis 4; in Chapter 5, 2 Kings 5; and in Chapter 6, Psalm 46, Jeremiah 7, and Micah 3. Moberly bridges the scholarly world, drawing on much scholarly literature, and the world of the interested non-scholar, writing at a relatively accessible level. His discussion is attentive to the details and provides a challenging and provocative dialogue partner. For the Reformed or Evangelical reader who has not wrestled with critical scholarship, it will be a challenging read; for the reader who has learned to engage with those who come from different presuppositions, there is much to be learned here. I recommend the book to those of the latter category and would caution those of the former. The methodology employed by Moberly is unhelpful for a truly confessional engagement with Scripture, and I think many of his conclusions fail to honour the world of the text, drawing too freely on the scholarly accounts of tradition history.

In the first case, Moberly attempts to read the Old Testament as a canonical unit apart from the New Testament. For the Reformed Evangelical—as I would identify myself—I think this is a problem. The biggest problem is that God has given us the two testaments as a single whole, a combined testimony to His faithfulness throughout the ages and his purpose to bring his kingdom to bear on earth through Jesus the Christ. It is not sufficient to read the Bible through larger dogmatic categories such as the Trinity, Christian Soteriology, and Christology; we must also approach it with a Biblically informed account of the Bible—a Christian bibliology. When we do so, I believe it is indefensible to treat the Old Testament in isolation from the New. This has important interpretative implications, as has been recognized from the days of the early Church. The use of tradition and history of religions or ideas is also highly problematic. Often this scholarship can help us see things in the text that we might never have seen otherwise, yet in as much as they offer us interpretations of the text based on their distinct methodologies, we as Christians should not follow them. That is, as has been shown repeatedly, the methodologies employed by critical scholarship are not neutral; they are informed by their own bibliologies, epistemologies, and theologies, which are often formed apart from the testimony of Scripture. Their conclusions, therefore, reflect unbiblical and (often) atheistic or deistic bibliologies, epistemologies, and theologies. Moreover, their findings are often unsustainable within their own frame of references, relying on significant conjecture. As it regards The God the Old Testament, I do not find the view that Psalm 82 draws on the Canaanite El tradition persuasive. It is clear that “God” (אל) and “the Most High” (עליון) can be used to refer to Yahweh, or God (אלוה or אלוהים) (e.g. Genesis, Psalm 51); given that אל may serve as either a title for God or a generic descriptor (divine), the Psalm can be accounted for wholly within in an Israelite frame of reference. Given that it makes great sense in its canonical context and can be explained without any reference to the El tradition, there is no reason to invoke this tradition to explain the origin of the Psalm, let alone its canonical interpretation. Moreover, as I am arguing in my PhD thesis, the traditional interpretation of the “gods” in this text as human judges is highly defensible. Moberly accepts the so-called “consensus” of the scholars (though there remains a lively discussion on the matter) without actually arguing that “gods” makes better sense as a reference to existential or ontological deities rather than humans. Another point of exegesis that is worth discussing is Moberly’s account of the Divine name. After a lengthy discussion, Moberly concludes that “I am what I am” (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה) is best taken as a statement of divine incomprehensibility. I did not find his argument persuasive, and there are good reasons to disagree. Namely, the Divine name is given in a context where God is being identified and actively moves to reveal himself: though Yahweh is presented as beyond humanity, he repeatedly acts so that he may be known. Given that היה is used for predication in clauses that function in a subordinate or coordinate manner within discourse (as opposed to the use of verbless clauses or וַיְהִי to provide explanation or exposition in narrative and the use of the verb in narrative to describe events), the אָשֶׁר clause may be read as the content of a predicate clause, so the equivalent of the English “I am what I am.” Though this is a tautology in form, in a context where God makes himself known, it does not state incomprehensibility but self-reference: God is not explained by reference to any other reality. Yet, because God repeatedly acts so that his people might know him, the Israelites and the Christian today is not left in ignorance; we are pointed away from the creation to the creator and find in his revelation an adequate and beautiful portrait of God our creator.

I recommend the God of the Old Testament not as a sufficient or convincing exposition of the texts Moberly handles but as a challenging dialogue partner for the Evangelical student of the Bible to better understand the Bible and, therefore, our God who reveals himself there.  

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