Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Book Write-Up: Old Testament Theology, by R.W.L. Moberly

R.W.L. Moberly.  Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

I would like to thank Baker Academic for sending me a review copy of this book.  Click here to see Baker’s site about it.

Moberly’s Old Testament Theology is unlike any Old Testament theology book that I have read.  Many of the Old Testament theology books that I have read focus on the theological voices of the sources and schools within the Hebrew Bible, as well as their historical contexts.  These Old Testament theology books either explore the diversity of the theological voices, or they seek some common theological theme among them.  They are quite comprehensive in the amount of sources and voices within the Hebrew Bible that they address.

Moberly, by contrast, organizes his book topically by theological issue, closely reads specific biblical passages, and often explores how the passages (or their themes) have been interpreted elsewhere in the Bible and within Judaism and Christianity.  Moberly admits that his Old Testament theology usually does not attempt to get behind the text and situate it within a specific historical context.  He states more than once within his book that such an enterprise can be rather speculative, for we do not always know the precise historical context or date for a specific passage.  Moberly does not completely disregard historical context, but his overall approach strikes me as synchronic and canonical.  It is synchronic in that Moberly often tries to make sense of the final form of the text rather than merely dividing the text up into sources: Even if a later hand added a particular passage, what theological point does the final text appear to make?  Moberly’s approach is also canonical in that it explores in many cases how a text or a text’s theme was interpreted elsewhere within the Bible, and how religious communities of interpretation have addressed it.

There was at least one occasion where the alleged date of a biblical book was significant to Moberly’s argument, however, and that was when Moberly was discussing cherem, the extermination of the Canaanites in the Book of Deuteronomy.  Noting that many scholars date the Book of Deuteronomy to the seventh century B.C.E. or beyond, when the actual extermination of Canaanites was not an issue, Moberly proposes that the cherem may have had a metaphorical purpose related to Israel’s faithfulness to God and her need to avoid of the religious practices of other nations, rather than relating to the actual slaughter of people-groups.  This was Moberly’s way of explaining a troubling theological issue, namely, God’s command for Israel to slaughter entire Canaanite people-groups.

Moberly often attempts to explain troubling theological issues, against scholars and other voices that are not exactly sympathetic to the Hebrew Bible.  Overall, Moberly does so thoughtfully, respectfully, and with an attitude of an explorer rather than that of a dogmatist or an apologist giving simplistic solutions to complex questions.  I found each chapter to be a rich read.  There was one exception to Moberly’s tactful exploration, and that was when he accused Carl Jung of employing a superficial reading of the Book of Job when Jung criticized God’s treatment of Job.  I did not particularly care for that passage in Moberly’s book, perhaps because I would have preferred for Moberly to acknowledge that Jung raises important considerations, considerations that are on the minds of many readers of the Book of Job.  But I found that passage to be the exception rather than the rule.

Moberly not only interacts with scholarship and prominent historical voices (such as Thomas Paine), but he also makes references to pop culture.  In discussing the Book of Jonah, for example, Moberly explores the complexities surrounding forgiveness, and he refers to the movie Saving Private Ryan, in which a linguist on the side of the Allies compassionately releases a German soldier, only to see that German soldier fire upon his fellow Allies later in the movie.  Moberly’s book was sophisticated and scholarly, yet it was also down-to-earth.

While Moberly’s Old Testament theology is Christian, it respectfully acknowledges and engages Jewish interpretations as well as states that New Testament authors or Christians have had a different or broader conception of passages in the Hebrew Bible than their original meaning.  Whereas God in Deuteronomy 6 commands the Israelites to bind the Shema on their hands and write it on their gates, for example, Christians focus on the Lord’s prayer rather than the Shema.  Still, Moberly notes, many Christians do wear crosses, which resembles how a number of Jews have literally interpreted the command in Deuteronomy 6.  The Book of Isaiah is about God humbling the powerful, and, according to Moberly, Christians can interpret that in light of what Christ did on the cross.  For Moberly, God’s revelation in Christ can shape how Christians approach the Hebrew Bible, even as Christians can respect what the Hebrew Bible’s passages have meant to other religious communities.

There were two things that I especially appreciated about Moberly’s book.  First, there were the questions that he addressed.  How could God command the Israelites to love God with all of their hearts, souls, and minds?  Can God command people to feel something?  Did God call Abraham for Abraham’s sake, or (as Rob Bell claims) so that Abraham could serve others?  Moberly’s answers are not always predictable!

Second, I loved Moberly’s chapter on manna (Chapter 3, “Daily Bread”).  Moberly looked at the story in Exodus, noted its peculiar details, and addressed questions that people have asked about it (i.e., why were the Israelites hungry, when they could have simply slaughtered their livestock?).  Moberly explored the tendency of some to argue that the manna was a natural phenomenon in the desert, rather than a miracle.  Moberly also looked at Deuteronomy 8′s application of the manna story to the issue of trusting in God, Jesus’ application of what Deuteronomy 8 says in the stories about his temptation, ancient Jewish interpretations of the manna as wisdom from above, Jesus’ statements in the Gospel of John that he is the manna from heaven, the importance of requesting daily physical and spiritual sustenance from God, and II Corinthians 8:13-15′s application of the manna story to the just distribution of resources.  All of the book’s chapters were good, but this one, in my opinion, was the richest!

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