Is the God of Scripture Viable? Taste and See
The God of the Old Testament is a book about God. In it I seek to set out aspects of what might be called a doctrine or “grammar” of God that is present in the scriptures of ancient Israel—in other words, ground rules for appropriate speech and action in relation to the LORD, the God of Abraham and of Israel. I will offer close readings of selected passages in these scriptures, which antedate both Judaism and Christianity yet have been preserved, received, and appropriated within each of those faiths. Although my own frame of reference is Christian, and the readings overall have a clear Christian inflection, I hope that much of the theological grammar I set out will resonate within a Jewish as well as a Christian frame of reference.
This concern with God needs one basic clarification from the outset. In the Bible, and in the Jewish and Christian faiths, an understanding of God is inseparable from an understanding of what it means to be human. This can be difficult to appreciate in the contemporary world, at least in Europe and the US, where there has been a general move away from the Christian faith and culture that once prevailed. For many people, to cease to believe in God is essentially to do some intellectual spring-cleaning, to cross off the list of worthwhile mental contents the possible reality of a putative invisible entity which never made any real difference to anything anyway, at least in the public realm of everyday secular life (whatever private consolations some might find).
In fact, however, 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 (though many facets of Christian faith continue to have influence when transposed into secular thought, where the Christian dimension may have become invisible except to those alert to the history of ideas). To see our understandings of God and of humanity and of the world as inseparable is not to concede to the suspicion that all talk and thought of God is nothing but a coded account of human priorities. It is, rather, to recognize the multidimensional nature of reality and of human understanding. 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.
Overall, 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” (dĕʿū kī yhwh hūʾ ʾĕlōhīm, Psalm 100:3)—which is followed, as a matter of apparent implicit logic, by a framing of what it means to be human in terms of basic identity and relationality: “It is he that made us, and we are his.” I offer an account of at least some of what is involved in coming to such an acknowledgment and knowledge of God on the part of those who would read Israel’s scriptures as Scripture for today.
In no way do I seek to be comprehensive in the six chapters that follow. For example, I offer no discussion of the affirmation of humanity as created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26–27). Rather, I focus on selected significant and representative voices within the biblical witness that speak specifically about the nature of God. I recognize that the selection of passages and the sequence in which they are presented may seem prima facie rather puzzling. The presentation corresponds neither to the sequential order of the biblical canon (even though each section of the Hebrew canon—the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings—is represented by two chapters) nor to a likely developmental sequence of Israel’s religious thought in terms of a history of ideas. However, it is often noted that the Bible’s own presentation of its theological content does not correspond to the patterns and categories of postbiblical Christian theology. This remains the case whether one reads the material in canonical sequence or whether one reads it rearranged into a putative developmental sequence; in each case, the structuring concerns have their own distinctive logic. So the logic of this presentation is a contingent logic which weaves a particular theological pattern (about which more will be said in the epilogue), with recognition that the theological grammar of Israel’s scriptures could be portrayed otherwise.
In general terms, I offer worked examples of how the scriptures of ancient Israel may be read as Scripture, the Old Testament of the Christian church today. Theoretical discussions of hermeneutical issues have their place, and I will touch on them along the way. But the proof of the theoretical pudding is in its practical eating. One must be able to offer good (intellectually satisfying and existentially engaging) readings of the biblical text if any general proposal about the viability of reading Israel’s scriptures as Christian Scripture is to make headway.
If this description leaves you hungry for more, I hope you give The God of the Old Testament a proper tasting.
Praise for The God of the Old Testament
“Decisions, decisions, decisions. In a time when much of the focus is on assumptions (and rightly so), Moberly reminds us that the tasks of biblical interpretation and theology consist of a series of decisions over hermeneutical, existential, and theological matters. Moberly demonstrates each step and turn he makes in reading the Old Testament theologically so that readers can learn how to navigate its texts themselves, and in so doing more fully know the God revealed in its pages. Students, biblical scholars, and theologians will greatly benefit from this work.”
—Bo H. Lim, Seattle Pacific University
“With an ecumenically sensitive ear, Moberly articulates a vision of God—and thus of humanity—discerned in Israel’s Scriptures that is wholly consistent with Christian theology and practice. As one of the most accomplished exegetical theologians of our day, he demonstrates how to navigate the variety of philological, historical, and literary approaches available, while reading with the benefit of a rule of faith. In six exegetically and hermeneutically rich chapters, The God of the Old Testament unveils a ‘grammar’ of God common to Jews and Christians, which people of faith are called to reveal and instantiate in their own lives, within their respective traditions.”
—Claire Mathews McGinnis, Loyola University Maryland
“There simply is no better close reader than Walter Moberly. Immensely learned, he has a scholarly range that stretches over centuries and a sensitivity to contemporary pop culture. Above all, he keeps in the foreground the perennial need for Christians to read Scripture both imaginatively and accurately as a guide for moral discernment. In any generation there may be no more than a few scholars of his caliber, and it is largely due to them that Israel’s Scriptures remain at the center of the church’s life.”
—Ellen F. Davis, Duke Divinity School
“These graceful and pellucid essays, informed by their distinguished author’s impressive learning and his gentle and generous Christian commitments, shed precious light on what is perhaps the most important subject in the study of the Scriptures—the nature of the God to whom they testify. I recommend the book highly.”
—Jon D. Levenson, Harvard University
“Walter Moberly is one of the most gifted theological interpreters of the Old Testament in our day. In this deeply thoughtful work he offers several examples of what key biblical texts might look like when read with deep sensitivity to their underlying subject matter, the God of Israel. The remarkable attention to the grammar and literary form of the texts he has chosen will allow readers not only to follow the exegetical logic that animates Moberly but also to form their own judgments. Whether or not one agrees with all of the points made therein, the process of following Moberly on his journey will certainly be a pedagogical boon for the reader.”
—Gary Anderson, University of Notre Dame
“In The God of the Old Testament, Moberly guides readers through a series of textual journeys toward the biblical God. He chooses passages wisely, analyzes them with sensitivity, and presents the results lucidly. Alert to the ways multiple contexts produce readings that challenge, complement, and enrich each other, he describes the tensions between Scripture’s one God and the privileged human points of access that (according to Scripture) lead to that God. Reading as a Christian, Moberly produces a work that is capacious precisely because it is firmly rooted. Jewish, Christian, and secular readers will profit from his discerning and balanced discussion.”
—Benjamin D. Sommer, The Jewish Theological Seminary; senior fellow, Shalom Hartman Institute
About the Author
Walter Moberly is Emeritus Professor at Durham University. The overall concern in his scholarly work is the responsible understanding and use of the Bible in the life, thought, and spirituality of Christian faith today. He has been involved in two projects at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, NJ, each of which has sought to articulate a renewed and robust understanding and use of the Bible for contemporary Christian life and thought.