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A Denver Journal Review

Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture

03.07.14 | Academic Classification, Old Testament, Richard S. Hess | by R. W. L. Moberly

Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture

    A Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor Richard S. Hess

    Moberly, R. W. L. Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013. Hardback, $34.99. Xiv + 333 pp. ISBN 978-0-8010-4885-2.

    In this volume Moberly surveys many of the key questions of Old Testament theology, using exegetical studies of various texts as his means of discussion. While some may argue that this is not the correct way in which to draw a comprehensive view of the biblical text, Moberly recognizes that any method in this field stands or falls to the extent that it is able to explain the difficult and the most important passages of the Old Testament.

    The author begins with Deut. 6:4-9, surveying the views that this text emphasizes monotheism and that it supports Israel’s worship of a single god. While Moberly does not accept the perspective that this passage was written to challenge local manifestations of Yahweh (e.g., Yahweh of Samaria and Yahweh of Teman in the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions of c. 800 B.C.), he remains open to more than one possible interpretation of the text. An important emphasis upon Christian tradition emphasizes the interpretation of this text as a rejection of polytheism but an acceptance of the divinity of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8:6). The command to love is one to remain loyal. The command to create public signs of one’s faith becomes appropriated in the cross and the words of the Lord’s Prayer, but Moberly invites further creative renditions of this command. He observes that “monotheism” began life as a term used in the seventeenth century. Moberly is at his best when drawing an observation such as the following: “the term ‘monotheism’ does not intrinsically convey the existential dimensions conveyed by the Shema or Isaiah 40-55– either the call for a loyalty that resists alternative allegiances or a devotion to God as the one and only, as to a lover” (p. 35). Moberly describes the form of idolatry that God rejects as Israel really worshipping itself.

    Deuteronomy 7 draws Moberly’s attention as he considers God’s election of Israel. He examines the claims that this discriminates against those who are not Israel. Instead, it calls Israel to a greater wonder at God’s love and to loyal obedience. Moberly understands the “holy war” as dedicating that which exclusively belongs to Yahweh (herem) and as a metaphor for exclusive devotion. Hence Deut. 7:6-8 follows a section that commands the destruction of all idols. Further, Rahab (Josh 6) exemplifies how one can become part of Israel; while Achan (Josh 7) illustrates how privilege can be lost by disobedience. While the characteristic insights are plentiful, I remain unconvinced how “holy war” was always intended as pure metaphor. There is too much detail that also occurs in the style of ancient Near Eastern annalistic accounts to sweep it all under a symbolic cover, no matter how appealing such an approach might seem to be.

    When Moberly turns to consider the story of manna in Exodus 16, he finds Israel more interested in the present desire for food than in their long term life of freedom. The bread provides for everyone. Moberly’s appeal to Marx’s axiom, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” (p. 81), can make sense only when the sovereign Administrator provides abundantly and without regard for his own interests. There are some important extensions of the manna story into the Christian tradition, especially with reference to the Eucharist; a point well made by Moberly. There is also the discipline of seeking God first each day just as the manna was gathered each day. In this chapter Moberly makes more explicit his distinction between the text behind the text and that in its present context. This distinction can be useful at times in discerning ways forward for difficult texts.

    However, it also becomes a position from which he argues for the impossibility of the narrative as it now stands. Thus Exod. 38:25-26 requires that the 603,000 warriors be understood as just that number and not as 603 units of military force, where a unit (Hebrew ’elep which can also mean 1,000) could be considerably less than a thousand. Yet I am not convinced that this is the point of the text. Could it not reflect an idealized number of warriors on the basis of a census of 603 units plus 550 men remaining? Furthermore how does the number of firstborn in Num. 3:43 fit his interpretation? Did the writer really intend for the reader to understand that each mother in Israel had an average of 27 sons?

    Moberly considers the repentance of God along with the charge of a fickle and thus unreliable God. Looking at Jer. 18:7-10, where it appears that God changes back and forth in dealing with nations, Moberly considers its role as a commentary on Jeremiah’s call and 1:9-10. From this he understands that prophetic words invite response and that what is unconditional may turn out to be conditional. The warning of judgment seeks to elicit a response of repentance so that what is prophecied will not come to pass. Moberly compares Num. 23:19 with 1 Sam. 15:29. The former guarantees God’s purpose for his people Israel. The latter moves the story forward to the intent of God for his chosen one, David. Moberly then moves to Matt. 6:12 and Rom. 9-11 as examples in which forgiveness is a gift but one that “may be nullified if it is not extended to others” (p. 139). Yet, as with Balaam, God’s calling of Israel does not change. The relational nature of God and his work, as well as his faithfulness, should not be seen as contradictory.

    In his study on Isaiah and Jesus, Moberly rightly stresses the importance of historical context for understanding the prophet. Literary conventions also serve an important role. Yet none of these must necessarily thwart either the original context as being what the prophet claims, nor the possibility that the prophetic context could reach into the future. Moberly’s “recontextualization” provides a useful understanding of the reuse of biblical themes and texts. However, the larger question is whether such a hermeneutic can create an interpretation that has nothing to do with what the original author envisioned. Such recontextualization strips the author of authority.   Clearly, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah looks forward to Jesus for the Christian. But whether or not this is a prophecy of Jesus death (and resurrection?) remains something that can be debated in the grammar and words of the text and in how the gospel writers portray Jesus. In other words, objective realities can be discussed. It need not be left only to each tradition reading the text in its own way without any means of discussing whether some readings more accurately reflect the text.

    In his chapter on Jonah the author begins by considering traditional issues with Jonah, for example, that there was no whale but only a big fish. He moves to examine the genre of the book which is necessary for a proper interpretation. For Moberly the text is open-ended, allowing for a variety of interpretations. Using related contexts in Exodus, Jeremiah, and Joel, Moberly elucidates the problem of divine mercy where it leads to the salvation of one people at the cost of the lives of God’s people.

    In Psalm 44 Moberly identifies a creed. It shifts to the present to focus on the continuity of faith over the generations and on God who give his people salvation. This cry to God has been seen by Theodoret of Cyrus and others since him as set in the context of the Maccabean period; although such a context does not require a specific date. Psalm 89 continues the theme of praising God in terms of his absolute faithfulness and sovereign power. God’s covenant with David is expressed in as strong terms as possible. However, v. 39 accuses God of renouncing his covenant. This phenomenon occurs in both psalms and exemplifies what Moberly sees as divine promises that go in one direction and human experience that moves in an opposite direction. The author commendably refuses to rationalize such issues.

    In his chapter on wisdom literature, Moberly examines Job. I was pleased to see that he finds here a man who was not an Israelite just as he determines that the Satan is not identified with Satan elsewhere in the Bible. Moberly finds chs. 1-2 and 28 as describing how wisdom is identified with integrity and with faith, remaining faithful to God even when the worst happens.

    Despite repeated issues about the cavalier regard for the relationship between history and the text’s teaching, there is much profound thought and insight in the texts that Moberly studies so that we can truly be grateful. Moberly has made his case for the specific study of key biblical passages with an emphasis on the important relationship that God seeks.

    Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
    Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
    Denver Seminary
    March 2014