Published on March 18, 2024 by Eugene Ho

Baker Academic, 2020 | 304 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Roland Mathews 


R. W. L. Moberly’s book The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture is as the title suggests a book about God, but his approach in speaking about God differs from the form and content that one would expect to find in a formal systematic theology. His purpose in this book is much more modest in scope. Continuing his program of theological interpretation developed in greater detail in his previous writings, Moberly undertakes a close reading of select passages from the Old Testament in order to provide readers of the Bible with a grammar for speaking about God (p .1). An important feature of speech about God is the relation between knowledge of God and knowledge of humanity and the world. One’s understanding of humanity and the world is fundamentally conditioned by one’s understanding of and speech about God. Thus Moberly conducts his exposition of this grammar with an imperative from Psalm 100:3: “Know that the Lord is God.” The meat of Moberly’s proposal is found in six chapters. 


Chapter 1: The Wise God: The Depths of Creation in Proverbs 8 

Turning his attention first to Proverbs 8:22-31, Moberly explores how issues surrounding the interpretation of this passage might impinge upon issues of the modern day (p. 15). First, Moberly provides the reader with “the keynote of the book of Proverbs,” namely, the notion that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (pp. 14-15). Thus, Moberly says, wisdom is “inherently intellectual, ethical, and practical” (p. 16). Fearing the Lord is man’s first and right response to God which will in turn lead to a “deeper grasp of living and handling the world well” (p. 17). “Wisdom is intrinsically bound up with a moral way of living” (p. 22). Wisdom stands in contrast with folly, and to make the point more dramatically the author of Proverbs personifies both in the form of a woman. The question is which voice will the passerby heed: the voice of lady wisdom or the voice of madame folly? The main factor that tilts in favor of lady wisdom is her proximity to God (pp. 22-25). Wisdom precedes the formation of the material structure of the universe as something like a cosmic attendant to God who is at his behest an agent involved in creation itself. One implication of this poetic description is that wisdom is drawn up into relation with God in such a way that wisdom is viewed not as a creature, but as something that is perhaps intrinsic to God (pp. 29-30). The practical side of this is the call of wisdom. Wisdom is imprinted in the world in such a way that wisdom’s calling to humanity is tantamount to a summons to mankind to live and engage with the world as it truly is (p. 28).

Lady wisdom is no mere abstraction for the writer of Proverbs, for she soon finds concrete expression in Proverbs 31, and “the ʾēshet ḥayil [virtuous woman] of Proverbs 31” (p. 32). It is here that Moberly notes the resonances with other texts such as the Book of Ruth. In the Hebrew ordering of the canonical material, the Book of Ruth follows Proverbs, and the eponymous heroine Ruth is depicted as an embodiment of the Proverbs 31 woman—and, by extension, of lady wisdom. Moreover, the association of wisdom with creation made the move to understand wisdom as participant in Gen 1:1 an easy one. John’s gospel fits within this movement but steps beyond it by substituting wisdom with Jesus, the incarnate Word. Here Moberly notes: “That agent of creation which Proverbs speaks of as Wisdom is now to be understood as the Word which becomes flesh in Jesus Christ” (p. 34). For the Christian, therefore, those who come to know Jesus also come to know and engage with the world as it really is. Knowing Jesus therefore is the way to know God and the way to be truly human. 


Chapter 2: The Mysterious God: The Voice from the Fire in Exodus 3

Moberly turns his attention to Exodus 3 in the second chapter of the book. This passage famously tells of Moses’ initial encounter with God. Moses saw a remarkable sight: a bush fully ablaze with fire, but at the same time not consumed by the flames. Moberly notes that fire is often used as an image to depict God’s divine presence (pp. 55-56). With the appearance of the Lord in the burning bush comes a summons: “Moses, Moses.” “The address is not general but specific, not abstract but personal” (p.57). The summons then leads to a commission. God will send Moses to Egypt to win the freedom of the people of Israel. The summons creates a space of dialogue between God and Moses in which the erstwhile deliverer of Israel turned shepherd is reticent to accede to God’s commission (pp. 59-61). Moberly focuses on Moses’ second of four objections to his commissioning: what is God’s name? This is an important moment in the narrative because in the Old Testament names are not merely designations of a particular person but they also oftentimes provide a description of them (p. 61). The name may tell the reader something about the nature of the person. God’s initial response to Moses is a description of His nature. He is “ʾehyeh ʾăsher ʾehyeh [I AM WHO I AM]” (p. 62). God then instructs Moses to tell the people of Israel that the one who had sent him is “ʾehyeh (“I AM”)” (p. 62). This identification is then followed by a more formal naming. God says that His name is YHWH. What are the implications of both the name YHWH and the description of that name as I AM WHO I AM? 

Following Paul Ricoeur, Moberly suggests that the lack of a predicate is intentional as a means by which to underline the limitless nature of the divine being (p. 76), and “the appearance and speech of God are the archetypal expressions of mystery” (p. 78). Fundamental to this revelation of God is that this God transcends human categorization and thus while God is not one who can be rationally circumscribed, he is one with whom man can engage in a meaningful way. The fruitfulness of Moberly’s approach to the question of the divine name can be seen not only in his engagement with the text of Exodus 3:14 in its context, but also with his engagement of the translation and interpretation of the text in later layers of tradition. The LXX, for instance, translates ʾehyeh ʾăsher ʾehyeh as egō eimi ho ōn (“I am the One who is”) and not as the syntactical equivalent “eimi hos eimi (“I am who I am”) (pp. 82-83). This is more of an interpretation and less a translation. It is through this interpretive schema that the New Testament uses the phraseology of the LXX to explicate the identity of God in Revelation 1:4, 8, as well as the resonance with the “I Am” sayings of the Gospel of John. Here the absence of a predicate in the original context allows for the expansive predication of certain characteristics to Jesus in the Gospel of John. 

Coming to know God more fully through a text like Exodus 3:14 provides another facet of the grammar for speech about God that Moberly is developing. God is mysterious but at the same time, the name of God underlines His active presence. Moberly concludes: God is “something beyond familiar ideologies and philosophies and conflicts, something self-authenticating, something that mediates a transcendent and life-giving reality” (p. 91). 


Chapter 3: The Just God: The Nature of Deity in Psalm 82

The third chapter turns to the Book of Psalms, and in particular, Moberly turns his attention to consider Psalm 82. Here Moberly pauses to consider “the moral nature of God, with particular reference to the question of justice” (p. 94). According to Moberly, God is the main speaker of the Psalm (p. 95), and He enters the divine council “in the midst of the gods” to hold court. Premodern interpreters “generally agreed that human judges were the addressees of Psalm 82” (p. 98), but modern interpreters tend to think differently in light of other Ancient Near Eastern material. 

The scenario of numerous gods gathered in council in Psalm 82 can thus be seen as comparable to the divine assemblies depicted in material from Mesopotamia and Ugarit, Israel’s near neighbors. (p. 100-101)

Moberly agrees. Focus might then be placed on the number of deities evidenced in the psalm, and this would then be a measure to determine the development of Israelite religion from a henotheistic conception of deity to a monotheistic one. Considering that this is the original sense of the text, how might one go about interpreting the text as Christian Scripture

Moberly suggests that noting the absence of numerical signifiers is a helpful place to start. The Psalm is interested in the theme of justice in the divine council: “Not the number of the gods but the moral content of their practice is the psalm’s concern” (p. 106). In this connection, Moberly argues, the Psalm is about the right conception of the term ʾĕlōhīm [God/gods] (p. 109) and thus a way to show that the God of Israel is supreme over all other beings that might be construed as gods. The deities among whom God stands are under his judgment for their indifference to the proper practice of justice (pp. 112-113). This then is the essence of the psalmist’s point: those who were thought to be gods are in fact not gods. Evidence for their less than divine status is found in their failure to pursue justice (p. 116). Moberly summarizes the essence of this point as follows (p. 118): 

The correlative logic of the scene is that the ʾĕlōhīm [God] who pronounces this judgment about the others is thereby appropriately understood to be a God of justice and integrity, not incidentally but constitutively: this ʾĕlōhīm [God] would not be God unless justice and integrity were essential to His nature. 

With respect to the grammar, Moberly seeks to construct from passages such as this the simple conclusion: God is a God of justice. 


Chapter Four: The Inscrutable God: Divine Differentials and Human Choosing in Genesis 4

Here Moberly turns his attention to the story of Cain and Abel and a point of fundamental concern in this chapter is the question of fairness. Is God fair (p. 126)? Noting the peculiarities of the text, as well as positing an earlier provenance of the text prior to its current placement (p.126-128), Moberly moves to a consideration of the crux interpretum, namely, the “differential response of the LORD to the sacrifices” (p. 130). In particular, the question of divine motive comes to the fore: why did the LORD prefer one sacrifice over the other? Interpreters from various times and various traditions have posited different scenarios and proffered varying grounds to account for the Lord’s choice, but, asks Moberly, would it not be preferable as a story that provides no humanly meaningful explanation (p. 132)? Moberly offers two reasons why this would not only be a plausible approach to the text but also the most feasible. First, there is an inter-textual analogy between the Cain and Abel story and the story of Esau and Jacob. God’s choice of Jacob over Esau is inexplicable (pp. 134, 146-151). By way of analogy, so too is God’s choice of Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s (p. 134). The second reason is existential: “It is an inescapable fact of life that some of the things that matter most to people are unequally distributed” (p. 134). The point of the story of Cain and Abel then is the eminently practical goal of learning to live life faithfully in the face of these inequalities (and, as Moberly adds, “especially, how to cope with being, in one way or another, the one who is unfavored,” p .135). Cain’s failure is that he did not respond well to disappointment, and thus placed himself in a dangerous place in which he would be “susceptible to the wiles of sin” (p. 139). He does indeed succumb to the worst possible scenario with the result that he and his progeny become exemplars of a life lived heedless of the guidance of the LORD (p. 144). The contribution the story of Cain and Abel makes to help construct a grammar for speech about God is that God is sometimes inscrutable in His actions, but this inscrutability does not absolve any individual from the necessity of responding properly to disappointing circumstances (pp. 161-162). 

Moberly is to be commended for his attempt to read the text on his own terms, and, at the same time, to offer some practical advice and encouragement to those who live in the face of inexplicable inequalities. However, his reading of the Cain and Abel narrative, while suggestive, raises more questions than it answers. Perhaps the most fundamental question regards the character of God. If it is the case that Cain had every reason to expect God to accept him and his offering, then God’s arbitrary rejection of Cain and his offering poses both a moral and theological problem regarding the character of God. Does not God’s capricious rejection of Cain and his offering create the very conditions that would later lead to Cain’s murder of his brother Abel? When Cain responds to this apparent injustice with a sense of incredulity, would he not have been responding in a way that is in Moberly’s words “readily understandable” (p. 135)? How then could he be blamed? The challenge for Cain at this point is to live with the arbitrary and senseless actions of a capricious deity, but is this the kind of deity that the Old Testament depicts? Is this the kind of God described in Genesis 1-3, which depicts a God who is generous and benevolent, who displays mercy in the face of open rebellion? This would be a strange and dramatic shift, were one to accept Moberly’s reading. Further, if Moberly’s reading is correct, and God is capricious, how could anyone be assured that God would accept him? 

Moberly appeals to the story of Jacob and Esau to buttress his point on the inscrutable nature of God’s actions, and it is incontrovertible that the story of Jacob and Esau underlines the mysterious, inscrutable will of God. However, while there are similarities between the story of Cain and Abel and the story of Jacob and Esau, there are important dissimilarities. For instance, a divine word precedes the choice of Jacob over Esau. God informed Rebekah in Genesis 24:23 that “the older shall serve the younger,” and this prompts the reader to expect some kind of reversal to take place in the story of Esau and Jacob. No such divine word is given in Genesis 4:1-16, and thus no reasonable expectation is given in the Cain and Abel narrative. Moreover, God elects or chooses Jacob over Esau with the result that the choice creates a permanent division: Jacob becomes the bearer of the Abrahamic promise; Esau, while blessed to a lesser degree, would not be the font from which the promises of God would move forward. Circling back to Genesis 4, while God rejected Cain and his offering at that time, He provided Cain with a way out. The possibility of rectification remained for Cain. His face would be lifted. He would be accepted if only he would do well. The only real similarity between the two texts is the choice of a younger brother over an older one. Following Gordon Wenham’s advice at this juncture would perhaps be the safer route: one should make an appeal to a text like this only when no other options are left (Gordon J Wenham, Genesis, p. 104).

Crucial to Moberly’s reading is the supposition that there is no evidence in the text of a deficiency in either Cain’s character or in Cain’s offering prior to the Lord’s response, but an alternative reading would suggest otherwise. Even if one does not go as far as some Greek texts of Genesis 4 in positing a specific ritual deficiency in Cain’s offering, the text could be read to at least gesture towards something akin to this. For instance, John Walton suggests, contrary to Moberly here, that the language of ‘doing well’ in Genesis 4:7 points to some material or formal deficiency in Cain’s offering (John H. Walton, Genesis, p. 263). What that deficiency is remains a mystery to subsequent readers, but it does not follow that it was a mystery at some earlier time. Reading the text this way would militate against Moberly and provide a textual ground for claiming that God’s response to Cain and his offering was reasonable. The implication is that Cain would have known this point in the same way that he knew that bringing an offering to the LORD was a good thing to do. In another vein, Bruce Waltke has argued that the textual clues point to Cain’s character as the culprit (Bruce K. Waltke, “Cain and His Offering,” pp. 363-372). Cain’s subsequent response to God was not the occasion for a negative development in Cain’s character but an occasion to reveal the kind of character that was already there. On this reading, even though the particulars are unknown to the reader, God’s will is not inscrutable per se. Thus, it is not obvious that Moberly’s reading is the best reading of this text.

This does not negate the inscrutability of God’s will as a feature of a biblically-based grammar of speech about God. It is simply to say that the story of Cain and Abel is not the best text to which one should appeal to support it. Better in this reviewer’s opinion is a straightforward appeal to the story of Jacob and Esau. Here the mystery of God’s choice is writ large on every page. It truly is inscrutable (e.g., Mal. 1:2; Rom. 9:6-13).


Chapter Five: The Only God: Surprising Universality and Particularity in 2 Kings 5

The story of Naaman is the focus of chapter five. Naaman was a prominent figure in his day and enjoyed a high status in the court of the Syrian king. He was also a man who was beset by skin disease. He had no hope of relief from his affliction until a young Israelite girl, whom the Syrians had been taken captive, told her mistress, Naaman’s wife, about a prophet in Samaria by whom her husband could be healed. Moberly retells the story of Naaman’s journey to Israel, his encounter with the King of Israel, his engagement with the prophet Elisha, and his healing in the waters of the Jordan (pp. 169-173). 

Naaman’s healing draws attention to two important features of the text: (1) obedience to the words of the prophet as obedience to God, and (2) recognition of God as the only God. The former underlines a concern of the other chapters in this book, namely, creaturely response to God as conformity to what it means truly to be human in a theistic world. The latter perhaps bears the greater weight, as Naaman’s confession “stands at the heart of the story” (p. 179). Indeed, knowledge of God is a fundamental element of the essence of Israelite religion (pp. 180-181). Moberly comments on this confession with a nuanced view of monotheism: monotheism does not mean numerical oneness as a claim of ontology; it is a claim of power or capacity to save or deliver (p. 182). The point then is that Naaman now pledges His allegiance to the one God, who is the God of Israel, and at the same time renounce his allegiance to the pagan gods of his homeland. A curious feature of this episode is Naaman’s request that he be allowed to participate in the cultic rituals in the temple of Rimmon when called upon to do so as part of his duties as a figure of political and military importance. Moberly explores the various layers of this question and ultimately determines that the narrative itself provides us with a clue: “We see that assumptions and expectations about what the one God does, or should do, and of how people should live before this God are repeatedly overturned” (p. 202). Naaman unexpectedly encountered grace and in doing so he was introduced to and embraced in faith the one God whom Israel worshipped. 


Chapter Six: The Trustworthy God: Assurance and Warning in Psalm 46, Jeremiah 7, and Micah 3 

The trustworthiness of God serves as the final plank in Moberly’s description of his grammar. The corollary of God’s trustworthiness is the call to the individual to trust Him. Indeed, “trust in God is a deep characteristic not only of Israel’s scriptures but also of the Jewish and Christian faiths, which are rooted in them” (p. 203). Turning first to Psalm 46, Moberly notes that the psalmist begins by describing God in characteristically reassuring words. Words like refuge and strength reinforce the sense that God is a bulwark of security and safety (p. 205). The picture of stability is reinforced by the use of imagery that speaks of the undoing of the natural order. God’s presence among His people becomes the ground of assurance for His people. There is much to say about the Psalm, but ultimately it raises the issue of trusting in God who provides safety and security for His people and His city. When He is in their midst, what reason is there for any of them to fear (pp. 209-10)? 

Turning to the Book of Jeremiah, a different note is struck. The stability spoken of in Psalm 42 gives way to ruin. Jeremiah preaches a sermon to the people in which he challenges them “to amendment that concludes with a warning that the Jerusalem temple, in which people trust, can be reduced to a ruin like the former temple at Shiloh (7:3–15)” (p. 210). The significance of this should not be lost on the modern reader. Loss of Jerusalem and its temple is not simply the loss of a place or a building; it would be tantamount to losing one’s identity (p. 212). The people had been resting in the temple as the guarantee of their safety and security (p. 213), but Jeremiah told them in no uncertain terms that their hope was misplaced. This seems on the surface incompatible with the assurance of Psalm 46, but the deeper issue with which Jeremiah deals is the incongruity between professed hope in the temple-presence of God and the moral turpitude of the people of Judah (p. 217). Moberly sums up the problem in this way (p. 217): 

A claim of confidence in God’s presence in the temple and in His protection of Jerusalem, which is what the people’s words amount to, is rendered null and void by a way of living that is at odds with God’s will and ways. 

Far from being incompatible with Psalm 46, Moberly’s interpretation of Jeremiah 7 underlines the importance of the people’s proper response to God in living communion with Him, rather than relating to Him in some totemistic sense.

The next passage to which Moberly turns is Micah’s temple sermon in Micah 3:9-12. Moberly notes that Micah strikes a similar note to Jeremiah (p. 220). “The passage comprises a moral challenge, a critique of religious presumption, and a warning that focuses on the destruction of the temple” (p. 219). Moberly shows that the people in Jeremiah’s day and in Micah’s day rested on a distorted notion of God’s promise of safety and security. The promise of stability is framed within the context of the people’s trust in and right response to God (p. 231), not merely in the utterance of words of trust (p. 232). The contribution that this chapter makes to Moberly’s overall project to provide a grammar for speaking about God is that trusting in God, who is eminently trustworthy, involves being obedient to His word (p. 236).

Moberly began his book by stating that the whole enterprise is an exercise conducted in obedience to the imperative of Psalm 100:3, “Know that the LORD is God” (p. 239). In each subsequent chapter, he selected a passage of Scripture that enables him to do exactly this. Moberly has drafted from his analyses of these various texts a grammar for speech about God that goes beyond mere speaking and draws the speaker into a dynamic relation of response to God and His word. The one about whom we speak is the one who first spoke to us and in doing so has drawn us into communion with Himself. The book helpfully concludes with summaries of each of the chapters.

Moberly’s mastery of the biblical material and breadth of learning is on full display throughout the book as he deftly weaves his way through his selected passages and interacts with scholars and literature that stand outside the borders of his discipline. One might not agree with all of Moberly’s conclusions, nor will one necessarily agree with all the ways that he reached them, but no one should doubt that reading this volume will open avenues of interpretation that truly illumine the text.


Roland Mathews

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Baker Academic, 2020 | 304 pages

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