Reviews of

Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture

In Baker Academic, HB/OT, Hermeneutics, Kengo Akiyama, R. W. L. MOBERLY on October 20, 2014 at 10:36 pm

2014.10.17 | R. W. L Moberly. Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2013. pp.xiv + 333. ISBN: 9780801048852.

Reviewed by Kengo Akiyama.
University of Edinburgh.

Many thanks to Baker Academic for providing a review copy.

In this book, Moberly offers a series of theological reflection on select biblical texts. It is designed to be a sequel to his earlier work, The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). The book is comprised of an introduction, eight “freestanding” chapters, an epilogue and indices. Although each of the eight chapters can be read on its own without any knowledge of the other chapters, the studies are arranged in a particular order to give shape and coherence to the book. Whereas the first five chapters focus on the topics that are “‘doctrinally foundational’ for the vision of God and of human life with God”, the last three chapters turn to “perennially problematic dimensions within human response to God” (p.281). In terms of format, technical discussions are partitioned into separate paragraphs on the same page in smaller fonts, or otherwise footnoted. This is meant to help the readers, who have little or no knowledge of Hebrew or who simply want to read the book without worrying about the minutiae, navigate through the main thrust of the argument.

In the introduction, Moberly briefly outlines his approach by noting the role of hermeneutics. The first chapter (“A Love Supreme”) sets the tone for rest of the book with a careful consideration of the famous Shema (Deut 6:4). Moberly is mindful of the various contexts in which the Shema could be legitimately interpreted, but he focusses on the “world within the text” and its enduring significance for and subsequent reception by both Jews and Christians. He explores the moral and symbolic dimensions of the confession that YHWH is “one”—an affirmation that is meant to shape people’s allegiances and priorities.

The second chapter (“A Chosen People”) turns to the oft-mentioned but little-discussed topic of Israel’s election and particularism. Moberly explores the logic of election, which understandably seems too narrow from the modern perspective, in the context of the Hebrew Bible, particularly in connexion with YHWH’s demand of ḥerem in Deuteronomy 7. He challenges the modern consensus that tends to read this text in a literalistic (rather than literal) and dismissive manner, as he tries to demonstrate how the notion of election is embedded in the logic of love in Deuteronomy.

The third chapter (“Daily Bread”) is devoted to the story of Exodus 16. Moberly sees the narrative of the manna as an outworking of divine grace that calls for daily living and discipline for the people of Israel. In addition to his careful analysis of the narrative, Moberly once again considers its subsequent reformulation. Starting in Deuteronomy 6-8 and moving onwards, he provides a glimpse of interpretive possibilities and how Jews and Christians subsequently understood this text.

The fourth chapter (“Does God Change?“) turns to another puzzle, namely, to the relationship between divine repentance and divine non-repentance. Moberly contends that the texts that speak of God’s “repentance” (e.g., Gen 6:6; Amos 7:2-3; Jon 3:10) and “non-repentance” (e.g., Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29) can be easily misread as a flat out “contradiction” that more or less undermines the significance of the Hebrew Bible. Moberly, for his part, sees this as “a creative tension at the heart of Scripture” (p.143) and resists a facile harmonisation (i.e., the blanket approach) of these texts. He points the reader to the two distinct concerns that govern these seemingly mutually-exclusive ideas. According to Moberly, Jeremiah 18:1-12 is “the passage whereby all other depictions of divine repentance elsewhere should be understood” (p.116; italics Moberly’s), and he interprets God’s repentance as an outworking of his response-seeking and responsive nature.

The fifth chapter (“Isaiah and Jesus“) ventures to make sense of the book of Isaiah as Christian Scripture. Moberly spends the first half of the chapter framing the discussion. He contends that multiple senses and references are inherent in the Hebrew Bible and that “the phenomenon of recontextualization in a plurality of literary and canonical contexts offers a fruitful alternative to using the traditional theological notion of ‘fuller meaning’ (sensus plenior) within the biblical text” (p.158). He likens this process to interpreting the American Constitution. The other half of the chapter is devoted to recontextualizing select passages from Isaiah within a Christian frame of reference. Although the textual analysis in this section is broad-brushed, he draws out some thematic connexions and resonances—particularly the mysterious exaltation and the abasement of the Messiah—between Isaiah and some New Testament writings.

The sixth chapter (“Educating Jonah“) is devoted to the story of Jonah, which Moberly proposes is tackling the problem of “incomprehension” concerning the nature of divine mercy and responsiveness. Moberly focusses on Jonah’s complaint in 4:1-3, which is the interpretive crux of the book that has long divided scholars. He compellingly problematises many of the common construals of Jonah’s complaint. In seeing the text as “suggestive and open-ended” (p.191), which is a strength rather than a weakness, Moberly teases out the tension between Jonah’s “creedal” or “canonical” knowledge and his ignorance of the existential outworking of YHWH’s grace.

The seventh chapter (“Faith and Perplexity”) is a fascinating study of Psalm 89 and 44 that examines the topic of theological rationality and unresolved tensions of life. Moberly considers the creedal formulations and biblical promises in the light of circumstances that often seem to negate them. Rather than calling this tension a contradiction that undermines biblical promises or, on the other extreme, rationalising the situation with blind faith, he attempts to understand this as a paradox that reveals something about the very nature of theological rationality.

In the eighth chapter (“Where is Wisdom?”), Moberly offers a reading of Job 1:1-2:10 and Job 28 (this chapter, or something like it,also appeared in: Lincoln, Andrew T., J. Gordon McConville, and Lloyd K. Pietersen, eds. The Bible and Spirituality: Exploratory Essays in Reading Scripture Spiritually [Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013], 20-37). Here, Moberly proposes that the book of Job explores wisdom as integrity and faithfulness in extreme circumstances, rather than how one gets well on with life, which is a theme prominent in Proverbs. Finally, the book concludes with an epilogue that summarises the chapters and revisits some of the hermeneutical approaches and assumptions tacit in his reading.

As one would expect from Moberly, his writing style is elegant and pleasant to read. The book is clearly sign-posted, which makes it easy to follow his argument. The breadth of the topics covered makes the book both intriguing and stimulating. One thing that clearly stands out in the book from the outset and continues to hold true throughout is Moberly’s repeated emphasis on reading the Hebrew Bible both “seriously” and “imaginatively”. By this, he clearly does not mean read the texts in a fantasy-like or anything-goes manner. His interpretation is sensibly constrained by the historical meaning of the text, but he is not afraid to venture much further. The author is able to resist facile and pre-packaged answers to some of the most enduring and complex theological questions. As a philologist, he is very much at home with the historical-critical approach and deeply aware of textual and historical issues. This enables him to qualify judiciously what he does and does not mean in his discussions, effectively preempting some of the potential pitfalls or criticisms that may be legitimately levelled against his studies. Yet, as a Christian theologian, he is able to give priority to the world in front of the text. Naturally, the selective and exploratory nature of the book still leaves some of his argument vulnerable to criticism, but the quality of the work is hard to dispute at least for those who share his central concern. It is his creative imagination married with his methodological discipline and critical thinking that produce this stimulating volume.

On a slightly different note, some material in the epilogue (viz., hermeneutical approaches and assumptions) may have better been placed in the introduction, but perhaps the eight studies are meant to forerun his closing point about the role that these assumptions play. Moreover, thoughtful reflections on the collection of legal material, which occupies a very prominent and in important ways representative place in the Hebrew Bible, are unfortunately missing from the book. Moberly has nevertheless given us food for thought that will hopefully encourage others to explore how the legal section of the Hebrew Bible might be read as Christian Scripture.

In any event, all this culminates in an incredibly readable, thoughtful, imaginative and exegetically well-grounded work. After all, those who agree with him on why they (want to/ should) read these biblical texts will at least appreciate how he reads the text. Anyone who is interested in thinking deeply about the intersection of scripture and faith would benefit from Moberly’s thoughtful and honest reflections. The book will also be of great import for interfaith dialogue as it uncovers the logic behind how certain texts are construed and translated into doctrinal formulations.

Kengo Akiyama
University of Edinburgh


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