Book Notice: Walter Moberly on OT Theology

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

Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture provides an engaging and accessible contribution to the methodology of Old Testament Theology. Walter Moberly is professor of theology and biblical interpretation at Durham University. He is concerned to develop appropriate hermeneutics for the reading of the OT, to situate exegesis within theology, and to draw out the relevance of the text for contemporary living. He is the author of many books and articles, including The Theology of the Book of Genesis; Prophecy and Discernment; and The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus.

Moberly espouses the notion of reading as, allowing him to read the OT as Christian Scripture but not imposing this mode of reading on others. He integrates scholarly insights from the last two centuries with classic understandings of the texts and contemporary theological concerns (OTT, 2-4). Moberly engages the world within the text (as portrayed in the storyline or worldview of the text) and the world in front of the text (the world of the reader) and notes the world behind the text (the historical setting) where this contributes to the understanding the text (OTT, 18). He explores historic Jewish and Christian readings of the text to develop a ‘grammar’ of right language about God and faithful relationship with God (OTT, 284).

This reading strategy is demonstrated in eight texts representative of the Hebrew Bible. OTT follows a canonical order (Torah, Prophets, Writings). The texts chosen are the Shema (monotheism and idolatry), Deut 17 (election), manna in the wilderness (disciplines of daily living), Jeremiah 18 (does God change?), and selections from Isaiah, Jonah, Psalms and Job. While some key themes are not treated, (e.g. creation and sacrifice), the book covers most key themes found in comprehensive OT theologies (OTT, 1). Moberly drills down to explore the theological, hermeneutical and practical issues that emerge from each of these texts, and offers a reading of the text within the context that emerges.

The book begins with the Shema (Deut 4:6-9), a foundational text for OT theology. It is the keynote of Moses’ address on the covenant, highlighted in the text by the introductory formula ‘now this is the commandment… that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you…’ (Deut 6.1). The Shema was earmarked by Jesus as the great commandment (Mark 12.28-30) and is a focal point of Jewish faith. Moberly leads the reader through an exploration of the meaning of the Hebrew word ’eḥad. Does this word mean ‘one’ or ‘alone’? Is the Shema calling us to monotheism, belief in only one God, or monolatry, worshipping God alone and not worshipping idols? The translation question nests within the question of contextualization: what is the appropriate context for interpreting this text? Moberly explores the differing theological contexts of Jewish and Christian readings. His most interesting move is to read the Shema with the command to ‘love’ YHWH with all our heart, soul, and strength (6:5). A response to the Shema might be merely an intellectual commitment to monotheism, but Moberly invites the reader to ‘a love supreme’ which draws our total allegiance and devotion to God, and impacts all our choices and actions. Reflection on vv.6-9 compares the Jewish concern to practice the command to bind these words on their hands and foreheads, and write them on the door posts of houses and gates, and the differing Christian reception which relativises or marginalises these verses.

Later chapters deal helpfully with election, the question of whether and under what circumstances God may change his mind, and the importance of the motif of humbling and exalting in the Old and New Testaments.  The final three chapters (on Jonah, Psalms and Job) deal with ‘perennial problematic dimensions within human response to God’ (OTT, 281). Jonah knows information about God but doesn’t really understand it. The Psalmists of Psalm 44 and 89 wrestle with ‘the brutal realities’ of faith as it is lived in practice. Various construals of Job 1-2 and 28 are examined to explore the question, ‘what might it mean and look like to be wise?’ Moberly’s expertise as a philologist and theologian are brought into play to develop scholarly explorations that are also rich in practical application.

Old Testament Theology achieves its objective of demonstrating a reading strategy which pays careful attention to specific texts in the light of theology. Moberly is unafraid of paradox or creative tension which allows us to hear the whole text rather than subordinating one aspect to another. A valuable facet of this work is the evaluation of the possible reading contexts of each text. Invitations to discern the appropriate reading context lead to a richer grasp of the texts and the theology that flows from them. Moberly concludes with an analogy which compares the Biblical text with a much loved musical score which can be studied but also performed to bring the work to life in a fresh way,

[T]he crowning achievement of a theological interpretation of Scripture should be performance, that is ways of living, on the part of believers and those sympathetically interested, who are enabled to realize more fully the wholeness of life to which God calls. (OTT, 288).

Old Testament Theology leads to a deepening understanding of God and his ways with humanity, and to profound personal reflection and prayer. The treatment of individual texts would be useful assigned reading in an OT, hermeneutics or Hebrew class. Each of the chapters also includes wider insights on translation and interpretive issues, so there is benefit in reading the whole book sequentially.

Jill Firth (Adjunct lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament, Ridley College).

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