Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (RJS)

Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (RJS) April 23, 2015

Stained Glass OxfordFollowing up on a comment on my post last Thursday, I ordered and have begun to read Walter Moberly’s book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture.  Christian faith is rooted in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. On the road to Emmaus Jesus said to two downhearted followers:

“How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Lk 24:25-27)

Paul said to the struggling Corinthian church:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Cor. 15:3,4)

And to Timothy:

… how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:14-17)

A rich understanding of Christian faith requires careful and faithful engagement with the Scripture – the Hebrew Bible referred to in all three of these passages. Jesus, his disciples, Paul, and the authors of the Gospels were all immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures. They form the backdrop for each important point that is made. The Hebrew Bible isn’t a simple source for proof texts and stories of heroes, but an important and indispensable foundation.

In Old Testament Theology Moberly takes a few selected passages that are representative of Israel’s scriptures and uses them to explore some key ideas in Old Testament theology. He takes seriously both the context in the Hebrew Bible and the way that these passages function authoritatively for Christian faith.

The eight passages:

  • A Love Supreme: Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (the Shema)
  • A Chosen People: Deuteronomy and Joshua (He digs into the idea of hērem)
  • Daily Bread: Exodus 16
  • Does God Change?: Jeremiah 18 and more
  • Isaiah and Jesus: Isaiah
  • Educating Jonah: Jonah
  • Faith and Perplexity: Psalm 44 and 89
  • Where is Wisdom?: Job 28

The book should make for some thought-provoking reading and discussion.

The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.

This passage is of importance to both Jewish and Christian faith. There is some ambiguity in the translation and interpretation. The first verse could be a reference to the nature of God as the one and only god or to the exclusive relationship between YHWH and Israel. The phrase translated by the NIV as “The Lord our God, the Lord is one” could alternatively be translated “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”

Whether this is a reference to the nature of God or not, the impact of the passage is not some intellectual affirmation of monotheism, but devotion on an existential level. Israel was called to be faithful to YHWH as their one and only God. This was to be part of their everyday life and passed on to their descendants. Christians don’t tend to take literally the command to “Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.” We do, however, take seriously the command to follow God alone and to meditate upon the commandments of God, including the command reiterated by Jesus as the greatest commandment.

Moberly points out that the command to love “with all your heart” might be better translated for us today to love with all your mind. “In Hebrew idiom “heart” (lēvāv) regularly refers to the seat of thought, and so it depicts thinking rather than feeling; there is thus a case for rendering it as “mind.“” (p. 21)  The word translated “soul” depicts not an immaterial part of humans but the seat of emotion and desire.

The Israelites were called to forsake all other gods – the false gods of their neighbors – and to be devoted to the Lord alone.  The New Testament, and some Old Testament and Jewish readings as well, extend this idolatry beyond the divinities of surrounding nations to include the tendency to treat anything not God, money, possessions, sex, power, as “god.” According to Moberly:

My proposal here is that the hermeneutical move in the words of Jesus, in conjunction with a comparable move already in Isaiah, makes available a reading strategy for the construal of “other gods” in the Old Testament. “Other gods” are those realities that, in whichever form they take, threaten allegiance to the true God because they treat as God that which is not God. (p. 39)

And then:

One cannot take for granted that allegiance to the true God will be sustained in the face of alternatives. The attractions of other allegiances and of structures of life built around them are both real and powerful, and people can only be weaned off them through sustained moral and spiritual discipline, which is what allegiance to God as “the one and only” should entail. (p. 40)

Christian observance may emphasize the Lord’s prayer rather than the Shema, along with eucharist, and worship. Moberly concludes: “But part of the point of starting the studies in this book with the Shema is to see that issues of allegiance and life priorities together with corresponding moral and symbolic practices are at the heart of what it means to understand and be able to appropriate the Old Testament’s portrayal of God.

Any attempt to understand the sweep of Scripture without appreciating this point will go awry.

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