Today, very few systematic theologians argue their cases exegetically from Scripture. Instead, they tend to use convenient concepts from biblical studies that they can deploy selectively within their own frameworks. Even fewer biblical scholars take seriously the hermeneutical and metaphysical questions raised by systematic theology—although they seem quite happy to opine on sundry topics of current interest. In both cases there is no “fear of the Lord,” conscientious responsibility to God for daring to speak about God in the name of God. R. W. L. Moberly’s The God of the Old Testament is a refreshing exception to this rule: It is a transgressive work, in that it violates the academic boundaries of the segregated disciplines of “biblical studies” and “systematic theology.”
Moberly’s focus is on Old Testament monotheism, a concept that is in academic trouble nowadays. It is historically more accurate to speak about “henotheism”—which emphasizes that Scripture refers to many gods, even if the First Commandment puts YHWH above them all. For many progressive historians of religion, monotheism did not emerge in ancient Israel until the Babylonian exile in the prophet whom historical criticism names the “second Isaiah.”
From another angle, in the field of systematic theology Karl Barth issued an influential brief against “abstract monotheism” for eclipsing the henotheistic reality of Israel: In a polytheistic world, Israel was dependent upon the named God of revelation. For example, Barth could write that the God of the gospel “is God only in [triune] relationships.” Barth criticized the Platonic tradition of negative theology, which has fostered “the illusion of an abstract ‘monotheism’ which usually fools men most successfully at the high water mark of the development of heathen religions and mythologies and philosophies.”
For scholars such as Karen Armstrong, meanwhile, monotheism has been a force for violent division. In Armstrong’s sweeping survey Fields of Blood, Israel’s exclusivist monotheism on behalf of YHWH is seen to sanction bloody intolerance. Her reading of the book of Joshua links genocide to the monotheistic reforms of Judah’s king, Josiah, who brought ancient Israel’s faith to a “wholly new intransigence” when he ruthlessly uprooted the hitherto prevailing interfaith bonhomie, as it were, of polytheistic syncretism.
Such is the controverted status of “monotheism” in the contemporary academy. But Moberly, in a series of engaging studies of relevant texts, makes a welcome argument for a different perspective: that Israel is both gifted and burdened to know that YHWH is the One who is truly divine.
For Moberly, the content of the particular name YHWH is spelled out by the narratives of the history of liberation from the bondage of false gods. This moves Israel from vague notions of a higher power in a generic sensus divinitatis to that of the one and only who is universally the Creator of all that is not God; whose history with Israel, then, may provide the template of his history with all humanity.
What kind of God is God, then? Answering the question who God is, namely, YWWH of the Exodus, requires a corresponding conceptualization of what God is. Such conceptualization is really the gravamen of Moberly’s undertaking. As such the book makes a contribution to an important debate recently opened up by Katherine Sonderegger, as Moberly expressly acknowledges in his conclusion. Her contention is that Christian trinitarianism must not abandon Israel’s monotheism. As Moberly understands her, the topic de Deo uno must be considered alongside the topic de Deo trino.
Such an approach need not lead, as Armstrong fears, to aggressive religious triumphalism. Believers are challenged by the claim to universality of the particular God, who has claimed them for his own, to regard all others as equally precious creatures of the same God.
Moberly’s account of the Old Testament is richly nuanced, full of interesting and helpful asides. For instance, Moberly writes well on Proverbs 8, where we learn that knowledge of the one true God is “fear of the Lord.” To speak meaningfully of God here in the world, one must know that of which one speaks; moreover, one can only acquire knowledge about God by engaging with the self-revealing God in his claim to truth. If words about God are not to be mere words, they must arise out of such lived reality of “fearful” encounter with God, the existential knowledge of God as Creator but also Redeemer.
Drawn by the fitting symbol of a bush that burns without being consumed, Moses in Exodus 3 receives God’s everlasting name—from God! In an extended exegetical discussion of this much discussed crux intellectum, Moberly exposits the “weighty play on words” in the association of the divine name, YHWH, with the Hebrew verb “to be,” hāyāh: “I AM” on Yahweh’s lips, “HE IS” on human lips.
As Moberly writes, the Hebrew idiom should be translated as something like “I AM who [or “as” or “where” or “that” or “how”] I AM.” The formula is—here Moberly cites S. R. Driver’s words—“a Semitic idiom . . . employed where either the means, or the desire, to be more explicit does not exist.” The problem of tense is more subtle; many translate the verse as “I will be who I will be.” That is a possibility, but it must not be taken “in any way to imply something other than what is already the case in the present. . . . God is not saying that he will be different in the future from how he is at the moment of speaking, but rather that how he is at present is how he will act and show himself to be.” Taken together the exegetical insights into Proverbs 8 and Exdous 3 say: Follow my lead and obey my voice and see what kind of God I am!
Similarly, Moberly offers a persuasive reading of Psalm 46, which praises God as a “mighty fortress” who has “brought desolations on the earth.” Moberly points out that “Depictions of God, and claims about life in God's world, should not be understood or evaluated in the abstract, but always in relation to how they are used.” Trust in God as a “mighty fortress” turns on the kind of God YHWH is, such that he can claim trust and be worthy of trust. Following Moberly's lead here, one might think of something like Augustine’s “severe mercy.” Though ultimately for the best, weaning believers from idols, which would ultimately consume them, is a wrenching process, a painful reorganization of the affections.
The study of the healing of Naaman the Syrian at the word of the arch-Yahwist prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 5 also raises the critical question of theological discernment. God is distinguished from false gods, the idols and demons that otherwise captivate human desire. But what is this distinction? As Moberly writes: “What understanding of the Lord appropriately underlies and informs trust?”
For Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity receives Israel's Yahweh as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of their Spirit and thus answers the question. The one true God is the eternal beloved community, which in Christ and by the Spirit has sought and found the way to us, the Gentiles. The One who is truly God justifies the ungodly, gives life to the dead, and calls into being worlds that do not yet exist just because this Trinity of God is an infinite font of generosity.
A daring approach yields benefits. Moberly has tried to move intransigent scholarly camps—systematic theologians and biblical studies scholars—forward toward knowledge of God. That was once theology’s role and it may yet be again. Quibbles here and there with Moberly's analyses and theological suggestions pale in comparison with the importance of the attempt he has made to breach the segregating walls.
Paul R. Hinlicky is Tise Professor Emeritus at Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia.
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