Here is a draft of my forthcoming review of R. W. L. Moberly The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Old Testament Theology) (Old Testament Theology; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Pp. xxiv + 272. Paperback. 978-0-521-68538-2 $23.99
R. W. L. Moberly’s The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Old Testament Theology) presents a wise and informed reading of the book of Genesis for both Church and the World. Moberly is Professor of Theology and Biblical Interpretation at Durham University. He is the author of many scholarly books and essays.
The Theology of the Book of Genesis is the second volume to appear in the series Old Testament Theology edited by Brent A. Strawn and Patrick D. Miller. The series aims to provide an avenue for extended theological reflection on the individual books of the Old Testament. In the Preface, the editor’s note three developments that make the series important and welcome in today’s milieu. First, the reality of a “postmodern” hermeneutical climate opens new possibilities for theology. Second, the diversity of those practicing biblical interpretation has moved well beyond only Catholic priests and mainline pastors to include scholars of other Christian backgrounds as well as Jewish scholars and persons outside of confessing religious communities. Last, the series aims to participate in the growing trend of interdisciplinary studies that have brought the disciplines of biblical studies, ethics, and systematic theology together as conversation partners.
Moberly masterfully embodies the goals of the series and sets the bar high for future volumes. The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Old Testament Theology) contains twelve chapters. Chapter One “What is a ‘Theology of Genesis’?” allows Moberly to address contemporary issues confronting the discipline of biblical theology and to locate his own reading strategy within the discipline. Moberly’s approach is canonical. He reads the various texts of Genesis carefully within their literary and historical contexts but also with an eye to the wider canonical context of the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, Moberly takes seriously his own situatedness within a contemporary community of faith. He puts it this way: “It is in the meeting of biblical text with canonical context and the ongoing life of communities of faith that theology is done—and where one may hope to try to articulate a theology of Genesis.”(17) Thus, Moberly takes seriously the biblical text and brings to it all of the academic rigor and sophistication of a trained exegete, but he also comes to the text as a person located in the 21st century Western world and attempts to listen to the text through questions and issues raised by modern readers.
It follows from this that there is something intrinsically contextual and provisional about theological use of the biblical text. Theology is not a once-for-all exercise in finding the right words and/or deeds, but rather a continuing and ever-repeated attempt to articulate what a faithful understanding and use of the biblical text might look like in the changing circumstances of life. To be sure, philological and historical insights into the nature and meaning of the text should enter into these ever-renewed attempts, so that one does not say silly things willy-nilly; and one can always learn from the giants among earlier generations of commentators. So one does not start afresh each time, but in principle one has an accumulated wisdom to draw on. (19-20)
Moberly’s approach influences his selection of texts. A book of this size must be selective. He engages the expected texts in Genesis such as Gen 1, Gen 3, and Gen 12:3, but he moves into the exegesis of the texts through the interpretations of contemporary writers, many of whom are not biblical scholars. Often he begins with a controversial question or author such as Richard Dawkins who is both a scientist and public spokesperson for a resurgent and “evangelistic” atheism. This allows Moberly to read Genesis in light of questions generated often from a “hermeneutic of suspicion” and presses him to engage the text with issues confronting life in the 21st century. The resulting interpretations of Genesis are rich, thought provoking, and free of both simplistic Christian apologetics and academic reflection detached from engagement with the contemporary world. Chapters Two – Six focus on passages in Genesis 1-11; Chapters Seven – Twelve on Genesis 12-50.
In Chapter Two “On Reading Genesis 1—11”, Moberly confronts the historical-critical and literary challenges to interpreting these famously difficult passages. He finds wanting both historical-critical and pre-Modern methods of dealing with the tensions and questions raised by these texts. The purpose of this chapter is to further argue and describe the canonical method that he will apply throughout the book. Given the diversity of the material, Moberly stresses the vital necessity of reading Genesis in its final form with the assumption by the reader of its coherence.
In Chapter Three “Genesis 1: Picturing the World”, Moberly reads the Creation account of Genesis 1 against the challenges posed by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins argues that the world as it exists calls into question the alleged goodness of the God described in Genesis 1. For Dawkins, the world is amoral. There is no evidence of the hand of a good and moral God. Moberly engages Genesis 1 and argues that the issue at stake is “how one pictures the world” (42). Genesis 1 is clearly a powerful voice for the goodness of Creation. Moberly also affirms the weightiness of Dawkins critique that emphasizes the opposite of Genesis 1: evil, suffering, and the apparent randomness of creation. How does Moberly proceed? He appeals to other accounts of creation including those that affirm the conflict of God with evil, e.g., Pss 44 and 89. Moberly also engages Jon Levinson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil. The end of this is not an exegetical attempt to sidestep Dawkins, but a reaffirmation of the good picture of Genesis 1 within a canonical portrait that is able to hold in tension the goodness of creation with the presence and conflict of evil.
In chapters Four “Genesis 2-3: Adam and Eve and “the Fall,” Five “Genesis 4: Cain and Abel,” and Six “Genesis 6-9: Cataclysm and Grace,” Moberly offers perceptive readings of these theologically vital but classically difficult texts. In each chapter, Moberly begins with a modern reading: James Barr’s The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) on Genesis 2-3, Regina M. Schwartz’s The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1997), and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006) on Genesis 6-9. In response to the issues raised by these authors and in conversation with the broader interpretive tradition, Moberly demonstrates how a canonical approach offers a in his view a better reading than those offered by his dialogue partners. These chapters are a model of exegetical precision, engagement with historical-critical concerns, and the importance of one’s reading strategy.
Chapter Seven “On Reading Genesis 12-50” serves to introduce the interpretive issues present in the Patriarchal narrative. Moberly rehearses material that he covered well in his earlier work The Old Testament of the Old Testament (OBT; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).
Chapters Eight “Genesis 12:1-3: A Key to Interpreting the Old Testament?”
and Nine “Genesis 12:3a: A Biblical Basis for Christian Zionism?” focus on the initial call and promises to Abraham. Moberly challenges a broad consensus that reads Gen 12:1-3 as a call for Abraham and his descendants to serve as agents of blessing for the nations. In his exegesis of 12:3a he disputes the Christian Zionist reading that argues for a foreign policy of unconditional support for the nation of Israel as the basis for a nation being blessed by God. In both chapters, Moberly models the tensions and hermeneutic finesse required by one who reads a text both in its literary and broader canonical context.
Chapter Ten “Genesis 22: Abraham – Model or Monster” presents perhaps the greatest exegetical challenge to Moberly. This text has challenged interpreters from the beginning. How could a good God test Abraham in this manner? How can Abraham’s willingness to offer his own son in sacrifice serve in any way as a model for future generations of believers? Moberly recognizes the long standing theological problem inherent in Genesis 22. Yet he ups the ante by offering commentary from contemporary persons who are horrified by the implications of Abraham’s obedience. Moberly argues that the problems arise principally with readers who do not take seriously its ancient cultural and literary context or how a religious community’s rule of faith helps to shape the understanding and appropriation of this passage. For Christians this text remains problematic, but it has always been read in light of the passion of Jesus. This is a blatant theological move, but Moberly demonstrates its warrant in light of the canon. Such a move does not remove all of the issues, but as Moberly reminds us about both Gen 22 and the passion of Jesus: “Nonetheless, Christians believe that, rightly understood and appropriated, these texts point to an entry into anguished darkness that can be a way into light and life” (199).
Chapter Eleven “Abraham and the ‘Abrahamic Faiths’” explores the interfaith dialogue between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam under the rubric of “Abrahamic faiths.” Moberly is critical of the approach for its shallow engagement with the text of Genesis but recognizes its popular appeal and attempts to suggest ways in which an exegesis of the Abrahamic tradition may move the conversation forward.
Chapter Twelve “Genesis 37-50: Is Joseph Wise?” closes the work. In the final chapter, Moberly uses Von Rad’s “The Joseph Narrative and Ancient” as a heuristic tool for reading the Joseph story as embodying a didactic function of teaching wisdom to the faithful. He does not try to resurrect Von Rad’s historical-critical hypotheses, but rather uses Von Rad’s insights as a reading strategy. Thus, Moberly ends the book with a creative reuse of traditional criticism for the purposes of his post-modern hermeneutic.
Moberly also includes a helpful annotated bibliography of commentaries, histories of interpretation, and theologies covering material in Genesis.
This is one of the finest works of biblical theology that I have read in some time. Moberly is a committed Biblicist who is fully aware of the present contested place of the Bible in the Western world. He courageously reads the text in the presence of some of the most trenchant critics. He brings all of his exegetical skills to bear on each text. Readers will not always agree with Moberly’s conclusions. I for one remain convinced that Genesis 12:3 describes the election of Israel for God’s missional aims of redeeming the nations. But no one can read The Theology of the Book of Genesis without being drawn into deep thinking about hermeneutics, the theological meaning of the Bible, and its ongoing conversation with humanity. Moberly demonstrates the power of a canonical hermeneutic rooted in a close and careful reading of the biblical text. He also shows the ongoing relevance of the enterprise when it begins with the questions and criticisms of contemporary writers and thinkers. This is Moberly at his best: independent thinking, clear exegesis, and theologically sophistication.
The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Old Testament Theology) is suitable for college or seminary courses covering the book of Genesis, Pentateuch, or Old Testament theology. Students will learn from a wise exegete about the theological possibilities that arise from a close reading of the biblical text with eyes and ears attuned to the conversations and challenges of the world. Moreover, Moberly is an excellent writer and the text is accessible to any reader interested in a sophisticated conversation between a Christian, biblical scholar, the text of Genesis, and life in the 21st century.
Brian D. Russell
Professor of Biblical Studies
Asbury Theological Seminary – Florida – Dunnam Campus
This is a longer version of the review. I found Moberly’s book to be an outstanding contribution to biblical interpretation and our understanding of Genesis.