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The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the divine in Christian scripture by R. W. L. Moberly

21 January 2022

Anthony Phillips reads a study of experience of the divine in the OT

THE author describes his work as “a book about God”. In six chapters, he isolates passages from Israel’s scriptures which speak about the nature of God as wise, mysterious, just, inscrutable, the only God, and trustworthy. His concern is to validate their reading as Christian scripture. He rightly recognises that “an understanding of God necessarily affects one’s understanding of what it means to be human in this world.”

His first text is Proverbs 8.22-31, which sees wisdom as God’s agent in creation. Drawing parallels with the Prologue of John’s Gospel, he describes wisdom and word “active within creation, no less now than then”, Nevertheless, “one can only acquire knowledge about God by engaging with God.”

In a lengthy discussion of Exodus 3, Moberly argues that the mystery that is God “can be known but is yet beyond knowledge”. He holds that the burning bush and the divine name “are mutually expressive of the mystery of active being that is intrinsic to the name and nature of Israel’s deity”.

Turing to the problematic Psalm 82, with its assembly of Gods, the author states that the psalm epitomises the Old Testament’s understanding of justice with its preference for the poor and concludes that, wherever there is justice on earth, “in some way God is present.” This echoes Kahlil Gibran’s belief that “kindness is the shadow of God in man.”

In an imaginative discussion of Genesis 4, Moberly considers God’s unfair treatment of Cain, which both the Septuagint and New Testament cover up. He accepts the basic truth that life is unfair, both in what we are given at birth and what occurs in life. It is how we deal with that unfairness which matters.

Moving on to 2 Kings 5, the author analyses Naaman’s life-changing confession that Israel’s God is the only God, and considers the problem of living out his confession once he returns home.

Finally, Moberly considers God’s trustworthiness, drawing on the tension between Psalm 46 and Jeremiah 7 as well as Micah 3. While the psalm witnesses to God’s enduring steadfastness towards Israel, both prophets indicate that such trust is never automatic, but is subject to his people’s conduct. God cannot be present where human activity conflicts with his character.

The work is punctuated with frequent passages in a smaller fount which involve detailed scholarly discussion and reflection and which do not have to be read to comprehend the main text, but form a valuable addition.

As Moberly points out, other scholars might have chosen different texts. While he does deal both with God as mystery and with the unfairness of life, I would have welcomed a discussion of a passage in which God appears as an active enemy in testing to the limit someone’s faith — the sacrifice of Isaac, certain psalms, and the book of Job (which hardly features in Moberly’s work) — a hostility echoed in the dying words of Jesus on the cross.

But this imaginative and sensitive treatment of his chosen texts, supported by his widespread reading, could not be bettered, and deserves the widest readership.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the divine in Christian scripture
R. W. L. Moberly
Baker Academic £23.99
Church Times Bookshop £21.59

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