Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Moberly, R. W. L., The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Pp. xv+245. Paperback, £15.99 (US$24.99). ISBN 978-0-521-68538-2. Hardback £44.00 (US $ 82.00). ISBN 978-0-521-86631-6.

Walter Moberly's The Theology of the Book of Genesis is the second offering in a new series entitled Old Testament Theology, which aspires to inhabit the space between short theological summaries and full, detailed-filled commentaries to provide a venue for robust theological reflection on individual Old Testament books. Moberly's contribution is an engaging and theologically rich distillation of a long and patient meditation on Genesis. While he draws from many of his previous studies on Genesis, the work is also full of new insights. I will review the work first and, at the end, offer a few evaluative comments.

In the first chapter, Moberly notes the contested nature of what constitutes theology and asks, “What is a theology of Genesis?” After exploring historical criticism and ideological criticism, he proposes a theology of Genesis that is “faithful” to the text of Genesis (in its received form) but, read in light of its canonical contexts, plural. For Moberly this means two things: first, reading Genesis in the “context of the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity” (12); and second, listening attentively to the various ways the traditions—primarily Jewish and Christian—recontextualize and appropriate Genesis to speak to changing contemporary circumstances. Within this approach, the interpreter's context takes on greater significance, since, for Moberly, one's entrance into the theological issues need not arise from a systematic reading of Genesis, but from issues in the current climate. Three contexts, then, concern Moberly: text, reception, and contemporary context; the latter two usually serve as the point of departure (20). As the rest of the book reveals, this does not mean that reception or contemporary context run roughshod over the text (chapters 9 and 11 exemplify this well); rather, together they function dialogically within a theological approach to Genesis. Thus Moberly states:

The theological interpretation of scripture—its reading with a view to articulating and practicing its enduring significance for human life under God—involves a constant holding together of parts and a whole which is regularly reconfigured. 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).

After outlining his approach in chapter one, he moves on to explore Genesis 1–11 in chapters two through six. Before addressing the theology of this section, Moberly considers its genre in order to avoid misunderstanding the nature of the literature and, in turn, its theological significance (21). Moberly takes his cue for this from the history of interpretation and its struggle to understand, for instance, “Whence Cain's wife?” (23). This particular difficulty is only one of many that Moberly highlights. He then asks, “How is this mismatch between the story's own assumptions and its present context best explained?” (25). He concludes that this story, with its assumption of a populated earth, has a literary history since it was probably moved from its original context to come directly after Genesis 1–3 (28). It does not follow from this that one should “not take the narrative sequence from Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel with imaginative seriousness as part of a developing story line” (28). Moberly discusses similar difficulties with Noah's flood and the use of Hebrew in the early chapters of Genesis. The lack of historical realism and the signs of textual relocation, have led some—like Richard Dawkins—to conclude that that Bible is strange and merely a human construct since it fully partakes of ancient literary conventions (37). However, for Moberly, the issue is not to “narrow the range of ‘acceptable’ human mediations of the divine—as though individual authors composing narratives of historical factuality should be acceptable in a way that editors and scribes reworking the traditional material preserved by a community is unacceptable” (39). The real challenge, according to Moberly, is to discern how divine revelation and human construction “belong together” (40, italics his).

Chapter three explores various frames for contextualizing the portrait of Genesis 1. First, he offers a preliminary reading Genesis 1 “in itself,” though he admits this notion is not as straightforward as it may appear (43). On this reading God is the archetypal craftsman who actively brings the world into existence; the depiction in Genesis 1 is drawn from the world familiar to the author as illustrated by the presentation of the waters and the barrier that holds them back; although not in the form of poetry, Genesis' first chapter evokes worship of God and highlights the “dignity and responsibility of humans” (48). From here, Moberly moves on to explore Genesis 1 in relation to ancient Near Eastern parallels, Jon Levenson's reading in Creation and the Persistence of Evil (which Moberly uses as a vehicle to explore other canonical portrayals of creation in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic Judaism), and evolutionary biology. Moberly concludes that these alternative pictures of the world ought not be banished to allow Genesis 1 to dominate, but rather held in tension with scenes that “highlight evil, suffering and randomness within the world” (68–69). Yet, without reducing the situation's complexity, for Moberly, Genesis 1 remains “more fundamental than any negative understanding” of the world (69).

Chapter four interacts with James Barr's reading of Adam and Eve and “the fall” in The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, before offering a “reformulated” reading in support of the “traditional” interpretation (75). Against Barr, who does not read Genesis 2–3 as depicting the fall of humanity, but rather addressing the issue of immortality, Moberly carefully sketches a reading focused on God's trustworthiness so that all this fuss about a mere apple truly does address the deep issues of faithfulness to God. “Such a reading of Genesis 2–3 is fully congruent with my contention,” Moberly writes, “that the issue at stake in God's prohibition and the humans' transgression need not be morally obvious to be genuinely serious” (86).

Chapter five on Cain and Abel begins by exploring Regina M. Schwartz's book The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, which addresses current anxieties that belief in one God entails exclusion and favoritism that lead inevitably to violence. Moberly's theological reading, taking its cue from the history of interpretation, brings to the fore God's decision to favor Abel's sacrifice over Cain's. Why? Moberly refrains from rationalizing God's acceptance of Abel's offering and suggests that God's favoritism occurs irrespective of what Cain deserves. Not only does this reflect existential issues in every age—life is not fair—but more importantly it brings one directly into the story's dilemma. After some nuanced discussion of the Hebrew of Gen 4:7, Moberly suggestions that God's admonition to Cain is not that he has done something wrong, but that Cain's disappointment in God's choice need not lead him to sin (97). Of course, Cain does not accept the inequity of God and murders his brother. For Moberly, then, the story's thrust asks one to do “well in demanding circumstances” no matter how inequitable, unfavorable, or mysterious they may be (98). In this regard, Moberly suggest that Schwartz is “a direct descendent of Cain” since for “her, apparently, inequity is indeed iniquity” (99).

Chapter six explores the flood in Genesis 6–9. Before presenting his own reading, Moberly sets out a few preliminary issues. First, a story about God “wiping out the whole of life on earth,” except for Noah's family and the animals on the ark “seems intrinsically unpromising,” (107) given postmodern concerns as illustrated by Dawkins' construal of the tale as morally appalling (102). Second, Moberly considers the story's relationship to other flood stories, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, and examines the view, held by most modern scholars, that the story consists of two originally separate accounts (J and P). Some of the differences are not as problematic as they are frequently made to appear, yet without glossing over the differences between the two accounts, Moberly proposes to read the flood story as “one story” (104). His exposition focuses on what he calls the “evil-thought clause” of Gen 6:5 and 8:21. Since God judges the earth because humanity's heart was only evil continually (Gen 6:5), then why, after the flood, does he decide to never send another, since “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth”? (Gen 8:21). “The puzzle is why one and the same thing should, apparently, be the reason for … both judgment and grace” (111). Moberly argues that the second “evil-thought clause” is a redactional addition by a scribe who approaches the flood story from the perspective of the continual corruption of humanity in his own day (112–17). As a result, the story functions for the scribe to illustrate God's continual forbearance after the flood: “The scribe's work is thus indicative of the use of traditional narrative for articulating a contemporary existential reality” (117). In its received form, then, the moral of the story is that “Humanity remains undeserving of the gift of life in a regular world order, but the gift will be given nonetheless” (118). Moberly then connects this story to the narrative sequence of Exodus 32–34 through several narrative analogies, not least a similar clause to the “evil-thought clause,” namely “a stiff-necked people.” According to Moberly this connection reveals a “deep theological vision.” He writes: “God deals with the world in general in the same way as with Israel in particular” (120).

Chapters seven through twelve cover issues in Genesis 12–50. Moberly avoids drawing a sharp distinction between these chapters and Genesis 1–11 since they share many “continuities of content and convention” but maintains that a distinction is still “heuristically useful” (121). In chapter seven Moberly discusses the problem of the Patriarchs in Jewish observance of torah and from a compositional and religio-historical perspective as a lead in to an explanation of how a canonical approach may offer a third way of addressing this problem. From a Jewish perspective, how can Genesis 12–50 continue to function as scripture even though “God's self-revelation to Moses and Israel at Sinai/Horeb” is “normative, indeed definitive”? (121) In the Jewish tradition there is a continual wrestling with the issue of the “pre-torah context of Genesis” (123). Most Jews assimilated the Patriarchs into a torah context, but for Christian interpreters such as Paul in Romans, the current runs the other direction. He “relativizes the significance of torah” since Abraham was counted righteous without torah observance (125). Moberly notes that this classic problem has not occupied modern scholarship. Instead, the same basic issue has been transformed from one of religious observance to one of compositional history. Moberly's own canonical approach takes the compositional history of the text seriously, but also hopes to “re-appropriate” the classic Jewish problem of Genesis 12–50, arguing that the Old Testament as a whole poses the same question for Christianity that the Genesis 12–50 does for many Jewish interpreters: “How does one relate continuity and identity to the real and major differences?” (131). The editorial shaping of the Patriarchal material did not erase the differences, but instead rendered Abraham as a type of Israel (Gen 12:10–20) that illustrates for Israel what obedience to their God looks like (Gen 22). Moberly contends that the Abraham material was re-contextualized in order to function authoritatively for Israel (139).

Chapter eight explores the significance of Gen 12:1–3. First, Moberly entertains the views of Gerhard von Rad and Christopher Wright, who argue that Gen 12:1–3 indicates that Abraham is chosen from among the nations in order to be a blessing to the nations. Then, Moberly proposes an alternative reading in which he argues, “the nations constitute the backdrop in spite of whom Abraham will become a great nation, rather than for the sake of whom Abraham will become a great nation” (149, italics his). In other words, Abraham's call is to assure him that other nations will bless themselves by Abraham due to his greatness (155). This conclusion is based primarily on philological evidence and the idiomatic meaning of blessing and cursing (148–55).

Chapter nine considers whether or not Gen 12:3a is a “biblical basis for Christian Zionism” (162). Moberly presents the views of Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, and Charles Colson, who all, even if in slightly different ways, think that Gen 12:3a does in fact support Christian Zionism (162–66). Noting the complexity of the issues, Moberly considers several factors. First, within the contextual framework of the Pentateuch this reading seems to have support in the plain sense of the text, yet Moberly does not think this settles the matter since “responsible” Jewish or Christian use relates to a wider frame of reference that takes into account the canonical context (169). Second, in the New Testament, as in the Old, everlasting covenants can be set aside. The covenant of circumcision with Abraham is everlasting, yet Paul makes it clear that circumcision is no longer necessary (173). Third, who are the children of Abraham? According to Paul, those who are in Christ are his children. Christian appeals to Gen 12:3a need to take “seriously the New Testament input on the question of who should be considered a descendant of Abraham” (176). To identify one's position as hopeful of receiving a blessing from the “Jewish people” rather than as standing with Abraham—as the New Testament appears to locate Christians—is problematic for Moberly (176). Fourth, the self-interest of blessing the Jews in order to receive a blessing because, in the words of Hagee, “I want to be blessed,” does not sit easily, for instance, with the New Testament's call to deny oneself and take up one's cross (177). Moberly concludes: “although Christian theology must indeed seek to hear the voices of the Old Testament in their own right, any authentically Christian appropriation of those voices must think and act in light of Christ, supremely his death and resurrection” (178).

Chapter ten considers whether or not Abraham in Genesis 22 is a “model or monster?” (179). In view of the modern tendency to read the story negatively, Moberly observes that it is contextualized by the canonical context as the climax of Abraham's relationship with God and that it is called a test in the narrative, which implies a positive purpose for Abraham. Also, due to the pronouncement that he fears God, his actions are cast in a positive light. And finally, the location of the mount is strongly associated with Jerusalem's temple (184–89). With these observations in view, which deeply embed the story in the “very heart of the Old Testament's theological frame of reference,” Moberly offers some additional factors for understanding Genesis 22 (189). Even though instrumentalizing Isaac is “unacceptable today,” this should not lead to a wholesale rejection of the texts, since these notions are tied to “larger social and cultural frames of reference” (194). Readers that do not share the assumptions of monarchy can still intelligently engage and learn from Shakespeare's Macbeth or King Lear. Theological interpretation that engages seriously with the canonical context, as Moberly has defined it, cannot simply adopt or reject the text, but rather is constrained and guided by the canonical context as it weighs the enduring significance of the text (195). With this context in view the modern anxiety that Genesis 22 endorses child abuse or worse seems rather odd since the Jewish and Christian traditions have never read the text in this fashion but rather “analogically and metaphorically” as a text dealing with life's most trying times and illustrating a faith that is willing to relinquish to God what is most cherished (195, italics his).

Chapter eleven addresses the appeal of Abraham as a figure to promote interfaith dialogue. Moberly sympathetically exposits Karl-Josef Kuschel's work, Abraham: A Symbol of Hope for Jews, Christians and Muslims, which argues that if “faith, lack of aggression and universal concerns,” rooted in Abraham, are given their proper role, there is hope of peace between Jews, Christians and Muslims (201–207). After a preliminary critique of Kuschel's position, Moberly examines, at some length, the critique of Jon Levenson in the essay entitled “The Conversion of Abraham to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” (in The Idea of Biblical Interpretation: Essays in Honor of James L. Kugel). Levenson's position can be summarized in his own words: “The quest for the neutral Abraham has failed. The patriarch is too embedded in the Torah, the New Testament, and the Qur'an (and in the normative documents of the traditions they undergird) to be extracted and set in judgment upon the traditions that claim him” (214). In agreement with Levenson's position, Moberly considers it “hardly meaningful to appeal to the Abrahamic [material in Genesis] apart from its subsequent transformation and appropriation” (220). Moberly acknowledges that the chapter has been mostly negative, but notes the significance of conclusions that prevent people from “entering dead-end alleys” (220). Among other positive suggestions for how to approach this issue theologically, Moberly puts forward the hospitality of Abraham to the three men in Genesis 19. This may help one remember that the issue of interfaith dialogue is not “solely intellectual but include personal relationship and generosity” (224).

Chapter twelve, the last of the volume, evaluates if Joseph should be considered wise. Moberly builds on—yet re-envisions—von Rad's thesis that the form and content of the Joseph narrative arises from the development of wisdom during a “Solomonic Enlightenment.” Moberly carefully notes the critiques of von Rad's historical scheme for connecting the Joseph story with wisdom since there is no evidence that such a “Solomonic Enlightenment” ever took place, yet he still suggests that there is some “real heuristic value” in linking Joseph and Proverbs (231). Moberly justifies his position by noting that Genesis 39 is “readily open to intertextual reading” which nicely complements the reversal of the role of temptress from Proverbs 1–9. Genesis 39 also bears a “similar conceptuality” to the words of Woman Wisdom in Prov 8:35 and shares a concern with character development over precise doctrinaire prescription (though he finds both necessary) (233–37). A substantial objection to Joseph as a “model of wisdom” is his treatment of his brothers when they come down to Egypt to buy food (237). After entertaining the view that Joseph may be manipulating his brothers in order to torment them and gain some measure of revenge for their actions against him, Moberly thinks there is still value in von Rad and Claus Westermann's reading, which envisions Joseph's actions as reduplicating the situation in which they took advantage of him in order to divine what is in their hearts. That is, through this little deceptive drama Joseph seeks to reveal and prick the consciences of his brothers and thus provide proof that his brothers have really changed. For Moberly this reading supports the idea that Joseph acted wisely towards his brothers (240). Regardless of von Rad's historical linkage of Joseph with the “Solomonic Enlightenment,” for Moberly, it is still “reasonable to see the text as didactic in purpose in its portrayal of Joseph as an embodiment of the acquisition and display of wisdom” (244).

To conclude this review I will make a few evaluative comments about the work. First, one is left with a fragmented picture of Genesis. There is no sustained discussion of anything in Genesis 13–21, nor is Isaac or Jacob given a chapter, and even though Joseph does receive treatment, devoting one chapter to the last fourteen chapters, compared to five chapters to the first eleven chapters of Genesis (regardless of how significant that subject matter may be) leaves substantial gaps in the volume. Moberly, is, of course, aware of this problem (xxii), and I do not offer this observation as criticism—there are more than enough commentaries and books on Genesis that attempt to cover all the material—as much as an indication of the kind of book that Moberly has written. The book does not trace the major themes of Genesis or systematically examine each major section of the book. What it does very well is bore down deeply into selected texts in Genesis in dialogue with contemporary issues and the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation and appropriation. Issues are not dealt with in passing but developed with cogency and skill as Moberly deftly navigates the gaps between ancient text, tradition, and the contemporary context. The results are often penetrating and profound both in terms of the text of Genesis and its abiding theological significance today among Christians and Jews. While this review has devoted significant attention to the summary of Moberly's arguments in some detail, inevitably I have made straight what had contained not a few carefully calculated turns and lost much of the complexity and nuance of his work. It is not a work that is easily summarized and thus ought to be read in full both for its fine scholarship and careful insights into common existential issues. Of course, one may find his readings unconvincing—I doubt there is much gained heuristically or otherwise in directly linking the Joseph narrative with Proverbs—but one's objections will very likely be refined and sharpened by Moberly's insightful discussion.

Second, although Moberly had limited space and hoped that his studies would be “representative of Genesis and its theology as whole” (xxii)—a hope I think he achieved—within his own canonical approach, one potentially fruitful endeavour is left undeveloped: what to do with or how to read the book of Genesis as a whole in its received form? How does Genesis 1–11 related to the patriarchal material; how does Genesis 1–36 relate to the Joseph story and visa versa? Taking into account, as Moberly does, the various sources, forms, and content of Genesis, how would one approach the relationship of the parts to the whole with “imaginative seriousness”? Is it possible or even desirable to read Genesis as “one story”? This would not require anything like an exhaustive account, but like Moberly's other essays, it could be illustrated by one example that is representative of the larger task. Of course, asking an author to do something that they have not done is not entirely fair, but nevertheless it seems, at least to me, intrinsic to the task of those who adopt a canonical approach and a focus on the received form to render some account of the this form of Genesis as a whole. More concern with this contextual parameter may have contributed to several of the essays in the volume. For instance, it may be worth considering in chapter eight on the nature of the blessing of Abraham that Laban states that he has been blessed due to Jacob (Gen 30:27) or that Joseph is a source of blessing in Potiphar's house (Gen 39:5), which in the larger narrative appears to be analogous to Joseph's role as ruler over all Egypt. Could these texts, which envision the descendants of Abraham as a source of blessing, be interpretations of Abraham's blessing, much like the Septuagint's rendering of Gen 12:3? This small issue aside, Moberly's book is full of treasures both new and old.

Tim Stone Greenport, NY