Review of The Theology of the Book of Genesis by R. W. L. Moberly

I am not the first to review R. W. L. Moberly’s Theology of the Book of Genesis, the latest contribution to Cambridge University Press’ Old Testament Theology series. I find myself overwhelmingly in agreement with Ben’s assessment over at kilbabo, so I will attempt to avoid unnecessary repetition and explore a little further the uniqueness of this interesting yet frustrating book. Those who have not read Ben’s review are encouraged to read it in concert with my own.

Moberly, by his own admission, did not write a theology of the book of Genesis.

The discussion of the biblical text will necessarily be selective. . . . I am painfully aware of what is not included; for this I ask the reader’s indulgence (and forgiveness). What follows is a guide to, rather than a comprehensive coverage of, what theological understanding and appropriation of Genesis today may involve. (20)

Indeed, what Moberly demonstrates in this book is not simply what theological understanding and appropriation of Genesis today may involve, but what theological understanding and appropriation of any biblical text should involve. For this reason, the most valuable part of Moberly’s book is the introduction (though I hesitate to say that it is “worth the price of the book”). Moberly begins by briefly exploring the various ways in which the word “theology” has been understood historically, and asserts that one must “recover a more classic sense of theology, as an attempt to understand everything in the world in relation to God” (5), in order to truly arrive at a theology of Genesis.This is precisely what the book does.

Apart from his definition of “theology,” Moberly’s refusal to focus only on the text itself reflects his conviction that studying Genesis is not like studying other ancient texts. “Genesis is not a freestanding ancient text, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, but is part of the authoritative scriptures of synagogue and church, wherein there has been an unbroken history through the centuries of living with the text in a veriety of ways” (6). This admittedly confessional approach suggests that biblical theology cannot fail to account for the reader’s own context and how that context shapes the biblical text:

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. (19)

In a recent post, I include a quote from Mark Smith’s new book, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (review forthcoming), where I believes he does just this regarding the motif of God creating through violence. Moberly accomplishes this by focusing on specific texts and entering into dialogue with modern conversation partners regarding the issues raised by the text. For example, in his chapter “Genesis 1: Picturing the World,” Moberly engages in dialogue with Jon Levenson and the views he expresses in Creation and the Persistence of Evil, as well as Richard Dawkins and the views he expresses in River out of Eden: a Darwinian View of Life and The Blind Watchmaker: Why  the Evidence of Eveolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Those interested in the intersection of faith and science will find this chapter to be a very exciting reading. As you can imagine, these encounters make Moberly’s book very relevant, but unfortunately, it does not help in shaping an overall theology of the book of Genesis.

It is worth mentioning for those interested in Genesis 12:1-3 that Moberly has proposed a reading that would challenge a long term consensus view of this passage. In summary:

The supposition that those who invoke Abraham in blessing actually receive the blessing invoked is a non sequitur that goes well beyond the meaning of the Genesis text. The textual concern is to assure Abraham that he really will be a great nation, and the measure of that greatness is that he will be invoked on the lips of others as  a model of desirability. The condition of othe rnations in their own right is not in view, beyond their having reason not to be hostile to Abraham. (155)

Overall, the book is well written, and it will certainly engage those who are interested in how the texts of Genesis treated in the book speak beyond their ancient horizon to our modern context. Moberly models an approach to Genesis, and the whole bible for that matter, that is engaging, relevant, and ultimately theological. While the book has a lot to offer, knowing that it is selective in what it addresses will help those who are interested in a comprehensive treatment of the theological message of Genesis not to get their hopes up.


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