R.W.L. Moberly, The Old Testament of the Old Testament: Patriarchal Narratives and Mosaic Yahwism, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), xvi + 224 pps [repr. by Wipf & Stock, 2001, 240 pps.]. My pagination will refer to the original Fortress Press edition.

Readers of this blog will not need to be told of my bias for this book. Moberly is going to be my doctoral advisor at Durham, so obviously I think very highly of him and his scholarship. But don’t let my bias dissuade you, this really is a wonderful book.

Moberly’s stated purpose in this book is to explore the question of what it means to do biblical theology. The chosen topic for this exercise is the importance of the giving of the divine name in Ex. 3 and 6 and the relationship to the patriarchal narratives that went before, and the Mosaic Yahwism that followed. He begins in ch. 1, by establishing two things: 1) that in the texts of Ex. 3 and 6 “God was revealed to Moses, on behalf of Israel, as having the name YHWH,” 2) Moses and Israel did not previously know that name and 3) the one revealed as YHWH is the same God as the God of their ancestors (p. 35). This chapter is quite exegetical and a brief review cannot do it justice. Let us just say that Moberly is a very careful reader of Scripture and his exegesis is always worth reading.

Moberly follows the conclusion of the first chapter by asking the logical question: if God is revealed in a new way as YHWH in Exodus why is the name YHWH used in Genesis as well? The answer is, “The use of the name YHWH in Genesis conveys the perspective of the storytellers who tell the originally non-Yahwistic patriarchal stories from within the context of Mosaic Yahwism” (p. 36). After stating this thesis up front he goes on to describe and critique other options for solving this problem starting with the traditional documentary hypothesis (pp. 39-52), and then the conservative approach which seeks to re-understand what the revelation of the divine name really meant (pp. 52-67). In the end he puts forward his own proposal as one where “in the primeval history the Yahwistic writers operated as ancient storytellers with little interest in maintaining historical perspectives in any modern sense” (p. 69). The use of the divine name in Genesis helps to develop continuity between the religion of the patriarchs and the Mosaic Yahwism that followed from the exodus. It is probably not historically accurate to say that Abraham called upon the name of the Lord but it is theologically accurate.

In chapter 3, Moberly, develops his thesis from the previous chapter and establishes the fact that “the writers of the Pentateuch shared a common tradition that the patriarchs lived in a context prior to and distinct from Mosaic Yahwism” (p. 103). He concludes this based on an examination of the patriarchal religion as more comfortable with their canaanite neighbors, as opposed Mosaic Yahwism which saw them as antagonistic, in the differing cultic practices of the patriarchal religion, including the apparent importance of trees, and in comparison of the apparent lack of moral interest in the patriarchal narratives to the all consuming importance of ‘holiness’ in Mosaic Yahwism.

In his 4th chapter, which doubles as the title of the book, Moberly develops the crux of his thesis, namely that there are such parallels in the concept of a new dispensation between Genesis and Mosaic Yahwism with the Old Testament and the New Testament that it is appropriate to borrow from Christian terminology and think of Genesis 12-50 as “the Old Testament of the Old Testament” (p. 146). This is, I think, the most original contribution of Moberly’s study. He develops this argument by first reviewing the relationship between Gen. 12-50 and the rest of the OT in the works of some of the heavy hitters of the last century, including Wellhausen, Alt, Cross, Gottwald, and von Rad (pp. 107-25). He then unpacks his own thesis comparing the relationship between Gen. 12-50 and the rest of the OT with the relationship between the OT and NT in terms of similarity in continuity and discontinuity (see, pp. 126-28), the concepts of differing dispensations (see pp. 128-29), the idea that one dispensation claims to fulfill, in some way, the previous (pp.140-42), and the traditional understanding of typological relationships (pp. 142-46). This way of describing the relationship between Gen. 12-50 and the rest of the OT is conceptually extremely helpful.

Ever one not to do exegesis for exegesis sake, but to explore the heuristic implications for the church, Moberly unpacks how his thesis is helpful to describe the relationship between the OT and NT and how it helpfully fits within a Jewish-Christian dialogue. Because of his understanding of the OT of the OT, he defends the language of Old Testament as opposed to Hebrew Bible, because, when properly understood, the language of OT, is not pejorative but merely recognizing a proper Christian understanding of the OT much the same way that a Jewish understanding of Gen. 12-50 would regard that text as continuous yet discontinuous with their own faith.

Finally, Moberly discusses how his thesis would impact the typical understanding of Pentateuchal criticism. His contention is that all the Pentateuchal writers worked under the assumption that there was a different dispensation of divine revelation starting in Exodus and so the traditional redactional understanding of the Pentateuch based on the term YHWH is mistaken. Furthermore, based on his understanding of the discontinuity between Gen. 12-50 and the rest of the OT, it becomes increasingly unlikely that such a religious world would have been invented. Thus, there appears to be at least some credibility to the historical reliability of the patriarchal narratives. 

Moberly’s book is an example of an inventive paradigm for reading the Pentateuch that is based on careful readings of the text. Moberly’s work is always worth reading merely for his exegesis and this work is no exception. However, I am increasingly convinced by his arguments and find his conception of the composition of the Pentateuch very helpful. Furthermore, his thesis causes one to helpfully ponder both the relationship between Gen. 12-50 and the rest of the OT and the relationship between the OT and NT. In his thesis, just as Gen. 12-50 is foundational for the rest of the OT, so the OT is foundational for the NT. This is, in my thinking, a very helpful way to view the Christian Bible.