Volume 18 - Issue 2

P for Pentateuch, patriarchs and pagans

By Christopher J.H. Wright

Just when we had started getting used to seeing CE and BCE (standing for Common Era and Before Common Era) in place of AD and BC respectively, as more neutral terms that can be used by Jewish and Christian scholars without the hidden affirmations about Jesus that the traditional letters make, along comes Walter Moberly proposing that we really need a further subdivision of biblical time itself. He does not actually tell us, in his recent book, The Old Testament of the Old Testament: Patriarchal Narratives and Mosaic Yahwism(Fortress 1992), what letters we might use to designate his two epochs within the Old Testament, but I hereby suggest for his consideration, BS and AS: Before Sinai and After Sinai (having rejected BM and AM, Before and After Moses, as too likely to get confused with times of the day!). For Sinai is indeed the turning point in Moberly’s scheme, to which he does not hesitate to apply the terminology of ‘dispensations’.

Moberly starts out from the old rugged crux of Exodus 6:3, which declares that the God Yahweh, at that point revealing himself to Moses, was indeed the same God who had made himself known to the patriarchs (or ancestors of Israel, as inclusive vocabulary prefers). But he had not made himself known by that name. To them he had been known as El Shaddai. Traditional critical source analysis assigned this passage to P, since, according to the documentary hypothesis, E and P knew that the name Yahweh had only been revealed at Sinai and in connection with the exodus, whereas the Yahwist (J) believed it had been known from the earliest period, and therefore used it freely in his narratives in Genesis. Moberly subjects this view to searching criticism, in the process treating us to some superb exegesis of Exodus 3 and 6, and concludes that the standard source critical theory at this point is highly improbable, in literary, historical and theological terms. In his view, the text means what it says—Yahweh had not been known to the patriarchs by that name, and all the authors of whatever sources are discernible in the text of Genesis were fully aware of the fact. Nevertheless, they chose to use the name in their narratives because, from their point of view within the fully matured, post-Mosaic Yahwistic faith, it was important to affirm that it was indeed Yahweh who had revealed himself to the patriarchs, who had made specific promises to them and to whom they responded in faith and varying degrees of obedience.1

This leads Moberly into an exploration of the contrasts and continuities between patriarchal religion (to the extent it is recoverable) and later ‘official’ Yahwism. What is remarkable is that the later Israelite tradition has preserved a picture of patriarchal religion which in so many respects (especially as regards the demands of holiness) differed substantially from Mosaic Yahwism, without disapproving glosses or wholesale revision to a more compatible shape. This, says Moberly, is attributable to the awareness on the part of the redactors of the radical newness of the exodus redemption and the revelation received through Moses. This latter event and revelation on the one hand stood in continuity with, and affirmed the validity of, the patriarchal faith and religion in its own era, and yet on the other hand relativized and moved beyond it in key areas. And this transition in the tradition can in turn be helpfully understood by analogy with the way in which, from a Christian point of view, the newness of the redemption and revelation in Jesus Christ both endorses and yet moves beyond what we now call the Old Testament. And so Moberly arrives at his point: the patriarchal era is an Old Testament within the Old Testament, standing in the same ‘dispensational’ relation to Mosaic Yahwism as Mosaic Yahwism in turn stood to Messianic Christianity.

This book is written with vintage Moberly elegance and clarity and makes a most worthy addition to the rich fare generally offered in the series Overtures to Biblical Theology. Along the way it exposes serious weaknesses in the older form of source analysis of the Pentateuch and suggests a new paradigm for pentateuchal study. It also offers many stimulating theological reflections on the text, and indeed stoutly defends the integrity and justifiability of a genuinely theological approach to the materials in question.

Moberley’s thesis, however, has implications for another area of current Christian reflection, namely the theology of religions. He does offer a chapter of reflections on the relevance of his argument to Christian-Jewish relations, but I would want to explore the matter further. As I read the book, I felt that Moberly was at last expressing with scholarly clarity what I have been feeling towards for some time, and one is always immensely grateful to authors who do that!

Among evangelicals who would affirm that human beings can be saved, in the fullest biblical sense, only by what God has done in and through Jesus Christ, there is still debate as to whether only those who hear about Jesus and put conscious faith in him will be saved, or whether God will save through Christ some (or many) who will not have heard of Jesus in their lifetime, but who in some way turn away from their sin and trust in God’s grace, however understood.2 Among the reasons given by those who take the latter view is the fact that the redeemed humanity of the new creation will undoubtedly include Old Testament believers who never heard about Jesus of Nazareth. And chief among these, of course, will be the patriarchs themselves, Abraham being the very prototype of those who are ‘justified by faith’. Moberly’s book suggests two further reflections on this observation.

First of all, it reinforces a point I hinted at in an article on the Christian approach to other religions in this journal years ago3 (you heard it first in Themelios, folks!). The fact that Abraham became a follower of the true God, through faith and obedience, while still knowing that God by the name or names familiar to him in his Mesopotamian context does not mean, either that everybody else who worshipped the Mesopotamian-Canaanite gods was likewise ‘saved’ or that all the divine names or religious practices known to Abraham were acceptable for all time. A syncretistic or pluralist view of religions is sometimes given superficial biblical sanction by pointing to the alleged syncretistic origins of Israel’s own faith. This ‘openness’ of the patriarchal era is then regarded as the model to be followed, in preference to a more sharp-edged loyalty to one creed, identified with the more exclusive post-Mosaic Yahwistic religion.4

However, once God’s action in revelation and redemption had moved on, through exodus and Sinai, the earlier period is, as Moberly rightly points out, relativised. Yahweh is affirmed as the God who had interacted with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but not everything they did was an option for those who had witnessed the later events and received the stipulations of the Sinai covenant. So, Joshua highlights the deliberate choice of serving Yahweh by contrasting it with the option (clearly negatived in the text) of worshipping the gods their fathers had worshipped either in Mesopotamia or in Egypt (Josh. 24:14f.). What was accepted BS was no longer legitimate AS. A fresh choice was required. This is similar in tone to Paul’s ‘lenient’ word for those who in former times had lived without the knowledge of God’s revelation of salvation and judgement in Christ (the ‘informationally BC’), which has now been replaced with the command to all to repent and believe in the risen Jesus, once he has been preached (Acts 17:30f.). The ‘dispensational’ progress of history and redemptive revelation does change things. Those who knew God as Yahweh in the light of the exodus and within the demands of the Sinai covenant, could no longer live as though things were unchanged from patriarchal days. Those who know God through Jesus Christ in the light of the cross and resurrection can no longer adopt a religious stance that allows other faiths a comparable salvific value.

Secondly, however, the book stirred a reflection that may seem to move in the opposite direction to the point just made, though I do not think it is incompatible. The sharpness of choice referred to above is clearly for those who know of Christ, or who knew Yahweh—those whom we might call the informationally AD, and the informationally AS. But what about those who are neither, those who did not know of Yahweh, or do not or will not know of Christ? For in the discussion over whether it is possible to be saved without knowing about Jesus, it can be pointed out that, if Wenham, Moberly and others are right in taking Exodus 6:3 in its natural meaning and interpreting Genesis in the light of it, then Abraham was saved not only without knowing about Jesus but also without knowing about Yahweh. Informationally, he was not only BC but also BS. Now of course, we know, along with the later Israelite authors, that it was indeed Yahweh who ‘credited Abraham with righteousness’, and we know, from our NT perspective, that God did so on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ. But we know these things with a double dispensational hindsight unavailable at the time to Abraham.

The point is sharper still when we remember that it was not only the ancestors of Israel, the recipients of distinctive covenant promises and relationship with God, who appear to receive God’s blessing in these narratives. The Old Testament provides quite a catalogue of non-Israelites who are declared righteous, saved or otherwise commended. The term ‘holy pagans’ has been used for such persons. ‘Pagan’ (not a word much in vogue these days, but I am not about to introduce a third vocabulary adjustment in one article) indicates that the persons concerned were not members of the covenant community of God’s people. Clark Pinnock, in using the term, lists among them, Jethro, Rahab, the widow of Zarephath, Naaman, Nebuchadnezzar (in Dan. 4).5Some would describe these as, in a sense, converts to Yahweh, who turned to acknowledge him in the light of specific experiences. But there were others in the period before God’s self-revelation as Yahweh through exodus and Sinai. Theo-perambulant Enoch, for example (Gen. 5:24, cf. Heb. 11:5). Or the enigmatic Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18–20). And the even more enigmatic trio of Noah, Job and Daniel, proverbially combined in Ezekiel 14:12–20. It is assumed by most commentators that all three were pre-patriarchal heroes, as Noah certainly was, and that this is a quite different Daniel from the exilic character of that name (the Hebrew spelling is slightly different). Ezekiel affirms that all were saved by their righteousness, but would not be able to save anybody else if they lived in a city that was otherwise under God’s judgment. His description of them echoes the narrative of Genesis 6, where Noah was saved because he found grace in the eyes of the Lord as one who walked uprightly, and the similar description of Job in Job 1.

So how much did these persons know of God? They did not know Jesus, nor did they know Yahweh, nor can we be sure they knew the God of the biblical patriarchs—at least not in the way he was known to them through specific revelation and promise. They were not merely BC, and BS but even before the patriarchs (BP, Walter?). But the Bible tells us they found grace, exercised faith, lived righteously and were saved. They were, in other words, exactly as Hebrews 11:5–6 describes some of them—‘commended as persons who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.’ So do such persons exist today? Persons who never hear of Jesus Christ but who in some sense ‘come to God’ through faith and earnest seeking, as Hebrews describes? A case could be argued biblically, it seems to me, for the view that the criterion of salvation is not how much you know about God, but how you respond to what you do know. And equally, on the same grounds, that ultimately only God holds the key to that criterion—i.e. only God fully knows whom God will have saved. It is not a judgement we are called to make in advance, let alone to categorize and quantify it.

Some Christians adopt this viewpoint very tentatively, not wanting on the one hand to limit the grace and boundless generosity of God but fearing on the other hand any detraction from the saving necessity of Christ and his cross for all human salvation. In the present pluralistic climate their caution is understandably circumspect. Others, however, such as Clark Pinnock, wish to affirm it positively. That is, not merely is it a possibility (almost grudgingly conceded), that there may be some who will be saved by God’s grace through Christ’s atoning death who will never have heard of Jesus Christ in their lifetime, but rather that very many indeed will be so saved in the end. According to Pinnock, the idea that only a very few of the whole human race in history will be saved rests on dubious exegetical foundations and, when exalted into a ‘control belief’ (i.e. a dominant hermeneutical assumption which we bring to all texts on the subject) results in a serious distortion of the scriptural revelation about God’s salvific purpose. Furthermore, in his view, this ‘fewness’ belief has in part been responsible for the rise and attractiveness of pluralism which draws at least some of its power from the alleged moral and emotional intolerability of a God who condemns the majority of humanity to destruction for not trusting in a Saviour they never heard of. But such ‘restrictivism’ of the number of the finally saved ought not to be identified with ‘exclusivism’, i.e. the theological insistence that the finality of God’s revelation and redemption is exclusively in Christ. And Pinnock is most certainly exclusivist in this latter sense. He is as determined to maintain the uniqueness of Christ for revelation and salvation as he is to advocate an optimism regarding the scope of God’s saving work in the world.

Certainly, the matter deserves deep reflection—deeper than many evangelicals have currently given it. Both Moberly and Pinnock, in very different ways, point us to unexplored subtleties in the texture of the biblical tapestry—stories, texts, affirmations, that we may have either ignored or tended to subordinate under other control beliefs.

In conclusion, and in order to forestall misunderstanding of the question being raised here, it should be understood what is not being implied by the above discussion. It is not being said that other religions in themselves are ways of salvation. The NT does not talk or salvation except in and through Christ. In any case, it is God who saves, not religions. It is not being said that God saves everybody, no matter what they may believe, so long as they are sincere in their faith. Universalism of this kind has been a longstanding deviation from biblical Christianity and has been answered thoroughly elsewhere. Finally, it is not being said that there is no need to evangelise. We know that the human race universally lives in the state of sin and under judgement, that God has provided the means of salvation in the cross and resurrection of Christ, and that we are commanded by Christ himself to make that known. We have no liberty to preach otherwise than that salvation is only through Christ and to call all whom we can to trust in him. Beyond that, let God be God.

1 He thus dissents from the line of interpretation favoured by many conservative scholars that Ex. 6:3 means simply that the meaning of the name Yahweh was then being revealed. The name itself was familiar previously, but not its meaning; cf. JA Motyer, The Revelation of the Divine Name (Tyndale, 1959). His exegesis supports the view adopted by GJ Wenham, ‘The Religion of the Patriarchs’, in AR Millard and DJ Wiseman (eds), Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives (Leicester, IVP, 1980), pp. 157–188.

2 For a well documented discussion of the various views on this matter, see Harold A Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (Eerdmans, Apollos, 1991), ch. 7. See also Peter Cotterell, Mission and Meaninglessness (SPCK, 1990), chs. 4–6.

3 ‘The Christian and other religions: the biblical evidence’, Themelios 9.2, Jan. 1984, pp. 4–15. This article is included as chapter 4 in my later book, What’s So Unique About Jesus? (Monarch, 1990).

4 The relevance and limitations of the patriarchal material to the issue of the plurality of religions is discussed further by John Goldingay and myself in ‘ “Yahweh our God Yahweh One”: The Old Testament and Religious Pluralism’, Andrew D Clarke and Bruce W Winter (eds.), One God, One Lord in a World of Religious Pluralism(Tyndale House, 1991), pp. 34–52.

5 Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (Zondervan, 1992). This book has stirred up considerable controversy. For many, Pinnock’s suggestion of a possible post-mortem encounter with Christ for those who never heard of him in their lifetime is the least acceptable part of his case. But in many ways it is a superfluous suggestion, which should not blind the reader to the important issues Pinnock takes up in the earlier chapters.

Christopher J.H. Wright

Principal, All Nations Christian College, Ware