Genesis 12–50 (Old Testament Guides)

Written by R.W.L. Moberly Reviewed By Richard S. Hess

Moberly’s contribution to this series of short introductions to critical questions and scholarship is both engaging and creative. He articulates an initial position which accepts no single reading of the text as alone valid. However, his approach emphasizes the role of the patriarchal stories as ‘part of Israel’s authorized story of itself’. In surveying the content of these texts, Moberly examines the roles of the five main characters: God, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. In light of Exodus 6:3 and its context in Genesis, God’s special revelation as El Shaddai is tied closely with the promise of future descendants. Abraham’s faith interacts with God’s promises of land and of a son. Isaac’s shorter role and his character demonstrate a continuity with Abraham. Jacob’s life revolves around two encounters with God, one when fleeing home and the other when returning. In some ways he prefigures Moses’ life in the opening chapters of Exodus. Joseph provides an example of life in a foreign context. Together, these texts are best understood as relating to the remainder of the OT for the Israelites in the same way as the OT relates to the NT for the Christian.

Moberly finds that Genesis 22 provides a unique illustration of what this appropriation means, for in the first verse we read that ‘God tested Abraham’. The same word is used to describe Israel’s testing by God as a nation. Thus Abraham becomes ‘an exemplary type of Israel’. Moberly links Abraham’s sacrifice of his son with circumcision, and the location of the act with Jerusalem. He argues that the reaffirmation of God’s promise because of Abraham’s obedience ties Israel’s existence with both the unconditional promise of God and now also with Abraham’s obedience.

Critically, Moberly concludes that the patriarchal stories are best assigned to legend, i.e. their historicity is not verifiable but they are told and retold generation after generation as a means of a people’s self-identification. On the source-critical criteria of divine names and duplicate narratives, Moberly observes that: (1) Exodus 6:3 teaches that the patriarchs did not know Yahweh’s name and so the appearance of Yahweh in Genesis is an example of later generations reworking the text (he omits discussion of the view of Martin and (later) Driver that the verse is an example of affirmation by exclamatory negation, i.e., ‘Did I not let myself be known to them by my name Yahweh?’); and (2) the repetition of the narrative in Genesis 12, 22 and 26 provides an example of creative storytelling in which each story preserves common features and yet teaches new lessons (or simply entertains, as in ch. 26). While the literary approaches are dynamic and far more useful for this generation than earlier tendencies to segment existing texts, I hope I can be forgiven for expressing caution about the identification of the materials in Genesis as legend. The impact and significance of oral tradition as developed by Alt, Albright and especially Cross and his pupils does not require wholesale remoulding or accretions which destroy the original integrity of the story. It is therefore a moot point whether the movement of non-Yahwistic material into a Yahwistic context at a later (or earlier) date necessarily distorts the content.

The most significant contribution of this little book is its summary of the distinctives of patriarchal religion in contrast to later Israelite religion: its openness to all peoples, its ignorance of other gods, its direct access to God, and its lack of moral emphasis and of the holiness and exclusiveness of God. These points, and particularly the last one, lead Moberly to posit that it is probably a ‘genuinely ancient’ description of something which predated Mosaic Yahwism. The work concludes with an example of some early Jewish interpretations (Jubilees and Rashi) and of the Christian interpretations of Origen and Von Rad, all applied to Genesis 22. Enjoyable to read and informative, Moberly’s survey achieves the goals of the series in which it appears.


Richard S. Hess

Denver Seminary, Denver