In preparation for an upcoming course, I've been reading R. W. L. Moberly, The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Cambridge, 2009), which is, of course, wonderful. Of the two chapters that deal with the call of Abraham (Gen 12:1–3), the first concerns the correct construal of the blessing formula in Genesis 12:3. God promises Abraham, "in you all the families of the earth shall..." what? Be blessed? Bless themselves? Is Abraham being charged with becoming a source of blessing for others, or a model of others' blessing formulae? Is this some sort of a missionary text, as if Abraham is called by God for a purpose, to bring blessing to the world? Or is this a promise of divine protection and blessing, that Abraham will become so prosperous that others will use his name as they bless people: "May you become as prosperous as Abraham!"?
It is quite common for Christians to read the text in the first way, as a quasi-missionary text, and Moberly cites some heavy-hitters favoring this reading: Westermann, Childs, Christopher Wright, Bauckham. Moberly himself argues for the other reading, that Abraham's name will be used in the blessing formulae of others, and he cites Gunkel as a proponent of a rather negative version of this second reading strategy.
The scholar with whom Moberly interacts most in this chapter is Gerhard von Rad. Moberly quotes a long passage from von Rad's Genesis commentary, a quotation that takes up more than a page of Moberly's text (pp. 142–44), and then he quotes von Rad again for about half a page. Von Rad was a proponent of the missional reading, and von Rad connected the call of Abraham very strongly to the New Testament. Moberly argues against von Rad's position. But rejection is not Moberly's last word on von Rad's interpretation.
Von Rad's original formulation of the significance of the Yahwist and Genesis 12:1–3 was in the context of 1930s Nazi Germany, and his specific situation was as a member of the Confessing Church working at the University of Jena, where National Socialist policies were strongly promoted. [Moberly cites this essay.] In such a context, where the authorities degraded the Old Testament and denied any positive enduring significance to it, von Rad's work was a profound and imaginatively serious contribution; his argument for strong continuity between the Old and New Testaments is an argument that is intrinsic to Christian faith and was particularly timely as a Christian Old Testament scholar's response to Nazi ideology. By contrast, Gunkel's reading of God's call and promises as an example of Israel's rather inflated sense of self-importance would in no way have made any (would-be) Nazi or anti-Semite think twice. Good theological interpretation of the Old Testament is not necessarily that which might aspire to be recognized as correct in any time or any place; rather, part of its rightness may be specific and contextual, in its ability to articulate biblical priorities in relation to particular situations of need. To say this is not to prioritize relevance over accuracy, but rather to recognize, with the sociology of knowledge, that human understanding and insight depend on many factors other than pure reason and do not achieve finality in any one situation. (pp. 158–59)
There is a lot in this paragraph that calls for reflection, and I'm thinking particularly of the way Moberly here formulates the task of theological interpretation. For now I want merely to put Moberly's interpretation of von Rad in conversation with Augustine.
So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the writer demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and is certainly not a liar. (De Doctrina Christiana 1.86, trans. Green)
Putting Moberly's reading of von Rad's interpretation next to Augustine's hermeneutical advice suggests that von Rad's incorrect interpretation of Gen 12:3 was more correct than a correct interpretation might have been. Of course, there were probably ways of articulating the "correct" interpretation more "lovingly" than did Gunkel (e.g., Moberly's own articulation of it), but one wonders how imaginable such an articulation would have been in von Rad's context.
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