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5: Within the Old Testament

In earlier chapters we have looked at the evidence for something like natural theology within the New Testament and from there we have passed back to the inheritance of Jewish interpretations following upon the Old Testament. In this chapter we go on to consider similar evidences within the canonical Old Testament itself. We shall investigate several areas, and because of their size and importance each of them can be discussed only in a very succinct way. These are: Psalm 104; Psalm 19; Psalm 119; the Wisdom literature; the Prophets; and, finally, the law itself.

1. Psalm 104

The 104th Psalm is a celebration of the world and of God as its sustainer, more its sustainer than its creator. It begins by telling how God is clothed with honour and majesty, how he stretched out the heavens and makes the clouds his chariot, fire and flame his ministers. Thus the basic elements and structures were established by God. After this it goes on to the earth, and celebrates its fixation, its secure establishment. It does not say he created the earth, rather that he set it on its foundations so that it should never be shaken. Apart from that the main thing is getting rid of water from it. It is expressed in words more like those describing the ending of the Flood than those of the familiar prose creation story of Genesis 1. Once the earth is properly established and the floods removed, we have the provision of water, giving drink to the beasts and the growth of fruit. Grass grows for the cattle, wine to keep man happy, oil to make his face shine, bread to strengthen him. But the emphasis is not on humanity, and more is said about the wild things: the trees, the birds, the wild goats in the mountains, and the changes of times, sun and moon, light and dark, the difference this makes for the lions, also for man, who goes forth to his work from morning to evening. Then it goes on to the sea—it is striking, for a mainly inland-living people like Israel, how much the sea is emphasized—the ships travel there, also the sea monsters play there. All of them depend on the Lord: if he provides food, they are satisfied, if not they shrivel up or die; if God sends out his Spirit or breath, they are revived.

So, it goes on, God looks on the earth and it trembles, he touches the mountains and they smoke. The Psalmist will praise the Lord as long as he lives; and may sinners be consumed from the earth.

Now this poem has often been quoted as part of the biblical evidence for natural theology, but this is not entirely obvious, and can be disputed.1 Certainly some may agree, with Raven, that this Psalm, along with other similar sources, expresses ‘the delight in the physical universe, the appreciation of the majesty of desert and mountain and of the manifold beauty of valley and woodland’ which, he thinks, characterize the Jewish attitude towards nature.2 But there are two objections at this point.

First, it is not clear that the ancient Hebrews had as much of this ‘delight in the physical universe’ as Raven, like many other commentators, attributes to them, or that it was massively different in degree from the delight in the physical universe that many other cultures have displayed. It seems to be arguable that the utterances that look to us like ‘delight in the physical universe’ are often expressions of delight at the way the physical universe functions as a theatre for religion. Secondly, in any case, it may be argued that the Psalm is not concerned to perform the function that most normally and directly forms natural theology, namely to suggest that the nature of God can be known through contemplation of the universe and its workings. Taken in itself and as it stands, it seems to go in the opposite direction. It starts throughout from God. It tells us that God has done all this: he has set up the basic structures of the universe, provided the conditions for fruitfulness of the earth, the changes of times and climate, day and night, under which beasts and humans live and die. It is all presented from the angle of God as the sustainer of the world and the life within it.

Thus Psalm 104 is perhaps the prime biblical example for those who think that there is such a thing as a theology of nature,3 which is different from a natural theology. Interest in a theology of nature has greatly increased with our modern awareness of ecology and ecological crisis, and that is, in my opinion, a very right interest. More negatively, on the other hand, one must suspect that many utterances in favour of the theology of nature are really attempts to recognize the evidence that favours natural theology, but to evade the conclusion that natural theology is really there. For it seems to me that no theology of nature can really be purely ‘revelational’: any such theology must necessarily involve a combination of specifically Christian (or other religious) revelational insights with knowledge of the world gained through other approaches.4

In any case the arguments for counting Psalm 104 with the theology of nature and not with natural theology are not conclusive. The Psalm has in fact a number of the characterizing features of natural theology. First, while it may indeed be said, as we have said, that the poem starts from God and sees the world as from God's side, this does not in itself prove that it is entirely revelational, if that term is used to exclude natural theology. For, when you look at the content of the poem, and consider what events and configurations in the world are ascribed to God, there is no specific content that comes from revelation as such. If you ask where the content comes from, then you find that either (1) it comes from traditional mythology, the stretching out of the heavens, the draining off of the waters of the flood, the sea monsters, or (2) it is easily available public knowledge. Everyone knew that the springs give water to the wild asses, that the lions roar at night, that men go to work in the morning and come home to rest in the evening. And that all this came from God, this was no new idea either: everyone in that ancient culture took it as obvious. So if it is revelational, as I believe it is, this is not so because of the presence of new information that is not otherwise known; it is rather a matter of new insight into matter that is already ‘naturally’ known and familiar. So it is closer to natural theology after all. To this we add a few brief points: (1) Psalm 104 has long been known to have striking parallels in content with Egyptian poems on a similar theme, especially the hymn to the Aten or sun-disc associated with the religious reform movement of Akhenaten. These parallels cannot be dismissed as mere formal and external similarities, for they enter into the central sources of the poem's attractiveness. Paul Dion wrote recently: ‘much of the evocative power of Psalm 104, and perhaps also of the intense conviction it radiates, is indebted to old Akhenaten.’5 We have seen above that transreligiosity is always something that brings us closer to natural theology. (2) The approach of the 104th Psalm has particular similarities to Paul's speech at Lystra, to which we have already referred: God gave himself witness through sustenance, with rain, fruitfulness, food, and gladness (Acts 1417). The fact of the sustenance—sustenance rather than creation—is testimony to the true God.

To sum up, then, our Psalm is part of that dominant tendency of Hebrew natural theology, in focusing on the existing cosmos as evidence and manifestation of the divine beneficence. Interestingly, it seems to belong to a stage of tradition anterior to that which we find in Genesis 1. Some of the same elements are there, but seem to be in a logically prior and more primitive form. In particular, the emphasis on total creation is less clear. In the Psalm God has constructed, rather than ‘created’ (‘stretched out’ is the term used), the outer structure of the world, the heavens, and the earth he has securely founded, removing from it the overwhelming waters, which remind us more of Noah's Flood than of the waters of Genesis 1. Of the animals and humans there is no word of creation, the word is rather of sustenance, support, provision: it is the continuance of life that is emphasized. In so far as the Hebrew word arb, usually ‘create’, appears, it is used of the renewal of life (v. 30), not the making of something that was not there before.

Of course the poem is written from a faith-perspective; it knows that God has done all this. But, conversely, it paints a picture of God through the collocation of this evidence, which was accessible and well known to almost everyone. From experience, plus some reliance on mythology for ideas of the origins of the world, the playing of Leviathan, and the like, the poet has constructed a very beautiful and effective picture for the rendering6 of the God of Israel. No other biblical passage so strongly emphasizes that it was the beneficent effects of divine sustenance for animals and for humanity that signified the nature of God. Without this emphasis, the idea of creation in itself might never have been so powerful in this direction. Here also likewise is the emphasis on the diversity of times, the darkness and the light, the morning and the evening—an emphasis not so much on the regularity of the changes, but rather on the beneficent effect of them all, each in its own way.

Taken together with other passages and with the total development of ideas in Israel, then, Psalm 104 must be counted as a force among others that worked in favour of the rise of natural theology.

2. Psalm 19

The heavens declare the glory of God

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech

and night to night declares knowledge.

There are some linguistic obscurities in the next portion, but the ending is clear: their words go forth to the end of the world. The poem goes on to speak of the sun:

which comes forth like a bridegroom from his chamber

and like a strong man runs his course with joy.

Its rising is from the end of the heavens,

and its circuit to the end of them;

and there is nothing hid from its heat.

After this the poem changes style, rhythm, and subject-matter in a striking way, so much so that some have thought we now move into another poem altogether:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart…

and so on, in familiar and beautiful language. Addison, you will remember, paraphrased the first part of the Psalm into the most poetic of all expressions of traditional natural theology:7

The spacious firmament on high,

with all the blue etherial sky,

and spangled heav'ns, a glorious frame,

their great Original proclaim.

and I add his final two verses:

What though, in solemn silence, all

move round the dark terrestrial ball?

What tho’ nor real voice nor sound

amid their radiant orbs be found?

In Reason's ear they all rejoice

and utter forth a glorious voice

for ever singing as they shine:

‘The hand that made us is divine.’

Addison rendered the Psalm very well. Only over ‘in reason's ear’ might one quibble, as too rationalistic a gloss on the natural theology of the Psalm.

But there are two or three ways in which this Psalm can be read. Much depends on the mode of connection which one sees between the two parts of it. One might say that there is no natural theology here at all, an approach that would have been very acceptable to the Barthian position. In that case, some would say, the heavenly bodies indeed declare the glory of God, but the declaration that they make is one unintelligible and inaccessible to humans.8 Day to day may pour forth speech, and that is the praise of the creation to the creator, but it is day that is saying this to day, and night to night, so that there is nothing there about a communication to humanity at all. Added to this, one could argue that the second part of the Psalm, concerned with the wonderful life-giving qualities of the law of God, is distinctly revelational, so that any minor impressions of a natural knowledge of God, attained through the first part, would be cancelled out by the emphasis on the revealed law in the second part. Thus Barth emphasized the unity of the two parts, lambasting critics like Gunkel who had interpreted them as two separate poems, 19A and 19B.

But the same point, the unity of the poem, could be understood, and has been understood, in the very opposite sense: namely, God makes himself known in two complementary ways, first through the great works of creation which control the world, and secondly through his special communication exemplified here by his law. The two channels of natural and revealed theology are here very properly to be seen. It is not surprising that the Psalm was seen as a fine manifestation of their complementarity, as was traditional in the older Christianity.

Two major points may be made. First, we should note the emphasis in the first part on the universality of the heavenly speech. There are indeed some textual and linguistic uncertainties in vv. 3–4 (Heb. 4 f.), which I have discussed elsewhere9 and will not repeat here; but in any case the voice of the heavens and its words go out to the end of the earth, and probably, though not quite certainly, that voice is commingled with all human speech and is heard in the midst of it. In any case, the poem goes on, all this—which seems to mean all this linguistic interchange—is like a tent for the sun, whose rising is from the end of the heavens and its circuit to the end of them, and ‘there is nothing hid from its heat’. As everyone on earth receives the heat of the sun, we are entitled to conclude, so everyone on earth receives the language of the heavens or some impression of it. Why should the poem not have so implied?10

Well, one might appeal to the second portion of the poem, about the law of the Lord and his testimonies, which revive the soul and make wise the simple. This might quickly bring us back to that traditional revelatory medium, the Law of Moses. But in fact the poem says nothing about the Law of Moses. It can be read in that way, of course, for the terms ‘law’, ‘testimony’, ‘precepts’, ‘commandment’ are all terms that occur plentifully in the Torah. But the poem itself says nothing that can be specifically identified with the Mosaic Law of the Bible. One can of course make that identification but the text does not require it. It is possible to read the text in another way, taking these as general terms for divine ‘instruction’ which may be available and must be heeded. And such instruction is likely to be universally available and accessible: it is not necessarily limited to the specific materials of the Mosaic Law. It is more like the instruction of the Wisdom literature, where torah is commonly the instruction of a parent, notably a mother (Prov. 18, 620), or Wisdom's own instruction, directly given. If this is so, then both parts of the poem form a fine unity in their expression of a universal communication of praise of God from the heavens and instruction from the deity for humanity. Taken this way, it definitely looks positively towards something like natural theology. Once again, this fact is only strengthened by the probable relation of the poem with the thought of other cultures and religions, very likely from Canaan and Egypt.

Barth, discussing this same Psalm, makes the point that the 19th Psalm must be seen in the context of the rest of the Book of Psalms, in the context of the Exodus, of Moses, of the story of Israel, and so on. Seen in that wider context, he implies, it is only a small part of a revelatory process, and thus any appearance of natural theology that there may be is overwhelmed. But this argument is not convincing. Nobody is trying to prove that there is nothing but natural theology in the Bible. There are, however, units, substantial literary units, complete speeches, complete poems, even if only a few of them, which meditate mainly or even solely on natural theology; and Psalm 19 may be seen as one of these. No Barthian Psalmist would have written the 19th as it is: he or she would not have been content that this wider revelational context existed, the author would have insisted on making it explicit, on putting it expressly within the poem.

3. Psalm 119

This interpretation is strengthened when we take into account another important poem which, however, has seldom been thought of as evidence for natural theology: I refer to the longest of all the Psalms, the 119th, notable for its systematic acrostic form and for its concentration on what appears to be nomistic piety. The vocabulary, phraseology, and thinking of this great Psalm have often been noticed to be very similar to those of the second part of the 19th:

Blessed are those whose way is blameless,

who walk in the law of the Lord!

Blessed are those who keep his testimonies,

who seek him with their whole heart… (vv. 1 f., RSV)

All the terms for laws, statutes, commandments, and ordinances are very frequent within the text. And yet, surprisingly, the classic elements of divine revelation to Israel are not mentioned at all: neither the patriarchs, nor the promise of the land, nor the Exodus, nor Moses, nor the prophets, nor—above all—the book of the law or any of its specific contents. As Jon Levenson pointed out in an impressive article,11 in spite of the stress laid by Psalm 119 on specific commands and statutes to be followed, no one can tell from its text what these specifics are: they are simply not mentioned; thus nothing about the sabbath, the year of jubilee, the levirate marriage, the sacrifices, not even anything about the avoidance of idolatry. As in Psalm 19, where the words like torah are used, the meaning is closer to that of the Book of Proverbs; and, in terms close to those of Psalm 19, the ‘word’ of God is something set up in the heavens:

For ever, o Lord, thy word is set up in the heavens;

thy faithfulness is to all generations.

Thou hast established the world and it stands fast;

by thy judgements they stand this day;

for all things are thy servants. (vv. 89 ff.).

On this I quote Levenson's judgement:

In other words, the commandments that the psalmist practises, even those which may be Pentateuchal, constitute a kind of revealed natural law. They enable him to bring his own life into harmony with the rhythm of the cosmos and to have access to the creative and life-giving energy that drives the world.12

‘A kind of revealed natural law’—these are words that are profoundly significant for our subject. They will echo through the remainder of this book.

Enough of the 119th Psalm for the moment. But the mention of this great work of gnomic wisdom must have made it clear in what direction we are moving. Thus far, both in the New Testament and in the Old, we have started from the classic passages traditionally cited as evidences for natural theology. In some of these passages we have thought that natural theology of some sort is clearly implied or expressed, in others that it is possibly doubtful, so that a decision must depend on other factors, in others that the passage might belong to some other category, such as the theology of nature. But we now have to broaden our perspective a great deal, for our suggestion will be that these passages, quite few in number, are only the tip of an iceberg, and that beneath the surface lie much larger masses of material that may belong to some kind of natural theology. The presence of these much larger masses will, consequently, make it much more likely that natural theology is present in the classic passages than one might think when these passages are taken as isolated cases.

4. The Wisdom Literature

I cannot start on the Wisdom literature without mentioning the distinguished work of Scottish scholars in this area: I think of Professor McKane of St Andrews in our own time, but especially my own teacher here in Edinburgh, Professor Oliver Rankin, whom I later succeeded. Professor Rankin was by no means in sympathy with the revelational trends in the theology of his time, and we may believe that something of his spirit is hovering beneficently over us as we think about Hebrew Wisdom as a region of natural theology. What I remember best, and with most gratitude, was how we used to meet together, just the two of us—for it was not a subject much in demand—to read Maimonides in Hebrew.

With the Wisdom literature we widen our scope, for we are no longer discussing the individual classic passages, long used as evidences for natural theology, but are turning to large bands of literature, and few will question that, within the Old Testament, the Wisdom literature is the area with the largest similarity to the procedures of natural theology.13 I propose to treat it fairly briefly at this point, however, for several reasons. First, I have already had something to say about the key position of one of the Wisdom books, the Wisdom of Solomon, and will be returning to it again, and similarly something about the figure of Wisdom herself, and in addition the Psalms we have discussed above contain strong Wisdom features. Secondly, in general, John J. Collins of Chicago, one of the few biblical scholars of recent times to interest himself in natural theology, has already written an admirable study along these lines,14 and I do not wish to repeat his arguments. Let me quote a few lines from his conclusion:

There are certain fundamental aspects of the sages’ approach to reality which are common to natural theology in all ages. Specifically the sages attempted to discern the religious dimension of common, universal human experience without appeal to special revelation or the unique experience of one people. This religious dimension was correlated with the distinctively Israelite tradition but it was not subordinated to it. The history and law of Israel did not replace universal wisdom, although the sages claimed that they did complement and illustrate it.

To this I have only certain remarks to add at this point. First, we have noted transreligiosity and transculturality to be features that point towards natural theology. The great territory of the Wise lay in the south and east, beyond Israel's own borders, in areas like the land of Uz, where Job lived. In the Old Wisdom of Israel, as seen in the Book of Proverbs, this is made highly evident through the very close parallels with Egyptian wisdom, amounting to detailed verbal similarities over several chapters. If later Wisdom, as seen in Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon, made clearer its close identification with the specifics of Jewish religion, it simultaneously became more transcultural in another way, assimilating characteristic patterns of Greek thought. Reaction against Greek culture only accelerated, rather than diminished, this tendency.

Secondly, many scholars of modern times have sought to legitimize Israelite Wisdom by insisting that it nevertheless came to be integrated with specifics of Hebrew religion. As von Rad depicted it, Wisdom ‘was a response made by a Yahwism confronted with specific experiences of the world’:15 in other words, distinctively biblical faith and ‘the fear of the Lord’ were there first, and created a space within which Wisdom then operated. I agree with Collins16 that this depiction is both improbable and unnecessary. Though von Rad, so far as I know, nowhere mentions natural theology explicitly, one cannot but feel that his mode of approach to the subject depends ultimately on the sense that nothing too close to natural theology should be admitted to exist within the Bible. This is not without importance in the theological sequel, for Christian Link, one of the theologians who has done most to develop the discussion of natural theology in recent years, is visibly heavily dependent on von Rad in his use of the Old Testament, and indeed generally.17

However, the book I wish to speak about in particular is the work of later Wisdom, Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth, for it is particularly significant in relation to our study.18 Of all the books of the Hebrew Bible Qoheleth seems, at least at first sight, to be the most akin to Barthianism; I well remember in my student days, heavily influenced by Barthianism, how Qoheleth fascinated me. For it seems to say exactly the things that are wanted by those who deny natural theology. Qoheleth applied his mind ‘to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven’ (113). The result, he reported, was: ‘I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind’ (114, RSV). ‘Under the sun’ or ‘under heaven’ are key terms of this writer: he has examined everything that is, as we would say, ‘in our world’, but he cannot find signs of God in it, he cannot find theological meaning. There is no justice, there is not the necessary divine intervention, there is no advantage in moral conduct. The writer, it seems, does not disbelieve in God, he does not deny God, but the honest investigation of what goes on under the sun does not lead to God. All this looks like prime material for the rejection of natural theology. That this book, so often a cause of disquiet to believers because of its apparent negativism, should nevertheless be included in the canon was surely a clear sign of the divine providence that guided the selection of books!

And in a way, yes, but only in a way. Qoheleth's reaction against the expectation that traces of God might be found through study of the world as it is is in itself evidence that the Wisdom tradition had encouraged that expectation—just as Job's reaction against the customary theodicy was evidence that that sort of theodicy had indeed been encouraged. Moreover, Qoheleth does not turn to revelation to solve his difficulties; not at all, he turns to something more like a distant, uncaring God, and a life for humanity which man must regulate on the basis of his own needs and desires, aware above all of the limits of his own knowledge outside his immediate environment. Moreover, here again we have some sort of transculturality: there may not be actual influence from Greek philosophy, in spite of the similarities that have been seen, so evidently with Heraclitus, with the Stoics, with the Epicureans; but if there was no actual influence from Greek sources then the argument is all the stronger, for it means that Qoheleth out of his Hebrew tradition independently generated thoughts that have so much kinship with theirs. And, finally, among all the writers of the Hebrew Bible Qoheleth is the one who, more than any other, was something like a philosopher, who had, in Martin Hengel's words, the ‘critical individuality of an acute observer and independent thinker’.19 From all these points of view Qoheleth stands closer to the standpoint of natural theology. The idea that it supports the denial of natural theology is, at least in part, illusory.

5. The Prophets

At first sight the Prophets would seem to be, of all portions of the Hebrew Bible, the most revelatory in character and the most remote from natural theology. The prophet is supposed to speak a word that he has received from God, fresh for the present situation. Nevertheless there are aspects of the prophetic movement that are relevant to our consideration.

The first lies in the ethical basis which they assume. Here I speak briefly, because I follow the study of Professor John Barton.20 The classical prophets, in their announcements of judgement upon the nations for their sins, were conservative, in the sense that they did not propound a new ethical code based on fresh revelation, but assumed standards that were already current. On the other hand they did not generally refer to a written Torah, such as we now have in our Bible. The paucity of reference to the Law of Moses in the prophets until quite late times is obvious. The case of Jeremiah 348 ff., referring to the freedom of the slaves after six years, is one of the few exceptions that prove the rule, and even it is hardly a full exception.21 This becomes specially noticeable where nations other than Israel were involved and comparisons between the doings of nations were made on some kind of common ethical basis, as in the first chapters of Amos. It seems that they commonly assumed a kind of recognized national or international morality, which was not in doubt, and on the basis of this recognized scale of ethical standards they proceeded to the aspect which was more original with them and more peculiar to them, namely the announcement of the powerful actions of judgement which the Lord was soon to put into effect. This ethical basis, then, was natural rather than revelational in character. Similarly, ‘poetic justice’, as expressed in Isaiah's

Woe to those who join house to house…

until there is no room…

The Lord of Hosts has sworn:

‘Surely many houses shall be desolate,

large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant’ (Isa. 58 f.)

is ‘a way of declaring that God acts on the basis of the same ethical principles as those which humans can discover in nature by the operation of reason’.22

Some might question the words ‘the operation of reason’: but reasoning is in fact a strongly marked aspect of the prophetic phenomenon. ‘Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord’, were not by chance keywords of Isaiah's prophecy (Isa. 118). Prominent in prophetic speech is the so-called rīb pattern, in which the style of law-court argument and reasoning is assumed. Evidence is collected, arguments are advanced, a conclusion is reached. Correspondingly in a prophet like Deutero-Isaiah this kind of legal-style argument is developed into a legal case between the God of Israel and the other gods, for example Isaiah 438 ff.. Along with this there goes the prophetic polemic against idols and false gods, mentioned elsewhere in these lectures, which takes a strikingly rational form. Prophecy, then, has a number of features that show an affinity with the operations of natural theology.

6. Hebrew Law

On the face of it, biblical law appears to belong almost entirely to the sphere of revelation. Almost every element within it stands under the rubric ‘And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying…’. According to the mode in which it is presented in the Hebrew Bible, biblical law is not something that human beings worked out, or that they derived from rational norms or universal principles known to them: on the contrary, it is something that they were verbally told, by God through Moses at Mount Sinai. It was God who expressed all these laws, and more or less all at the same time, to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is not expressly said, but it is left open to the reader to understand, that none of this legislation was known to the Israelites before it was revealed through Moses.

There is thus, taking the text at its surface value, very little or no development in biblical law. Practically no law is promulgated after the time of Moses: it is all there already from that starting-point. To this there are limited exceptions, but their limited character is the obvious aspect of them. Now it is very probable in fact that Hebrew law developed very considerably over the thousand years or more during which we can observe it within the Bible, as social conditions altered and it was found necessary to adjust the law and make it more precise in view of newer conditions. It would be widely agreed that much of Deuteronomy is an example of this, and the P legislation, whether earlier than D or later, would be another. But neither of these documents represents itself as a post-Mosaic development. Deuteronomy presents itself as coming at a slightly later stage, at the end of Moses’ life, and in this sense may be seen as hinting that it is a restatement of an original revelation on Mount Sinai. But it is still, on the surface, a Mosaic document, spoken by Moses before his death, and before the tribes entered the land of Canaan. The P material is even more clearly expressed as belonging to the Sinaitic revelation. Thus, in general, there is very little legal material that is not attributed by the text to direct and specific divine revelation through Moses. Or, putting it the other way, if there was legal development through the thousand years or so of which we know something, then that legal development was summed up by ascribing its results to Moses on Mount Sinai: this was the convention. Thus, seen on the surface of the text, the legal material seems to express itself as special revelation.

It cannot be doubted, however, that the actual nature of this material is different. All serious scholarship accepts that there was much development and change in Hebrew law, partly corresponding to social changes and partly arising from the need to clarify older laws; and that the various strata, such as the laws of Deuteronomy and of the Priestly document, whatever their age relative to one another, represent this reality. And, on the other hand, the impact which the biblical laws have upon the reader is vastly altered when we take into account the ancient Near Eastern parallels.

Since the discovery of the Hammurabi laws intense attention has been devoted to the connections between Israelite and other oriental legal corpora. It is hardly necessary for me to give details: some of the most important cases in the Bible lie within Exodus 21–3, and good examples are the law of the goring ox (Exod. 2128 ff.) or that of the Hebrew slave (Exod. 211 ff.). A Hebrew slave, which probably means one who becomes a slave through debt, works for six years and then goes free; in the Hammurabi laws the period is three years, but the basic structure of the law is very similar. Here the relations are the opposite of those discussed above, which concerned the post-Mosaic development of law within Israel. Far from it being the case that the Hebrew law was developed long after the time of Moses, it was in all probability common social property long before Moses could have lived, and social property not uniquely of Israel nor dictated to Israel directly by its God, but social property held in common with other peoples of the Near East, in particular the Mesopotamians, whose actual religion was very different from that approved of in the Bible. Naturally, there are differences: we are not suggesting an identity. But there is a common structure and some degree of common ethical values. Israel no doubt introduced modifications into this common legal structure, in the light of its own experience. But, where such parallels exist, it becomes impossible to suppose that Israel received its form of the law by direct and pure divine revelation, producing a result totally different from what was already known elsewhere. To argue so would only be to trivialize the concept of revelation: all that revelation does would be to change the numbers, so that the slave works for six years in Israel, but for three in Mesopotamia.

Realities of this kind do not necessarily endanger any sophisticated doctrine of revelation: the true God, let us say, can reveal himself through materials that are not totally unique but have common elements with general social patterns of the time. Quite so. But, even taking it in that way, we have to say: biblical law, thus understood, comes closer to the operation of natural theology than to that of pure revelatory theology. Biblical revelation, shall we say, took up into itself elements of legal and therefore of moral perception that already existed and were common ground to large human populations, even though these populations had very different religious systems. The Bible, perhaps, made this material into revelation, it became revelatory in its biblical form and in relation to other biblical elements: yes, maybe, but the building blocks still came out of something that was closer to the operation of natural theology. If revelation took up into itself legal elements that were common property to large populations with differing religious conceptions, then it can take up into itself conceptions of God and of morality that exist in Greek antiquity and elsewhere. Revelation, this suggests, builds upon human insights existing over a wide spectrum. All this is highly suggestive for the continuance of our argument.

Take an illustration of another kind: the activities of Jethro, father-in-law of Moses (Exod. 18). Jethro, with whom Moses took refuge early in the story, when in flight from Egypt, reappears after Israel has escaped from Egypt. Moses has been triumphantly successful, the people have been making their way through the wilderness, assisted by quails and manna, and there has been a successful battle against the Amalekites. Now Jethro appears and hears all that God had done for Moses and for Israel. He rejoiced, and spoke:

Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians… Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people…

And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, offered a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God.

Now what happens after this? On the next day Jethro observed what Moses was doing for the people, judging and deciding lawsuits every day from morning to night. Clearly the children of Israel, not long escaped from Egypt, have quickly developed a strong taste for litigation. When they have a dispute, Moses says, they come to me, and I decide between a man and his neighbour, and I make them know the statutes of God and his decisions. Well, said Jethro, What you are doing is not right—the only person in the Bible to say this to Moses and survive. Moses was trying to run the entire country as a one-man administration and would wear himself out in the process. He must learn to delegate, and appoint suitable men to handle the thousands of minor cases; he himself should reserve his energies for the major matters, where God himself had to be consulted. Jethro's advice was, very sensibly, put into effect; and all of us, no doubt, are glad that this was done.

But consider what this means. Whence did Jethro derive the authority to say all this? He admired what Yahweh had done but it is not clear that he himself was a Yahweh-priest. There is no word of Yahweh having spoken to Jethro or revealed himself to him in any way. As the story depicts it, he recognized what the Lord had done for Israel and asserted that Yahweh was greater than all gods, or all other gods, but even that does not make it clear that he had Yahweh's authority in any way. He was priest of Midian, an official therefore of a people whose religious position was at best rather dubious. He was of course related to Moses and that gave some sort of authority, but scarcely constituted a ground for absolute revelation, and indeed Jethro himself offers no authority for his advice other than that it is his own opinion. In fact it is good common-sense advice, and it is good that Moses accepted it. But the story, taken just as it stands, remains very good evidence of a positive valuation of normal human common sense, independent of religious affiliation, as an element in the establishment of the Hebrew legal polity. And this story is in a very prominent position: this element of sensible legal administration is the last major thing to be established before the arrival at Mount Sinai and the great revelation of the Ten Commandments and other legal materials in Exodus 20 ff.

Another case, one of a slightly different kind but that points in the same direction, is the matter of the daughters of Zelophehad (Num. 271 ff.; 36). Zelophehad had died, leaving no sons but a number of daughters, and these ladies said it was wrong that their father's name should be allowed to disappear from within his family of the tribe of Manasseh. Moses took the case to the Lord himself, who pronounced that the daughters of Zelophehad were in the right, so that in the future, if a man died and had no son, the inheritance should pass to his daughter. In Numbers 36 the consequential problem arises: fine, it is good that the ladies should thus inherit, but what if they marry outside their own tribe? This would mean that that inheritance would disappear from the tribe concerned. In this later stage it is not reported that Moses took the case back to God: he himself ‘according to the word of the Lord’ (RSV) ruled that the integrity of the tribal inheritance should be maintained. The girls could marry anyone they liked, but only within their own tribe.

Now it is very likely that this is a case of development of law under changing social conditions, or under inherent need for clarification. Very likely, the oldest law provided for inheritance in the male line only. But this could lead to the extinction of a family's name. So female inheritance was permitted. But this in turn, if the girls married, could lead to the loss of tribal land. So marriage outside the tribe was not permitted. All this may be said to come from revelation in the sense that God is actually consulted and gives his ruling on the first occasion, and Moses with divine authority rules on the second. But the actual decision taken is not one that calls for vastly superhuman powers. It seems to be a rather obvious common-sense solution such as any competent person might have reached, given some knowledge of the social assumptions of the time. The law, though on the surface revelatory in character, in fact puts into effect rather obvious norms of natural justice.

The law itself, then, in its content has numerous suggestions that point towards operations akin to those of natural law or natural theology. Only by heavy and unbalanced insistence on the rubrics, on the encapsulating formulae like ‘and the Lord said unto Moses’ which encase most of the material, only by unduly emphasizing the setting as against the content, can a traditional view of the law as totally revelatory be maintained. Once we see that the laws are indeed in many respects a product of the society of their time and its inherited notions, the force of this perception dies away.

And in any case the legal material had always had an effect which pressed in the opposite direction. If, in the history of interpretation, the character of the laws of the Hebrew Bible seemed to support the dependence of humanity on pure divine revelation, they seemed also, on the other side, to support the idea of a rational, knowable, accessible foundation for moral judgements that was, at least in principle, available to all humanity. People wanted to say that the biblical laws, however absolute in themselves, had some grounding in knowable principles: they were not totally and absolutely arbitrary. The biblical laws, though given by revelation, could be seen to be in accord with reason of some kind. It could be seen, even if only under the guidance of expert exegesis, that they accorded with some sort of universal principles.

And there is perhaps, at this point, a basic difference between the situation in Judaism and that in Christianity. In Christianity the idea of revelation seems to imply the concept that the content revealed is something absolutely different, something that could not be known or imagined through any other approach. In Judaism, I think, it is not so. The law is of course revealed by God through Moses. But no one is worried if that which is thus disclosed is something already knowable through other approaches: that fact, if it is a fact, rather strengthens the claims of the revelation than weakens them. Medical knowledge shows the dietary laws to be beneficial, natural morality supports the moral commandments, rational philosophy underpins the entire corpus of law. This is widely accepted as a good and valid thing.

And this is of primary importance for our theme. For natural law was in some respects the gateway into natural theology. Even Barth, you will remember, had admitted that both Luther and Calvin had made an unguarded and unconditional use of natural theology in their teachings about the law. It was easier to exclude natural theology from theology than to exclude natural law from law. The laws of the Hebrew Bible gained some degree of legitimization from their relation to universal principles of morality and right. It was, says Christian Link, in the field of natural law that natural theology in fact derived its authority out of the carrying out of life (Lebensvollzug).23 We have shown in this chapter that there is at least some basis in the Hebrew Bible upon which a natural theology might be built, and out of which some natural theology did in fact grow.

  • 1.

    For Barth's brief and rhetorical treatment of it, see KD ii/1. 125 f;. CD ii/1. 114 ff.

  • 2.

    C. E. Raven, Natural Religion and Christian Theology (2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), i. 22 ff. Note that on 23 he uses the words ‘nature has value not only in itself but as emblem and parable’, terms that were to be taken up later by the very Barthian tradition to which he felt himself to be so strongly opposed.

  • 3.

    For example, C. Link, Die Welt als Gleichnis (Munich: Kaiser. 1976), 313; but many have made the distinction. So Stephen R. Spencer, ‘Is Natural Theology Biblical?’, Grace Theological Journal, 9 (1988), 63 (of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra) and 72, where his conclusion is that ‘although both a theology of nature and natural revelation are biblical, natural theology is not’. George Hendry, in his book entitled The Theology of Nature (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980), seems, rather surprisingly, to say nothing about our Psalm.

  • 4.

    See especially Jan-Olav Henriksen, ‘How is Theology about Nature Natural Theology?’, St. Th. 43 (1989), 197–209.

  • 5.

    ‘YHWH as Storm-God and Sun-God: The Double Legacy of Egypt and Canaan as Reflected in Psalm 104’, ZATW 103 (1991), 43–71; quotation from 69.

  • 6.

    For the use of this word, see Dale Patrick, The Rendering of God in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981).

  • 7.

    The spelling follows that of A. C. Guthkelch's edition: Joseph Addison, Miscellaneous Works, i: Poems and Plays (London: Bell, 1914), 215–16. The poem was published in the Spectator, 23 Aug. 1712. Addison's proem is worthy of quotation: ‘Aristotle says that should a man live under ground, and there converse with the works of art and mechanism, and should afterwards be brought up into the open day, and see the several glories of heaven and earth, he would immediately pronounce them the works of such a Being as we define God to be. The Psalmist has very beautiful strokes of poetry to this purpose, in that exalted strain [here he quotes Ps. 19]. As such a bold and sublime manner of thinking furnishes very noble matter for an Ode, the Reader may see it wrought into the following one.’

  • 8.

    So Kraus in H. Berkhof and H.-J. Kraus, Lichterlehre (Theologische Studien 123; Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1978), 24. In conscious opposition to ‘all interpretations’, he makes the unintelligibility of the heavenly speech into the one clear and central message of the poem! He writes with emphasis (his italics): ‘Die Schöpfung hat keine Anrede für den Menschen; mit ihren Aussagen, ihren Selbstaussagen ist sie dem Mensch nicht zugewandt.’ I did not know of this passage when I wrote my article on the same Psalm (cf. n. 9 below), but, on the basis of Kraus's exegesis in the Bihlischer Kommentar, I pointed out that his explanation depended upon ‘philological recklessness of a high degree’ and concluded that ‘opposition to the idea of natural theology… has led to an injudicious snatching at highly improbable philological identifications and connections’. For comments by Berkhof, see ibid. 32 ff.

  • 9.

    See my ‘Do we Perceive the Speech of the Heavens? A Question in Psalm 19’, in The Psalms and Oilier Studies on the Old Testament Presented to Joseph I. Hunt (Nashotah, Wis.: Nashotah House Seminary, 1990), 11–17. In supplement to what I say there, p. 12, I now think that NEB's ‘their music’ for qawwam of v. 5, literally ‘their line’, is probably correct: not so much for the reasons adduced by G. R. Driver, but because of the use of qaw in the Masada scroll of Ben Sira, 445. It meant ‘a string’ and hence the music produced thereby.

  • 10.

    It is significant that Ps. 19 does not explicitly comment on the aspect of the heavenly bodies which has actually had most effect on natural theology, namely their regularity and immutability. This aspect, incidentally, impressed Calvin a lot: ‘But Calvin based his natural theology, like the natural theology of antiquity, above all on the heavenly bodies… It is “the symmetry and regulation” of the universe, amazing in view of its vastness and the speed of its motions, that particularly display the glory of God. Astronomy, therefore, “may justly be called the alphabet of theology”.’ So W. J. Bouwsma, John Calvin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 104. Cf. further Ch. 6 below.

  • 11.

    Jon D. Levenson, The Sources of Torah: Psalm 119 and the Modes of Reveletion in Second Temple Judaism’, in P. D. Miller, Jr., et al. (eds.), Ancient Israelite Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 559–74.

  • 12.


  • 13.

    Thus for instance H. D. Preuβ, ‘Alttestamentliche Weisheit in christlicher Theologie?’, Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium, 33 (1974), 174, maintains that the ‘Act-and-Consequence Sequence’ (der Tun-Ergehen-Zusammenhang) of Wisdom literature is ‘a piece of natural theology’ which represents ‘the way in which the so-called natural man thinks and wishes God to be’. In this respect, Preuβ goes on, the New Testament here offers a particularly clear ‘plus’ as against the Old. A view based on the cross of Christ is a clear alternative to any theology of an Act-and-Consequence Sequence, and not a kind of faith that can in any way be combined with the latter. He goes on to give examples of this from the New Testament. To him, clearly, the affinities of the Wisdom literature with natural theology are manifest, but constitute a negative element and thus count against the value of that literature within Christianity.

  • 14.

    John J. Collins, ‘The Biblical Precedent for Natural Theology’, JAAR 45/1, Supplement (Mar. 1977), B: 35–67. I am indebted to Dr Collins for kindly providing one with a copy of this article.

  • 15.

    G. von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (London: SCM, 1970), 307.

  • 16.

    Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, 45.

  • 17.

    Thus see Link's ch. 7 entitled ‘Gerhard von Rads Interpretation des alttestamentlichen Weltverständnisses’, 268–85 of Die Welt als Gleichnis. This chapter is strategically important, lying as it does between ch. 6 on ‘The Problem of Natural Theology as Search for the Relation of God to the World’ and ch. 8 on ‘Karl Barth's Doctrine of the Parables of the Kingdom of Heaven’. Link's treatment makes no attempt to describe the variety of scholarly opinions on the Wisdom literature, nor does it take into account the feeling of many scholars that that same literature constituted a difficult problem for von Rad and formed a particularly weak area in his total theological view of the Old Testament.

  • 18.

    On the older modes of appreciation of this book, see interesting information provided by H. D. Preuβ, ‘Erwägungen zum theologischen Ort alttestamentlicher Weisheitsliteratur’, Ev. Th. 30(1970), 405

  • 19.

    M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (2 vols., London: SCM, 1974), i. 116

  • 20.

    See J. Barton, Amos’ Oracles against the Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), and his ‘Natural Law and Poetic Justice in the Old Testament’, JTS 30 (1979), 1–14.

  • 21.

    Because Jeremiah refers to a covenant made with the fathers in ancient times, but does not say that it comes from the Mosaic books.

  • 22.

    Words quoted from a paper written by my Vanderbilt student Mr William W. Graham.

  • 23.

    Link, Die Welt als Gleichnis, 42, and see his entire section 41–55, on Luther and Melanchthon.