Part 2 of my review of The Return of the Chaos Monsters by Gregory Mobley
Making a barely subdued chaos his first premise, Mobley next takes up the Torah or “Pentateuchal narratives and teachings” and argues that their backstory is that humans must “act as co-creators of order and co-managers of chaos, with God,” by “living in accordance with the divine instructions” in the Torah.
However, in Mobley’s view, the creation is not at risk of coming undone if we don’t all follow the Law of Moses as originally given. He suggests that its commandments are “not written in stone, even though that is how the story of the Ten Commandments tells it” (p. 37); they’re adaptable to new situations. So adaptable, in fact, that following them comes down basically to “every free soul’s expression of the beneficence that animates it” (p. 46). To find biblical support for the notion that “Torah was always capable of reinterpretation,” Mobley argues that “the very words of the Ten Commandments are different in Deuteronomy than in Exodus . . . Forty years elapse in story time and the divine instructions already have new dimensions” (p. 37).
I agree with his conclusion about God’s people no longer being bound to keep the law literally, but I think the proper way to get there is through the “front story” of the Bible, of a covenant community in relationship with God that is transformed from being national to multinational. I feel that Mobley’s attempt to get there through a backstory doesn’t really work.
The commandments themselves match in Exodus and Deuteronomy, verbatim. The only differences are that the phrase “as the Lord your God has commanded you” is added to the commandment about honoring father and mother, and the rationale for the sabbath becomes, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” rather than, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” In this one instance, one commandment is recontextualized, but the commandment itself is still not worded differently. Only in this quite limited sense is it true that “the very words of the Ten Commandments are different.”
Much more significantly, nowhere does the Torah describe its own purpose as empowering humans for chaos management. Rather, its stated purpose is to show the people of Israel how to walk in the same “ways” as the God with whom they are in covenant relationship, and how consequently to create a model community that will attract other nations, ultimately fulfilling the promise to their ancestor Abraham that through him all peoples on earth will be blessed.
But once again, let’s follow Mobley’s move, to see where it leads. He turns next to the “Former Prophets” (Joshua, Judges, and Samuel-Kings), which he describes as the Hebrew Bible’s “treasury of tales” (p. 49). The characterization doesn’t quite fit; Mobley acknowledges that Joshua, for example, “contains more than narrative—there are descriptions of rituals, geographic lists . . . and much speechifying.” But,” he says, “we will ignore all that to float in the stream of stories” (p. 56). I would argue once again that choosing to “ignore all that” is the surest way to miss the point of a book like Joshua. Disparaging the paired covenant ceremonies at Ebal and Shechem as “rituals,” for example, overlooks their essential role in both the structure and purpose of the book. And Joshua’s stirring farewell to the Israelites (“choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”) is a rhetorical masterpiece that should hardly be dismissed as “speechifying.”
But I will say that Mobley’s reading of the tales themselves is insightful. He demonstrates how, over and over again, characters receive their “just deserts” in ironically appropriate ways. Abimelech, for example, slays his brothers on a stone to claim the kingship, but he is killed when a woman drops a stone on his head from a tower. Gehazi sneaks out to get a reward from the Syrian general Naaman, whom Elisha has healed of leprosy, and for his punishment is struck by leprosy himself. Mobley calls this “poetic justice” and says it illustrates how “God has enacted the tough love of moral cause and effect” to encourage fidelity to the Torah, which will “support management of the chaos” (p. 47).
Within this section devoted to the Former Prophets, however, Mobley dashes briefly over to the book of Isaiah to note similar poetic justice in the case of Lucifer, who was previously a heavenly being, but who said in his heart, “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God” and was ironically “brought down” to the underworld instead. There’s a reason for this excursus. Readers of the book need to keep a careful eye on this theme; they may be surprised where it leads.
Mobley turns next to consider the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the minor prophets) in a chapter entitled “Anger Management.” Though “diminished” by the “creation of the many,” he says, God still has “reserves of love-energy,” but while these are “vast,” they are “no longer quite enough” (p. 83). And so God gets angry and creates in human lives “effects that go beyond causality, retribution, and consequence” (p. 75).
It would seem that Mobley is saying that God was not able to maintain the “tough love of moral cause and effect” consistently because of his deficiency in love, and so there were times when “the divine anger threatened to burn hot and out of control.” The prophets were needed to perform “a mediating function between God and creation”: they “massaged and cajoled and shamed and used every rhetorical trick they had at their disposal to move God from the light and heat of day [anger] to the benedictionary calm of God’s evening-vespers-time stroll through the Garden” (p. 96).
However, Mobley says, while “this theme of anger management can be traced between the lines of the Latter Prophets . . . it is best seen in narratives . . . in which the two greatest figures from Israel’s past, Abraham and Moses, are recast as prophetic intercessors” (p. 77). As in the case of the story he said was back of the creation accounts, which he illustrated from Psalms, Isaiah, and Job, Mobley finds that his backstory of the prophets is most evident in the Pentateuchal narratives, where Abraham intercedes (though ultimately unsuccessfully) for Sodom and Gomorrah to be spared from destruction, and where Moses convinces God not to destroy Israel after the golden calf incident.
However, Mobley does cite some examples of the need for, and practice of, divine anger management within the Latter Prophets themselves. After each of two visions of destruction, for instance, Amos pleads for Israel and the Lord “relents.” (However, Iafter the third and immediately following vision, the Lord declares, “I will spare them no more.” This may be the literary device in which an intended action is taken “the third time around” after two tentative ventures.) The book of Ezekiel, for its part, Mobley says, shows what happens without the “dynamic of prophetic intercession”: “I searched among them for a man to . . . stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so I would not destroy it. But I couldn’t find one. So I poured out on them my curse, with the fire of my rage, I consumed them” (p. 90).
Paradoxically, however, Mobley also suggests that “if the prophet does not intercede, God may have to act out all the parts.” He quotes Muffs to this effect: “If an intercessor does not arise . . . the Holy One . . . rises from His chair of strict justice and goes to sit upon His chair of mercy. . . . The Holy One . . . appropriates to Himself . . . the role of intercessor, and pleads for Israel in His very own court” (p. 90). Mobley finds this kind of “self-produced intercession” in the divine soliloquies in the book of Hosea, for example. How this is consistent with God lacking sufficient reserves of love-energy to turn away from anger without the mediation of prophets is not clear to me.