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Moral Agency in the Hebrew Bible  

Anne W. Stewart

Do humans have a will capable of choosing the good, doing the good, and evaluating the good? These are the central questions of moral agency, the notion that humans can be morally responsible for their actions, that is, that they are capable of deliberately exercising agency for good or ill. The Hebrew Bible offers multiple perspectives on these questions, and at least three different models of moral agency can be discerned. Some traditions indicate that humans are fundamentally flawed moral creatures who are incapable of choosing the good apart from divine intervention. For example, the psalmist confesses: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5) and prays for a divine change in the human condition: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10). Other traditions, however, frequently take the more optimistic view that humans are capable of choosing and acting in accord with the good, though they may not always exercise their inherent capacity to do so. The Deuteronomic law, for example, is based on the notion that humans have the ability to distinguish obedience from disobedience and to act accordingly. Thus humans will reap the consequences of their actions, for God “maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and [God] repays in their own person those who reject him … Therefore observe diligently the commandment” (Deut. 7:9–11). In other words, humans are held responsible for their moral choice. A third view, found especially in the book of Proverbs, takes a middle view that moral agency involves a combination of internal and external factors: while most, though not all, humans are inherently capable of choosing the good, their capacity for moral agency requires cultivation by external forces. That is, humans are capable of moral choice, yet their ability to choose according to the good depends upon both an innate receptivity and training by others. The Hebrew Bible thus reflects a diverse set of viewpoints about the status of human moral agency, the extent of human accountability, and the factors that influence human action.

Article

Names of God in the Hebrew Bible  

Collin Cornell

In everyday English parlance, God’s name is simply “God.” In the Hebrew Bible, however, the God of Israel has a personal proper name, similar to “Susan” or “Teddy”: the four-lettered name YHWH, also known as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letters”). This name is by far the most common designation for God in the Hebrew Bible. Four texts within this body of literature give special attention to God’s disclosure of the divine name to humankind: in Gen 4:25–26 shortly after the creation of the first humans; and in Exod 3, Exod 6, and Ezek 20 at the time of God’s emancipation of the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt. English translations obscure the prominence of God’s name by replacing Hebrew YHWH with the common noun “Lord,” written in small caps. As it turns out, this practice has an ancient pedigree: already in the Second Temple era, spoken recitations of the Hebrew Bible replaced Hebrew YHWH with the Hebrew word for “Lord,” adonay, and written manuscripts marked the name YHWH with special orthography. Later Christian copies of the Greek Old Testament would bring the oral tradition directly into the text itself, substituting Greek κύριος, “Lord,” for YHWH. These customs probably trace back to the influence of several other biblical texts, including the fourth commandment of the Decalogue (Exod 20:7//Deut 5:11) and Lev 24:16. The Talmud (Pes. 50a) also records a rabbinic interpretation of Exod 3:15 according to which God says “This [YHWH] is my name to conceal.” But God has other names in the Hebrew Bible, too. Several names are formed by joining YHWH together with a second word, for example: YHWH ṣebaoth, a phrase that is usually translated into English as “the Lord of hosts”; or again, another example: YHWH elohim, translated “the Lord God.” The second part of this compound name is also an important name for God in its own right. The word elohim in Hebrew means “god” or “gods.” It is technically a plural noun, although most of the time in Hebrew it refers to a single divine agent. It is also typically a common noun similar to the English word “god”; that is, it signifies one among a class of divine beings. However, also as in English, Hebrew elohim occasionally functions as a proper name: capital-G God. Another Hebrew noun for god, eloah, shares a similarly dual purpose: mostly it is a generic word for divinity but sometimes it is the caption for the one God of Israel (i.e., YHWH). These two names—YHWH and its compound forms as well as elohim in its usage as a name—cover the majority of instances when the Hebrew Bible names God. A few other divine titles are name-like but not, properly speaking, names. The first among these is the word Shadday, but also the series of so-called “el-epithets” found in the book of Genesis: El Elyon, El the Creator of Heaven and Earth, El Roi, and El Olam.

Article

Martin Luther’s Life, 1526–1546  

Mickey L. Mattox

Luther’s life in the years after 1525 was relatively placid in comparison to the turbulence he experienced between the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses and his marriage to Katharina von Bora in 1525. To be sure, there were events and controversies aplenty, and many of them impacted the circumstances of his daily life, altered or sharpened the focus of his theological work, and influenced the shape his movement would take after his death. He remained to the end a central figure in both church and civil affairs, supporting the evangelical reform of the European churches and offering his advice—and his criticism—to any who would listen. Limitations on his travel resulting from the Edict of Worms made him a sideline player at the Augsburg Diet of 1530, but he contributed crucially to Evangelical identity through his two catechisms of 1529, as well as the Smalcald Articles he wrote to define and defend Evangelical faith and practice. The elder Luther also assumed a leading role in Wittenberg’s university. He was its most famous professor as well as its most powerfully creative thinker. In 1535 he became dean of its faculty as well. As dean, he presided over a number of important disputations dealing with such issues as ecclesiology, Christology, and the doctrine of the Trinity. He also remained little Wittenberg’s most famous and influential person, eclipsing in many ways even his own prince electors. People of low status and high sought out Dr. Luther for advice of every kind. Informally, he became a powerful patron. Luther continued as well to lecture and publish theological works during this period, notably biblical “commentaries” (typically based on classroom lectures), a treatise on the church and one on the papacy, and a harsh series of treatises against the Jews. He remained the most influential contributor to Evangelical self-understanding, opposing, for example, both the Anti-trinitarian thinkers outside his movement (Servetus, Campanus) and the antinomian thinkers within it (Agricola). The German Bible translation project he had begun at the Wartburg resulted at last in the complete “Luther Bible” (1534). Together with a team of colleagues he dubbed “my Sanhedrin,” he continued to work on this project, with the last revised edition appearing in 1545. Notwithstanding the abiding apocalyptic angst and increasing world weariness that frequently marked the works of his later years, his theological vitality continued largely unabated. The elder Luther was not content merely to repeat the settled truths he had discovered in his youth, but continued to “shake every tree” in the great forest of Scripture in his quest to know God rightly and serve him faithfully. As Luther moved into his fifties and sixties he also suffered from a steadily debilitating complex of interrelated health issues. His death at age sixty-two on February 18, 1546, left his movement without its charismatic leader and thus vulnerable to both external political attack and internal theological division. Contrary to Saxon legal practice, he designated Katharina his sole heir.

Article

The Pentateuch  

Thomas B. Dozeman

The Pentateuch (“five books”) is the title for the first five books of the Bible in the Greek translation, known as the Septuagint (LXX). The more original title is the Hebrew, Torah, meaning “law.” The revelation and composition of the Torah is attributed to Moses, which is reflected in the additional designation of the books as the “Torah of Moses.” The authorship of the Pentateuch is central to its interpretation in Jewish and Christian tradition. The Mosaic authorship characterized the interpretation of the Pentateuch in the precritical period of research. The study of the Pentateuch in the modern era has been dominated by the quest to identify its anonymous authors and the changing social contexts in which the literature was written.