Michael P. Knowles is professor and George F. Hurlburt Chair of Preaching at McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, Ontario. He’s written a couple books on preaching, and now this book, The Unfolding Mystery of The Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst, which explores how the name of God revealed in Exodus has been understood in the three monotheistic faith traditions. The book represents his attempt at a kind of “generous orthodoxy” when it comes to who and what God is. This involves both faithful exposition of key passages in the Old Testament, and tracing the historical reception and interaction with those passages in Jewish, Muslim and Christian thought. His hope for readers is that “by meditating, longing for, and acting on the basis of what we discover to be true about God, our own ‘ways’ will come to reflect, in some small degree, the ‘ways’ of God” (49).
Using Exodus 34:5-9 as a framework, Knowles offers a series of chapters exegeting the divine name that is presented to Moses. After a short introduction on the name of God as understood in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, Knowles launches into a chapter on the name of God in Exodus and the 13 attributes. As Knowles explains, “According to one possible reading, the God of Israel is:
- YHWH (the One who simply is, unconstrainable and self-sufficient)
- YHWH (repeated for emphasis)
- God, who is
- slow to anger
- abundant in showing steadfast love and
- truth (or faithfulness); indeed
- preserving steadfast love for thousands of generations;
- forgiving with respect to iniquity,
- to transgression, and
- to sin; yet
- by no means clearing the guilty
From this rather interesting way of dividing up “attributes” (which comes from Jewish reflection on the matter), Knowles takes readers through 6 chapters. First, we see God as compassionate and gracious. Knowles makes the compelling case that these attributes must be the foundation for how we understand God. There is interestingly little interaction with Muslim thought on this attribute, other than to note toward the beginning of the chapter that Allah can be referred to as “al-Rahman” can mean “the All-Merciful” or “the all Gracious” one (51). Whether or not this is an accurate understanding of how Muslims understand Allah, I’m not sure, but I would think not.
After the appropriately lengthy chapter on God as gracious and compassionate, these attributes are further underscored by a chapter on God being slow to anger. This is followed in succession by chapters on God’s steadfast love, his trustworthiness, and finally his forgiveness and justice. Knowles then wraps up with a concluding chapter meditating on the story of Joseph showing how it is used as a template for how the divine character can determine values for godly conduct in the Judeo-Christian tradition (212).
In the end, the book is a call to all three Abrahamic faiths to return to these foundational attributes of God rather to be quick to proclaim “God will condemn and destroy various heretics, apostates, and unbelievers, on the grounds that they do not see things our way” (235). This is all well and good, although I think at least in the Christian tradition, this fact cannot be overlooked. Epistemic humility? Sure. But there is also one certain judgment.
On that note though, this is still an interesting book to read, especially if you’re into Jewish studies. Knowles takes readers deep into rabbinic sources, covers Islamic ones to a lesser extent, and Christian reflection somewhere in the middle. I don’t see this book being a good read for the average reader, but it will serve those readers who want to dig deeply into the history of interpretation of Exodus 34:5-9 well.
- Author: Michael P. Knowles
- Title: The Unfolding Mystery of The Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst
- Publisher: IVP Academic (September 28, 2012)
- Paperback: 254pgs
- Reading Level: Bible School
- Audience Appeal: Pastors and Bible Students who are interested in an in-depth study of God’s name
- Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of IVP Academic)
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