This is part 3 of my journey through the UK.
Having left Aberdeen, I got on the train from Scotland to England, arriving in Durham around suppertime. I was welcomed at the station by Walter Moberly, professor of Old Testament at Durham University.
Walter Moberly is a brilliant scholar who cares immensely about reading Scripture theologically for the sake of the church. I have benefited greatly from his work over the years; indeed, my very first email contact with him (ten years ago), prodded me to significantly nuance my interpretation of a particular biblical text (Genesis 12:1-3).
Walter was also the doctoral supervisor of my colleague Josef Sykora, for which I am very grateful.
Abraham’s Response to God in Genesis 22
I came to Durham, at Walter’s invitation, to give a paper in the Old Testament research seminar for postgraduate students in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. My topic was “Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straightjacket of Tradition: An Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Abraham’s Test in Genesis 22.”
My interpretation of this famous story (known in Jewish tradition as the Aqedah or the binding of Isaac) deviated significantly Walter’s (he has written extensively on the topic). Whereas I was critical of Abraham’s silent response to God in Genesis 22, Walter has defended Abraham in numerous articles and thinks the story was meant to teach about the true attitude of the heart when Israel offers sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple.
I don’t doubt that the story came to have that use, but I wanted to understand what it could mean in the narrative world of the Abraham story itself.
Despite our disagreement, and the questions that he raised in the wake of my presentation, Walter was extremely gracious to me throughout my visit to Durham.
The Hospitality of Walter Moberly
He was, in fact, a wonderful host. I stayed with Walter and Jenny Moberly in their house near the university, the very house that Charles Kingsley Barrett (the famous New Testament scholar) used to live in.
Having lived and taught in Durham since 1989, Walter Moberly has become very knowledgeable about the history of the university and the cathedral (which are both on the same grounds).
He gave me a fascinating walking tour of Durham cathedral, which dates back almost to the Norman conquest (which took place in 1066). Construction began in the late eleventh century and was completed in the early twelfth century—which makes the cathedral about a thousand years old (that’s pretty impressive to someone from the New World).
St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral
Among the historical details I learned was that St. Cuthbert (634–687), the monk who became bishop of Lindisfarne and who died there, was buried in Durham cathedral.
When it became evident that the island of Lindisfarne (off the east coast of Northumbria) would no longer be safe from invasion by enemies, the monks moved their order (along with the body of Cuthbert) to Durham and he was re-interred there. This was before the Cathedral was built.
Legend has it that when Cuthbert’s tomb was opened (first to move him to Durham, then to rebury him in the cathedral once it was built) his body was incorrupt. This magnified the fame of Cuthbert, who was a saint in his own right independently of this phenomenon.
Even when emissaries from Oliver Cromwell (the staunch Puritan) opened Cuthbert’s tomb in the seventeenth century, they were awed by the incorruption of his body, and re-buried him, despite Cromwell’s distaste for the veneration of saints.
I had the amazing experience of sitting where this picture was taken, looking at Cuthbert’s tomb (the dark rectangle set in the floor), overwhelmed by the depths of time (a twenty-first century man contemplating a seventh century monk buried in a twelfth century cathedral).
I prayed silently, offering thanks for the faithfulness of God from the beginning of creation, through all the ages of the world, including his revelation through Abraham, Israel, and Jesus, up through medieval England, and into all the lands of the world, right up to the present day—and on into the consummation of all things.
Thanks be to God, the Alpha and the Omega, the creator and redeemer of all times—including this brief epoch we call human history.