Reading the Old Testament (RJS)

There was an interesting and often enlightening, occasionally frustrating, conversation on my post Tuesday Should Reading the Bible Make One an Atheist? A number of people agreed with Jillette, at least partially … especially with regard to the Old Testament. Jillette characterized it as tribal. One of the commenters noted that “it is tedious, tribal, occasionally uplifting, ludicrous, and so on” another mentioned the “the depictions of genocide, rape, etc.” I remember as a child being disturbed by the story of Achan (they killed his children because of his sin! – Joshua 7).

Is the Old Testament a problem to be solved?

The New Testament writers certainly didn’t think so. Paul encourages Timothy telling him that the Holy Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” In 1 Cor. 15 Paul notes that “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  In Luke 24 on the road to Emmaus Jesus said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.  And this is just a very small taste of the role the Hebrew scriptures play in the New Testament.

How are we to read the Old Testament? Is it tedious and tribal? Should the depictions of genocide in the conquest of Canaan gives us pause?  I’m not asking how a non-Christian would see the Old Testament out of context, but how a Christian should see the Old Testament in context.

I don’t have a solution to this problem (if it is a problem), but I do have some thoughts I would like to put up for consideration.

About ten years ago Scot wrote a book The Jesus Creed for which this blog is named. This is a spiritual formation book looking forward at how we should live as Christians, but the focus is on the great commandment – a commandment with two parts. In all of the synoptic gospels we find record of an incident where a teacher of the law comes to Jesus to test him and asks about the essence of the law.

In Matthew 22:35-40 Jesus supplies the answer:

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In Mark 12:28-34 Jesus supplies the answer and the teacher of the law agrees. In Luke 10:25-28 the response is turned around, there the teacher of the law asks a slightly different question and also when asked by Jesus supplies the answer.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

In Matthew we read that all the Law and the Prophets hang on these to commandments. In Mark the teacher agrees and Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” In Luke the response is “Do this and you will live.”

This should shape how we read the Old Testament. I have come to the opinion that there are three important things we should bear in mind as Christians as we read and teach the Old Testament.

(1) The Old Testament is a theological document and serves a theological purpose. The construction of the Old Testament as we have it is born out of the experience of exile and return from exile, sometime after 539 B. C. Some of the sources are most definitely older. I am certainly not claiming that the text was constructed out of thin air at this late date. But the Old Testament as we have it was shaped, edited, and compiled in response to the experience of Israel in exile. With this context many of the little bits and pieces can be brought into focus.  Pete Enns’s discussion in Genesis for Normal People or The Evolution of Adam is quite useful here (whatever you may think of his conclusions about Adam).

(2) The theological purpose of the Old Testament was fresh in the minds of first century Jews. It was into this mix that Jesus came when the time was right, as the fulfillment of the  Scriptures, as God’s Messiah. The first Christians were first century Jews.  When Paul or the author of Matthew or Luke refer to Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture, this was their context.

(3) When Matthew quoted Jesus as saying “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” he knew what he was talking about. This isn’t a throw away line. These two commandments permeate almost every aspect of the Old Testament. Either people are being called to love the Lord their God with all their heart, mind and soul or they are failing to love God; either people are being called to love their neighbor or they are failing to do so. Some claim that there is no unifying theme in the Old Testament, but I think this is the unifying theme.

Many of the more troublesome passages are, in fact, deeply linked to the command to love God and the factors that caused people to fail. They were led astray, often by others in the land, to put up Asherah poles and worship the Ba’als, to cast golden calves. The sin of Jeroboam is a recurring theme.  I no longer worry about the harsh passages during the Exodus or in Joshua. I am not concerned about whether they “really happened” or not. I tend to think that the telling of the story is shaped and edited in response to the failings of Israel that led to the exile. They had failed to follow God. This had devastating consequences and it shapes the way they tell their story.

The theme of love of neighbor, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner among you, is a theme that also permeates the Old Testament, from Genesis through Malachi. It is prominent throughout the prophets. When the prophets are not charging the people with unfaithfulness to God, they are accusing them of greed and oppression.

I have found it enlightening to read the Old Testament with the great commandment in mind, and also to read in various orders. The Prophets (which in the Jewish system includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), then the Pentateuch, then the Writings. then the Prophets again.  To move from the Prophets to the Gospels to the Letters of Paul is likewise enlightening. Paul’s language often echoes that found in the Prophets. I had never realized this before, but it isn’t surprising for an educated first century Jew. And the great commandment permeates Paul as well.

When we read the Bible as moral stories hitting the high points and as passages in isolation we miss the forest for the trees. Often we go one step further and miss the trees for an in depth analysis of the patterns in the bark on the north side of some particular tree.

What do you think?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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