Is the Old Testament a debate between priests and prophets?

Is the Old Testament a debate between priests and prophets? January 17, 2014

I’ve been reading two books recently that have me really wondering what to do with the Old Testament: RC Sproul’s The Holiness of God and Richard Beck’s Unclean. Sproul’s book uses some of the most troubling Old Testament depictions of God to define God’s holiness since holiness has to do with God’s otherness and incomprehensibility. Beck talks about the way that the ethics of mercy and sacrifice pull in opposite directions. The God depicted by the prophets seems to care mostly about mercy, while the God depicted by the priests in the Torah seems to care mostly about sacrifice. It may be a taboo question, but is the Old Testament really a debate between the priests and the prophets?

Because of my flirtation with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, I have gained a tremendous appreciation for the priestly side of religion. Growing up Baptist, I was indoctrinated with ideas like “the church is not the building; it’s the people” and “Christianity is about a relationship not a set of rituals.” I’ve since fallen in love with the basilica where I go every Monday. The sanctity that allows me to encounter the living God when I’m there is partly a consequence of the reverence for order that has been established. If the priest ad-libbed through the communion liturgy each week even if he did it flawlessly, the power of the space would be compromised.

Just to be clear, I’m not trying to say that the priests somehow “create” God or that the sacramental power depend on their performance of the ritual. It’s simply to say that order has value for the sake of establishing a sacred place. When Leviticus 10:10 says, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the clean and the unclean,” that makes sense to me. It’s not arbitrary to set aside certain space or speech as holy and sacred. Every time a cell phone rings in church, we are reminded that church is a place where some semblance of reverence is supposed to be maintained. It is by separating the holy from the common that we are able to experience the presence of God in the ordinary. Having designated sacred space and time in our lives to focus on God is what makes us able to hear God speak when we’re stuck in traffic.

What disturbs me is what happens a few verses earlier in Leviticus 10 when Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu get killed by God for firing up their incense before God said go. Or when a man named Uzzah gets struck down by God for touching the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel 6 to keep it from falling. It is very hard to reconcile the God who strikes people dead for touching holy things inappropriately with the God of 1 John 4 who is love. And no, it doesn’t work to just pervert the word “love” as some might by claiming that it’s a kind of “holy love” to strike a guy dead for breaking a taboo out of a genuine if misguided desire to protect God’s dignity by trying to keep the Ark from crashing. The Bible tells us what love is in 1 Corinthians 13 (which I suspect is some Christians’ least favorite chapter in the Bible).

I find it disgusting when commentators and preachers today offer glib “Monday morning quarterback” moral explanations thousands of years later for why Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah deserves what they got, saying duh, I would have killed them too if I were God. Any of us would have done what Uzzah did. My sons are no more respectful of the sanctity of our worship space than Nadab and Abihu were in their eagerness to do what their daddy was doing. My boys run around like hooligans in God’s house after worship is over. And I don’t chew them out for it because Jesus said let the children come to me and I don’t think God is a sadistic curmudgeon who will sic a plague on us because there’s laughter and jumping going on in his house (as long as nobody climbs on the pews). Now it’s true that if my sons did the same thing in the basilica, I would sic a plague on them myself (although if I were a Catholic youth pastor who somehow strangely had keys to the basilica, organizing a midnight laser tag game inside would be an extraordinary temptation).

The God of the prophets makes more sense to me than the God of the priests. He kicks ass, but not over people lighting incense at the wrong time or touching sacred boxes when they’re not supposed to. The God of the prophets kicks his peoples’ ass when they mistreat the aliens and the widows and the orphans. He calls them out for thinking that they can treat other people however they like as long as they stay “clean” with him. The God of the prophets sums it all up when he says, “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly” in Micah 6:8.

It seems to me that mercy and sacrifice represent the holiness of the prophets and the priests respectively. I don’t completely agree with Richard Beck’s assessment of the mutual exclusivity of mercy and sacrifice in Unclean. Certainly he’s right that seeking “purity” in policing your community’s borders is incompatible with the kind of striving to sympathize with the other required by mercy. A community whose self-definition is based on ritual purity requires an impure Gentile other with whom to contrast itself, and thus it cannot try to “understand the Gentile perspective.” They are simply “unclean” because God said so, and there’s no deconstructing that or else the community’s identity collapse. Still, if we’re going to be merciful cross-bearers in the world who tear down walls to show love and solidarity to all the outsiders, then we really do need to be priests of our own souls. I have seen over and over again in my life that when I’m living in a way that fills my heart with anxiety and shame, I take it out on other people. I need to be grounded in a holiness that is between me and God in order to be holy in how I treat others. Our bodies truly are a temple of the Lord. As Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Still I can’t hypnotize myself into “seeing” the same God who fried Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah when I pray. The God who talks to me has convicting things to say sometimes, but he’s not the ball of uncompromising wrath to whom the fundamentalists seem to talk when they pray. I don’t know if the priests who wrote Leviticus were simply wrong about God or if God did things then that He would never do now. The Holy Spirit had a purpose in keeping Leviticus in the book that for Christians is our story about Jesus. What I do not believe is that Jesus somehow has a good cop / bad cop relationship with the God of Leviticus, which is the theological bifurcation of dispensationalist evangelicalism. Jesus says quite plainly, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Nothing about God that is relevant for us to know is not part of His self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Every troubling question raised by the Old Testament receives its clarification in Jesus.

And Jesus hangs out with unclean people all the time. He heals people on the Sabbath in the middle of a worship service. He says “I desire mercy not sacrifice” twice in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7. So from Jesus’ perspective, the prophets win the debate with the priests. And yet it’s also true that Jesus’ priestly sacrifice is what empowers us to be merciful and that part of our mercy involves our own sacrificial self-emptying. So the debate continues unresolved. I guess that’s how God likes it.

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  • GaryBT

    Perhaps you should check out the works of Rene Girard, Gil Bailie, or James Alison, or any other authors who follow Girard’s theories, especially his idea that the Old Testament is “Text in Travail”. God’s character is not fully revealed until Jesus Christ therefore the priestly and kingly understanding of God is not complete and they often attributed violence to God.

    • MorganGuyton

      I’ve read Girard. I do tend to think that God’s character is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

  • tsgIII

    We have a throw of 1 Corinthians 13 over the back of our couch. I thoroughly believe it is split minded to think you can go to church if you are the church, and that split mindedness shows up elsewhere. Priests as clean becomes a hierarchial system that is a problem that always will show some cloven hoof under the gown. Rene Girard started to understand violence and its source while reading great literature. One of the unknown things about mimetic desire is that to this day we humans hide it from ourselves, and that is part of the reason it is so perpetually with us. Always blaming the other. The symbolic nature of our entry into Christianity as Baptism, is still gloriously orthodox and daily appropriate. I like the groups that do it with infants…..a childlike faith seems like a good one. As to spiritual formation, it is going to happen, may we all not let others try to keep us immature, and deal with the varying steps not so much as a ladder to God, but as the road less traveled.

    • MorganGuyton

      I like the image of showing a cloven hoof under the gown.

  • johnmeunier

    Interesting wrestling you are doing, Morgan. The distinction between priest and prophet as modes of Jewish religion goes back, I gather, at least to Max Weber who set up the distinction between institutional and charismatic religion. My entire Old Testament class was about this contrast. It is illuminating in ways, but I also think it tends to be relentlessly sociological. I’m not saying we can’t learn things from such scholarship, but I’m uncomfortable leaning too much on frameworks that discount God as an explanation. I am reminded, for instance, that Jesus Christ is prophet and priest.

    • MorganGuyton

      I’ve never really read anything by Max Weber. The distinction between the law and the prophets actually goes back to Jesus. I have trouble reconciling the God who zaps people for touching the Ark of the Covenant with the God of 1 John 4 which Wesley thought was the place where God’s character was most revealed. All that I’m not willing to do is make the dispensationalist neo-Marcionite move of saying that the Old Testament tells us what the Father is like and the New Testament tells us what the Son is like. And I just wonder if the people who wrote Leviticus would object to Micah 6 and the other prophetic passages which say I don’t want your burnt offerings, I want your hearts. There are different threads in the Old Testament and they don’t depend on discounting God as an explanation.

  • Walter Kovacs

    Given the instant death of Ananias and Saphira in Acts, as well as the numerous pasages in Revelation which speak of people being tormented in the presence of the Lamb (Jesus), I’m not real inclined to see any kind of difference RE divine wrath in the OT/NT.

    Sure, God punishes Israel for not looking after widows and orphans, but just as often it’s for chasing after other gods, or flirting (figuratively and literally) with other religions and nations – and each of the Prophets, minor and major make that very point. IMO there’s no real ‘debate’ between ‘priests and prophets’.

    • MorganGuyton

      The question is if God wants us to be perfectly loving which is the Wesleyan/prophetic understanding of holiness (aka mercy) or if God wants us to be perfectly “clean” which is the Reformed/priestly understanding of holiness (aka sacrifice). How you answer that question determines a lot of things about your soteriology and everything else.

      • Walter Kovacs

        Well, holiness has very little to do with either mercy or cleanliness, at least in the OT. Holiness, biblically, is that other-ness, or a bit more loosely, that set-apart-ness (you could probably make an argument that cleanliness is a way of signifying that set-apart-ness, though one shouldn’t confuse the sign, cleanliness, for the greater reality which it signifies, holiness) that God has and His people have. Holiness is also, in some way, physical – read the passages in Exodus about the laying on of hands or anointing of inanimate objects (furniture in the tabernacle, for example) which renders them holy. A glance at the NT reveals much the same thing – physical objects have holiness ‘transferred’ (for lack of a better term).

        So really, holiness as mercy/loveing-ness or cleanliness doesn’t do too much justice to the Old Testament concept of holiness, which is the same vision of holiness which the New Testament carries. I guess they may be a *part* of a broad concept, but sticking with the biblical data, I find both of those concepts to fall short.

        • MorganGuyton

          If the New Testament had exactly the same concept of holiness as the Old Testament, then the Pharisees would have been exactly right and there would have been no reason for Jesus to come. It’s true that mercy and cleanliness are derivative concepts. They might be properly called different possible *ends* of holiness. The claim that I make as a Wesleyan is that the otherness and set-apart-ness of holiness is not arbitrary and morally neutral but that we are set apart and purified for the sake of being God’s love/mercy for the world. There’s a thread of that in the Old Testament. Abraham is blessed in order to be a blessing. But it gets lost in the “This is clean or unclean because I said so” part. The thread gets picked up again in Isaiah and the other prophets who restate Israel’s purpose to be a light to the nations. Election is for the sake of evangelism; we are elected and made holy in order to become vessels of the mercy that we have been shown, not just to be shiny trophies on God’s shelf. Of course if you’re coming from a reformed background, you would probably say that God simply chose some and rejected others before time for the sake of his own opaque “glory.” But that’s where the fault-line is between reformed and Wesleyan conceptions of holiness. Holiness is the word that John Wesley used for being perfected in love because Wesley understood 1 John to offer the defining characteristics of God’s character. So even if the holiness of the Old Testament God doesn’t have a thing to do with love, it’s the term that Wesleyans continue to use.

          • Walter Kovacs

            Why would Jesus have not head to come if the concept of holiness remained the same from the OT to the NT? – which wasn’t my claim, but for the sake of argument, and all that. I’m not sure how you make that leap

          • MorganGuyton

            Oh I know it wasn’t your claim. I’m contending that Jesus comes to clarify what God is looking for in our holiness. If no clarification was necessary, then Jesus’ coming wouldn’t have been necessary. The Pharisees represent the best you can do with the holiness prescribed by the Torah apart from Jesus’ clarifications.

          • Walter Kovacs

            Ah, I see. I guess a lot depends on how you view Torah. The Pharisees, however, weren’t the wicked legalists Christianity has often made them out to be (no doubt *some* were, but by and large, not so much), so I’m not sure your point is so strong – I realize the Pharisees are not the main issue and more of an illustration – I’m making a side note there.

            RE Jesus coming to clarify what God is looking for in our holiness – this goes back to my first sentance, namely, that Torah isn’t what one does to be holy.

  • pl1224

    I’ve never been a divinity student–although I was educated for 12 years by the Sisters of Notre Dame De Namur–so I have to wade in the shallows at the edge of the hermeneutic weeds. But it seems to me that if we are seeking to comprehend, as well as any mortal being can, the nature of God and His relationship with humankind as revealed through His words and actions in the Bible, then we need to look to the New Testament and Jesus’ words and actions. Since we can be relatively confident that the NT is historically and factually accurate, at least in a general sense, then the example of Jesus’ interactions with those around Him is probably a good indication of the nature of the Father’s relationship to mankind.

    The Old Testament, on the other hand, is a collection of songs, stories, poems, etc. that serve as allegories to illustrate important historical events, moral lessons, and the connections between the two. Who is to say that the God portrayed in the OT is not a projection of the beliefs of the early biblical writers, intended to reflect their ideas of what God ought to be like?

    Obviously, my worldview is very different from that of the evangelical and fundamentalist branches of Christianity. I was reaised as a Roman Catholic, and have been an Episcopalian for the last couple of decades. Neither faith tradition ascribes to the notion of the Bible as literal, inerrant fact. So, if my remarks offend anyone, please understand it is not intentional.

    • MorganGuyton

      Not offended. I probably take the OT more historically than you do, but I agree with the basic idea that Jesus is where we should look for the character of God.