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In Defense of the Old Testament

In Defense of the Old Testament

    With that title I'm in trouble already with the PC contingent in Christendom who in these latter days have replaced in their orders of worship "Old Testament Reading" with "Hebrew Scriptures."  Nonetheless, I sally forth to tilt with mainline church windmills, old established clichés of Biblical interpretation which continue to blow ill winds at faithful minds too easily swayed.

     Beginning with a canard lay people have declared in my company, to show the preacher that they too know a thing or two about theology. Namely: the God of the Old Testament is a god of judgment and fiery righteousness, but the God of the New Testament is a god of love and grace.  Rabbis steeped in Torah should have shot that sitting duck out of the water generations ago.  Think about it.  What is the tenderest passage of the Bible you have ever memorized? You know, the one comparing the Almighty's abiding care for us to that of a shepherd for his sheep.  Psalm 23 is in the heart of the Old Testament, not the Gospel according to John.  On the other hand, The Revelation of John, the last book of the Bible, contains verses of delight in the exquisite torture of the unfaithful (i.e., Chapter 14), from which is borrowed the description of any preacher who favors a hard line toward the sinner, that he is all fire and brimstone.

     Themes of congruence, Old to New and back, can also be cited to mitigate the purported differences . When feminists go searching for hints of God's tender motherhood, they select imagery from Isaiah (see 66:13 ) or celebrate Solomon's Sophia (aka, Wisdom).  On the other hand, the sentence of death visited suddenly on Ananias and Sapphira in the opening days of the Christian church (recorded in the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 5) reads like the fate suffered by Lot's wife or any citizen of Ai.  The softer human virtues do not belong exclusively to the Gospel; nor are the Hebrew Scriptures the sole record in the Bible of human violence done in the name of God.

    Granted, the Pentateuch (first five Books of the OT) and the History are filled with narratives of war and bloodletting, with rarely a divine word of disapproval about it.  That disturbs our modern sensibilities. "Modern" is the key qualifier. Remember, please, that 150 years ago Julia Ward Howe could write about the Lord "trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored," and we continue to sing The Battle Hymn of the Republic with misty eyes and full throat, notwithstanding the tune's tone like Psalm 137:9.  To my mind the Old Testament is the Book of Reality in its unblinkered description of the perennial human tendency to violence.   The New Testament is the Book of the New Reality, in the person of Jesus and the life emanating from him, disavowing violence as the solution to humanity's conflicts, but well-aware, as victims always are, of the intransigence of human belligerence.

    From Genesis to The Revelation of John the Bible may not be a seamless whole; but neither is it a study in contrasts, the more recent testament borrowing liberally from the older one.  As my seminary professor of Old Testament James Muilenburg explained it to us years ago, that we study the Old Testament to understand who Christ is. Just, as Christians insist, the New Testament is an essential, if not the only possible, sequel to the Old.

    There is, however, yet another misunderstanding of the Old Testament, a misinterpretation really, that bugs me.  I refer to the treatment most Protestant preachers accord the Hebrew heroes, as if they were moral exemplars.  Usually positive, if sometimes negative... latterly, like Samson and his fondness for women and wine leading to his capture. True, the Apostle Paul celebrates Abraham for his faith, hoping against hope, believing what he could not see, that he would be the father of many nations; and so should we, in the light, the searing light of the cross, believe the impossible, that the dead live and the future belongs to the one hanging on the two crossed beams of wood. But should we in our admiration for old Abraham's faith ignore the fact that he pimped his wife to save his own skin?  David's courage and childlike trust in God bring honor to him in every generation; notwithstanding the fact that he was a lousy father, an adulterer, and a second hand murderer.  Elijah faced down king and crowd defending faith in Yahweh, but then took vengeance into his own hands slaughtering four hundred fifty priests of Baal by the River Kishon. Jeremiah, God's mouthpiece for one of the most beautiful and prescient passages in all Scripture (see Chapter 31:31-34), disappears completely in later life, possibly in despair for the failure of the Lord to deliver on the vision of a kinder and gentler righteousness. Nary a hero here without feet of clay.

    What gets lost in this focus on the agents of God's purposes with humanity is the overall intent of the Old Testament: to trace the significant events and people in the history of salvation, from beginning to end. Just how it could be that a deity worshiped by a forlorn and captive people is the only god of everybody, the creator of the universe, the sovereign of history, and the incarnate redeemer of mankind. Often, too often, the details of that history are not pretty.  Like a child's birth in struggle and blood the story of God's ways with us unfolds with uncompromising glimpses of our reality, culminating (for Christians, at least) on a hill outside Jerusalem where a cross is raised to snuff out the incarnation of goodness and love. Not pretty, just true. And very human, like those through whom the divine will is accomplished, sometimes rationalizing their behavior however despicable, like TV evangelists everywhere, as if whatever they do were the design of God. That long sweep of the history of salvation should not be forgotten in the focus on those who participate significantly in it.  The overarching theme does not excuse the cruelties, stupidities, and downright evil of said participants; but it will enable us to understand their vanity and violence along with their virtue. 

   And perhaps it will provide us by God's grace with a measure of forgiveness for our own sinfulness, not to let us off the hook, but to remind us that we are never beyond the reach of God's mercy.     



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