Can I Trust the Old Testament?
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
January 24, 2016
Matthew 22: 34-40 (CEB)
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. 40All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
I believe it’s fair to say that the biggest story in the news over the last six months to a year is “ISIS.” Whether it’s the growing influence of ISIS in the Middle East as they establish and maintain a greater geographical foothold, or the threat of ISIS in the western world as they stretch out their hand of influence via the internet. ISIS makes the news because of their takeover of small villages and their executions of persons representing ideals in opposition to their own. ISIS is the topic of much political debate, and the cause of much tension and fear. To oversimplify ISIS, it is based on a radical, fundamental version of Islam, which believes that the end of the world is coming, and their job is to expedite the end times by provoking war and doing away with any who do not adhere to their beliefs.
Now, compare that with this: a story out of the book of Joshua. The Israelites are preparing to establish themselves in Canaan, the land promised to their ancestor Abraham, the Promised Land. As they approach Jericho (and later the city of Ai), God instructs them that they are to kill every inhabitant in the city. Now, sometimes in the Bible, a reference to some population is simply a reference to the men. But not in this case. God’s instructions specifically spell out that the Israelites are to destroy every single man, woman, child, and even every animal occupying Jericho. To give this a bit of a modern twist, it would be as if God spoke to Christians today and said, “Be like ISIS. Go out and destroy ever person in your community who does not believe what you believe, who does not attend Wesley Memorial United Methodist, who is not a Christian.” That’s pretty extreme, isn’t it? So we get this idea, understandably, that the Old Testament can be quite problematic. Just listen to what Richard Dawkins, a known atheist has to say about the Old Testament: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction; jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” That’s somewhat extreme, but in all honesty, it’s difficult for non-believers and believers alike to fully wrap their heads around the Old Testament.
I think this question, “Can I trust the Old Testament,” or “Can I really believe in the Old Testament?” is one of the questions I get the most as a pastor. Except, I think the question we really ask is not so much, “Can I trust the Old Testament?” as “What am I supposed to do with those crazy stories in the Old Testament?” And we ask this question because we realize that if we believe these crazy stories, it also means we believe in a God of war, a God that is not always just, a God that endorses slavery, and so on. But that just doesn’t make sense, not when we are seeking to be faithful followers to Jesus, who teaches us to treat others in the same way we wish to be treated, to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In fact this dichotomy is so problematic that there are some pastors who simply try to avoid the Old Testament. They stick to teaching out of the gospels and epistles to avoid the problems that the Old Testament brings. Yet, the Old Testament is such a significant part of our sacred texts. So with those contradictions, what are we to make of the Old Testament, can we really trust this large section of the Bible? To answer this question, we are going to spend some time today looking at the history of the body of books we call the Old Testament, and the way that Jesus handled these texts.
First, a bit about how the Old Testament as we know it came to be. For starters, we need to understand that what we call the Old Testament might also be called the Hebrew Bible. This is the collection of Scripture that Jews lift up and study as sacred in their tradition. The Jews divide the Hebrew Bible into three distinct parts called the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Law is the first five books of the Bible; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Prophets consist of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets. The remaining books, like Psalms, Proverbs, and Song of Songs, are grouped together into what is called the Writings. Now, you may have heard of the Apocrypha, those are additional books which are included in the Catholic and Orthodox Bible. Because the list of books accepted into the Writings was still being decided when Christianity began, there are different versions of the Old Testament. The Catholics and Orthodox include additional books, while Protestants follow with those adopted as Jewish Scripture. So the Old Testament as we Protestants know it today was really only finalized, canonized, during the Protestant Reformation, about 400 years ago.
But, the stories contained within the books of the Old Testament take place thousands of years ago, and some of them have been in written record since half a millennium or more before Jesus was born. The words of the Old Testament tell a story about a completely different time. This was a time when war and civil unrest was the norm, tribes of people living in the Middle East fought often. And the Israelites were one, relatively small, tribe among many. So we have to remember that the story of these people emerged out of a specific time and place.
It’s easy for us now to have big “world view,” and this is because we have easy access to information about what is happening in the world around us. But that was not true for the Israelites, and so they used the experience they did have to explain as best they could the things that were going on around them. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they would have had to do so by conquest. Did God order them to slay every man, woman, child, and animal that stood in their way? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but the point is that the Israelites knew that God was on their side, and in a time of war and conquest, this is the way they interpreted that. In the same way, the Law lays out specifically how the Jewish people are to handle all matters of their lives, from how they deal with one another, to how they prepare food, to how they worship God. In many ways, it’s not unlike the laws that govern our day-to-day lives.
There can be no doubt, the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, is the inspired word of God and it is authoritative on matters of faith and practice. However, God’s message as contained in the Old and New Testaments came through human conduits, and as such it is shaped by the cultural realities of the time. Even as God supposedly directed brutal conquest by the Israelite people, overtime God also revealed more and more of the rule of love. Just look at the prophecy from Isaiah we heard earlier in the service, “God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war. Come, house of Jacob, let’s walk by the Lord’s light.” Soon enough, God sent his Light into the world, and Jesus began to interpret the Old Testament for God’s people in a new way.
So let’s talk for a minute about what it is exactly that Jesus teaches, because I think this is where things can sometimes get really confusing and problematic for us at it concerns the Old Testament. Jesus says things like, “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them.” But then at other times, Jesus says something like we heard in the gospel reading from Matthew, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” So which one is it? Do all the Law and Prophets still apply, or are some parts more important than others?
Well…yes! As a Jewish person himself, immersed and well-studied in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus approached the Old Testament in a new way. In essence, Jesus affirms the Hebrew Bible while at the same time reorienting the people to the most important message of these ancient writings. Jesus taught that his ministry was the fulfillment of all the promises and commandments. So Jesus shows us that this is the same God, but that in him, this same God is doing something new! And this something new that God is doing is based entirely in God’s love for the people, a love that was always there, but which was funneled through the Israelites and because they (like us) are weak humans, that love and light often didn’t reach very far. But in Christ it can, and will!
Christ, through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection laid the groundwork for God’s covenant promises to work in a new way. Christ indeed took away the need for some of the Laws, like the sacrificial laws. But even as he did so, Christ pointed us to the greater meaning of the Law, the sacrificial love with which we should live in relationship with one another and with God. When Christ makes this statement to the questioning legal expert, the statement of the greatest commandment which we heard earlier, what he is saying (and living!) is that the fundamental, organizing principal of the Old Testament is love of God and neighbor. The Bible that Jesus used was the story of the Old Covenant, and Jesus taught a new relationship, a New Covenant. And so we have the story of God as told in the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, these testaments at time seem contradictory in their revelations about God, but there is an underlying truth revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and we must learn to look at each verse of the Old Testament as part of the whole Bible’s message, testing those confusing and seemingly immoral verses against Jesus’ message revealed in the New Testament.
So you’re spending time with your friend; maybe this time the question comes from a fellow Christian, who says, “I’m not interested in a long theological treatise, but tell me, how do make sense of the Old Testament and such a strict, vengeful God? It just doesn’t seem trustworthy!”
You might answer like this: “There are certainly parts of the Old Testament that are difficult to comprehend, but God has dealt with humanity throughout history in ways that we can understand; and the Bible is humanity’s best effort to capture in words the ways we understand God to be working with God’s people. There were things that made sense to people 3,000 years ago that don’t really make sense to us today. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are key truths in these books that we really need to hear. The important part is reading the whole Bible to get the message of the entire book.”