Last week we saw how God "made all nations to inhabit the earth . . . so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him" (Acts 17:26-27). That means every nation is important. Instead of the Jewish Old Testament, God could have preserved for us an account of the history of any other nation. But of course no book could contain the religious history of every tribe and nation. So why was the Jewish story chosen among all others?
Most people read their nation's past through rose colored spectacles. What impresses me is that the Old Testament never glossed over the serious faults of Abraham, Moses, Saul, David, Solomon. We are given the specific the faults of the military leaders, kings, priests, and false prophets which resulted in the Jewish nation being taken into exile.
We also have a rich offering of poetry (the Psalms), which has no equivalent in any other nation. The wisdom of Job and Proverbs still delight us after three thousand years. There are examples of faith and powerful prayers. And of course the Son of God was going to take birth among Jews in what was then Jewish territory.
But what do we say about the parts which we find irrelevant, immoral, repulsive? On the one hand Jesus kept quoting the Old Testament, but I want to look with you at five areas in which he made clear that some of the Jewish nation's ideas needed to be corrected.
Kosher Food To this day orthodox Jews try to keep the kosher food laws of Leviticus 11. They were allowed to eat mammals that divided the hoof and chewed the cud. That included beef, mutton, and venison, but it excluded camel meat, pork, rabbits, crocodiles, lizards, and rodents. Only fish that had both fins and scales were allowed as sea food. Lobsters, eels, squids, kalamari (octopus), snails, oysters, and mussels, that the Greek peoples of the Mediterranean viewed as delicacies, were "unclean, detestable abominations" (Leviticus 11:8, 12, 23). Chickens were kosher but you couldn't eat vultures, seagulls, owls, crows, storks, herons, or bats (and most of us agree about that).
Although Leviticus 11 is introduced by "The Lord spoke to Moses," Jesus rejected these kosher laws. They may have been useful for a people going through a hot desert, but they were not universal for all people. "Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" And Mark adds "Thus he declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:18-19).
Can you imagine how radical such a change must have sounded to Jewish people? The word radical means going to the root (Latin radix) of a question. And Jesus explained that his agenda was not about externals, but it went radically to the human heart. "It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication (promiscuity), theft, murder, adultery, avarice (covetous greed), wickedness (maliciousness), deceit, licentiousness (indecent conduct), envy, slander, pride, folly" (Mark 7:20-23).
A few years after the resurrection Peter was about to be invited to the home of a Roman Army Captain (Acts 10:1-8). He was given a vision of all the unclean animals forbidden in Leviticus, and he was told to "kill and eat." He replied, "By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth." The voice from heaven then announced "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." This was repeated three times. And the result of that revelation was that Peter was freed to eat with people who ate foods that were not kosher. That opened the way for Romans and Greeks and people of all other nations to be baptized as Christians (Acts 10:9-16, 34-35, 47, 11:16-17). Within a few years Rabbi Paul had concluded that "Everything created by God is good, and nothing to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving" (1 Timothy 4:4).
Ethical Principles In his Sermon on the Mount manifesto the Messiah gave us six contrasts between the Old Testament "It was said" and his radically different "But I say" (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). He took two of the ten commandments, and explained that from God's point of view murder and adultery began in the heart. There can be murder without actually killing the person. Murderous anger, writing a person off with a "raca" (an expression of total rejection), and vicious mocking can be seen in any school playground ("Mary is retarded, Mary is retarded"). These are as criminal in God's eyes as the actual act (Matthew 5:22).
Adultery has already occured when the decision is made to be unfaithful, even if one does not get to carry out the act. As Jesus explained, an archer pulls back the bow string with his right hand, and aims with his right eye. Murder or adultery has already taken place when the arrow is released, even if one misses. The art is to cut off the hand and take out the eye (in both cases metaphorically) before sin has occured (Matthew 5:27-30).
There were Old Testament rules about divorce and swearing falsely. But Jesus said that divorce is always an adulteration of what both partners had hoped for in their marriage. And our word should be reliable enough without the need to swear by God's name (Matthew 5:31-37).
There was the Old Testament principle of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" (Exodus 21:24). There is no case in Jewish history where this was carried out literally. Judges were to evaluate what would be equivalent compensation for the loss of an eye (in our day $50 would be too little and half a million too much). But the "eye for an eye" was often understood as a good reason for taking revenge, ruthlessly. . A slap with the back of the right hand on the other's right cheek was viewed as a gross insult. But rather than exact revenge, it is far more creative to turn the other cheek. One can be a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9), and win by yielding or doing more than the other demands. (Matthew 5:38-42).
Jesus' disciples would learn to love even their enemies, because that is what God does (Matthew 5:43-48). This does not mean getting walked over. We must defend ourselves and our family, but we always treat our enemies with respect and care about their best interests.
This very radical (to the root) approach to ethics gives us a way of evaluating the morality of our own nation, or any other nation. We can recognize all that is good, correct the flaws, and go way beyond the literal interpretation of the law. The Messiah's "But I say to you" goes to the heart of every question of right and wrong.
Temple Rituals Already in the Old Testament we read "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he goats" (Isaiah 1:11, see Micah 6:6-8). Perhaps the prophet was only referring to obeying the rituals without any genuine love for God. After the death and resurrection of the Messiah the Epistle to the Hebrews explained that the animal sacrifices offered among Jews, and in other nations, were only pointers to heavenly realities. They were already obsolete and would soon be terminated (Hebrews 8:5-7, 13). Jesus had predicted that in the lifetime of his hearers the temple and city of Jerusalem would be destroyed. And when that happened in AD 70 the Aaronic priesthood disappeared without trace, and the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament became impossible, even for Orthodox Jews.
The Jewish Nation Last week we looked at the importance of nations in God's plan. Jesus rejected the exclusive claims of the Jewish people which they had derived from the Old Testament. When he healed the servant of a Roman army captain, the Messiah said "Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness" (Matthew 5:11-12). The Jewish people would experience the darkness of a long 1900 year exile which only began to end in 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel. And the faith of Abraham would soon be found in the new churches of the Spirit which began mushrooming all over the world. Jewish people find it more and more puzzling that it is through Christian churches that the Old Testament is now being read among all nations.
Patriarchal Marriage For our fifth very radical change we note how Jesus changed the Old Testament patriarchal laws of marriage and divorce. A Jewish man could have several wives, add concubines to his harem, and divorce any of these when he chose. Women are rightly horrified by the law of Moses. "Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, and sends her out of the house"(Deuteronomy 24:1-2). The one humane requirement was that a rejected woman must be given a certificate that she had been divorced, and so might be able to find another husband (Matthew 5:31). But there was no provision for a woman to divorce a Jewish man under any circumstances.
Jesus ended that gross imbalance against women. Women have the same duties and rights as men. "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:10). Like other rabbis Paul had begun with a male chauvinist view of women. Every day he would say "Blessed be thou, O God, for not making me a woman." But when he was converted, and slowly seen the implications of Jesus' attitude to marriage and divorce, he gave the Corinthians an astonishing tenfold mutuality between women and men in marriage. "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body but the wife does" (1 Corinthians 7:3-4), This is a totally unthinkable idea in the Old Testament.
But Paul goes way beyond that to say "If any women has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy" (1 Corinthians 7:13-14). The idea that a wife could make her husband's children holy has undermined the very basis of Old Testament patriarchy. These new attitudes to the mutuality of love between women and men could only have come from Jesus' example and teaching
What does that do for our doctrine of inspiration of the Old Testament? What is certain is that "whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction" (Romans 15:4). This means that the whole Old Testament is important for us to read. "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:13). The Old Testament is infallible in God's hand and for God's purposes. In that sense it is a reliable account of how one nation tried to "search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him" (Acts 17:26-27). And Jesus showed how every part of it is "fulfilled" (corrected and given its proper meaning) by his good news from heaven (Matthew 5:17). But that is not a reason to approve all that the Jewish people said and did, even when they claimed God's authority for doing it.
As in all nations, there were faults in how the Jewish people thought
about God. But the Holy Spirit certainly gave them much rich inspiration.
In their search they gave us much that is good, but we now know how to
evaluate each item. And some of what they thought can be discarded. We
can also take every part of our own nation's culture, legal system, and
traditions, see how they compare with what the Jewish people said and thought,
and apply New Testament principles to bring them into proper focus. That
is how Jesus looked at the Old Testament, and he is the very Word of God.