Why the Jewish Old Testament?

by Robert Brow   (web site - www.brow.on.ca)

Christians are sure that the Old Testament is part of the Bible, the very Word of God, but most of us are bothered and embarrassed by it. How could heroes of faith behave so badly? Why would God want us to read about Lot getting drunk and impregnating his daughters? How did the Jews get stuck with their kosher food laws? Did God order the genocide of every man, woman, and child in Canaan? Was Solomon really the wisest man on earth with his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines?

 A first answer, as Paul the converted rabbi explained, is that God "made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27 NRSV).

 We could have had a Bible which told the story of every ancient nation before New Testament times. As the Jewish story reminds us, all peoples have good times and bad times, war and peace, victories and disasters, enslavement and freedom, genocide and exile, prosperity and famine, good rulers and oppressors, bright ideas and very stupid ones. But if the story of every nation was to be recorded, who would ever compile and read such a book?

 So among the histories of all ancient nations God chose the story of the Jewish nation by way of example. One reason for this was that their history was written on papyrus rolls, rather than handed down as oral traditions. The story begins with our world as an artistic creation. At each stage the Artist stepped back, looked at what had emerged, and "saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:1-25). People of all nations are made in the image of God, and God wants their friendship, but like Adam and Eve we are quickly embarrassed, hide from God, and begin blaming each other (see the article "Naked and Unashamed").

 All the peoples of the ancient Middle East are set out as being of one blood (Genesis 10, Acts 17:26, see "The Curse of Ham"). Then the history quickly narrows down to a group of nations descended from Abraham (see the chapter on "Arabs and Jews" in the book on Model Theology). We are told how the Jewish nation was forged in slavery under the Pharaohs of Egypt, and brought out in a great exodus by Moses.

 It was Moses who was given the wisdom to see that the questions of right and wrong that face us can be set out under ten categories of moral judgment (Exodus 20:1-17). We are not given much content to tell us what exactly should be counted as stealing or murder or adultery in our situation. That has to be filled in by discussion in the light of God's love (see Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage, chapters 1 & 2).

 Some of the ways in which the Jewish people ordered their civil, criminal, and religious laws are set out for us in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But it is clear from the New Testament that we have to begin with, and then try to improve, the good and bad laws of our own nation (Romans 13:1-7)

 What is so striking about Jesus is that he took seven examples of his own nation's laws and in each case explained how the law should be interpreted in the light of God's love. In the Sermon on the Mount seven times he said "But I say to you" concerning murder, adultery, divorce, honesty, enemies, abusive behavior, and our attitude to enemies. The result is that Christians of every country can take a hard look at the laws of their own culture, and in each case learn to work at how God would want them to combine justice, love, and faith. As one of the Old Testament prophets explained "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). And wherever Jesus words have taken root in the main cities and towns of a nation we can see such changes beginning to occur. Change is like salt in our food and leaven in bread making.

 Similarly in every crisis of a nation we can read the Old Testament and discover more or less exact parallels to what is happening in our day. The astonishing thing about this history of the Jewish people is that their national characteristics are never whitewashed. The failures of great leaders like Abraham, Moses, and David are included with their good qualities. Many nations in our day experience civil war and division, and Israel was no exception. The disastrous rift between the north and south of this tiny geographical area are chronicled for all other nations to read and beware.

 Another feature of Jewish history was that it was compiled by a school of prophets who preached and wrote over a period of at least six hundred years. Some of their words are recorded in the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets. In the historical books of the Old Testament we can see how these prophets also recorded which courses of action had God's blessing upon them and which were disastrous. When they predicted the short term future course of events they wanted to see how things actually turned out.

 Many nations would profit by such a record of predictions the experts made and what the reality turned out to be. We cannot learn by our successes and mistakes unless we record what they were. But even when we have no such written records in our own nation, anybody in a position of leadership could read how things turned out in the Old Testament. And in our day a surprising number of new nations have learned their wisdom from Jewish mistakes.

 Some of the prophets made mysterious long term predictions of the coming of a future Messiah. These were also recorded, often in symbolic form, with the admission that they did not know how the events would be fulfilled (1 Peter 1:10-12). One could argue that the Son of God chose to be born among the Jewish people because their history was set out with brutal honesty and this hope for the future. Others prefer to believe that the Holy Spirit worked specially among the Jews because it was among them that the Messiah was to be born. On either view the connection is obvious.

 But in any case it is impossible to read the Old Testament without noticing how the prophets made reference to the work of the Holy Spirit. Pharaoh said about Joseph "Can we find anyone like this - one in whom is the spirit of God?" God said of Bezalel, the designer of the first movable temple, "I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft." And every nation knows that superlative artistic, musical, and literary creativity is only possible by divine inspiration. Before a monarchy was established the nation's leaders were called Judges. They too needed the Holy Spirit for inspired leadership (Judges 3:10, 3:24, 11:29).

 It was the Old Testament prophets who were most conscious of the impossibility of interpreting the messages and visions which they received without divine inspiration. "No prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Peter 1:21). One of them looked forward to a time when there would be a far greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit when "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (Joel 2:28). Peter recognized that this is what had begun to be fulfilled among the peoples of the world on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-17).

 Some parts of the Old Testament can be used as is. People in all cultures have poured out their heart in prayer before God. But the book of Psalms is still read by millions of people every day to pick up our fears and anger and despair, our joys and thanksgiving, the need for forgiveness and justice, and hopes for the future. Every nation has proverbs that are useful to give us wisdom for practical living, but the book of Proverbs is still as wise as ever. Ecclesiastes tells of a man who has tried everything and discovered that the secret of life is finding the joy that God has in mind for us (See "Existentialism and Joy in Ecclesiastes"). The Song of Solomon is the sweetest picture of the love fantasies that bother us from our teens, but don't seem to embarrass God one bit.

 All this means that we do not have to approve all that the Jewish people did as recorded in the Old Testament. Our nation probably did far worse things in its past, which we conveniently forget. But no nation is all bad, and we are free to enjoy what we can enjoy. We can also look forward to the city where "People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations" (Revelation 21:22-26). In God's plan not only Israel but all nations have their glories to contribute. Meanwhile we can certainly learn a huge amount of political and religious wisdom from the Old Testament mistakes and blessings of the Jewish people.

 Nor should we try to fit into the strait-jacket of their civil and criminal laws. We can see how Jesus' words "But I say to you" free us to see the laws of their nation and culture in the light of the love of God. And we can do the same for the good and bad traditions of our own country. Jesus and Paul made clear that God has a loving mutuality in mind for marriage rather than patriarchal male chauvinism (see Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage, chapters 2 to 6).

 We might add that the Old Testament is needed for us to grasp the language, metaphors, imagery, and historical references of the New Testament. In God's wisdom the Gospels and Epistles are written in Greek, but they use a huge amount of Hebrew idiom. God could have chosen the story of another nation, but it is hard to imagine our Old Testament would have been half as good a preparation for God's good news among all nations.

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