This Strange and Sacred Scripture
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This Strange and Sacred Scripture

Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities

Schlimm, Matthew Richard

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eBook - ePub

This Strange and Sacred Scripture

Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities

Schlimm, Matthew Richard

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A Top Ten Book for Parish Ministry in 2015, Academy of Parish Clergy The Old Testament can seem strange and disturbing to contemporary readers. What should Christians make of Genesis 1-3, seemingly at odds with modern scientific accounts? Why does the Old Testament contain so much violence? How should Christians handle texts that give women a second-class status? Does the Old Testament contradict itself? Why are so many Psalms filled with anger and sorrow? What should we make of texts that portray God as filled with wrath? Combining pastoral insight, biblical scholarship, and a healthy dose of humility, gifted teacher and communicator Matthew Schlimm explores perennial theological questions raised by the Old Testament. He provides strategies for reading and appropriating these sacred texts, showing how the Old Testament can shape the lives of Christians today and helping them appreciate the Old Testament as a friend in faith.

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Información

Año
2015
ISBN
9781441222879
Categoría
Biblical Studies

1
Is the Old Testament an Enemy, Stranger, or Friend to the Christian Faith?

A DEEP TENSION EXISTS at the heart of the Christian faith. On the one hand, the church affirms the sacred nature of the Old Testament. We claim it as God’s word. It forms three-quarters of our Bibles.
Yet the Old Testament is utterly strange. It’s the last thing we would expect God’s word to say. It remains foreign, even when translated into English. It’s filled with bizarre stories, laws, and poetry. (See “Strange, Unfamiliar, and Surprising.”)
Right at the outset, readers find talk of the world’s origins, and it has nothing to do with what modern scientists have found.
As if this stumbling block weren’t bad enough, the chapters that follow depict the legendary figures of our faith engaging in all sorts of sordid behavior. Abraham has multiple wives. The first thing Moses does as an adult is kill someone. David, supposedly the greatest king of Israel, is actually the sleaziest of politicians—someone who has his own friend killed after sleeping with the friend’s wife.
Even if we can stomach the debauchery of Old Testament characters, we face a new set of challenges when confronted with the Old Testament’s violence. Warfare appears in nearly every book of Old Testament. We cannot escape it. Perhaps most disturbing of all, God sometimes commands the Israelites to kill everything that breathes. Why has the church kept such writings in its Bibles?
Or, to turn to an equally pervasive problem, why does the Old Testament give so little attention to women? Why do some texts devalue women? Obviously the Old Testament came from an ancient culture that was biased in favor of men, but can we say anything positive about the Bible and women?
The Old Testament’s strangeness takes center stage in its law codes. What do we do with these never-ending lists of rules and regulations? How could anyone possibly keep them all straight? Why would anyone want to? Why do these laws command people to do weird things like sacrifice animals at the place of worship? Why does the Old Testament forbid pork (including bacon!), but then allow people to eat locusts?
If readers stick with the Old Testament long enough, they begin to notice that one text will say something completely contrary to what’s said elsewhere. To name one of many possible examples, some passages say that people get what they deserve in this lifetime (e.g., Deut. 28), while other texts are certain that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer (e.g., Eccles. 8:14). Which one is it? How do we handle the contradictions of the Old Testament?
Prayers are another oddity in the Old Testament. Rather than being calm and collected, people praying in the Old Testament display their fiercest anger toward God. They scream with rage at the Creator, hurl insults at God, question God’s ways, and demand that God get back to work. Who dares to talk to their Maker with such animosity?
Even more bothersome are texts where God speaks with animosity toward Israel. The God of the Old Testament strikes many readers as cruel, vindictive, vengeful, and destructive. They see little resemblance between this wrathful deity and the forgiving God of the New Testament.
The Old Testament is seriously strange Scripture. (See “If We Wrote the Bible.”)
The Old Testament as Enemy: Marcion and His Children
Faced with so many troubling features, many people have rejected the Old Testament’s sacred status. About a hundred years after the death of Jesus, an influential leader named Marcion did just that. He firmly believed that the wrathful God of the Old Testament couldn’t also be the loving God revealed by Jesus Christ.1
Although the church in Rome kicked Marcion out in 144 CE, his ideas spread quickly. Some historians estimate that around 170 CE, the followers of Marcion outnumbered those opposed to him.2
In time, church leaders like Irenaeus and Tertullian mounted attacks against Marcion’s thinking. Among other things, they showed that Jesus himself did not come to destroy the Old Testament (cf. Matt. 5:17).3 Marcion’s movement eventually lost popularity. However, even while many details of his thinking have faded away, his basic impulse to devalue the Old Testament persists across time.
To name an extreme example, in the eighteenth century the British philosopher Thomas Morgan spoke with vehement hatred about the Old Testament, saying its authors were a “miraculously stupid People [who] were always inspired and prepossessed with the Spirit of the Devil.”4
Similar examples can be found, especially in the decades leading up to the Holocaust, when many German scholars spoke comparably. They called for a return to Marcion’s ideals while ridiculing the Old Testament’s contents. (See “Paving the Way for Nazism.”)
The Old Testament as Stranger: The Church Today
Today, few Christians want to go as far as Marcion or the Nazis. Yet the Old Testament is so strange that Christians have a much easier time ignoring it than wrestling with all the issues it presents.
In other words, we don’t openly oppose the Old Testament, but then again, we don’t go to great lengths to emphasize its importance either. We may recognize it as useful background for understanding Jesus and Paul, but we tend to stick to the New Testament. We treat the Old Testament less as an enemy and more as a stranger, a mere acquaintance, or a superficial friend. (See “The Situation Today.”)
Thus many churches do very little with the Old Testament during Sunday morning worship. Some congregations avoid reading the Old Testament altogether. Others read from it but then focus on the New Testament in preaching.5
My sense is not that these churches hate the Old Testament. Instead, people in these congregations are painfully aware of all the difficult issues the Old Testament raises. They recognize that these issues are too complex to address in the middle of a worship service. They realize that people often feel stupid when the Bible doesn’t make sense—as though there’s something wrong with them for not knowing what’s going on. And so, it simply becomes easier to lay the Old Testament aside, to treat it as a stranger, rather than fix our attention on it.
The Old Testament as Friend in Faith
The problem with ignoring the Old Testament is that we make ourselves deaf to all the incredible things that God has to say to us through it. For thousands of years, Jewish and ...

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