Our Sunday School class has been using a bible study which has focused on the Old Testament for quite a while. I began noticing that the questions the study used were reaching for lessons that weren't in the text. A particular section might deal with a bizarre miraculous event, and then try to force an application out of it.
Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to sacrifice a burnt offering to their god and he will do the same. The catch is, whose god can burn up the offering without the intervention of his human followers? Elijah's God wins and Elijah orders the slaughter of the priests of Baal.
Bible study question: Can you think of a time when you faced "prophets of Baal" in your life. What did you do?
Gee...I can't remember the last time I had to kill someone to preserve the one, true faith. Give me a moment to think about it.
Then, there are huge swaths of Leviticus which are hard for me to read, much less comprehend. As a woman, reading the codes of behavior and seeing what little worth I would have had in that time is overwhelming. I can think of a few churches that would still teach that because those parts are in the Old Testament, they are part of the universal standards God has. These are the same types of churches which would also defend slavery, because there are slavery regulations, which means that God must approve of slavery.
Reading something like this is disconcerting:
It's OK to beat your slave senseless with a rod as long he gets up after a day or two.Exodus 21:20-2120 "If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, 21 but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.
There should be a recognition that we are reading through a vast chasm of time and cultural distance when we come across these passages. Slavery was common and accepted; yet, simply because it existed does not mean it was by God's divine wish.
A frequent claim is made by Christians that God never changes. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever(Hebrews 13:8). This is supposed to mean that if God wanted things done a certain way in the Old Testament, then nothing has changed. He still operates in the same ways. We know that He doesn't because no one has recently beheld a burning bush, or received manna or quail from Heaven, so we usually try to force our current, Christian understandings into these ancient texts.
When we read David venting his spleen at "enemies" in the Psalms, we interpret it in terms of spiritual enemies, thinking of spiritual forces, or devils, replacing the literal enemies with whom David contended, with our Christianized version. We have to do that because as Christians we aren't supposed to have "enemies", or if we have them, we aren't supposed to wish evil things to happen to them. We're supposed to pray for them. Our choice is to either make the Psalms mean something they didn't, or recognize them as the passionate, human songs of people trying to express what they thought was right.
Reading though the gospels, I noticed that when Jesus discussed things with the Pharisees, he almost always referred to the Old Testament regulations as the Law of Moses. Or he would say,"Moses said....I say," creating a contrast between what Moses had written and what he, as the Messiah, has declared.
Then Jesus said to him, "See that you don't tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them."
Why does Jesus refer to the Law in this way? Why doesn't he say,"offer the gift God commanded."?
He also revises the Mosaic code on divorce:
Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning."
I can't read that without thinking about the implications of what it means; that not everything in the Mosaic Law was based on God's divine decree. Moses had been chosen as a leader for the Israelite people and given the authority to create a code for them to live by. The code was not, in and of itself, a word for word recording of God's communication with Moses. Moses was free to guide the Israelites on the basis of what he did know of God's will. As the appointed mediator, he was given discretion to lead them to the best of his ability.
That last paragraph would probably earn me the title of "heretic" in some circles, but I can't make any sense of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in any other way. How else can we explain why it would be sinful to wear clothing made of two different kinds of material, or why a woman was considered to be unclean twice as long after bearing a girl than she was after bearing a boy(Leviticus 12)? One alternative is to believe that the God of the Universe really cared about the particular material of his people's clothing, or thought that females were twice as unacceptable to Him as males. Another alternative is to see God as working in a particular culture, without necessarily endorsing it.
The Mosaic code gave the Israelites order and standards to live by. While we might think many of those standards are violent or unreasonable, they were no doubt an improvement in a tribe of undisciplined people living in the desert with no stability or system to guide them. From that perspective, the Mosaic code put them on the path of attempting to live in a way that was unselfish and had pleasing God as its ultimate goal.
Yet....what does that mean for Christians now? What are we to make of all those strange regulations in light of Matthew 5:17-20?
17"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
This quote is always trotted out when discussions about hot button topics whose main arguments are derived from the Old Testament are taking place. It leaves me scratching my head, because it goes against not only the way Jesus interacts with the Law, but also how Paul describes our relation to the Law.
However, right after this quote, Jesus lists a particular regulation from the Law and then reinterprets it, eschewing "an eye for an eye"--straight from the Mosaic code--in preference for "turn the other cheek". He couldn't mean that the Law recorded by Moses wouldn't pass away, because he is in the very same breath redacting it for his audience.
If we think of the Law as the beginning step towards faith in God, conforming our lives to a higher, purer order determined by God, then the Mosaic Law is not lost, but is only a stepping stone toward the spiritual life Christ came to bring us.
As Christians we are past that particular stepping stone; instead, we are walking on the water itself, empowered by God's Spirit.
While Christianity is born out of Judaism and the Old Testament, it has violently broken from the way Judaism understood man's relationship to God.
The Pharisees understood this and showed through their actions that they understood the ramifications of the principles Jesus was teaching. It wasn't only their sinfulness that blinded them to Jesus, but their understanding that believing Him would change everything they understood about God.
In questioning the man who was born blind whom Jesus healed, they reveal where their allegiance lies:
28Then they hurled insults at him and said, "You are this fellow's disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow[Jesus], we don't even know where he comes from."
Their high regard for Moses prevented them from considering the possibility that God might behave in ways other than what Moses described.