Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How Relevant is The Old Testament?

Before you get out the pitchforks and torches, let me say that I am not saying we can't learn things from the Old Testament.  It is full of the history which serves as a foundation for Christianity. However, I've noticed that most of the time I come across a particularly wacky teaching, whether it's prosperity gospel, special diets, the "favor" of God, etc., it is based on the Old Testament. A few verses here, a passage out of context there, and a couple of mental gymnastics combine to make a "new" teaching.

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:
Exodus 21:20-21

 20 "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.
It's OK to beat your slave senseless with a rod as long he gets up after a day or two.

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.

Matthew 8:4
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:

Matthew 19:8
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:

John 9:28-29
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. 


Buz said...

Wow, where to start ...

Yes, the OT is relevant.

A couple of quick points ...

(1) A lot of the Levitical law had two purposes,

(a) it was to set the Israelites apart in the eyes of their neighbors. "Don't wear this." "Don't eat that." Was meant to show the surrounding nations that these people were different. That was also to show the other nations when a drought comes on you but not us, it is because of our God who has set us apart. (However, that only worked when they followed God.)

(b) There are a lot of things in the OT law which were models of reality. The temple was a model of God's throne room in heaven. The system of sacrifices were a model of God's sacrifice. (See some of St. Paul's writing to see how he describes some of these things.)

OK ... so maybe you don't literally face the prophets of Baal, but have you ever been at work, or in a social setting, and "everybody" there held one point of view, which you knew to be something of which God (the Bible) had a very definite teaching about, and it was the opposite of what everyone else thought.

As to an-eye-for-an-eye, that was a limitation. If someone gouges out your eye, you can't kill them. The MOST you can do is gouge out their eye. Jesus takes this further by saying to forgive them. When someone treats you in a less than human way, assert your humanity in the way you treat them.

As for the wacky teaching ... there is about 3 or 4 times the volume in the OT as there is in the NT, so I would guess that 75% to 80% of the wacky teaching would come from there. (Yes, I have heard some wacky teaching that was NT based, too.)


Anonymous said...


You don't really address the questions raised. Why is God's instruction about how to live so different to Israelites than it would be to us today? Why was slavery allowed at all rather than regulated? Why did God demand vengeance rather than turn the other cheek?

None of this set Israel apart in any meaningful way. Why did god care about fabrics and food back then? If it was to set them apart, it is awfully capricous.


terri said...


I'm not saying there is no purpose to the Old Testament or the Mosaic code.

The question for me is: Do I really believe that God cared about all of these very specific rules?

I will wholeheartedly say ,"Yes!" to the moral part of the code.....murder, theft, abuse, sexual relationships, marriage restrictions.

However, if you read through Deuteronomy....sometimes Moses says" The LORD says" and sometimes it seems as if he is setting up the standards without a specific command from God.

Keep in mind that many times God appoints a leader and gives them power and discretion to rule. It's not an unusual principle at all in Scripture. An "anointed" leader gets God's stamp of approval and usually only has it revoked if they do something particularly dishonoring to God. That doesn't mean that every action and edict from an anointed leader is a direct representation of God in every way.

The Law was imperfect....the New Testament teaches us that in several places. It doesn't condemn the Law, but says that it was ultimately ineffective in producing faith and eternal life.

I'll try to put up a post about that.

MInTheGap said...

Check out the first few chapters of Romans-- but especially the latter half of Romans 5. Paul lays out pretty clearly that the law was created to illustrate sin. Plus, for added emphasis, he alludes to the fact that it's not exhaustive.

What we need to take away from the Old Testament is a couple of things. First, God is holy and has a standard. He created a place where there was one fruit and told Adam and Eve not to eat. Could be seen as totally arbitrary, and yet they disobeyed.

In Moses' time, there were a ton of laws-- some ceremonial, some practical/administrative, some moral.

We don't take the ceremonial law as binding today because Scripture says later that Christ paid those penalties.

Practical has been absorbed in some cases, and discarded in others. Eating pigs-- unhealthy then, not as bad today. Clothes of two different kinds of fiber... etc. Cities of Refuge... Some of these became the founding of our nation (thinking difference between pre-meditated murder and self defense...) and some are discarded.

Moral law-- regardless of the punishment laid out the, moral law is still solid. It's still wrong to murder, to be rebellious to parents, etc. but we are now under grace instead of the law.

It's complicated because the way that God deals with people over time changes-- my personal belief is that He is "trying everything" so that He may be declared guiltless and just when it comes to dealing with a rebellious people.

But nevertheless, the whole Christian life is more than a bunch of dos and don'ts-- it's getting to know and experience a person. We can learn about Him regardless where we are in the Bible.

Buz said...

Anon, I thought I had addressed those questions. The instructions to the Israelites were to set them apart from their neighbors in a very visible way. When the surrounding nations saw the way they lived, groomed, and dressed, and the way that the plagues which affected their neighbors did not touch them, then those other nations were supposed to see that their God was the true God. However, because they basically lived like everyone else, the plan did not have the desired effect. Rather, the surrounding nations saw what happens when you disobey the one, true God.

Slavery was permitted, yes, it was common everywhere. Why didn't God say, "thou shalt not have slaves?" I don't have a clue.

As to vengence, God neither demanded nor permitted vengence. He did demand justice, and regulated how far things could go. As I said, the whole eye-for-an-eye thing was a LIMIT. If someone poked out your eye, you could not slaughter their family, the MOST you could do was poke out their eye. That is not a demand for vengence, but rather a restriction against it.

Terri, if you have doubts about the seemingly whimsical nature of some of the things outlined in the Levitical laws, try reading this blog entry from a friend of mine ...

He delves a bit into why some things which we see no reason for are quite important to God (the entry has to do with the particular importance of the shape of the altar in the temple).


Retriever said...

A quick note, not at the thoughtful level of the post or other comments, but I have relatives (including my spouse) who claim that the reason they will not attend church or believe in Christianity is the Old Testament. They sense that it is a package deal, and that you can't accept Jesus with the history and traditions he fulfilled. Despite the fact that the Chosen People often were less vicious than their neighbors, many of the chronicled behaviors in the OT revolt modern tastes. I have never been able to answer spouse's outrage at the dashin babies on rocks, assassinations, murders, betrayals. For myself, I rather lamely explain that the OT gives me hope of salvation as, if God could love those SOBs, he might love me also, miserable sinner tho I am...

Retriever said...

Apologies, I meant "accept Jesus without" not with/

Anonymous said...

My Grace is sufficient unto thee. By Grace are you saved.

Unfortunately, most religions and donominations today are their gods. This was true of the OT when religion replaced God. Israel was a Religious State and therefore cannot be compared to demacracies of freedom of religion. Right wingers place the OT on equal plain with the NT for control purposes. But many of us want the simple message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Its' message is simple, hopeful and best of all Love.

Anonymous said...

The Old Testament fully applies. In almost every passage, Jesus refers us BACK to the OT.

Were there statutes that were NOT good??? Yes:

"Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were NOT good, and judgments whereby they should NOT live"
Ezekiel 20:25

"And I polluted them in their own GIFTS, in that they caused to pass over all that openeth the womb (COMPASSION), that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD"
Ezekiel 20:26

The original of Ezekiel 20:26 is found in Exodus 13:12 -

"That thou shalt pass over unto the LORD all that openeth the womb (7358 rechem - WOMB)..."



"Because they had not executed my judgments, but had despised/rejected my statutes, and had polluted my sabbaths, and their eyes were after their fathers' idols".

"Wherefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; "Are ye polluted/unclean after the way of your fathers? and commit ye whoredom after their abominations? 31 For when ye offer your GIFTS, when ye make your sons to pass through/cross over the fire, ye unclean/defile yourselves with all your idols, even unto this day: and shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I will not be inquired of by you."


44 Nevertheless He looked upon their distress When He heard their cry; 45 And He remembered His covenant for their sake, And relented according to the greatness of His lovingkindness.46He also made them objects of COMPASSION In the presence of all their captors.

"and hast forgiven Thy people who have sinned against Thee, even all their transgressions which they have transgressed against Thee, and hast given them COMPASSION before their captors, and they have had mercy on them

"If you return to the LORD, then your fellow Israelites and your children will be shown compassion by their captors and will return to this land, for the LORD your God is gracious and COMPASSIONATE. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him."

BABYLON - "I was wroth with my people, I have polluted mine inheritance, and given them into thine hand: thou didst shew them NO COMPASSION; upon the old hast thou very heavily laid thy yoke."




In my opinion, this is why some of Jesus teachings "straighten out" a few select statutes from the OT; He is telling us which ones were NOT good:

"hate your enemies"
I say "love your enemies"

He is restoring us to offering gifts in righteousness - He is showing us that the way involves COMPASSION.

Anonymous said...






"20 "If a man smites 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."









"In the lips of him that hath understanding wisdom is found: but A ROD is for the back of him that is void of understanding. Wise men lay up knowledge: but THE MOUTH of the foolish is near destruction." Proverbs 10:13

"He that spareth his ROD hateth his son: but he that loveth him CORRECTION him betimes"
Proverbs 13:24

"Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of CORRECTION shall drive it far from him."
Proverbs 22:15

"He OPENETH also THEIR EAR to CORRECTION, and commandeth that they return from iniquity."
Job 36:10

"To know wisdom and INSTRUCTION; to perceive the words of understanding"
Proverbs 1:2

"Apply thine heart unto INSTRUCTION, and thine EARS to the words of knowledge. Withhold not INSTRUCTION from the child: for if thou smite him with the ROD, he shall not die. Thou shalt smite him with the RID, and shalt deliver his soul from Sheol"
Proverbs 23:14