Why Should Christians Read the Old Testament?

The following is based on a finals project for a class I completed at Phillips this semester; for this paper, we are exploring the question of why the Hebrew Bible texts are important for Christians. I have reworked the paper for a public theology project for a different class, crafting it instead into a blog post. Enjoy!

The Hebrew Bible is an underappreciated corpus of texts in liberal and progressive Christian circles in the 21st century. The skepticism that greets the words contained in them is often well intentioned, but arises out of a deep misunderstanding of the texts, and even a deferral to a more conservative or fundamentalist-style reading of them. This is unfortunate, as the Hebrew Bible has much to offer progressive strands of Christian tradition, and those who count themselves as such should strive to reclaim them in pursuit of a more just and equitable world made in the image of the Kingdom of God.

Divine Violence in the Hebrew Bible

It is certainly true, on a very basic, narratively-minded level, that the Hebrew Bible presents an image of God distinctly at odds with the one many progressives hold; namely, that of a God more loving than angry, more merciful than vengeful, more justice-oriented than arbitrary and demanding, more rational and compassionate than unpredictable and quick to anger. The God we see in the Hebrew Bible does often seem violent and cruel. Just a few examples quickly highlight this. For instance, in the laws and instructions laid out in the books of the Torah, especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Divine voice that is allegedly dictating these words commands the people of Israel to put to death violators of a variety of commandments, from the act of adultery (Deut. 22:22) to the act of working on the Sabbath day (Exodus 35:2,) to a child who disobeys their parents (Deut. 21:21.) God’s punishments for rule-breaking rarely seem to be proportional to the violation by modern-day standards.

Beyond the consequences of breaking the Torah instructions, God also makes violent appearances in the narrative sections of the Hebrew Bible. A most egregious example of an arbitrarily violent God is found in 2 Samuel 6:2-7; in this tale, the Arc of the Covenant is being transported on a cart when the ox pulling it stumbles. Uzzah, a man escorting the Arc, reaches out and steadies the falling Arc by touching it, and is immediately struck dead by God for a supposedly irreverent act.

Finally, another commonly cited text in accusing the God of the Hebrew Bible is found in the book of Joshua, when the titular character leads the people into Canaan. They are instructed to “possess the land” (Joshua 1:11), which is understood as meaning to commit Divinely-ordained genocide against the people already living there. And this is indeed what Joshua and the Israelites do, as is recounted vividly in the cases of Jericho (Joshua 6) and Ai (Joshua 8). As the account of the latter conquest states quite explicitly, “The total of those who fell that day, men and women, the entire population of Ai, came to twelve thousand. Joshua did not draw back the hand with which he held out his javelin until all the inhabitants of Ai had been exterminated.” (Joshua 8:25-26) Our modern sensibilities, rightly so, recoil at accounts of such barbaric genocide.

But to accept these stories of violence as the true actions and words of the Divine is not only to misread the Hebrew Bible, but is to accept an interpretation of such dictated by conservative and fundamentalist voices. It is an inherent contradiction of views to assert that the Bible was not in fact divinely ordained and thus a product of human hands and minds, while at the same time declaring these Hebrew Bible passages as describing an angry and violent God. One must consistently apply their hermeneutic to the entire Hebrew Bible, and understand that, just as Leviticus 18 does not carry binding weight towards the nature of same-gender relations in the eyes of God, neither does Joshua 8 definitively describe the will of God regarding violence.

Further, to reduce the Hebrew Bible to a set of passages of recounting  a violent and angry God, and thus essentially useless and discardable, is to miss out on what these texts do have to offer to progressive Christians. The Hebrew Bible is crucially important to those who consider themselves Christians, of any stripe, because it is a central current in the stream of tradition in which we count ourselves. This functions on two primary levels; the texts are crucial in that they are the paradigmatic lens through which we must interpret Jesus and the church that arose after him; they are also beautiful and instructive in their own right for any who seek the Divine, regardless of their impact of Christ and the early church. In this understanding, the violence found in the Hebrew Bible that is ascribed to God must be interpreted in the light of a people who lived in a violent world many thousands of years ago. In this contextual view, the Hebrew Bible takes its place as a progressive understanding of history and humanity, providing a view of the world shaped by the inherent goodness of people and an eye towards justice for the downtrodden and oppressed.

Reassessing the Hebrew Bible: Four Examples

Take the Psalms as a first example. Made up of 150 hymns, laments, and prayers of thanksgiving, this book is a beautiful glimpse into the worship life of the Israelite people. The theological breadth and depth of Psalms is astonishing, with these collections of works finding meaning and use in worship today, many thousands of years after they were first written and compiled. As Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt write in their Introduction to the Old Testament, “…the Psalter is evidence of a long practice of Israel finding poetic, artistic ways to voice faith.” The desire to know and relate to God has never departed from humankind, and the Psalms are a beautiful collection of works that show the timelessness of such pursuits. The King James Version, another text so often derided in liberal and progressive Christianity, provides a particularly striking translation of the Psalms, and should be appreciated for its own inherent beauty.

Another text in the Hebrew Bible that stands alone in its theological complexity and ability to speak to modern sensibilities is Job. Brueggemann and Linafelt write, “It is no overstatement to say that the book of Job is a towering classic of the human literary and theological imagination.” The book presents itself ostensibly as a narrative of the tragic account of Job, who as a result of a wager between God and a figure known as “the Adversary” loses all he has, a series of poetic discourses between Job, his friends, and God grapple with the theological implications of suffering. The book doesn’t end definitively, leaving the reader to ponder whether or not God should exercise God’s power to act in such a way. The presentation of a God who takes and tests, and is thus subsequently rebuked and questioned by human beings, should be enticing and appealing to progressive Christians who look to question structures of authority and power. While certainly not a rejection of the authority and sovereignty of God, the book of Job is a powerful struggle to understand the Divine-Human relationship that carries much meaning in a world riven by injustice and oppression.

The Hebrew Bible is also important for anyone who considers themselves “Christian,” as it provides the primary lens for understanding the context of Jesus, and the church that arose around the memory of his life. Indeed, one cannot read the Epistles of Paul, or other texts such as Hebrews, without a familiarity with the Hebrew Bible and its implications. To read the New Testament without such knowledge is to court anti-Semitism, as Jewish tradition is subsumed by a western Christianity largely detached from the context in which it arose.

Jesus made a ministry of preaching justice to an oppressed people. His priorities did not arise in a vacuum. Rather, Jesus was living into a well-established Israelite tradition. The defining narrative of the Israelite people was (and is) the Exodus out from Egypt, as recounted in the Hebrew Bible book of Exodus. As a result of the story, the Israelite people understood their God as a liberating God, one who sets oppressed peoples free from bondage, and who rejects the structures of empire and power epitomized by Pharaoh’s Egypt. “The God who defeats the oppressive power of Pharaoh and who thereby emancipates Israel from slavery is characteristically the God who delivers from oppression,” Brueggemann and Linafelt remind us. Thus, in order to understand the import of Jesus speaking words of liberation against an oppressive empire, one must understand that he was necessarily alluding to the central narrative of the Hebrew Bible.

Out of this narrative of liberation and justice for the oppressed arises the tradition of the Israelite prophets, who make up the latter half of the Hebrew Bible. Again, to understand Jesus, one must understand that Jesus was stepping into the rhetorical tradition of the prophets. The prophets spoke to an Israel mired in injustice and exile, imploring them to act with justice, and promising the faithfulness of their liberating God. Likewise, Jesus speaks to a people occupied and oppressed, and presents a view of a world reordered to God’s liking. This is most explicit in the quoting of Isaiah attributed to Jesus, found in the Gospel of Mark. Isaiah, writing to an exiled people, promises God’s restorative justice, in the form of restoring those on the bottom to their dignity: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; He has sent me as a herald of joy to the humble, to bind up the wounded of heart, to proclaim release to the captives, liberation to the imprisoned; To proclaim a year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication by our God; the comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2). The author of Mark puts these words in Jesus’ mouth, in order to draw a parallel between the God who returned the exiles to Jerusalem, and the God who would deliver them from the Romans. In order to understand the mission Jesus felt called to, one must understand that he understood himself as working in the line of prophets stretching back a millennium.

Supersessionism and Responsible Reading

There is danger in this reading of the Hebrew Bible, of course. Supersessionism – the idea that “Christianity has fulfilled and improved on the teachings of Judaism” in the words of my professor, Dr. Lisa Davison, from a lecture she gave in January – is a dangerous habit of Christians, one that silences the authors of these texts and the faith tradition they were contributing to. I invoke Christianity here, not as the “proper” lens for understanding the Hebrew Bible, but in the illustration of the importance the authentic Jewish tradition has in shaping and forming the Christian faith. Christianity arose and formed in a primarily Jewish context; one only has to make a cursory reading of Paul or the Epistles to the Hebrews to see this. So, in order to understand and participate in the Christian tradition, an adherent needs to understand the Jewish faith; there is no better way to do this than to read and grapple with the Hebrew Bible. One shouldn’t replace or supersede the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament -there is no hierarchy of ideas here- but should instead recognize the inherent beauty, power and theological might of these texts, both for their own sake, and for how they help us understand our own faith that formed as a result of this wrestling with God.

Why should Christians read the Hebrew Bible? We should read it because, without these texts, there is no Christianity, no western civilization as we know it, no major monotheistic tradition apart from it. We should read it because we stand in a great river of tradition, and we must understand where we came from to decide where we are going.


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