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.

The Bookshelf: Escape Routes

Christianity provides an extensive theological framework for a variety of important topics. Perhaps the most important subject it gives a lens to is that of human suffering. The Christian faith centers itself around the suffering act of God, experienced in the person of Jesus Christ. The Suffering Servant is a widely popular image of Christ, and the stories of the martyrs feature prominently in church tradition.

In this light, Johann Christoph Arnold’s little book, Escape Routes: For People Who Feel Trapper in Life’s Little Hells, is a vitally important read on how to apply real-life theological understandings to the suffering nature of human existence.

Any regular reader here knows I am not a fan of the “self help” model of religion that 21st century American Christianity so often falls into. Yet, over the past month, I have begun to become intensely interested in a “theology of suffering,” chiefly as a result of reading Moltmann’s The Crucified God. While I certainly don’t want to narrow the life and message of Jesus down to a simple how-to guide of dealing with the hard parts of life, I do think the faith, at it’s core, should be oriented towards better lives for all human being. And a crucial part of that work is addressing and putting into perspective the suffering every person experiences in their lives.

Arnold, through the use of stories about people’s life’s, addresses the various aspects of suffering. Running through lonlieness, despair, difficult pasts, the struggle of success, and (interestingly) sex, he shows the universality of suffering in the human experience, and thus is able to effectively address the loneliness someone struggling though any of these areas surely feels. This arc culminates in the highlight of the book, Chapter 7, entitled, simply, “Suffering.” Arnold tells several stories again, culminating in the life of Bishop Oscar Romero.

The book ends on more positive notes. One of the most noteworthy, and surprising, moments of the book, is in the chapter entitled “Travel Guides.” Arnold illustrates the lives of three people who endured much suffering, and yet persisted, carrying through to significant and lasting impacts on the world. Surprisingly, one of the people he highlights at this point is Che Guevara, the Communist revolutionary who fought in Cuba and Angola. 

To encounter words of praise towards the leftist icon from someone within traditional Christianity is, well, rare, to say the least. And Arnold certainly doesn’t gloss over the most unsavory aspects of Guevara’s life and legacy. But crucially, he is able to draw out Guevara’s love for the regular people of Latin America, a love that drove him to fight against oppression and imperialism around the globe.  As a young left-leaning person, I obviously grew up around images of Che. I have always been intrigued by the man and the passion he exemplified, but was troubled, as a pacifist, by the violent methods he employed at times. Arnold, in this section of the book, is able to put my mind at ease.

He does all this in service to his broader goal, of normalizing the act of suffering and reassuring those who suffer that they aren’t alone, that even great men and women in history suffered greatly on their way to the things they did in the world. I found this little book an easy and enlightening read. Indeed, as Arnold shows, suffering is a key component to the Christian experience. For every Prosperity Gospel success story of big houses and helicopters, there are a thousand suffering campesinos, toiling everyday for pennies. Their experience is the dominant experience of the Christian movement. Their lives provide the primary paradigm for understanding Christian theology. And it is their suffering that Jesus took on and identified with, and called us all to recognize. The Suffering Servant isn’t an unobtainable ideal; the Suffering Servant is each of us.

As always with the books I receive from Plough, I of course was bothered by the allusions to traditional views on sexuality and reproductive issues, but they are few and far between here. Escape Routes is a lovely little book, and can be a highly useful resource for those enduring suffering (that is to say, all of us), and those who are called to be shepherds to those who suffer.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plough Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Writer’s Block

writersblock
#mood
It’s time to face a reality I’ve only been partly grappling with: I am in the midst of a months-long case of writer’s block. Every couple of days, I sit down to write something, either on here, or just in a blank document, but I can’t do it. The prospect of starting a piece, of formulating ideas and thoughts and arguments, seems completely overwhelming. I don’t even know where to start.

I think this is the product of three things. First, seminary really is a drain on one’s intellectual capacities. This isn’t a criticism or complaint; I am loving seminary life. But after hours of reading and writing every week, I don’t have much left over for writing that isn’t related to class in some way.

Second, the last six months have been a period of really intense and serious personal upheaval. I don’t want to get into too many details; those who need to know, know what’s happening. But emotionally, I am quite spent. Again, this makes it difficult to find the energy to sit down and right something.

Finally, and I admit this is rather gratuitous, but the election has a profound effect on my approach to writing. It’s a strange confluence of a wealth of topics to write about in the Trump era, and a feeling of not even knowing where to start or how to approach these happenings in a way that is respectful of the topics and those effected. Things that are happening every day feel overwhelming, and my attempts to write about them seems rather futile.

So there it is. That hopefully explains to relative lack of silence here. It’s disappointing to me most of all that I can’t find the passion and energy to share more here, because intellectually, I have been experiencing and grappling with some exciting ideas, alongside some changes in my education and career path that I want to share more of. I am hoping to work some daily personal writing practice into life, and if we are lucky, that will translate into a move past the block and the ability to get back to work here. If anybody has any good tips for tackling writer’s block, I wouldn’t mind the advice. In the meantime, I’ll write here if I am feeling it, and I appreciate the good thoughts and prayers.

Grace and peace,

Justin