I’ve learned to love the Old Testament and its mess of stories and images so horrifying and heartbreaking that they’re difficult to reconcile with the picture of God we get in Christ.
But Jesus validates the Old Testament, and so I’ve come to a place where I enjoy wrestling with this inspiring (and often frustrating) collection of books. But there are ways that many churches and pastors handle the Old Testament that can exacerbate my issues with it:
1. We ignore the horror
When my daughter was eight, she decided she was going to read through the Bible. As a pastor, I was thrilled. That was until she came down a couple nights later and wanted me to explain why Lot was sleeping with his daughters (Gen. 19:30-36). . . awkward.
It’s humorous to me when Christians want to censor books, music, or media because of the questionable content. I mean, seriously . . . HAVE YOU EVER READ YOUR BIBLE!? It’s full of crazy, horribly sexual and violent stories. Here are a couple that come to mind:
- God sends an angel to kill all of Egypt’s first-born sons—and livestock (Ex. 12:29)
- The Israelites slaughter the Amorites by sword, and God helps finish them off with large hail (Josh. 10:10-11)
- When Judah commands Onan to sleep with his brother’s wife and God kills him for throwing his semen on the ground. (Gen. 38:8-10)
- When a concubine is gang raped by wicked men and dies, and her master cuts her into 12 pieces and sends her to Israel’s tribes. (Judges 19:22-29)
Large portions of the Old Testament are a complete freak show. I think that to be honest with God, Scripture, and ourselves we have to sit within the dissonance that these stories create. We shoudn’t ignore them for the more palatable sections and we shouldn’t be so quick to explain them away.
It’s often not the difficulties in these stories that I find so hard to swallow, but the ways that I’ve heard them reconciled and excused.
2. We whitewash OT stories for children
I spent 15 years in the Christian retail industry, and I’ve seen almost every Bible storybook for children there is. You know what I haven’t seen in these books?
- Pictures of Noah’s ark surround by thousands of dead bodies in the flood
- Naked Noah passed out in his tent
- A young David cutting off a defeated Goliath’s head
- King Darius feeding Daniel’s accusers to the lions
- The 3,000 Philistines crushed by Samson in the temple
- Elisha cursing taunting youth with mauling bears
Yes, on some level I’m being facetious. Little kids don’t know how to process that this kind of stuff. But we need to realize that the when we focus on Genesis’ 6’s cute animals and rainbows we create problems for later.
Many kids who’ve gone through years of Sunday school and youth group Bible lessons grow into adults who have a very different and one-dimensional view of humanity, God, and the Old Testament. When (if) they discover these stories for themselves, or when they’re confronted by a skeptic with the dark side of many of them, they’re surprised and can feel misled.
If you believe the Old Testament is inspired Scripture, you can’t just sing about building an arky arky out of gopher barky barky . . . you’re eventually going to need to work through the disturbing text that says God was so frustrated that he decided to kill . . . everyone (‘cept the arky crew of course).
3. Turning the Old Testament into simple moral lessons
You experience this almost any time you hear an exposition on any Old Testament story in church. The text is reduced into simplistic equations and steps for living a godly, happy, or fulfilled life. Even more tragic than that, we take stories about God’s behavior in a specific situation and normalize it. If you do this, God will always respond this way.
Daniel and the Lion’s den is a story about how God protected his chosen ambassador in Babylon. Throughout the book we see God working on Daniel’s behalf to keep the young Israelite in a place where God can influence Babylon through him. This includes protecting Daniel from those who want to kill him in order to destroy this growing influence and popularity.
But when you hear sermons about Daniel, the listener becomes focus. Daniel’s story becomes a prop to pull lessons out and apply them to the congregation’s life. This isn’t necessarily bad, except it often includes assuming that God has bound himself to responding in the exact same way in similar situations. This creates a lot of theological and interpretive problems.
Because the truth is:
- Unlike Daniel, you can act with integrity and the lions might eat you
- Unlike David, you can act with faith and Goliath may kill you
- Unlike Joseph, you can act with purity and spend the rest of your life in prison
- Unlike Elijah, God may not silence your critics with miracles
One of the things making the Old Testament so troublesome is that, instead of seeing it as the narrative of God’s creating and preparing a people for the incarnation, we tend to see it as the a collection of self-help stories.
Don’t get me wrong, these Scriptures are definitely helpful for instruction and correction (2 Tim. 3:16), but that doesn’t mean that they’re to be used outside of the narrative intent—and it’s definitely dangerous to assume that God’s response in these stories are always applicable to your situation.
On top of that, the allegorical jumps that make up some of these messages are just silly. Suddenly, David’s five smooth stones are five types of prayer to conquer your Goliath.
Like life, the Old Testament isn’t easily explained or reconciled, and it doesn’t always resolve nicely. We need to be okay with that.
Somewhere between ignoring or explaining away the OT’s most difficult passages and letting their darker elements work us into a constant state of frustration is a place where, like Jacob, we can wrestle with God until he blesses us.