Picking and Choosing: The Old Testament
Back in my post on Marcion, I said the following, with added emphasis:
Reading [the Bible] at the age of forty-eight is very much a different experience. Things such as the plauges and destruction God sent against His own people (Numbers 11:33, Numbers 16:1-35, and Numbers 25:1-4), the (lauded) behavior of Phineas (Numbers 25:5-9) which causes God to stop the last-mentioned plague, the mandates to kill all the men, women, and children in various cities in Canaan when the Jews return from Egypt (Joshua 6:20-27, 8:24-26, and 11:10-15, among others)–and that’s just in the parts I’ve re-read so far. There’s plenty more nastiness to come, too–just for a couple of examples, check out 2 Samuel 24 and 2 Kings 2:23-25. Examples could be multiplied quite a bit.
The point is that I’ve decided that I do not like the Old Testament as a whole very much at all.
I am not a Marcionite. I do, however, find his view more viscerally and emotionally appealing as I read the Bible again after all these years. I’m not quite sure why–perhaps I’ve grown more cynical. Maybe suffering and the general messiness of life have become more real to me and I have thus become less able to blithely tolerate a supposedly loving God who seems not only to be OK with this but who seems actively to perpetrate it with distressing frequency. In many ways it would be very easy for me to just jettison the Old Testament altogether (whether that would entail leaving the Church would be another and even more complex matter) and cast my lot with that of Marcion and the other teachers (mostly, but not exclusively Gnostic) who held similar ideas.
I cannot do that, though. That would be the easy solution.
The attempts to find something without resorting to such an easy solution have been the main motivating factor of this whole series. I think now I’m about at a point where I have a solution that, while not easy, satisfies me.
In line with what I discussed in the post on supersessionism, and with my discussion of what Jesus said and implied about the Torah, I think the most useful view for a Christian is to view the Old Testament as a preparation for and a signpost to the New. First, it was God’s purpose to develop the idea of a supreme God who is transcendent and yet personal, just and yet merciful, supremely loving and demanding of morality and ethics on the part of humans. A long tutelary period in which the Jews were set apart from other people and developed their understanding of God was necessary. In part, the Old Testament is the chronicle–and instrument–of this process.
Thus, the holiness laws–kosher laws, laws of dress, and so on–were not a direct part of the purpose of the Old Covenant, but served to keep the Jewish people separated from other peoples and focused on God. With the coming of Christ, this function was no longer necessary, and thus Christians are not bound by these laws. Thus, for example, Leviticus has little practical relevance for Christians.
Other laws, such as the laws of sacrifice, partly served the purpose of developing the Jews’ understanding, and partly were types–symbols pointing to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ. They are still relevant to Chritians insofar as they do the latter, but are not relevant in their former function.
Still other parts of the Old Testament, notably the Psalms and the books of the Prophets, foretell the coming of the Messiah. In that regard, they are of obvious relevance to Christians.
Finally, there’s all that nasty stuff that I referenced in the Marcion post from which I quoted above. I don’t think that is representative of how God works; but I’ve been reluctant to ditch them outright, partly out of a desire not to take the easy way out, partly to avoid seeming to be unduly “prettifying” the faith, and partly because I was unsure on what principle I could do so. There was also the nagging feeling that if they were in the Bible, they ought to be there for some reason. I think I have a framework for dealing with this now.
Building on my discussion of Jesus’ teaching on divorce in my last post, I’d say that parts of the Old Testament weren’t “from” God at all, but the interpretations of His will by a barbaric Bronze Age people who were gradually working their way to the light. Some of these things, given the nature of Bronze Age society were probably necessary for the development of the Jewish people, e.g. the conquest of Canaan along with the suppression of Canaanite religion. As I’ve said elsewhere,
Thus, it would seem to be metaphysically necessary that God create beings that will drift away from Him before coming back to Him so that they will be true individuals who are not mere puppets of God. The Atonement is necessary because the Fall is necessary. This is an interesting concept that I’ll develop more as we go on.
Many parts of the Old Testament, to me, fall under this rubric. God, while not approving the “kill everyone who pisseth against the wall” attitude of the Jews of that time, realized that in the cosmos He was making, with truly free creatures, such atrocities would occur, both with the ancient Jews and among many other peoples as well. Such things were bound to make it into Scripture; but like the laws of divorce, they wound up there because of the “hardness of hearts” of the people.
Furthermore, in this regard, it is useful to remember the old aphorism, “If you can’t do anything else, you can always be a bad example.” That is, a person who does nothing of worth can always be held up as a cautionary tale of the “Don’t do like he did” variety. I think a lot of the nastiness of the Old Testament has to be viewed in this light–God’s way of saying, “Look, that’s what they thought then; but I’m telling you now, don’t do that.” This, in my view, is exactly what Jesus was saying in his teaching on divorce. We might like it better if such passages weren’t there at all; but they serve the vital function of showing us where we came from, and how we could be again if we don’t take seriously the teachings on love and mercy that Christ gives us. Thus, I think it is eminently Christian to leave the Old Testament alone while tossing the notion that God required genocide, etc., as not consistent with His character or the way He wants to relate to us.
In a similar vein, I’d consider that there is very little place for establishing doctrine or ethics (aside from the Ten Commandments) for Christians on the basis of the Old Testament.
Thus, in summary, the main function of the Old Testament for Christians, in my view, is in pointing towards Christ, and as a record of how God gradually revealed Himself first to the Jewish people and then to the world. All the nasty stuff can be set aside.
This basically completes the major part of what I wanted to discuss about the Old Testament, and thus by and large concludes “The Pretty Good Book”. There are a few other things I have in mind to write about the Bible over time; but I’ll put them in an addendum to this series, as I did with “Legends of the Fall”. I hope this series has been interesting to one and all!