Why I Struggle With the Old Testament
I’ve posted a few articles recently about the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. I was inspired to do so by a seminary student friend who used to be an atheist. He told me he became a Christian when he learned about the reliability of the New Testament scriptures. But he also explained to me the process the Jewish people went through to copy the Torah. If they made a single mistake they would destroy the document and start over. The ancient Hebrew, like English today, has a numeric value associated with each letter (in English A=1, B=2, C=3, and so on). After copying each line of scripture, they would add up the numeric value of each line and compare it to the original. If there was a difference, they destroyed the document and started over.
It’s Not the Accuracy, It’s What It Says
So it’s not the accuracy of the Old Testament scriptures that bothers me. What bothers me about the Old Testament is what’s written. Some of the laws and rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy just, well, I simply don’t like them. The part about not eating shellfish, and the part about stoning kids who backtalk their parents, and wasn’t there a guy who received the death penalty for gathering sticks on the wrong day?
I ran across a great article by Christopher J. H. Wright the other day that shed light on some of the issues I have with the Old Testament. If you’re like me and you struggle with some of these passages, you might want to read that article. In it Wright says it would be absurd for us to follow many of those Old Testament laws today. And he offers reasons why.
The Sacrificial Laws
The sacrificial laws were fulfilled in Christ. So we don’t have to follow anything that has to do with the sacrificial laws given in the Old Testament. We need not sacrifice lambs, or goats, or oxen, or doves, or even grain. The nation of Israel was required to make these sacrifices over and over again, but we don’t have to, because Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was the final sacrifice for our sins. So not one single sacrificial law from the Old Testament is valid any longer, because of him, because of Jesus, and what he did for you, and for me.
The Food Laws
The food laws. The mandatory diet prescribed in the Old Testament, it’s no longer valid either. Jesus said, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:11)
And then Peter had the vision of the unclean animals where God said, “Kill and eat.”
Peter replied that he couldn’t eat, because the food in his vision was unclean.
But God said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:9-16)
So the food laws fell by the wayside. While some believe there are health benefits to following the diet prescribed in the Old Testament, we don’t have to. We don’t have to follow the Old Testament laws pertaining to food.
The Civil Code
Much of the law given in the Old Testament was a civil code for Israel. When the civil code was given to Israel it was given as a part of their theocratic government system. The laws were given to the nation of Israel exclusively. No other nation was given these laws. Today the church exists in all the nations, under many different governments. So, it just doesn’t work that way anymore. (Keller)
So we don’t have to follow all the laws in the Old Testament literally. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. Wright talks about how Paul applied the Old Testament law allowing oxen to graze as they worked, to human working conditions in the New Testament. (Deuteronomy 25:4) Paul also applied the Old Testament law about gathering manna, to equality between believers in the New Testament. (1 Corinthians 9:8-10, 2 Corinthians 8:13-15) So we can’t just brush them aside. We can and should gain insight from the Old Testament laws, because Paul also said, “All scripture is God breathed…” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Put Yourself In God’s Place For A Minute
If you’re like me, right now you might be saying to yourself, Okay but what about the Old Testament laws that are supported in the New Testament? Some of what I find left over, I still don’t like!
I feel the same way. But think this through with me. Imagine yourself in God’s place for a minute. If you’re God, and you’re going to provide a timeless document to humankind, wouldn’t you expect that every culture on the space-time continuum would be challenged at certain points by what they heard? Some cultures in other parts of the world today would find the parts of the Bible that talk about God’s grace as lacking in justice and structure. In our culture here in the U.S. many find the parts of the Bible that talk about God’s justice as too restrictive, or even brutal. Of course there’s a tendency for both cultures to think they have it right. In fact there’s a tendency for every culture to think they have it right. But is that really a valid perspective when you consider every culture throughout the whole of time, in every part of the world? Do you think that your culture, at this point in the time-space continuum, is superior to all other cultures on the continuum, including those to come in the future? If you do, isn’t that view as narrow and exclusive as the very views you find offensive? Isn’t it true that every culture beats on the previous culture like other baseball teams beat on my Chicago Cubs? (Keller)
I’ve heard 20 and 30-somethings respond to this by saying, With the information available on the internet today, our current culture will be different. Our culture isn’t going to be found wanting by future generations. The reality is though that the increase in information is on an exponential curve. Future generations are going to leave previous generations in the dust more dramatically than ever before. Scientists who study science (yes there are such people, and they’re fascinating too. Read Samuel Arbesman sometime.) are very certain this will be the case.
So you’re embarrassed by some of the views your grandparents and great grandparents hold today (and probably your parents too). But the sad news is, it will be even worse for you. Your views will become dated even faster than the generations before you. So your grandkids and great grandkids will be embarrassed by some of the views you hold today too.
It would be tragic if the Bible is true, but we disregarded it based on beliefs that will be perceived as weak or even silly a few generations from now. (Keller)
The other night Kathy and I watched the Stepford Wives movie. It’s about these technical geniuses in Stepford, Connecticut who implant computer chips in their wive’s brains so they’ll think and behave precisely as each of their respective husbands want them to. If you think about it, isn’t that what we try to do with God? We try to mold Him into someone who thinks and behaves in accordance with our own personal views and opinions. And if He won’t cooperate, we reject Him. You know God never asks us to understand everything about Him. In fact if you think about it, it doesn’t make any sense that we would understand everything about the One who created neutron stars, black holes, and the galaxies (at the speed of light it would take you 100,000 years to cross the Milky Way galaxy). He only asks that we love Him and trust Him. It’s probably no accident that the Bible often compares our relationship with God to a marriage. I don’t always understand my wife. In fact very often I don’t understand my wife. But I love her. And I trust her. But I could never love her if she were a Stepford wife. In the same way, you really can’t love God, if you make Him a Stepford god. (Keller) (Isaiah 55:8-9)
The Final Solution
In Christopher J. H. Wright’s article he poses a question, “Are you ignoring God’s words in the Old Testament in defiance of what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17? Or are you studying His words and using it as guidance, light for the path, in the joyful way of Psalms 1, 19, and 119?”
And he writes that, “God doesn’t say in the Bible, ‘Here are the rules, see how many you can keep?’ Instead He says, ‘Here’s My Son, Jesus. See what I have done for you through him.’
“It’s important to distinguish between the most important messages in the Bible and the less primary teachings. If Jesus is who he says he is, then we have to take what he said about the Old Testament writings seriously. If he’s not who he says then why care about the Bible at all?”
The bottom line is that there are still parts of the Bible I don’t like and understand. But if Jesus is who he says he is, then he provides a solution to the dilemma of determining the true nature of God. Whenever I get fuzzy or confused about God’s nature, I look to Jesus.
Because when his disciples said to him,
Show us the Father.
If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. (John 14:8-11)
This article relies heavily on the work of Christopher J. H. Wright. To read the original article click on Learning to Love Leviticus.
You might also like Why is Christianity So Restrictive?
Tim Keller, The Reason for God
Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand
[Image via Gustave Deghilage – Creative Commons]
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