Archives For Old Testament

God wrote the Bible. (More specifically, God inspired human authors to write each of the 66 books contained in our Bibles.) But God didn’t lower the completed Bible from the heavens leather-bound and double-columned.

The Bible is a unique book. It was written over the course of 1,500 years or so by more than 40 different authors from backgrounds as diverse as prophets, doctors, tax collectors, and kings. It was written in Greek and Hebrew, with a little Aramaic thrown in for good measure.

So how did these diverse writings come to be bound together in the bestselling book of all time?

First comes the Old Testament. The Old Testament “canon” (the collection of authoritative books that make up our Bibles) has been pretty well established for a long time. For our purposes, we can begin with the view of Jesus and the apostles regarding the validity of the Old Testament.

Hebrew BibleThe books we have in our Old Testament had all been written for a few centuries prior to Jesus’ arrival on earth. They were collected into three “parts:” The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Not only did Jesus affirm the validity and authority of most of the books individually (he quoted from every Old Testament book except for Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon), he also affirmed the three parts of the Old Testament canon:

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’” (Luke 24:44)

So the Old Testament in its three parts (Law, Prophets, Writings/Psalms) was the canon accepted by the Jews and affirmed by the New Testament.

A question that many people will have at this point is how the apocrypha fits in. The Roman Catholic Bible adds an additional 14 or 15 books (though not officially until 1546) that we don’t have in our Protestant Bibles. To oversimplify, we Protestants follow what is called the Palestinian Canon—this arose in Palestine, was written in Hebrew, and was accepted by the Jews. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, follow the Alexandrian Canon—this arose in Alexandria (Egypt) and was based on a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The issue is too complex for a blog, but Protestants believe this Palestinian Canon is the right one, so we leave out those extra books. This doesn’t mean that the apocrypha is useless (see Preston’s post on why we should read the apocrypha), it just means that it’s not Scripture.

Greek BibleWhen we turn to the New Testament, it’s important to first take note of the way the New Testament authors viewed the Old Testament. They looked at these books as a collection of authoritative documents that God himself had written. Paul refers to the Old Testament as Scripture, says that it is able to make a person wise for salvation, and then explains that all Scripture is actually breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:15–16). Peter says:

“No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20–21).

So these New Testament authors believed that there was such a thing as Scripture, which they defined as authoritative documents written by human beings under the guidance of the Spirit of God. And here’s where it gets interesting. They were conscious that they, too, were writing Scripture. Peter refers to Paul’s writings as Scripture and places these writings on the same level as the Old Testament (2 Peter 3:16).

In an interesting passage, Paul cites two quotations as Scripture:

“For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” (1 Tim. 5:18)

The first citation is from Deuteronomy 25:4, and the second is a quotation of Jesus in Luke 10:7. This verse reveals that the early church saw both the Old and New Testaments as Scripture. It is also worth noting that the epistles sometimes end with a directive to have the letter spread around and read in various churches—a practice that signified their Scriptural importance.

So here’s where we stand. God’s people have long believed that there is such a thing as Scripture, they believed that the Old Testament ought to be considered Scripture, and they believed that their New Testament writings ought to be considered Scripture as well. But it still took centuries for the 27 books that make up our New Testaments to be gathered together under the same table of contents. So tomorrow I will finish the story of how the New Testament came to be bundled together and placed at the end of our Old Testaments.

 

Kill Them All

Preston Sprinkle —  September 13, 2012 — 4 Comments

The Old Testament is filled with various ethical dilemmas, but perhaps the most complex one is Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. God’s command to kill all the Canaanites—men, women, and children—has led Richard Dawkins, an atheistic philosopher, to state

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully (The God Delusion, p. 31)

You may not know what half of those words mean. But trust me, they’re bad. If Dawkins’s view of our Old Testament God contains even an ounce of truth, then we’ve got a real problem on our hands. Is the God of the Old Testament really a bloodthirsty, vindictive bully?

On the flipside, the conquest has given others biblical precedent to wage modern war. Two weeks into the Iraq war (2003), former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld encouraged president Bush with these words:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.

Rumsfeld’s words are a quotation from Joshua 1:9, which God spoke to Joshua on the eve of the conquest of Canaan. They are a divine command to wage a “holy war” on the pagan Canaanites. And Rumsfeld saw fit to appropriate the same logic for America’s own (holy?) war against Iraq. The implications are clear: America is a holy nation and the terrorists in Iraq, like the Canaanites, need to be annihilated.

Rumsfeld wasn’t the only national leader to use Joshua’s conquest to give religious backing to war. Christian history is filled with examples of nations fighting other nations, or people seeking to annihilate other people, all under the banner of holy war. (The Crusades of the Middle Ages are one horrific example.) I’m not sure it could be done, but it would be interesting to see how many people have been killed, tortured, and in some cases cannibalized, all because certain Christians sought to apply the book of Joshua to their lives.

Needless to say, there still exists an ethical urgency to understand Joshua’s conquest and how—if at all—it applies to us today. Does God’s command to kill the Canaanites justify a Christian’s use of violence?

Over the next few posts, I’m going to look into the ethical issues surrounding the conquest, including the slaughter of women and children, and whether or not the conquest can be used by Christians to justify violence (or war). For the rest of this post, I’ll lay out a few ways Christians have understood the conquest.

Some think that Joshua (and Moses before him) misunderstood God’s command to kill all the Canaanites. God actually didn’t really mean that they should kill the Canaanites. The Israelites simply acted “in good faith acted on what they believed to be God’s will” (Cowles, “Radical Discontinuity,” Show Them No Mercy, Kindle loc 620). While this approach distances God from the apparent evil action (commanding the genocide), nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Israelites misunderstood God. In fact, the Israelites are rebuked for not driving out all the Canaanites from the land (Judges 2). If God never actually commanded Israel to get rid of all the Canaanites, then such a rebuke would be nonsensical. There’s got to be a better solution for Joshua’s conquest.

Other Christians say that the Bible grossly distorts what actually happened. Even though Deuteronomy and Joshua speak of entering and conquering the land, this isn’t what took place at all. What really happened—despite the biblical picture—is that the Israelites were already living among the Canaanites and yet there was a “peasant revolt” within the land. The oppressed Israelites rose up and overthrew their oppressors—the Canaanites—and then described their uprising as a “conquest” in their sacred Scriptures (the book of Joshua). This view not only dismisses the Bible’s own presentation of what happened, but relies on rather scanty historical evidence for support.

Still others—yes, even Christians—will assume that the God of the Old Testament is quite different than the God of the New. The God of the Old is filled with wrath, judgment, and violence, and it fits right in with His character to command an indiscriminate slaughter of all the Canaanites. But the God of the New, revealed in Jesus Christ, shows us how to love, forgive, and live peaceably with all mankind. So when it comes to the Canaanite genocide, there’s no problem. The God of the Old is a God of genocide. Let’s just be thankful that we serve the God of the New.

I don’t think any of these views does justice to what the Bible actually says. Regardless of the apparent moral dilemma, it seems best to deal with the text head on and then figure out how God could command such things. God doesn’t need us to make excuses for Him. So let’s approach the problem with a plain reading of Scripture and then move towards a solution of the ethical problems therein.

Stay tuned!

“I’m glad we worship the God of the New Testament rather than the god of the Old,” said one student before Bible class, “because the God of the Old is a God of wrath, while the God of the New is a God of grace.”

I have had many students, in fact, confess that they thought this way before they actually studied the Old Testament. And my educated hunch is that many Christians feel this way whether they admit it or not. The Old Testament, according to popular opinion, is all about law and works, while the New is all about grace and forgiveness.

Sure, we could comb through the New Testament and easily find examples of grace. Jesus hung out with harlots, drunkards, and he touched quite a few lepers during his short ministry on earth. Paul too could hardly talk about Jesus without clothing his message with his fresh understanding of grace. But if you pay attention and read it closely—or read it at all—the Old Testament is one large, impassioned story of God’s grace. Look at any story, any chapter, and you’ll find a story of God’s relentless pursuit of his wayward children. Take grace out of the Old Testament and, like pulling a thread from a sweater, the whole thing will become undone. Every character, every event, every single page from the Old Testament bleeds with grace.

We don’t usually see this because we have been conditioned to read the Old Testament morally. That is, we generally look to the Old Testament as a showcase of moral examples to live by. We need to be like Abraham, live like Jacob, be a leader like Moses, Joshua, or David. We should fight like Samson, flee like Joseph, and stand up for God like Esther.

But the problem with this approach is that it puts the emphasis on people rather than on the main subject, the primary character, in the Old Testament—God. God is the focus of every story in the Old Testament. Human characters play a role, but it’s a supporting role and never the main part. The Old Testament—the whole Bible, really—is fundamentally a story about God, not humankind.

 

And so I suggest that instead of reading the Bible morally, that we read it theologically. This doesn’t mean that we don’t look for moral examples, nor does it mean that we should mine the text for verses that support our favorite theological doctrine. Rather, reading the Bible theologically means that we look first and foremost at what the passage teaches us about God. What is God doing? How is God revealing Himself? What is God doing to clean up our mess? Theology simply means “the study of God,” and that’s what the focus should be.

Plus, most of the characters of the Old Testament, believe it or not, are not good examples to follow. Abraham was addicted to lying, Jacob was a fearful cheater, Moses was a tongue-tied murderer, Esther never even mentioned God, and Samson was a porn star enslaved to lust and bloodshed. So if we follow our Old Testament “heroes” as the Scripture presents them, we could end up in prison.

So the Old Testament is all about grace. And it provides the rich soil from which Jesus’ gospel of grace blossoms. To understand Jesus, to understand grace, we must soak ourselves in Israel’s story.

I can’t wait to teach Old Testament Survey again this Fall!

I’m not sure how many have followed the interaction between Adam F(inlay) and I from the first blog, but I thought it would be good to follow up with some of his questions here. So this blog is a bit of an aside; hence the goofy 5.5 title. First, let me just say that Adam is a good friend of mine and one of the sharpest guys I know. He wrestles with the text like no other and is well versed in first century Judaism. As always, he’s raised some very good questions regarding my reading of Matthew 5 and the pacifistic position as a whole. In short, Adam says that Jesus was a Torah abiding Jew who never contradicted (the law of) Moses in his teaching, as Matthew 5:17-19 makes clear. Therefore, since the law of Moses has allowances for violence, Jesus must have as well. He wouldn’t and didn’t teach against Moses.

(Adam, if this is off in any way, please let me know!)

So here’s my response. I’ll try to be concise at the risk of setting out underdeveloped arguments.

First, I don’t think we should see such total continuity between Jesus and Moses, or between Jesus’ teaching and Moses’ teaching, or between the Old Covenant and New Covenant. The New Covenant doesn’t just renew the old, but takes God’s relationship with his people to a new level. Such discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New can already be found in Jeremiah 31:31-34, where the New is “not like” the Old (not that it’s completely different, but that there will be some discontinuity). Ezekiel 16:61-63 hints at this as well, and Galatians 3, 2 Corinthians 3, and many other statements in Paul (Rom 6; 10:4; and others) suggest that there is discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New. In short, the biblical drama unfolds as a dynamic, not a static, story; the law of Moses does not reveal God’s ideal for all people of all times under all covenants. The Mosaic law was culturally, geographically, and ethnically bound. It was God’s law for the people of Israel, in the land of Israel, while living in a particular period of time. The very nature of the shift—or progression—from a uni-ethnic, geographically bound covenant people into a multi-national, non-geographically bound covenant people, demands that the law in all its literalness cannot be sustained.

Second, there are many other things that “progress” as the biblical story unfolds. In the OT (Old Testament), God dwells behind walls in a tabernacle/temple; in the NT (New Testament), He dwells in his church without walls. In the OT, animal sacrifices expiated sin; in the NT, Jesus takes away our sins once and for all. In the OT, all ethical behavior was tethered to the land of Israel; in the NT, ethics are detached from the land promise. In the OT, holiness and purity is conceived in spatial and material terms (the alter can be defiled, along with the lamp stand, and they need to be cleansed; etc.); in the NT, the concept of holiness and purity is not the same.

Third, and related to the previous point, many ethical commands of the OT law are explicitly reversed or “brought to their intended goal” (as I like to put it) in the NT. In the OT, divorce is clearly allowed (Deut 24:1ff), while in the NT it’s not (in most cases) and Jesus “takes” Deut 24 “to its intended goal” in Matt 5:31 to prove his point. Retaliation is allowed in the court system of the OT, but for the people of God in the NT it’s strictly forbidden (e.g., Matt 5:38). (Adam had some great thoughts on this in the first blog; I hope my wording here reflects his astute correction.) Circumcision and all the dietary laws were mandated in the OT—even for Gentiles who became covenant members—but not so in the NT. (There’s a debate about whether or not Jewish believers in Jesus are still commanded to keep such laws, but it’s clearly reversed in the case of Gentiles.)

Now, fourth, what about Matthew 5:17-20? Here’s the text:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Look up any major commentary on Matthew and you’ll find a 5-10 page discussion on this passage, which usually summarizes anywhere from 5-10 different views on what Jesus means here. All that to say, the obvious meaning of what Jesus says here is not all that obvious. Several questions are immediately apparent: What does Jesus mean by “fulfill?” What does he mean by “all is accomplished?” What is the “least of these commandments”—specifically, which ones are the “least” and which “commandments” is he thinking of? (Several interpreters suggest that “these commandments” point forward to Jesus’ own “law” in 5:21-48.) And what in the world does Jesus mean by having a righteousness that surpasses “the scribes and Pharisees,” which constitutes your entrance card into the kingdom? Needless to say, we really have to roll up our sleeves, cancel our appointments, and set aside a good deal of time to work through these issues before we can confidently quote Matthew 5 in favor of any view of Jesus and the law.

So what does the passage mean? Here’s a very truncated summary of my view. First, “fulfill” is not the same as “obedience,” since “the word plhrouvn, ‘to fulfill,’ is never used in Matthew to describe obedience to the law” (Hagner, Matthew, 105). I agree with Don Hagner who says that the word “fulfill” does not refer to

“establishing the law as is, nor of supplementing it, but in the sense of bringing it to its intended meaning in connection with the messianic fulfillment (together with plhrouvn, note ‘he law and the prophets’) brought by Jesus…In Matthew’s view, the teaching of Jesus by definition amounts to the true meaning of the Torah and is hence paradoxically an affirmation of Jesus’ loyalty to the OT” (Hagner, Matthew, 107).

So Jesus didn’t seek to destroy the law, but to bring the law to its intended goal. All that to say, I don’t think the passage presents the law as a static constitution for God’s people of all time, being reiterated and reaffirmed by Jesus; rather, Jesus “penetrate(s)…the divinely intended meaning of the law.”

So what does Jesus mean by “the least of these commandments” (v. 19)? I actually don’t think it refers to Jesus’ own words in vv. 21 and following, although this would support my view. The context necessitates that Jesus is talking about the law of Moses, which makes perfect sense, because Jesus said he’s not trying to “abolish” the law but to “fulfill it.” Again, I think Hagner’s interpretation is as good as any:

“What is being emphasized in this way are not the minutiae of the law that tended to captivate the Pharisees but simply a full faithfulness to the meaning of the law as it is expounded by Jesus. Thus, the phrase “the least of these commandments” refers to the final and full meaning of the law, but taken up and interpreted by Jesus, as for example in the material that begins in v 21” (Hagner, Matthew, 108).

All in all, I don’t think that Jesus was simply reinstituting the law of Moses in all its literalness for the New Testament people of God. (Had any bacon lately?) He clearly “fulfilled” several commandments in the law, including divorce (v. 31) and retaliation (v. 38), and his treatment of unclean women, lepers, and prostitutes, seems to go against a strict interpretation of Moses—or at least, it takes Moses to a new level. Again, I don’t think this means that Jesus was abolishing the law, but bringing it to its intended goal—the love of God and love of neighbor among the worldwide community of God’s New Covenant people. After all, Sinai is not the final goal; Eden is.

So unless Jesus explicitly reiterated the OT’s allowance, and command of, violence—like stoning kids who curse their parents or those who violate the Sabbath (Exod 21:17; 35:2)—I don’t think we can assume that Jesus endorsed violence simply because Moses did. We would need to find Jesus explicitly endorsing some measure of violence among God’s people. But he doesn’t.

In this post, we’ll dig into the issue that’s been lingering in the back of many of your minds, I’m sure, and one which has come up here and there in the comments thus far: What about the Old Testament? Surely the Old Testament’s clear allowance, and in many cases command, of violence would suggest that Christians are also allowed to use violence. After all, we don’t want to say that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New, right?

Of course not. But the issue of the Old Testament is much more complex than that. Here’s a few things to consider.

First, the nation of Israel was a theocracy, and this relates to their command to wage wars, act violently, etc. In other words, Israel was a nation of God’s people under God’s law with God as their president, so to speak. If you wanted to “get saved” and join God’s covenant, you had to pack your bags and move to Israel (in most cases). Church and state were one. Since wars and violence are part of the fabric of a broken society, Israel as a nation would be partakers in this societal structure, but it was never the ideal (as we’ll show in our third point).

But today, God’s people are not a theocracy; we are a global community scattered among the nations. The myth that America is, or ever was, a Christian nation has been so thoroughly disproved that I won’t even get into it. Needless to say, we as the church give our allegiance to Jesus and our citizenship is in heaven—whether you’re reading this blog in Andorra, Angola, or even in America. In short, while the nation of Israel fought wars and acted with violence in the Old Testament, this does not in itself carry over as part of the mission of the church. The church is never commanded or even allowed (explicitly) to act violently, but to “love our enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” “never repay evil for evil,” “overcome evil with good,” and to “never avenge yourself” (Matt 5 and Rom 12). So the difference between Israel as a theocracy and the church as a dispersed group among many nations necessitates that we view national warfare differently.

Second, most of the wars in the Old Testament were explicitly connected to the land promise. The conquest of Canaan (Josh 6-12), wars against the Philistines (1 Sam 4), and the slaughter of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:1-3) were all tethered to the ongoing struggle to settle in, and maintain control over, the land of Israel. The point being: the land promise was unique to Israel’s relationship to God under the Old Covenant and is not carried over into the Church’s mission; hence, one of the many reason why violence and warfare has no place in the mission of the church. Our covenant relationship with Israel’s God is not wedded to a strip of real estate in the middle east.

Third, and most importantly, the Old Testament (the entire Bible, really) is a dynamic unfolding story that progresses, and the progression culminates in Jesus—the goal of the Law and the Prophets (Luke 24:44; Rom 10:4; cf. Matt 5:17-19). Now, throughout Israel’s history, there were times when God commanded violence. The conquest of the Canaanites and the command to annihilate the Amalekites (1 Sam 15) immediately come to mind. So war and violence is part and parcel with Israel’s existence. However, war and violence are never really viewed as the ultimate goal. Peace is. The whole direction of the Old Testament, especially seen in the prophets (Isaiah 2:4; 11:1-6; Mic 4:2), is that there will come a time when God would bring healing, restoration, and the cessation of violence by means of his suffering Servant. As Isaiah and Micah both creatively proclaim: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Mic 4:3; cf. Isa 2:4). Instruments of war will be turned into tools for agriculturally productivity; as God’s redemptive purposes unfold, we move from war to peace. This is such a consistent theme in the prophets that I hardly feel the need to belabor the point: God’s promised messianic kingdom will inaugurate a time of peace, healing, restoration, and the cessation of war. As Myron Augsburger writes:

“While the Bible is one unit, and one great covenant of grace, it is also an unfolding revelation in which God is continually saying more and more about himself. All through the Old Testament, God had something more to say about himself until he said it better in Jesus Christ. This means that the incarnation is final, the full disclosure of God” (Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 61-62).

Violence was allowed and even commanded in the Old Testament, as was polygamy, divorce, slavery, stoning of children, and killing people for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. But this was not the goal of redemptive history; rather, it was part of God’s dynamic (not static) story of salvation, which climaxes in Jesus who bore a plowshare and not a sword. Jesus inaugurated that promised period of peace and healing, and therefore violence is allowed in the Old Testament but not in the New.

One more passage needs to be dealt with and that’s Genesis 9:5-6:

“5 And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. 6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

Here we have a pre-Old Covenant command where a death-penalty-like law is instituted. If you kill, then you shall be killed. The punishment, in other words, should fit the crime, and the Old Covenant Law is replete with similar “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” commands (Exod 21:24; Lev 24:19-22). In its own context, I would say that Gen 9:6 supports capital punishment: if somebody kills another person, he too should be killed. The question, however, is: Is this ideal? (It certainly moves away from the Edenic way of life.) Does this still apply for Christians today? Should we seek to retaliate life for life?

I say yes and no, but mostly no. Jesus clearly overturned the law of retaliation in Matt 5:38, when he said: “you have heard that it was said, ‘and eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you do not resist the one who is evil.” Don’t retaliate, Jesus says, and Paul says the same thing in Romans 12. So I think that we must read Gen 9 through the lens of the cross and in light of Jesus’ (and Paul’s) own ethical teaching, which prohibits retaliation.

So where does my “yes” come in? As most of you know, Rom 13:4 does say that God uses the government to “bear the sword” to punish evildoers, and (as Colby pointed out yesterday) this is one of God’s ways of avenging evil. (Interestingly, however, as my good friend Andrew Rillera has pointed out, the cross and not the dagger-like “sword” referred to in Rom 13 was Rome’s means of capital punishment.) But God’s vengeance of evil through the government is instead of the church’s own vengeance of evil (note the connection between Rom 12:17-19 and 13:4). Vengeance by Christians is everywhere prohibited and nowhere allowed in the New Testament. That’s God’s business, not ours.

Okay, I know that was a brief treatment of a very difficult issue. There’s going to be a lot of “what abouts” and “ya buts” that I couldn’t cover, and I’ll do my best to wrestle with your comments and concerns. But I’m really eager to get to the issue that most people race to whenever pacifism is discussed: what about the person breaking into your home to kill your family? Do pacifists believe that there’s never a place to use violence on an individual level? Stay tuned…