Rehabilitating the Old Testament
(1) The Problems
There are different ways of thinking about the Old Testament. Devout Christians regard it as holy writ, full of authority as God’s Living Word. In the Protestant tradition, Calvin equated the Old and New Testaments, making them have the same spiritual value. This idea allowed Protestant Christians to be wealthy and to go to war and to take political power. This legitimised the British Empire. The best examples however are the Quakers, the Cadburys and Frys. They created wealth and put it to good purposes and good causes. John Wesley, the Founder of the Methodist Church had a motto ‘Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can’. A particular version of Calvin’s doctrine was prosperity theology, such as you see in America. This suggests that God’s blessing can be seen in personal prosperity. Some Christian Brethren hold to this doctrine. The founders of Stagecoach, Brian Soutar and his sister Ann Gloag adhere to this understanding. Material success if resulting from honest work, is seen as evidence of God’s blessing. Reformed, Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches do not take this view so explicitly and although not rejecting success in life, suggest that the New Testament balances the favour of God on the poor not the comfortably well off or rich. Some of this in the Church of Scotland’s pontificating is just tokenism, insincere, and for public relations and spin effect. We all know how big a part money plays in the life of our Church. Today, many Christians will want to say that there is a definite difference and distinction between the New and the Old Testaments, emphasising Jesus’ non-violent, non-racial and non-exclusive ministry – very different from the violence, racial exception and separateness of the Old Testament journey.
On the other hand, there are many in our society who are neither Jews nor Christians and who have no interest in, nor respect or admiration for the Old Testament. Even so, no-one in our country is untouched by the longer term influence of the Jewish Scriptures. They are part of the Christian Bible and as such are part of our social and cultural sub-conscious. Even when the most complete atheist or agnostic exclaims ‘O God’ it is the Hebrew Old Testament God that forms the content of his or her oath. Professional agnostics and atheists regard the Old Testament as a primitive book which only the most uncivilised would repair to for advice and guidance. Scientists do not regard the Old Testament as giving a truthful account of the origins of this world of ours. The debates about Genesis, the six day creation and Adam and Eve have long been answered in favour of science’s discoveries. But in Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh, in that great Church with hundreds and hundreds worshipping each week, you may well find people there, educated and intelligent, successful and personable, telling you that they believe in the literal truth of the six day creation and in Adam and Eve.
We might summarise some of the problems the Old Testament gives us today as follows:
1) What is historically true?
2) Why is there so much violence?
3) Is there colonialism and empire building?
4) Why does God always seem to be angry?
When we look at the state of the middle east today, these questions are still relevant. They help us to understand the way the State of Israel operates. But they also put into perspective what is given in Jesus Christ. Because in Jesus, we have a verified historical person, we have a non-violent person, we have someone who was not rich and did not take over nations and did not build a worldly empire. We have someone who shows that God is not angry all the time, but is in love with humanity most of the time. We have someone who is the opposite of racial, cultural and spiritual exclusiveness, who broke out of Judaism and embraced the whole world and still does.
The general impression in academic circles is that the Old Testament is not a reliable historical document. If you take the actual dating seriously then we would have to say that the world was created in October 4004 BC. There are people in America who apparently believe that still to be the case. Confronted with scales of time and distance such as millions of years and miles, they are able to persuade themselves that the Bible is true whereas human knowledge is only human knowledge - fallible. For the devout and believing Christian who is able to accept what modern scientists say about our world, Genesis is a powerful and strong testimony to belief in and experience of a Creator in personal relationship to the human community. That supreme knowledge exists out with the arguments about the age of the earth or the universe. The creation stories reflect evolutionary process and it is only in adhering to a strict earth bound 24 hour day notion that Genesis creates problems.
As for Adam and Eve, they are types of humanity, male and female. They certainly existed as types – in other words - men and women like Adam and Eve certainly existed – still do. What is fascinating is that the story of sin and fall is repeated in every age and generation. Our tabloid newspapers are full of repeat stories of sin and fall. Indeed – it is an industry today which sustains thousands in employment and makes millions of pounds for others. Yet – people will say that the story of Adam and Eve is a myth. It is in fact the truth that the discovery of sexuality and relationships between men and women are fraught with difficulties for every human being. The same dynamics exist today. The man is seduced and the woman finds someone or something else to blame. Harry and Meghan. If it is a member of the Royal Family, a politician, a football manager, a footballer, a pop star, or your neighbours and even yourself, the same pattern of behaviour occurs today as it does in the story of Adam and Eve. The Old Testament therefore is as true and as relevant today as our human sinfulness makes it to be.
It moves on to more certain historical foundations with Abraham. Few doubt that he existed and no-one disputes that the Jewish people are descended from him. It is often supposed that there were no written historical records of the time. Archaeologists have spent a lot of time trying to find evidence of the stories of the patriarchs. Some have been successful. The tombs of the patriarchs can be visited at Hebron in Judea. When it comes to the post Exodus time, it seems that accurate records were kept. Time and time again we read that the events of history were recorded. 1 & 2 Chronicles, by their names, are historical documents. There are lists of families down through the generations, more accurate than any of us have or know about our own family history. Do you know the names of your great-grandparents? And those before them and before them? 1 Chronicles 9:34 reads “All these were heads of Levite families, chiefs as listed in their genealogy, and they lived in Jerusalem”. Accurate records were kept. The Old Testament is not simply oral folk-telling. 1 Chronicles 27 gives a list of the heads of Israelite families, army commanders and officers of divisions of 24,000 men each.
Again we read in 2 Chronicles 9:29 “As for the other events of Solomon’s reign, from beginning to end, are they not written in the records of Nathan the prophet, in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite and in the visions of Iddo the seer concerning Jeroboam, son of Nebat?”. 12:15 reads “As for the events of Rehobaom’s reign, from beginning to end, are they not written in the records of Shemiah the prophet and Iddo the seer that dealt with genealogies?” 16:11 reads “The events of Asa’s reign, from beginning to end, are written in the book of the kings of Israel”. 20:34 reads “The other events of Jehoshephat’s reign, from beginning to end, are written in the annals of Jehu son of Hanani”. And so on and so on. The point is that not only were historical records kept, but it was noted who actually did this work. It was often those also known as prophets since they had gifts of literacy and also had an interest in explaining why certain things happened to the people of God. It is not acceptable for academics to sit in comfort in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and decide that these people were dishonest, confused or fiction writers.
The Old Testament is often thought to be only about men and has little place or time for women. It is true that the broad picture is of the actions of men but the Old Testament does not justify these actions of men as men. On the contrary, the purpose of the Old Testament is not to say that men are great. The purpose of the Old Testament is to say that God is great. Men appear as generally weak, sinful and somewhat pathetic. There are partial exceptions such as Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses and David and Solomon. But David and Solomon receive a lot of criticism within the Old Testament itself also. Some women are exemplary and examples of significant spiritual greatness in Rachael, Deborah, Esther, and of course Ruth and Naomi. But there was also Rahab and Jezebel. The prophets stand out as righteous preachers and revivalists but their excoriations are largely directed at men in positions of leadership and influence. It is with the writers of the Psalms and Proverbs and the great thinkers such as Isaiah and Jeremiah in particular that the Old Testament reaches the heights of spiritual greatness and justifies its influence over the last thousands of years.
We will be looking at other aspects of the Old Testament which cause problems for us today which we mentioned at the beginning. Jesus Himself said that he was fulfilling the Old Testament, not destroying it. He often said to his detractors that if they had understood the Old Testament, they would have recognised and accepted Him. The Old Testament is a record of a relationship – a stormy and difficult relationship – between one specially called human community and our Creator.
Christianity offers that relationship made perfect in Jesus Christ without prejudice to anyone who will seek out and love their Maker. It applies to everyone on earth in every generation. We today gathered here stand in the tradition of the faithful of the ages. And we know that all the attractions and diversions of our society are not worth anything compared with the knowledge of the love of God in Jesus Christ the Risen Lord.