The Old Testament. Some Christians may tell you it’s now largely irrelevant thanks to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the ‘New covenant’, which delivers from the law and gives us a new identity. Others will hold it up as vital to the Christian lifestyle, as if obedience of the Ten Commandments is what gives us our ‘religious’ identity. Atheists will point to passages of the Old Testament in an attempt to embarrass less prepared Christians who have trouble lining up the truth of ‘God is Love’ with the equal truth of a God who is also wrathful. This is precisely what the Old Testament is about: the character of God, and His people (both then, and now) getting to know Him personally. To shy away from the finer details of it is also to shy away from the finer details of God Himself, and in doing that you risk creating a God who is best for you, rather than worshipping a God who created you to be best for Him.
Thinking of it in this light, you may realise that the Old Testament means so much more than the caricatures that have been created around it. It is not declared irrelevant by Jesus (quite the opposite), nor are the laws outlined in the likes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy directly applicable to the lives of Christians today. Nor is it solely about a wrathful God who kills lots of people. If any accusations against God’s character are true of the Old then they must also be true of the New Testament – you will find no logical hiding place there, providing we are thinking sensibly about this. God is eternal, and He does not change who He is on a whim. He simply is who He always was, and always will be.
Jesus referenced the Old Testament many times during his ministry on Earth, the first instance of such being His temptation by Satan shortly after His baptism. During this exchange, Jesus sets us the best example for dealing with spiritual warfare: quoting scripture. Matthew 4: 4 and Luke 4: 4 (of the four Gospels, these are the two that provide a detailed description of this particular exchange) show Jesus doing this, as he quotes from Deuteronomy 8: 3 when He says “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Again He does this three verses later in Matthew 4: 7 (or Luke 4: 12) when he says, “it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’”, referencing Deuteronomy 6: 16 this time. Notice a pattern developing here? Deuteronomy is otherwise a book of uncomfortable laws that many Christians don’t like to touch; but if Jesus was stating it as the final word of God, they’d do well to take heed.
Jesus references laws from Exodus 20, such as ‘you shall not murder’, in Matthew 5: 21, and goes on in this chapter to continue referencing Old Testament laws concerning lust, divorce, revenge and loving your enemies. Exodus 20 is one of the most important chapters in the Old Testament, as it outlines the Ten Commandments which Jesus later fulfils completely in the sinless law-abiding life that He lives as man. Therefore, if you take away the law, you find there is actually no need for Jesus to do what He did and no need for a New Covenant to save us from its grip in the first place. So to discourage people from taking this part of the Bible seriously is to discourage people from taking the whole Bible seriously. There’s no question about it; if you are to accept Jesus as your saviour, you are also to accept the Old Testament and everything that is written in there.
Certainly, this can be taken too far when you don’t also apply common sense to the text. There is no doubt that we have passages in the Old Testament that look like total nonsense when considered in the context of our own time and culture. Yet, what may we find when we consider the time at which the Bible was written, rather than treating it as a text that should speak explicitly and exclusively to the people of the 21st century? The Bible is indeed the inspired word of God, but believe it or not, God has used (and will continue to use) it to speak to all people across all time – not least the very people that were living at that time. Less knowledgeable they may have been, but that didn’t make God any less desiring to speak to them. He cared about them.
Leviticus 15 is a prime example of this. In reference to ‘bodily discharges’, the passage gave its readers guidance on, essentially, how to keep themselves sexually pure – or ‘clean’, if you would prefer that word. That is precisely what God has given them this command for; to keep their precious sexual organs clean and good for proper use. To the untrained eye it could look like God is trying to deny us the natural pleasure of sex with such an unreasonable request. It could even look like God sees sex itself as a dirty thing, and if we are to indulge we are to do so on a schedule, feeling ashamed and making sure to clean ourselves properly afterwards. But I don’t think that is what’s going on here. From a different point of view, the one that sees God as loving Father, it’s clear that God does not want the Levites, who were stranded in the desert at this time and didn’t exactly have our cleaning facilities at the best of times anyway, to suffer from the diseases that usually result from the kind of rampant, uncontrolled sexual relations that take place any time you put a group of men and women together (and that part, my friends, has survived all the way to our own time and culture).
Those who consider the Bible to be God’s ultimate spoken word (that part is true) to the point where they take every part of it literally regardless of cultural context (this part is the problem) can run into a stumbling block when it comes to a passage such as this – and they alienate themselves from the very people that Jesus would want to save as a result. Leviticus 15 is not, I believe, talking directly to the culture in which we are living – but only because we can now, of course, keep ourselves clean in a rather more comfortable fashion. In the same way, we don’t consider our main modern transportation to be donkeys simply because they were used when Jesus took man’s form; that would be stupid. It would mean we’d lack the intelligence to realise that cars have largely replaced donkeys as transport within our culture (whether or not you like using cars for environmental reasons is a different argument – one that concerns emotion, rather than fact). Believe me, the reason God gave you a brain is because He wants you to think.
But we risk dancing over the elephant in the room here. Surely you came expecting more than an explanation of sexual purity laws for a bunch of desert-dwellers? So it is with that in mind that I move on to the character of God himself.
Maybe this is the underlying question in all of this; is the God of the Old Testament really the same as the God of the New? Just who is this being who claims to have created everything in existence, who is wrathful and just and merciful and loving all at the same time? Who commands us to love our enemies while destroying His own? It is this last point that proves hardest for us to understand. Undeniably, Christian or not, we are moral beings who take issue with bad things that happen to our fellow moral beings (bearing in mind that there are always exceptions to the rule). This feeling of shock at such outrageous acts that we read in the Old Testament proves it. The fact that we have a problem with the mass killings of the Canaanites (Numbers 21: 2-3, Deuteronomy 20: 17), Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) and, of course, the worldwide flood of Genesis 6-8 that killed everyone on the planet except eight people and two of every animal, is proof in itself that we care for others and wish to see done to them what is right.
On that, let me say one thing. You absolutely should be horrified at all of the deaths you have read about – if you can read it and feel nothing, I would say that is a much bigger problem. God gave you a heart to be horrified at such things, and a heart to fear a creator who is capable of them. You also need to understand that every single person who has ever died in the history of the universe has died because God has willed that they should (although this opens a bigger debate that I’ll tackle another day). We can perhaps agree on this if we can agree that God exists in the first place, because if He does then He would have to be infinitely more powerful than we can imagine. In a way, we would have no option but to trust Him, just as a small baby has no option but to trust that their parent will feed them when they require to be fed (obviously, as no parent is perfect, there will be variables in how successful they will be in meeting this essential requirement for raising their child). Jesus died because it was God’s will; Jesus was raised from the dead because it was God’s will. And it is here where we may find ourselves disagreeing. Because while we can say for sure that God would be capable of being in control of such things, whether or not we agree with Him on it is another matter. But notice the logical path I have taken to get to this point: it is only after saying we have no choice but to trust God that I have then admitted we may very well disagree with Him. And it is this disagreement that has split all of humanity through the ages. Even an atheist will be trusting God in some way; whether it is that oxygen remains in the atmosphere around him or that the sun will not explode tomorrow. Of course he will say that he is not. He will say that he trusts in these things because they ‘just are how they are’ and the universe ‘just is what it is’. But a baby could rightly make the same argument about being fed by its mother. It’s a continual cycle of events that they can trust in without thinking about its source because, when that’s just ‘the way the universe is’ within your field of vision, why does there need to be a source? That doesn’t take away the parent; it merely tells us that the baby is self-centred and, frankly, rather ignorant.
So we’ve established that while God may have made us in a way that doesn’t like seeing others mistreated, it seems His actions have at times flown in the face of everything that we believe is right. At first glance it doesn’t appear to make very much sense to us. It’s a little bit inconsistent. Illogical, even. And yes, in one sense the story of the Bible and the entire Christian faith is a paradoxical one (I think I covered that last time – and we’ll cover it more next time too). But God himself only seems paradoxical to us precisely because He is God, and therefore so much more than human. We look at the universe and judge it as if we are the high authority within it, which to an extent we are (as God has given us that authority). God, though, is outside of that sphere, an infinitely higher being, with more layers than we are able to imagine. Compared to Him, our understanding is extremely limited. This is not a cop-out of the argument; merely a truth that has to be established before we continue.
Andrew Wilson highlights one of the limitations we have when it comes to thinking of God: “Mercy and justice seem to stand in tension. Someone who is guilty, we reckon, can either be met with justice (being punished) or mercy (being let off). Justice involves acting without mercy; mercy involves momentarily suspending justice. So, we assume, you can’t be both merciful and just at the same time.” (Incomparable, pg. 232) This is typical of how we think of God. Sometimes, we focus on one aspect of God’s character and blow it up to make it seem like that’s the only aspect of God’s character. His love, wrath, wisdom and holiness; depending on what side you’re coming from, you can take one of these parts of His character and label it as the most important. But the reality is that all of these are equally parts of God’s character.
Let me try putting it another way. I’m sure that if you think about love for a moment (however short that moment is), you’ll realise, on reflection, that for that moment, all you thought about was love. It occupied your consciousness in that limited space of time. Now, take a few more moments and you may think of a few more things, but the fact remains that if you wish to think of many things, you’ll need many moments in which to do so. You glorify God, and then you think of His justice; you get serious, and think of His wrath, before having to change your thoughts slightly again to focus on His love, His grace and what that means for you. That slight shift in your mindset is something that God never has to do, because He encapsulates all of these things at once. His mind, His emotional capacity, is not as one-dimensional as ours. It can do more than one thing at one time; we, in reality, cannot. We see only what’s in front of us; God sees all things.
What does this have to do with whether or not God is right in what He does? Well, knowing what we now know about who God is, do we still consider ourselves in such a position of being able to decide what is right for God to do? I said before that there is a desire deep within each one of us to do what is right. That is true, and it is a desire given to us by God at creation. I never said that we actually knew what doing right meant. History is proof that we do not know this, and it is only through a great deal of trial and error that we have reached a point in our development now where we thankfully do many things more right than we did before. We have a desire to improve, to constantly strive for a greater good, but we’re still learning. We still don’t really have any idea. We only have what we have learnt from those who have raised us, from what we read about the mistakes of others, from experiences that have shown certain ways are not the right way. I have no doubt this will continue for a while to come.
Then, of course, we have something else. A Holy book that tells us about a God who loved us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5: 8) and to whom we have access thanks to a Christ who was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3: 18). Even though we are still going through this process, God welcomes us with loving, open arms. Yes, the same God whose words Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Exodus, who was the same then as He is now. That may very well fill you with a certain amount of fear: so it should. It also leaves you with no option but to trust in Him and what He says. If the Old Testament is true, then God’s declaration of unconditional love for you is also true, and that is the most beautiful, important part for us. Leave the rest with Him.