The Letter Kills; the Spirit Gives Life

The early church affirmed the canonical authority of the Old Testament over the objections raised by some (Marcion, for example) that its focus on covenant-keeping (works legalism) and its portrayal of an “angry,” “violent” God do not comport with the Gospel’s message of grace and love. Nonetheless, the history of the church’s relationship

with and interpretation of the Old Testament testifies to a persistent discomfort with the only Bible that Jesus and the apostles knew. Even the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” imply that the latter surpasses and somehow replaces the former. Dispensationalism, the idea that God has related to people in different ways in various periods of history developed by Danby and popularized among segments of Protestantism by the Scofield Bible, represents only the most systematic and consistent form of an attitude that continues to flourish in the church. Just today, I received another invitation to give a series of lectures in a local congregation on the broad topic of “problems” with the Old Testament. The invitation specified, as an example, the “problem” of the violence depicted in the Old Testament – and apparently condoned and even encouraged by its God. The recent flood of books by Old Testament scholars dealing with this and similar issues (to name only two: Matthew Schlimm, This Strange and Sacred Scripture [Baker Academic, 2015]; Thomas Römer, Dark God: Cruelty, Sex, and Violence in the Old Testament [Paulist, 2013]) testifies to the endurance of the church’s discomfort with the Old Testament.

The issues often raised (polygamy, slavery, violence, legalism, etc.) deserve individual, in-depth treatment. Nonetheless, a few fundamental observations can help those who experience the Old Testament as foreign territory to find their way around in it more comfortably, and may even open up new vistas of significance.

The foundational truth about scripture involves its dual character as human and divine, in analogy to the Christian understanding of Jesus as fully human and fully divine. The hallmark of Judaism and, quintessentially, of Christianity is the conviction that the God of the universe is personal, that the Creator enters into relationship, indeed that God became a human being. The Bible, both Testaments, is the written record of God’s relationship with God’s people. A number of corollaries derive from this foundational recognition.

First, when believers refer to the Bible as the word of God, they should be clear that they do not mean that every word in the Bible expresses God’s will. Almost half of the book of Job relates the speeches of his friends, for example. At the end of the book of Job, God states that Job’s friends have not spoken the truth. God did not inspire them; God certainly did not dictate their speeches to them. They spoke, falsely, for themselves. Their words were not God’s words. Yet, their words are essential to the overall message of the book of Job. Their words, even though false, become an essential component of the word. As he explicitly acknowledged, Paul expressed his own opinion, not the “command of the Lord” (1 Cor 7:25) that, “in [his] judgment” (1 Cor 7:40), it would be better in the circumstances of the time not to marry. Reading the Bible well requires discerning the role of human words in God’s Word.

Second, since the Bible records God’s relationship with God’s people, it includes a significant proportion of narrative material relating events in the life of God’s people. David committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged the death of her husband, Uriah, to hide his crime. God did not direct David to sin; David did these things on his own. The Bible records it because it was an important event in David’s relationship with God – a negative event, but important. The Bible abounds in accounts of human misbehavior: violence, sex, deceit, theft – the whole range of possibilities for human wrongdoing. God inspired none of it. The Bible faithfully records it all, however, because to say that God enters into relationship with people is to say that God becomes involved in messy human lives.

Third, since the Bible records God’s relationship with God’s people, it records God’s involvement in a specific branch of human history. God called Abraham, a native of Ur in Mesopotamia; God called Moses, an adoptive Egyptian prince. Israel took shape as a people and a nation amid cultures that had already developed writing, that had legal systems, that had established societal norms and practices. It should not be surprising that Abraham continued many of the customs and practices (polygamy, for example) he had learned in Ur, nor that Moses and the Israelites of the Exodus would continue the institution of slavery. God met these people where they were; God did not create their culture. Over time, through relationship with God, the people of God came to clearer understandings of God’s character and God’ will. The Bible records the history of that growth. To take a snapshot of a moment in that history and make it definitive is to miss the grander, broader picture.

Fourth, especially with regard to the Old Testament, the Bible records the story of a specific people (Israel) living in the real world. It should not surprise readers that Israel had enemies. The Philistines wanted the same territory that Israel took into possession. God entered into relationship with a nation that had to fight for survival; the Bible records that struggle. Had Israel sought “to make peace, not war” there would be no record of God’s relationship with it because the Philistines (or the Ammonites, or the Amalekites, or…) would have ended their existence as a nation.

All this can be summarized in terms of three warnings: (1) It is very important to distinguish between the human and the divine components of the Bible. (2) It can be misleading to absolutize a specific passage of scripture. The context of the whole of God’s revelation, especially in Jesus Christ, is much more revelatory. (3) The virtue of humility is a chief desideratum for biblical interpreters. We, too, will almost certainly one day be seen as having been bound to our culture and blinded to God’s direction.