A Positive Reading of the Old Testament

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the fourth in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the third in the series, “Positive Theology”]

Ted Grimsrud—July 9, 2017 [Gen 12:1-3; Lev 19:2-18; Hos 11:1-9]

I have this little joke. On the Sundays I preach I make sure to bring my Bible with me. It’s a pretty big book, weights a lot, has a hard cover. My joke is that the reason I bring the Bible with me on these Sundays is so that if anyone challenges what I say in my sermon I can wop them over the head with my Bible—the Bible as weapon….

Seeing the Old Testament as a “problem”

It is interesting that most of the weight in the book comes from the first section, the Old Testament. In my The HarperCollins Study Bible, the New Testament is about 20% of the whole. But I imagine if you could measure what parts Christians actually use, the New Testament would make up about 80% (or more) of our Bible in church.

So, we’ve got this interesting dynamic where Christians profess to affirm the authority of the Bible, the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We say we base our faith on the whole Bible. But we only pay attention to a little bit of it. And in fact, for many Christians, the part we don’t pay attention to, the biggest part, is seen as a problem, a hindrance to faith, not even as something kind of neutral or just unnecessary. Now, I am grateful to Valarie and Sophie for their sermons these past two weeks that showed us how to wrest blessings from difficult Old Testament texts. But I imagine that for most of us that kind of interaction with the Old Testament in a sermon was pretty unusual.

When I was early in my pastoral career, I led a Bible study that met weekly for several years. We worked our way through Mark and Romans. When we discussed what to look at next, I said how about something from the Old Testament. One of our members, an older woman whose late husband had been a Presbyterian minister, protested. “I don’t want anything more to do with that bloody book,” she snapped.

I’ve met with resistance on other occasions when speaking favorably about the Old Testament. I well remember after a theology class where I had had a couple of guests, both self-avowed agnostics. We got into an argument that went on for some time. They teamed up on me. They both argued for a literal reading of Old Testament violent portraits of God, treating my attempts to nuance the texts with scorn. They defended a literal reading of the Old Testament not because they believed in it but because they wanted to dismiss it as of value today.

Or there’s a famous quote from A. A. Milne, the author of the Winnie the Pooh books, who supposedly said, “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief—call it what you will—than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.”

As if to verify Milne’s comment, our present-day arch atheist Richard Dawkins wrote, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character of 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.” Perhaps Dawkins doth protest too much, but the general sentiment of his comments is pretty widely shared, even among Christians.

The Old Testament as a “blessing”

So that’s the problem side. But there are others who have had more positive things to say about the Old Testament. The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “The spirit’s will is that creation would attain wholeness. The function of this book is to bear witness to the spirit’s search for union with life. If we accept the Old Testament as merely ‘religious writing’ it will fail us. But if we seize upon it as the expression of a reality that comprises all of life, we will really grasp it and it will grasp us. And wholeness will follow.”

And from another Jewish writer, British novelist Gabrial Josipovici, in a fine volume called The Book of God: A Response to the Bible: “Like many people of my generation, I had grown up with Bible stories but I did not ‘know’ the Bible in the way I did the works of Chaucer or Shakespeare or Proust or Eliot. When I turned back to it, I found myself faced with two very striking things: the first was that this book … did not, when one actually read it, appear [at all] authoritarian…. It seemed quirkier, funnier, quieter than I expected. The second was that it contained narratives which seemed … as I first read them, far fresher and more ‘modern’ than any of the prize-winning novels rolling off the presses…. The Old Testament brings us more fully to life and makes us want to let others share in the experience.”

I’m sure all of you have gut-level impressions of the Old Testament, negative and positive. Let me read three short passages while you think about some quick comment you could share about what you think about when you think of the Old Testament.

The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

People of Israel: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths. Do not turn to idols or make images for yourselves. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:2-18)

When Israel was a child, I loved her and called her out of Egypt. But the more I called them, the more they kept sacrificing to idols. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. But my people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but I do not raise them up at all. And yet, how can I give you up, how can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I treat you like Sodom? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst; I will not come in wrath. (Hosea 11:1-9)

Let’s take a few moments to share. What is a word or a few words that came to mind to you as I read—either triggered by these passages themselves or something else that my question evokes?

A change of sensibilities

I have a theory about the Old Testament and Christianity. At some point in history, Christian sensibilities about the Old Testament changed a lot. And I think this happened pretty early on. What was originally the central source for faith, for understanding God as a merciful God of love, for guidance in the ways of peace and healing justice—remember, what we call the Old Testament was simply called the Bible by Jesus and Paul and the early Christians—what had been the central source for faith, the Old Testament, became a problem.

In future sermons, I want to say more about those changing sensibilities—right now I simply would suggest that the decisive transformation happened in the 4th and 5th centuries. That was when the schism between Christianity and Judaism became irreversible. That was when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. And, that was when Christianity became, I’d say, a sin-oriented faith, shaped by Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. What I want to do today and in my next sermon is think about positive, not sin-oriented, theology. I will look today at the Old Testament and then, in the future, at the New Testament, from the point of view of positive theology. What is the Old Testament like if we assume that its central focus is on a vision of life as ultimately being love all the way down?

Focus on the “Big Story”

One way to do this is to emphasize what I call the “Big Story.” Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls it the “primal narrative.” Think of the Old Testament as a single story. It is loosely and sloppily presented, with various tangents, sub-plots, competing viewpoints, and a general messiness—in other words, it is a human book, all too human. However, this human book does have a coherence, and in that coherence we learn something distinctively truthful about God and about the human project.

The three texts I read give us the briefest outline of that Big Story, the story of love all the way down—even in the face of an amazing realism about our failures and frailties as a species, even in the face of a profound critique of human structures of injustice and oppression that remain all too operative in our world today.

This is part of what these texts tell us about the Big Story:

In Genesis 12, we have the words of the creator God. Earlier, God had been traumatized and grief-stricken by human violence and self-worship, traumatized and grief-stricken to the extent that God would lash out and destroy with the Flood that left only a remnant to carry on. The creator God after that dark night of the soul resolved to follow a different strategy with humanity. This new strategy is a strategy where God patiently heals brokenness and cultivates creativity. This new strategy has at its center communities of peaceable people who will through their own knowledge of God’s love, bless all the families of the earth. To get this started, God chooses Abraham and Sarah.

We go on to learn that the descendents of Abraham and Sarah manage to survive through some hard times, only to find themselves enslaved within the Egyptian empire. God hears their cries, remembers the promise to Abraham and Sarah, and intervenes to free them from slavery and the powerful threat of non-existence. As part of this liberation, God provides the community with guidance for life free from Empire; this guidance came to be called Torah, or the Law. What did Torah care about, at its heart? In a word, “holiness”—which is what Leviticus 19 focuses on.

Now, what we understand holiness truly to be about will depend on whether we think in terms of positive theology or sin-oriented theology. Sin-oriented theology thinks of holiness in terms of purity, with a scary sense of God as a punisher. Sin is contamination and a just and holy God must destroy sin and sinners. God as holy is God as Other, the source of fear and terror. And certainly the Old Testament does give us pictures of that kind of God; even the book of Leviticus itself does.

But the 19th chapter of Leviticus shows what holiness is about when seen through the lenses of positive theology. At the heart of the law codes, at the heart of the section of Leviticus called the “holiness codes,” we see holiness defined. Be holy like me, God says, and do what? Embody the heart of Torah by being generous to the vulnerable ones in your community. Care for their needs. Embody the heart of Torah and offer hospitality to strangers, immigrants, widows, and orphans. You embody the heart of Torah, you are holy like God is holy, when you love your neighbor as yourself. And neighbor here is especially defined as the stranger and the widow and orphan and the deaf person and the blind person—those who are vulnerable.

More hard times come. Prophets such as Hosea arise to challenge the people to return to Torah. There are threats of punitive judgment. Hosea and the other prophets give us a profound critique of the dynamics of idolatry and injustice. And they give us a sobering picture of the consequences of idolatry and injustice.

But in the end, they assert that the promise remains in effect; God remains a God of mercy and shalom. The answer to the problem is simply to turn back to God, simply to repent. Note how Hosea concludes God’s moment of soul-searching in our Hosea 11 passage, as God struggles with how to respond to the people who have turned away. I am a holy God. Because I’m a holy God, I will come in mercy, not punitive judgment. God awaits repentance, the return and will empower creativity and blessing.

Let me also note also the little story of Jonah—even the cursed Ninevites, arch-enemies, destroyers of the northern kingdom of Israel, are pictured in Jonah as finding healing from this merciful God simply because they repent, simply because they turn.

The Big Story tells of creation and fall, the flood and the rainbow, chosenness and the vocation to bless, enslavement and liberation, the gift of the promised land and unfaithfulness and exile, presence and abandonment—and, ultimately, presence, everlasting presence. That is, the Big Story is a positive story that, for Christians, culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And what was the core of Jesus’s message? Love the lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. In that way, you embody the law and the prophets, in that way you embody the message of the Old Testament.

Celebrating Torah

Let me close with one of my favorite rabbinic stories. Old rabbi Daniel had been failing for some time and was on his deathbed. He could hardly see and hadn’t been able to get up for many days. Family members gathered to say goodbye, and were with him, as the end seemed near. Daniel sipped a little water and started to speak, expressing his gratitude to his loved ones, talking about his long, difficult, but rewarding life. It had been a life centered around Torah, around times of worship and the great dance during services where the Torah scroll was celebrated.

As Daniel talked, his voice got stronger. He remembered the love for Torah, its stories of sorrow, of liberation, of guidance, of God’s presence. He got inside his story and all of a sudden he was on his feet. He relived the dance, the celebration, the joy. As Daniel danced, the life-giving power of Torah filled him and the room. The celebration continued—and continues. Amen.

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