Why Christians should bother with the Old Testament
From time to time, Christians question the use of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures or the Tanakh,a in Christian life or worship. Some ask, “Since we have the New Testament, why bother with the Old?” “Can we use the Old Testament now that we have a New Covenant?” Some Christians are embarrassed by all the wars and killing in the Old Testament.
This is an old debate. As far back as the second century, Marcion, founder of an early Christian sect in Rome, eliminated the Old Testament and limited his scriptures to portions of the New Testament. The Church said Marcion was a heretic because the creator in Genesis is also the God of Jesus. But even today there are those who follow Marcion’s example and dismiss the Old Testament.
For many other Christians, the Old Testament is simply there. They may know that it tells about some old kings. They may be familiar with the 23rd Psalm. Occasionally, at Christmas and Easter, they hear certain Old Testament words, such as “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.” For the most part, Christians do not reject the Old Testament; they simply ignore it. There is much in these ancient books that can easily be ignored—such as the lengthy genealogies, or rule against mixing two kinds of cloth or the detailed instruction about sacrifices in the Temple destroyed 2,000 years ago. This, of course, is true in the New Testament as well. At least I have not seen anyone walking around with only one hand because Jesus said, “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off. It is better to go to heaven maimed than to go to hell in one piece” (Matthew 5:30). However, there is much in both Scriptures that should not be ignored.
Some Christians see the Old Testament as merely the forerunner of the New; they search in the Hebrew Scriptures for predictions of Jesus. Does the Old Testament predict Jesus? Well, yes and no; mostly no. The prophet Isaiah spoke of one to come, a descendant of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). But these were words of hope for his own people. Suppose we were in trouble and someone said, “Don’t worry. In 800 years, God will do something.” We might attack him for joking about our problems. We would not be comforted. God was concerned with Isaiah, and with his people. Personally, I take that to mean that God is concerned with us today and indeed with people in each generation.
In another sense, the predictions are true. The prophets reminded people that God did not bring their fathers up from slavery in Egypt. “He brought you up from Egypt” (Deuteronomy 5:3, 16:6; Judges 2:1). The people of the prophets’ time were reliving history, making that history their own. God used the earlier events to speak to a later generation. The words of Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke to the first Christians and continue to speak today.
The words of the Bible, Old Testament or New, speak to people today. For me, this is one thing that makes the Bible the Word of God. At any given moment, a word of the Bible may be meaningless. At another time, that same word becomes full of meaning. The word has not changed. My situation, outlook, or needs have changed.
We see this re-application of truth in the way the prophets interpreted the Exodus story. They called upon their people to apply the Exodus story to themselves. American black slaves did the same. They found comfort in the words of God to pharaoh, “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1). In the liberation theologies of Latin America and Africa, the freedom movement of Hebrew slaves in Egypt is very meaningful. There is even a growing liberation theology for the poor in America that finds powerful reinforcement in the words of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, in 1 Samuel 2:4–5, 8:
“The bows of the mighty are broken,
And the faltering are girded with strength.
Men once sated must hire out for bread;
Men once hungry hunger no more.”
“He raises the poor from the dust,
Lifts up the needy from the dunghill,
Setting them with nobles,
Granting them seats of honor.”
Hannah’s ideas are repeated by the Virgin Mary in the Magnificat in Luke 1:52–53: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree. He has 013filled the hungry with good things and the rich are sent away empty.”
Jesus found inspiration from Isaiah and used his words:
“He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
Again, asking Marcion’s question, “Why can’t we just take the New Testament as the culmination of the Old and let the Old Testament go?” There is a practical problem. If one eliminates the Old Testament from the New, there is not much left. It is not simply that the New Testament quotes directly from the Old but that the Old Testament is the very raison dêtre of the New. Cut the vine from its root and the plant dies.
But there is even more involved than understanding the New Testament. The Old Testament must be kept for its own sake. Consider the creation stories in the Old Testament, a theme largely ignored in the New Testament Quite apart from the beauty and majesty of the first chapter of Genesis, the idea of God as creator is essential for our understanding of the world as God’s world, and for understanding ourselves and all women and men as children of God and as stewards of God’s earth.
The New Testament covers a mere century in time. The Old Testament moves from the beginning of time to the early centuries before the birth of Jesus. This sweep of history reminds us that God acts in history and that God is Lord of history. The Communist dialectic—the mechanistic, deterministic, reductionist working out of economic laws—cannot stand in the face of the Testament view of history. Communists, like the ancient Greeks, believe in Fate. In contrast, the Hebrews saw God ruling history itself. In addition, history provides essential depth in our lives. Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat those mistakes. Red Chinese keep alive the memory of the way things were—the filth, the rats, the vices of the old regime. Israelis keep alive the memory of the Holocaust—Hitler’s slaughter of six million Jews and millions of gypsies, Slavs, handicapped and others. Thanksgiving reminds Americans that the Pilgrims came to this country seeking religious freedom. The United States recently celebrated 200 years of its Constitution. We live in history. Traditions add meaning to our lives.
From the Old Testament we learn principles of living. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph responds to his brothers’ fears: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” From this we learn that there should be no revenge in human relationships. When sickness or trouble threatens to overwhelm us, the story of Job reminds us that God is with us, even in times of difficulty. The prophets of Israel stand in judgment on our society today as they did of old with their ringing cries, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Or consider Micah’s eloquent summary of the Law: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8). And then there is the word of the Lord to Jeremiah proclaiming the possibility of everlasting renewal and return: “I will make a new covenant with you and my law will be written upon your hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). Or to put it another way, “As people think in their hearts, so are they” (Proverbs 23:7). The basic principle of religion echoes in Deuteronomy and Leviticus: We should love God and our neighbor as ourselves (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).
Important as these principles are in themselves, they also remind us that the ancient Hebrews did not live on an abstract philosophical level. They lived life—real life—life in the raw. When King David was convicted of sin, he did not retire on a large pension. He repented before God and sought forgiveness. While people rejected Samuel’s leadership, Samuel continued to pray for them. In the Psalms we see the whole spectrum of human existence. The 23rd Psalm reminds one of God’s care in good times and bad. The 22nd, 31st and other Psalms praise God in the face of suffering and disgrace, personal and national. In the Book of Daniel, as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were about to be thrown into a fiery furnace to be burned alive, they said, “Our God is able to deliver us. But even if he does not, we will not bow down to your idol” (3:17–18).
So the Old Testament gives depth and dimension and words for our living. It gives examples of faith that we have not yet achieved, let alone surpassed. As well-known archaeologist Lawrence E. Toombs once said, “I cannot understand people who say, ‘Go back to the Bible.’ We have not caught up with it yet.”
From time to time, Christians question the use of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures or the Tanakh,a in Christian life or worship. Some ask, “Since we have the New Testament, why bother with the Old?” “Can we use the Old Testament now that we have a New Covenant?” Some Christians are embarrassed by all the wars and killing in the Old Testament. This is an old debate. As far back as the second century, Marcion, founder of an early Christian sect in Rome, eliminated the Old Testament and limited his scriptures to portions of the New Testament. The […]