I guess that I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the Bible. I have an issue with people reading it as if it was a scientific textbook when in reality it is a library composed of numerous different genres, some poetic, some didactic, some narrative, some prophetic and so on. All of it was written in a culture different from our own, and so all of these things have to be taken into account when we read it. That means sometimes we have to wrestle with it...
Reading : Romans 15:4-13
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Many times I have heard people say something along the lines of, ‘Why do we have to read the Old Testament?’ This is normally backed up by comments about how the God of the Old Testament bears no resemblance to the God of the New Testament, appearing to be somewhat warlike, cruel, and unrecognisable from our picture of the One about whom the New Testament writer St. John wrote, ‘God is love, and those who live in love live in God.’ I think we need to address this for a number of reasons.
Firstly, in the next few weeks and over Christmas we are going to hear quite a few prophecies from the Old Testament that we will apply to Christ. My feelings about this are that we should not cherry pick just the bits we like - to do so feels to me like it lacks integrity. So we either have to forget the prophecies we use at Christmas, or we accept the Old Testament and wrestle with it as a foundation to the story we share.
Because that’s what it is. Our New Testament reading starts with:
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”
‘Whatever was written in former times’ is what we call the Old Testament, but for Jesus and St. Paul who wrote this letter, that was the only Bible they had; that was their ‘Word of the Lord.’
Secondly, once you start looking at Matthew’s Gospel, the first book in the New Testament, you begin to pick up from the very Jewish feel that he put into his writing that Matthew simply considered he was writing the next book in the evolving story of God’s dealing with God’s people, and in this book the message that had formerly just been for the Jews was now to be taken to the rest of the world. Matthew didn’t think he was writing the beginning of some New Testament. As far as he was concerned, this was continuing the same story, not beginning some new story. And that is perhaps the most important point that we need to get our heads around. We may call them the Old and New Testaments but they are both parts of the one library of books that we call the Bible. So if the Old Testament is the foundation on which the New Testament was written, how are we going to deal with it, because deal with it we must since it is a part of our spiritual heritage.
I want to suggest to you that we see it like this, that the Old Testament contains the evolving revelation of the nature of God to God’s people. It is a story that is told over many generations of upheaval and social change, with some stories being written down long after they actually took place, and when you read it in the chronological order in which it was written it often looks as if their understanding of God evolved as more of God’s nature was revealed to them. But to read it chronologically is quite difficult. For example for the last hundred and fifty years or so modern biblical scholarship has recognised probably four different authors with different understandings of and names for God in just the first five books of the Bible, with a fifth group pulling their writings together into what has been called the books of Moses. Each of these four come from a different time period with different experiences of God but their sections are often mixed together. If you want to test this for yourself just look at the two different names for God used in just the first two chapters of Genesis. Each group has its own style and tended towards one of several names for God. If you want an introduction to this have a look at the wikipedia article on the subject at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Documentary_hypothesis
Now I recognise that for some this could be disquieting. But knowing more about the background and the context does not diminish the Bible, it just helps us read it more intelligently. We have always believed that the Bible was written by people through the Holy Spirit, not dictated by God, so what we are reading in the Old Testament is the experiences of God with cultures very different from our own. I know that some want the Bible to be a textbook that can be read in any context to teach us something straightforward about God, and lots of it does exactly that. However there is also much that we have to wrestle with and for those parts we need to know the context in which they were written. Only then can we see the whole book as a structure that gradually builds towards the revelation of the Son of God coming amongst us.
Let me say just a few more words about how radical this growth in understanding was. Remember that the culture in which the followers of Yahweh was birthed was a polytheistic one. We know that the Canaanites, the dominant people of the middle eastern region that came to be Israel, worshipped a multitude of deities. So it should come as no surprise to us that coming from within that culture there is a strong suggestion in modern scholarship that God’s people had to learn monotheism, but didn’t start with it. Monotheism was a new thing. Just like each one of us, they had to seek revelations from God about God’s nature and then gradually change their world-view accordingly. An awful lot of scholars believe that at the beginning of the Hebrew understanding they were not wholly monotheistic but were in fact henotheistic. Henotheism is the belief that there are many gods but we worship only one of them. That suggests that earlier on in Israel’s history the people believed in the existence of gods of the other nations around them, but that Yahweh was their god. Later on comes the idea that Yahweh was actually the supreme God, and finally comes the belief that Yahweh was the only God.
In the midst of this were many battles against other nations. Their god, so they believed, rode out in battle with them against the gods of other nations. When they defeated an enemy it may have been because they believed Yahweh had defeated the other nation’s god. Now in that context we can begin to see why God appears warlike, because within the context that those stories arose the nation was battling for its survival.
By the time we get to the exile of the sole remaining Israelite tribe of Judah, the Jews, in Babylon we find the prophets appear to be monotheistic, stating that God had used another nation to judge them. This is a change from a belief that their God had been defeated and marks a clear monotheism that isn’t so well defined earlier on.
I don’t want to spend ages on this, but just to prove a point, Daniel 11:36 (Daniel is actually quite a late book) refers to the God of gods, and Psalm 82 seems to have similar inclinations as God takes his place in a divine council of deities as their chief God. (Bear in mind that there are many different ways to understand these passages, some of which are not henotheistic). There are plenty of other passages too such as the plural God uses in Genesis 1 when God says, ‘Let us make humankind in our image’. Who did they think he was talking to? Some have suggested angels, yet angels were created not creators. Some have suggested an early sense of plurality within God’s singular nature - a forerunner of the Trinity if you like, and others that they believed Yahweh to be chief among the gods and he was speaking to other deities. The truth is we can never know for certain, we can only follow the lead of theologians who suggest that there is much to be understood and wrestled with in the Old Testament.
The point I am trying to make here is that if we are going to take the Old Testament seriously, which I believe we must, then that also means that we must be prepared to wrestle with it and acknowledge that in order to understand what is written then we need to understand the history surrounding it. When we do that, and when we read it as St. Paul suggests in this passage, as words of encouragement, then we can see that God’s plan in the Old Testament seems to unfold as gradually, first to individuals and then to a new nation, God reveals who he is, to the best that they can understand within their own context. Then, as they begin to understand the magnitude of this new monotheism, so God reveals gradually that his plan is for the news about him to be carried into the rest of the world, and those are precisely the passages that St. Paul quotes in the Romans passage; the promises that the message about God was going to spread from Judea to people of other nations, to the Gentiles.
So in a sense the books we call the New Testament are just the next stage in that progression, and this comes out clearly in the Gospel reading as John the Baptiser bursts on to the scene with Matthew affirming that he is the one spoken about in Isaiah, and again we can see that there is continuity here. Matthew isn’t starting a new book but continuing the progressive revelation from God of who God is that started way back when Abraham encountered him. And what is more, and again I know this is perhaps controversial, but even though the canon of scripture has been closed, God continues to reveal more of his nature to us through history. For example there is very scant evidence for a doctrine of God as a Trinity anywhere in the Bible as we understand it now, and where it is mentioned there are suggestions that they may be later additions. It actually took another four hundred years before the understanding of the Trinity we have today reached its current form. It’s not fully affirmed in the Bible, though it is strongly suggested, yet in church we recite creeds that make it a clear part of Christian doctrine.
And so it continues in the lives of each one of us, if we choose to do so. You see I can teach about God from a Christian perspective to the best of my knowledge and from reading the Bible and the theological texts that help interpret it, and that’s a part of what I am called to do. But each of us needs to experience that personal revelation of God too, and to grow in our own understandings. We may struggle with an Old Testament image of God as being warlike, yet have you not had times when you have felt as if God was fighting for you? And some of us may struggle sometimes with what some feel is a little too much of a touchy-feely God, yet in the experience of many of us there are times when in the depths of despair there has been a gentle caring touch of a parent, like one bringing peace in the night to a distraught child.
We see different faces of God in the Bible because God goes far, far beyond our understanding, and we need to recognise that. If we’re not wrestling with the images of God in the Bible then we’re treating it like a scientific text book that gives us all the answers rather than as a book that should provoke us with more questions to go deeper into our experience of God. But all of these different images of God in the Old Testament, so it seems to me, are there to focus our attention on Christ. All of the Bible, from the very beginning of God’s revelation, makes it clear that God desires us to know how close he truly is, and who, because there was no other way to convey it, came even closer to us by being born as one of us, that in all his infinite majesty and love that is beyond us, we might finally begin to understand something of what this God is really like when he empties himself and becomes one of us.
And if we struggle with some of the Old Testament pictures of God, then we will probably also struggle with some of the New Testament pictures of Christ for they are all part of the same story. We cannot have just the Jesus who blesses the little children without also having the raging Christ who deliberately makes a rope to whip the moneychangers. We cannot have the Jesus who washes his disciples feet without also having the Christ who curses a fig tree and disowns his family, and also tells people they can’t follow him unless their desire to follow is so strong that it appears that they hate their family. They are all the same God, revealed to us, and if we’re not struggling with some of these aspects of Christ, then we’re perhaps not seeing the big picture.
I think we struggle with the Old Testament because perhaps we’re cherry picking just the nice bits out of the New Testament. But they’re all about God, and if we haven’t had to wrestle with some of what the Bible says about God, then maybe we need to read it a little more. Maybe sometimes we even have to even ask if the context in which they wrote distorted the truth!
So this Advent, as we prepare to receive the nice prophecies about Jesus from the Old Testament, may we be challenged to read the other parts too, because it is all a part of one whole narrative, a narrative that is continuing today.