Summary: There are many parts of the Old Testament that are confusing and difficult to understand. This sermon looks at how to understand the Old Testament based on what we know about Christ.
I believe it’s fair to say that the biggest story in the news over the last six months to a year is “ISIS.” Whether it’s the growing influence of ISIS in the Middle East as they establish and maintain a greater geographical foothold, or the threat of ISIS in the western world as they stretch out their hand of influence via the internet. ISIS makes the news because of their takeover of small villages and their executions of persons representing ideals in opposition to their own. ISIS is the topic of much political debate, and the cause of much tension and fear. To oversimplify ISIS, it is based on a radical, fundamental version of Islam, which believes that the end of the world is coming, and their job is to expedite the end times by provoking war and doing away with any who do not adhere to their beliefs.
Now, compare that with this: a story out of the book of Joshua. The Israelites are preparing to establish themselves in Canaan, the land promised to their ancestor Abraham, the Promised Land. As they approach Jericho (and later the city of Ai), God instructs them that they are to kill every inhabitant in the city. Now, sometimes in the Bible, a reference to some population is simply a reference to the men. But not in this case. God’s instructions specifically spell out that the Israelites are to destroy every single man, woman, child, and even every animal occupying Jericho. To give this a bit of a modern twist, it would be as if God spoke to Christians today and said, “Be like ISIS. Go out and destroy ever person in your community who does not believe what you believe, who does not attend Wesley Memorial United Methodist, who is not a Christian.” That’s pretty extreme, isn’t it? So we get this idea, understandably, that the Old Testament can be quite problematic. Just listen to what Richard Dawkins, a known atheist has to say about the Old Testament: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in 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.” That’s somewhat extreme, but in all honesty, it’s difficult for non-believers and believers alike to fully wrap their heads around the Old Testament.
I think this question, “Can I trust the Old Testament,” or “Can I really believe in the Old Testament?” is one of the questions I get the most as a pastor. Except, I think the question we really ask is not so much, “Can I trust the Old Testament?” as “What am I supposed to do with those crazy stories in the Old Testament?” And we ask this question because we realize that if we believe these crazy stories, it also means we believe in a God of war, a God that is not always just, a God that endorses slavery, and so on. But that just doesn’t make sense, not when we are seeking to be faithful followers to Jesus, who teaches us to treat others in the same way we wish to be treated, to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In fact this dichotomy is so problematic that there are some pastors who simply try to avoid the Old Testament. They stick to teaching out of the gospels and epistles to avoid the problems that the Old Testament brings. Yet, the Old Testament is such a significant part of our sacred texts. So with those contradictions, what are we to make of the Old Testament, can we really trust this large section of the Bible? To answer this question, we are going to spend some time today looking at the history of the body of books we call the Old Testament, and the way that Jesus handled these texts.
First, a bit about how the Old Testament as we know it came to be. For starters, we need to understand that what we call the Old Testament might also be called the Hebrew Bible. This is the collection of Scripture that Jews lift up and study as sacred in their tradition. The Jews divide the Hebrew Bible into three distinct parts called the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Law is the first five books of the Bible; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Prophets consist of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets. The remaining books, like Psalms, Proverbs, and Song of Songs, are grouped together into what is called the Writings. Now, you may have heard of the Apocrypha, those are additional books which are included in the Catholic and Orthodox Bible. Because the list of books accepted into the Writings was still being decided when Christianity began, there are different versions of the Old Testament. The Catholics and Orthodox include additional books, while Protestants follow with those adopted as Jewish Scripture. So the Old Testament as we Protestants know it today was really only finalized, canonized, during the Protestant Reformation, about 400 years ago.