Much of this is a review of what I’ve written on the subject but will serve as an appropriate ending to this brief series, “Making Sense of the Old Testament,” by summarizing how I read the text.
We’ll already seen that understanding the Old Testament means interpreting the culture it was written to as well the text itself.
The Old Testament is anthropological as well as theological. It’s the story of how a people experienced God in their ancient world and culture. Reading it in order to prove its historicity is actually reading against the nature of the text. They didn’t write “history” like we do today.
But as I showed last time, stories like the Exodus have some historical veracity in spite of current mainstream archeology concluding the contrary. This doesn’t mean that all of the Old Testament narratives should be taken with wooden literalism. It’s not uncommon for ancient writers to employ hyperbole and even embellish events for various reasons.
Then the question is, how do I know what’s actual history and what is something added by zealous scribes for effect?
Letting Jesus interpret the Old Testament for us
The answer is actually simple. We employ what I’ve called the “Jesus Hermeneutic” (interpretative method). I’ve written extensively on this already (link to posts above) so I won’t go over it all here.
What I’m saying is that we don’t just read the Bible indiscriminately, assuming everything that’s attributed to God in the text is telling us what God is actually like. There are many other factors that go beyond the scope of this post to explain why this is so, but know with confidence that the only accurate way we can know what God is actually like is how Jesus reveals Him to us:
18 No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. (John 1:18 NLT *)
John Wesley engaged the text this way:
“Jesus is “the criterion” for evaluating Scripture, the prism through which the Hebrew Scriptures must be read.” (Wesley, “Free Grace”)
We also need to learn how to read the Scripture like Jesus, as C.S Cowles summarizes:
While Jesus affirmed the Hebrew Scriptures as the authentic Word of God, he did not endorse every word in them as God’s. He rejected some Torah texts as representing the original intention and will of God, such as Moses’ divorce laws (Mark 10:4–9). He displaced Moses’ laws governing vengeance with his new ethic of active nonviolent resistance, of “overcome[ing] evil with good” (Matt. 5:38–42; Rom. 12:21). His command to “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44) represents a total repudiation of Moses’ genocidal commands and stands in judgment on Joshua’s campaign of ethnic cleansing. In his word of absolution to the woman taken in adultery, Jesus contravened the clear injunctions of the Torah calling for adulterers to be put to death (John 8:1–11; cf. Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22).” (Cowles, Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, Kindle loc. 489 *)
Whatever is like Jesus is like God; whatever is not like Jesus is not like God, no matter who says it (John 14:7; Heb.1:3).
The multiple voices of the Old Testament
As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman points out, the Bible is full of testimony and counter-testimony. We don’t need atheists and skeptics to point out the “red spades” and “black hearts” for us because Scripture disputes them openly!
What we need are eyes to see them.
There are at least three voices in Scripture. First, you have the narrative, the military conquests, etc. This is what Brad Jersak calls the “government press release” or “ministry of propaganda” voice. Brueggemann would call it the “testimony.”
Then, you have the prophetic voice that often undermines and questions this narrative. Jersak calls this the “embedded journalist” voice (Brueggemann: “counter-testimony”). I showed this in “Was Ezra xenophobic?” with Amos’ prophetic response to Israel’s religious racial pride (Amos 9:7). There’s also Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s questioning of Israel’s idea of worship, saying He never wanted their burnt offerings! (See Jer.7:22-23; Isa.1:11-18.)
The third and final voice is that of Jesus, as already mentioned. For instance, Jesus says six times in Matthew chapter five, “You have heard it said, but I say….”, basically subverting Israel’s whole view of the nature of God and what it means to follow Him.
Digging down to the true inspiration of Scripture
What we discover by taking all of these voices into account is not contradiction, but God’s true desire unveiled, which has always been to have a people whose hearts are fully engaged with His as He has always been fully devoted to them. It’s absolutely brilliant!
From Genesis to Revelation, it all comes down to this one thing: other-centered, self-giving love—for God and for others. This is the “Law of Christ” (Matt.22:37-40; Gal.6:1-2). And we can do this because God loved us first (2 Cor.5:14-15; 1 John 4:19).
The Bible invites us to not just read the text, but to engage the text. This is because the text is relationally understood. Rather than accepting what it says with unquestioning obedience, (“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”), we should practice the art of faithful questioning. We should let “His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor.4:6). As I said in part two, we need to let the Bible study us (Heb.4:12).
I will end with a video clip I’ve used before from Brad Jersak. He describes a similar journey with the Bible that I went through myself. He talks about three “eras” in his relationship with the Bible. I fast-forwarded the clip to his third phase which is pertinent to our discussion here. It’s a longer clip, but worth watching if you want to understand the testimony/counter-testimony internally embedded in the Old Testament.