We have explored a number of things in this series of posts to help assist with better interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures in a way that allows us to see a more consistent view of God when compared to Jesus, who is the full revelation of God seen on the cross. In this post, much of which will be review, I am stripping away all “in-depth evidence” presented in earlier chapter to simply give some general guidelines. Most of these will be a review of what has come before and will simply be stated for simplicity, but there will be a few new guidelines as well that did not fit neatly into any of our previous discussion.
Guidelines for understanding God in the Old Testament
1. The Old Testament, or Hebrew scriptures, are the foundation of Judaism. While they also contribute to the Christian understanding of God, Christian faith incorporates the New Testament and sees Jesus as the complete revelation of who God is. In order to properly interpret the Old Testament according to “Christian” thinking, we must do so by using Jesus as our foundation.
2. The bible as a whole is a story – the story of God. We look for rules, guidelines and checklists (the irony of this statement in this post has not gone unnoticed), but God tells a story. A long, rambling, and often confusing story. We should look for the meaning within the story as a whole and not necessarily expect to find meaning in every specific detail of the story.
3. In order to better understand what the Old Testament is saying to us, we must first look at what it meant to them. It should be read first and foremost as it was rather than as we are. Understanding Ancient Near Eastern culture will not only illuminate the scriptures in new ways, it will allow us to better understand what it is intending to communicate to us today. If we try to make it speak to us first, we may miss the plain meaning it offers.
4. The bible is 100% inspired by God. It is “god-breathed”. The bible was also 100% written by humans. God may have breathed the inspiration, but humans wrote the words down. It was the spirit of God working through people with their own worldviews, understanding, and skills. God does not override these human “limitations” rather he works with the raw materials we offer him. This is why the bible is filled with data that may not meet the understanding of a 21st century scientific worldview. God used what his people believed to be true to reveal who he was from within that context.
5. God meets people where they are. He condescends to our level in order to bring us to him. He does not expect us to achieve perfection in order to work with us. This leads to many examples in the bible where God appears to condone activities he actually hates.
6. While there is value to seeing biblical characters as “heroes”, in many, if not most, cases it would be better to take a “low-road” approach to the Old Testament. God worked with people despite their failures, not because they had achieved a state we should strive to imitate. God does not abandon people simply because they are not perfect, in fact, he works in people’s failures to show his grace.
7. Truth is unfolded slowly in the bible. God is like a teacher who is looking to create foundations before moving on to more difficult subjects. There are things that are not explicitly taught in the Old Testament because God’s focus was on revealing some other area of his character and could not get to the finer points until the basics had been covered.
8. God speaks in a language we will understand, no matter what that language may be. If he needs to use references to the “unknown god” on Mars Hill or quotations from greek philosophers and poets in Paul’s writings, he will do so. If he needs to speak the language of justice expected in the Old Testament, he will do that as well. If a people group expect God to be powerful (or else he is no God they could trust), he will show his power. The important thing to remember is that just because we see God speaking that language does not mean that reflects who he is. It primarily reveals the culture to whom He is speaking and their needs. This shows the depths to which he will go in order to reach his creation and bring it back to him.
We can see this type of powerful language in the stories of God speaking to his people at Mount Sinai. Here, God appears in smoke and fire and causes the entire mountain to tremble. He even tells people not to touch the mountain or they will die. God is displaying his power to a group of former slaves who are wandering in lands surrounded by enemies in order to show them he is powerful enough to take care of them. He speaks the language his people need to hear. Throughout the bible we see this time and again; God speaks the language we need to hear.
9. God is a patient pursuer. He is not concerned with quick fixes, but is infinitely interested in our progression toward him.
10. The bible should be read as a whole. No single passage of the bible should be read in isolation in order to develop an image of God. We must use the whole bible to frame our view. Single instances of God commanding “X” should not be taken to reveal what God is like unless that image is consistent throughout the entire bible. If any section is troublesome and cannot be illuminated by other portions of the bible, this is not a sign we should ignore it, but rather that we may need to undertake more work to understand it more fully.
11. Not all scripture is created equal. Jesus is the perfect, complete revelation of God and all other scripture needs to conform to his image and not the other way round. The bible is not a “flat” document. It needs to be read in light of the complete revelation of Christ.
12. God is often described in the bible as doing or commanding things he merely allows to happen. While we understand humanity has been given freedom to choose for themselves and that there are active enemies of God at work in the world – the ruler of this world – the writers of the bible did not necessarily understand these facts. In the Ancient Near East, the nation’s god(s) was/were given credit for everything that happened on earth. God chose to reveal the existence of Satan slowly and as a result took credit and responsibility for the sins of his creation. This meant inspired writers proclaimed the sovereignty of God, but in so doing attributed many things to him that he merely allowed (1).
13. One of the key reasons we see God taking responsibility is because the “cosmic conflict” is largely hidden in the Old Testament. With the New Testament revelation, we can look for evidence of Satan’s work where the inspired writers did not have this knowledge.
14. Get to know the literature of the bible. Knowing the literary devices being used can help us avoid the ultra-literalist approach, which actually results in us taking the bible less literally because we do not see what it is trying to tell us. The next points will outline a few of these literary devices that we have not been able to cover fully in the rest of this book.
15. War Rhetoric or Exaggeration – The bible is filled with language that is actually far more aggressive and/or violent than is actually intended. An easy example can be found in Malachi, where the Lord says, “Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau”. Did God really hate Esau? No, of course not, but here God clearly states that he did. Of course we can read this in context and see God is using exaggeration to show how much he loves Israel.
Another form of exaggeration seen is war rhetoric. This is most plainly seen in Joshua where we frequently see God’s people “utterly destroying” cities throughout Canaan as they conquer the land. This practice was known as “herem” in which the Israelites would “utterly destroy” things gained in war as a sign they owed everything they had to God. They were not supposed to profit in any way from their wars and so would destroy everything.
“This kind of warfare is part of the political ideology that Israel shared with other nations in the ancient Near East, in which wars were dedicated to the glorification of the deity and the extension of the deity’s land and reign.” – The Bible, NRSV, Introduction to Joshua
Joshua claims the Israelites “utterly destroyed” the people they encountered upon entering Canaan under the command of God, and yet the book itself seems to show us hints this is actually war rhetoric common to the day. If you look at the conventional language of war in that day, you will see the Hebrew account in Joshua follows a very similar path to that of the other cultures surrounding them.
Paul Copan says it this way;
“Some might accuse Joshua of being misleading or getting it wrong. Not at all. He was speaking the language that everyone in his day would have understood. Rather than trying to deceive, Joshua was just saying he had fairly well trounced the enemy…The language is typically exaggerated and full of bravado, depicting total devastation. The knowing ancient Near Eastern reader recognized this as hyperbole.” (Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?)
As we read the text more closely, we can see this rhetoric in action. For example, in Joshua 11, we see “Joshua came and wiped out the Anakim from the hill country … Joshua utterly destroyed them with their towns. None of the Anakim was left in the land of the Israelites”. That seems pretty clear, and yet a few chapters later, Caleb requests “now give me this hill country … for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities; it may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out”.
The same can be seen later when Joshua says to the people, “How long will you be slack about going in and taking possession of the Land?” and then went further to give commands not to bow down to the gods of the survivors of the nations among them in Canaan. Why would this be a concern if the portrait of utter destruction were literal? Judges also begins with the need for further conquest because the job was not as complete as suggested at the beginning of Joshua.
Another thing must be said about this as well. Although Joshua shows God as commanding herem, based on God’s commands to Moses, the actual instructions seem to suggest this was not intended literally. In Deuteronomy, where God gives the command, he says “when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them.”
That sounds straight forward enough until you read the second half. “Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons”.
If the Canaanites were literally to be destroyed, why would a secondary command be needed to instruct his people to avoid intermarrying or to not form any treaties?
The same sort of thing can be seen later in the book where they are instructed not to inquire after their religious practices in worshipping their gods after having completely destroyed them. To whom would you be inquiring about these practices if all were destroyed?
But if the command was not supposed to be literal, how did God intend to defeat Israel’s enemies? If not by violence, how did God envision his people taking the land? The answer could be found all throughout the Pentateuch and even in Joshua itself – the Lord would “drive them out”.
The earliest and best description of this can be found in Exodus, where God says;
“For my angel will go before you … I will destroy them completely. You must not bow down to their gods … Instead you must completely overthrow them … I will send my terror before you, and I will destroy all the people whom you encounter; I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. I will send hornets before you that will drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite before you. I will not drive them out before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild animals multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you become fruitful and inherit the land.” – Exodus 23:23-30
God says he will cause Israel’s enemies to turn and run. He will send hornets in advance to drive the people out before them. God’s plan required no violence whatsoever, but yet Israel chose a different path. Over and again throughout Israel’s history you see God showing he has no need of swords and many times the nations who were attacking them would turn and leave without any battle.
Given the fact the bible is a story, one might attempt to say God endorses violence based on the Old Testament, but I think a much better interpretation would be to say God’s plan did not involve violence, yet given the nature of his people, he chose to stick with them despite their violent natures.
The bible is filled with exaggeration and rhetoric and being able to properly identify it can greatly assist in understanding God in the Old Testament.
16. Iconoclasm – this may be a new term for many people, but it means “the action of attacking or assertively rejecting cherished beliefs and institutions or established values and practices; or the rejection or destruction of religious images as heretical.” Basically, what this involves is putting a religious belief on display for examination and then shattering it.
C.S. Lewis describes God as the great iconoclast, and that is the idea we will briefly explore here;
“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.” – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
What Lewis is saying is that God, time and time again, tears down religious images or impressions of himself. He allows us to look at the image and then shows us how different he is from that way of thinking. This is something that can be seen in the Old Testament and New, but where the revelation of who Messiah was in the New Testament seems fairly overt and obvious to Christians compared to what was expected (although we must remember it still is not obvious to most Jews), in the Old Testament, this iconoclasm was much more subtle.
I would suggest one of the most obvious examples is the story of Abraham and Isaac. Throughout the Old Testament we see that God values human life and expressly forbids human sacrifice;
You must not do the same for the LORD your God, because every abhorrent thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.” – Deuteronomy 12:31
And yet, in Genesis 22 we see God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. Why would God command something he detests?
I have heard many people provide explanations on the specifics of this, but my concern at this stage is to look at the literature itself, and I believe the way the bible has been written, this story is being told to hold up a religious belief and then shatter it.
As discussed many times, the Ancient Near East was polytheistic. There were many gods and each of these gods demanded sacrifices. Many of the most-worshipped gods demanded human sacrifice; usually children. Abraham grew up within this culture and we see in Joshua 24:2 that Abraham himself served other gods before being called out of Canaan. This means he would have been well acquainted with the practice of child sacrifice and, until this time, had not been shown this was not something required by Yahweh.
And so, with the command to sacrifice Isaac, God puts a common religious belief of the day on display. This request was normal and, in many ways, to be expected. At the same time, we see Abraham completely convinced God would provide and, if need be, raise Isaac from the dead after the fact.
Just before Abraham kills his own son as a sacrifice to Yahweh, God speaks and provides an alternate sacrifice. The “icon” of gods requiring human sacrifice has been shattered. This God does not want the blood of humans … and as he reveals himself more fully, we see he does not want the blood of animals either. He desires mercy not sacrifice.
Could God have made this point in other ways? Perhaps, but iconoclasm is not merely done to make a point. The aim is to leave a lasting impression and in this case he knew, in that time and culture, this was a point worth the extra attention. Being seconds away from killing your son and having God himself speak to you would leave a much more lasting impression than mere words.
There are other examples of iconoclasm in the bible and being able to recognize and contrast them with prevailing cultural beliefs provides a more plain meaning to what the text is trying to convey in these stories of who God is.
17. Revisionist Literature – There are many examples in the bible of revisionist literature (my terminology). What this means is that popular stories of the day were re-written to fit the Hebrew understanding of God. We discussed this in our interpretation of Noah’s Ark in Chapter 4, but there are other locations in the bible where popular mythology is changed to teach about the nature of Yahweh.
Some see this as questioning the accuracy of the bible, after all, why would God breathe his word through changes to an existing mythology? But this should not be a concern as that is the nature of creativity and these stories were modified for a specific reason. Writers will often build on existing stories in order to convey a point and the specifics of the story are always intended to be less important than the message they convey.
In these revisions, the main point of the message is found in the differences from traditional stories, not in the similarities. In this way, it is very similar to our discussion above on iconoclasm. God is holding up an existing myth and then shattering it by showing how Yahweh is different than the way you think gods are supposed to act.
18. Multiple Inspired Voices – The bible is a collection of books. This much is obvious to most people. But because many view inspiration as a “divine dictator” and remove the human authorship of the bible, they do not necessarily acknowledge this means the many inspired writers each spoke with their own voices — and these voices did not always agree with one another.
We would much prefer an instruction manual that speaks consistently through all 66 books in the collection, but that is not the bible we have. We have a story. We have the book of Proverbs loudly proclaiming;
Get wisdom; get insight;
do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.
Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you. …
Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
she will honor you if you embrace her.
She will place on your head a graceful garland;
she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.”
Hear, my son, and accept my words,
that the years of your life may be many. …
When you walk, your step will not be hampered,
and if you run, you will not stumble.
This book is immediately followed by Ecclesiastes, which seems to have a very different opinion of wisdom;
And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
… I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
The books sit side-by-side in our bibles. Both with things to say about wisdom. Both very different. Both inspired.
We have books that tell us that people are punished because of their sin and that if you see calamity fall upon people it is God’s punishment on their lives for sin … and then we have Job. Job’s friend’s essentially quote the bible to him – they say things found elsewhere in the bible – and God says they have not spoken rightly.
We have detailed instructions regarding the necessity of the sacrificial system – and we have the prophets and poets proclaiming God takes no delight in sacrifice and has no need of blood.
Both things appear in our bibles. Both are inspired.
The bible does not paint a picture with a single brush. Words cannot fully contain the God they are trying to describe. Our bible speaks with multiple voices and throws everything at you and says, “wrestle with it.”
So, let’s wrestle!
While I am sure there are other methods that can assist in interpreting the Old Testament, these are some of the key things that have helped illuminate the text in new ways for me. By far the most important thing for us to remember is that Jesus is the exact representation of God and any image of God that does not look like Jesus needs further investigation.
It is important to remember that, no matter what, God can be trusted, he is faithful and good and nothing I may think I read in the bible can prove to me otherwise. In this way, I would align myself fairly closely to the words of C.S. Lewis, when he said;
“… the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two.” – Lewis, Letter to John Beversluis, July 3, 1963
Please do not read this as a challenge to the bible – it is quite the opposite. To paraphrase what this means to me; no matter what I may think the bible says, if it seems to me to paint an image of God that can only be seen as evil, it is better for me to doubt its truth than to revise my image of God to allow his nature to include evil.
I have found in all cases where I thought there were portraits of God that were “evil”, further study, guided by the Spirit, has provided new interpretations that point back to a God of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Just before we wrap everything up, let’s move on to a couple practical issues that I feel need further explanation – the nature of wrath and love.
Next: Wrath + Love = ??
2. A Brief History of God
3. Concentric Circles
4. Jesus & Judaism
5. As It Was vs. As We Are
6. 100% God – 100% Human
7. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt1)
8. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt2)
9. A Gradual Revelation (pt1)
10. A Gradual Revelation (pt2)
11. Wrath + Love
13. The Vindication of God
14. Who is God & What is He Like?
(1) At this point, I think it is wise to mention that I would argue “allowing” simply means permitting people to follow their own path and to experience the consequences of their choices.
Many see the difference between allowing “the destroyer” to do something as simply passing the blame to someone you commission to do the dirty work, but I would strongly disagree. I believe “allowing” indicates God has set the world up to be free, to have choices and sin itself has consequences. God is pictured many times as holding back the seas, chaos or darkness and him “allowing” things to happen simply means allowing the natural consequences to occur or to allow the ruler of this world to do what he is always trying and waiting to do … destroy