Ask Andrew 4 (2018): Reading the Old Testament

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Should we study the Old Testament, given that it embodies ideas and practices we do not accept today?

[Note on terminology: Today’s usage typically refers to the Hebrew Scriptures instead of the Old Testament. This is mostly accurate, although half of the book of Daniel is written in Aramaic, and the Christian Bible extensively compares the Hebrew text to the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation for correction.

My only objection to this usage is that the Greek part of our Bible is often referred to as the Christian Scriptures (a religious distinction), instead of the Greek Scriptures (a linguistic distinction). I consider that inadequate, as we include the Hebrew Scriptures as part of our Christian Canon. Sorry. Just my little rant there. But I do think this distinction encourages the question above.]

I have been asked this question in more than one United Church congregation. It refers to the fact that the first part of our Bible contains stories that are quite awful:

divinely approved genocide (the conquest of the promised land)

divinely enacted genocide (remember that cute story: Noah’s Ark?)

dreadful laws about how to exclude from society people with severe skin conditions (the leprosy laws)

orders to stone to death rebellious sons

acceptance of slavery (oops, that one exists throughout the whole Bible)

all kinds of things that are sexist, anti-gay, anti-democratic, and, of course, unscientific

some things that are just offensive, eg: Amos 4:1 New Revised Standard Version

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”

A classmate of mine was told by a woman in his congregation never to read this scripture in church again because she didn’t like being called a “cow.” More about that later.

Despite all of these problems, there are a couple of things to point out in favour of continuing to study the oldest books of our scripture.

First point: it is hard to understand what Jesus was all about unless we study his faith. Much of what Jesus said was in response to these writings. A lot of his teachings make no sense unless you know the story of Israel, and can understand the ways in which Jesus both supports and changes what he was taught.

Second point: there are babies in all that bathwater! Throwing it all out means we’d lose so much wonderful material!

The Hebrew Scriptures are full of stories of real people, who are often very flawed. Over and over we see that God finds a way to work with them, even when they have to learn from their own horrible choices.

2nd Samuel 12: 1-15, provides us with a marvellous example. We see King David, once a simple shepherd boy, now so powerful that he uses his position to have sex with Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite. We should probably call it rape, rather than adultery, as she wouldn’t dare refuse the king.

When she becomes pregnant, David uses his position to try to cover up his crime, first by arranging for Uriah, a foreigner serving in his army, to come home on a pretext, so the man can sleep with Bathsheba, and think the child might be his. When Uriah proves to be too honourable to corrupt this way, David secretly orders his army commanders to strand Uriah on the front lines of a battle, where, of course, he dies. We should call this corruption, conspiracy and murder.

Then David marries Bathsheba to “make it all okay.” Not that Davd needed an extra wife: he had taken all King Saul’s wives when he killed Saul, and had then collected more of his own choosing. (To be fair to David, it was a common practice in those days to marry a daughter to a foreign king as a kind of peace treaty. Who wants to fight with family?)

Can you imagine what the #MeToo movement would have to say about this?

What happened to the decent, faithful, creative David who wrote so many of the Psalms we still use today as deep expressions of faith?

David would be judged today both as the head of a government and as a singer-songwriter. Actually things haven’t changed much, have they? Neither of those fields today are pristine, are they?

They say power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s what happened to David.

Even a good person who becomes isolated from the lives of ordinary people can start to look at others as things instead of people. An object of his lust, for example, instead of a woman in a committed relationship. An obstacle to lust, instead of a loyal soldier in the army.

There might even have been some racism going on too: Uriah was a Hittite, a foreigner. Maybe it felt easier on the King’s conscience to plot to kill a foreigner. Maybe David justified himself with the logic that a foreigner didn’t deserve such a beautiful wife, especially an Israelite one. We know the kind of thinking: “those guys come across the border, taking our jobs, our women. We should build a wall!”

Are any of these topics not important today?

Corruption & abuse of power

Hatred of foreigners

Casual objectification and abuse of women

Forcing people under authority to become accessories to criminal behaviour

This passage even reminds us of the risk of being the whistle-blower. Nathan the prophet was brave enough to confront the king, and was rather clever about how he did it: reminding David of his past passionate care for helpless sheep, and then tricking David into passing judgment on himself.

Many prophets who confronted kings with their wrongdoings were killed, or flogged, or imprisoned and tortured. This still happens in some oppressive countries today, whether we use the words “king” and “prophet” or not. In democratic countries, of course, it is safer: they face having their reputations ruined on Twitter, and being denounced for purveying Fake News. And it is still very hard to hold to account corrupt person in power.

David actually shows he has a conscience: he admits what he did and expresses sincere regret. He doesn’t suffer the awful fate he pronounced on himself unknowingly. He actually seems to learn something out of this confrontation.

What is even more amazing is that God makes something good come out of all this. In a few years David and Bathsheba would have a baby they name Solomon, who would become king instead of his many older brothers. Solomon would build the temple in Jerusalem, would be renowned for his wisdom, and rule over a golden age as the last king of a united Israel.

That’s not to say something trite like “all’s well that ends well.” Rather, it is another affirmation that God can take the worst of situations and redeem them, even to the point of having something good come of them. That’s not a bad thing to remember as we face the terrible situations that confront our 21st century world.

Of course, we all have to do our part. None of this would have worked without Nathan’s courage or David’s ultimate honesty and willingness to change his ways. More importantly, consider Bathsheba’s pragmatism (her chances to live if she refused David, especially once Uriah was dead, were terrible), and her willingness to forgive, as she not only stayed married to the man who murdered her husband but also bore him an exceptional child. It must have been Bathsheba who taught Solomon so much wisdom: David was never around.

There’s no fairy tale ending here. This narrative challenges us at so many levels. But we need this kind of challenge to our own assumptions from time to time, just as we need reminding that corruption, abuse of power, abuse of women and foreigners are not new. People have been struggling to find ways to deal with these problems for thousands of years. Seeing what they managed to do can give us a new perspective on our own situation and maybe even hope and inspiration.

Even the cows of Bashan have a place. Amos was deliberately offensive when he wrote those words. If we take offence at his bad language towards women, we might miss the fact that he was addressing the reality that 3000 years ago there were women powerful enough to oppress the poor and crush the needy and order drinks to celebrate. There were women powerful enough that a prophet had to challenge them in language that demanded attention

These scriptures are challenging. Our calling is to face that challenge, and dig out the message that they still have so many centuries after they were written.

Short answer: of course we should study them! In fact, “study” is an excellent word: just reading them only shows us a surface meaning. It is when we dig in that we find God speaking to us.

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