How to approach the Old Testament
I have a small, green, pet love-bird. I find her incredibly beautiful; her voice: sharp, but melodious with a talented warble that I almost wish I could mimic as a singer. We speak different languages and cannot really communicate. I whistle to her and make kissing or sucking noises with my lips in a pathetic attempt to imitate her and try to assure her that I “come in peace.” However she is still terrified of me because I am hundreds of times bigger and heavier than she is. I wonder if she can even see the fullness of me when I am standing right in front of her cage, looing her in the eye.
The other day, I tried to imagine what it would be like if our roles were reversed. What if I was a bird kept in a cage, being fed by a monstrous being who chirps at me in a song that I cannot comprehend? What if I witnessed other similar beings driving vehicles that ran other birdies down? My owner may have other pets: a cat waiting for an opportunity to pounce on me and rip me apart for dinner; dogs that bark at me so violently I nearly die of a heart attack! I don’t understand my owner’s world.
Then I related this from a human perspective back to God. He is so much bigger than I am. His mind is so much more powerful and my communication skills are much more limited in comparison to his. He tries to communicate with me through his own love song, but I misconstrue the motivation behind his voice as anger and interpret his wooing dance moves as legalistic steps I must fall in beside. I might fear him because I perceive his world as dangerous – just as a bird observes dogs and cats and cars – I scrutinize massive stars that explode and burn endlessly to keep our planet in rotation, and great volcanoes that erupt and spew lava onto the earth.
The religious result is that I would live in dutiful respect of my God – aware that he is not to be trusted – and tiptoe around him with cautious behaviour to avoid his violent outbursts. He may be the hand that feeds me, but that same hand could be perceived as paddling me for my wrongdoings. I may feel trapped in a cage. Did he send a dog to bark at me? Did he allow a volcano to ravage my home?
So it would seem that this God who is much bigger and greater than we, allowed his little, precious children whom he adores – though they perceive him to be a pie-in-the-sky-all-seeing-eye if they are quite honest; to write a book! And that book shared an awful lot of misconceptions about him, according to the writer’s perspectives – just as a bird might tell its friends that the master who owns them is protective, but only if you submit to the cage he has confined you to. If you break free of the cage, he will send a car to squash you or a shooting star to burn you up for all eternity. As time goes on, and God’s creatures experience more of him: witnessing his love and fatherhood; they discover that they misconstrued what was really going on in their little world. Things they once blamed on God were now blamed on his enemy: the devil. Later still, more writers discovered and declared that God actually is love. Everything he does is motivated by love. If you see something happen around you and you don’t understand why there was a bright, burning star or a wild animal or a natural disaster that seemed to wreak havoc in your life – frame it in the context that God is love and he is going to save the day in the end.
I have read the Old Testament 5 times. I have to be honest with you: I struggle to read about 75% of the Old Testament – but most people who don’t like it: don’t even bother to read it. In fact, I don’t know many people at all who have read the OT as frequently as I have (except my dad who reads it in its entirety every year). I have read the New Testament nearly 11 times and I find that the two Testaments contradict each other quite a lot. I have come to the conclusion now; that the people involved in composing the Bible’s books, experienced deeper revelations of who God is as time went on. The God depicted in the books of 1 & 2 Kings/Kingdoms is quite different from the God described by Jesus according to the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and most especially John!
As I continue to read the Old Testament, I have decided that I personally can only relate to and understand or agree with the passages that the New Testament confirms. Take 2 Kings 19:35 for example. “That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death 185,000 of the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning – there were all the dead bodies!” But did anyone see this messenger of the Lord or did they just assume it was sent by him, like they assumed that the world was flat? What if it was a plague that killed them? Or a demon? I believe that the writer attributed this act to the angel of the Lord, because he didn’t know any better. His concept of life was that everything that happens is God’s doing and God’s fault. The New Testament directly contradicts that God would ever slaughter 185,000 Assyrians, when Jesus surrenders his own arms to be stabbed through by thick nails and does not smite the Roman empire, but declares boldly: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” Luke 23:34. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Matthew 5:44. “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good,” Romans 12:21.
Did God change between the Old Testament and the New? No. But man’s perception of God did change and very much so. 2 Samuel 24:1 says “Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel and he incited David against them saying: ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.’” 1 Chronicles 21:1 directly contradicts this as being God’s anger and blames the whole incident on the devil: “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel!” It seems that the writer of Samuel had know concept of the satanic, but that the writer of Chronicles (which was written much later) had developed to a new level and understood more of the spiritual realms.
Jesus himself took the law of Moses and threw it out. “You have heard that it was said: Do not break you oath … but I tell you, do not swear an oath at all!” Matthew 5:33-34. How do we determine what of the Old Testament to take seriously, and what to take with a pinch of salt? We compare it to the New Testament and we allow it to overrule and make sense of the Old.
We are like little birdies trying to understand an infinite God and God knows this so well, that he specifically compares us to them. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:26-27. He understands that we are overwhelmed by his magnificence and so we worry that his love for us is not as great as his power to stomp on us. We exaggerate our version of his laws over and above his grace to forgive us.
We need to surrender our small and limited understanding of God-in-a-box and frame the Bible in the context it was written in – a context which changed with passing years and is still changing.
Let God be love.
Let yourself be like a sparrow –
Safe in his hands.
He’s got the whole world … in his hands.
He’s got the whole wide world … in his hands.
He’s got the whole world … in his hands.
He’s got the whole world in his hands!