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Why Should We Study the “Old Testament”?

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

If one attends or teaches Bible classes long enough, at some time or other one is bound to hear a familiar complaint: “Why spend time on the ‘Old Testament’? It’s so full of violence, and the Old Testament God is so vengeful, not like the loving and forgiving God of the New Testament.”

This is an ironic complaint, since those who make it are generally not aware they are echoing a second-century heresy. Known as Marcionism, it denigrated the Jewish scriptures and held that the God mentioned in them is not even the same God as in the New Testament, but some aberrant sub-deity who messed up everything. The church condemned this view, asserting that there is only one God in both testaments. A further irony is that many who express this complaint of a harsh “Old Testament” God have no problem believing in a God who condemns people to extreme, unending pain just for not having the proper faith - the idea most Christians (at least very traditional ones) have of God in the New Testament.

God’s love, mercy, and providential care find expression many times in the Hebrew Bible (a term preferable to “Old Testament”), especially in the Psalms and prophets, and in the earlier books as well. So reading the Hebrew Bible as portraying only a harsh and punitive God is inaccurate.

Another wrong way to read the Hebrew Bible is to see on virtually every page predictions of Jesus Christ. This has been common in the church since earliest times, but it is historically inaccurate and requires correction. The writers of the Hebrew scriptures did not know of Jesus and did not have him in mind when they wrote. Passages such as Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 53, when understood in context, clearly have nothing to do with Jesus. They refer to events in the prophet’s own time. If we only see Jesus in these and other passages, we will not know what they were really all about.

The price of decontextualizing the Hebrew Bible is twofold:

First, it erases Jewish history. If the Hebrew Bible is seen only as an introduction to the New Testament, and only about predicting Jesus, then it ceases to be a record of Jewish history and prophecy prior to the coming of Christ. A rich historic tradition is therefore lost.

Second, it hides Jesus’s origins. The Hebrew scriptures constituted the only Bible Jesus knew. He was raised with them and formed by them. Therefore, understanding the Hebrew scriptures as accurately as possible, with its original meanings intact, helps us understand Jesus as well. It helps us see the roots of many of Jesus’s teachings in Hebrew prophecy.

That is at least one good reason for studying the Hebrew Bible. There is also another - and it is precisely the reason many shy away from it. It is precisely because it is “so full of violence” that the Hebrew Bible has something to say to us.

The Hebrew Bible is full of violence because the world is full of violence, and always has been. The Hebrew Bible is situated in the world as we have always known and lived it, exhibiting bloodshed ever since Cain killed Abel. The many wars recorded in scripture, stronger nations vying for domination over weaker ones, are what human history is all about. Against this backdrop, the Hebrew Bible records the search for God. It is all about the discovery of a universal God even within the violent world in which we all live.

This should come as no surprise. The 21st century may well become the bloodiest yet in our history. The War in Ukraine, the Chinese genocide of the Uyghurs, conflicts in Iraq, Darfur, Syria, Afghanistan and many others, all show little improvement since Bible times of our inability to get along with each other. It is this kind of world in which the Bible is set, and if it were set in some different, ideal world with little conflict or violence, it would have no credibility and no value.

It is not the fault of scripture that we live in such a world. We can speculate about why this must be, but such questions are beyond our present scope. Right now, we need only recognize that this is how it is. It is very easy to lose heart living in such a world. What meaning can life possibly have when there is so much mass murder, when one’s fate is so insecure and one’s future so tenuous? And yet the Hebrew Bible records the discovery of God even within such a world. Even within this violent world, God is real and speaks to us.

What does God say?

God speaks to us in the voices of the prophets, who listened closely to God and heard God’s word. It is a voice calling for the end of war, for the end of domination by force and violence, for the turning of swords into plowshares. It is a voice of national conscience, calling for unsparing self-examination. And it is a voice of warning to aggressive nations, that their domination will not last forever and that they too will be overtaken by the forces of history. Above all, it is a voice for social justice, calling for the care of widows and orphans, of the poor, and of the weakest members of society. The prophets proclaimed all of this in the name of God.

This was unprecedented. Other nations did not operate this way. They followed a rule that the strongest one wins, no matter what the cost, with no ethical considerations. Against this, the prophetic voice asserted tremendous influence, and inspired the movements toward social justice and human rights that have grown in Western democracies. The influence of the prophetic voice on Western democracy cannot be overestimated.

Jesus carried forward this prophetic voice. He criticized the corruption and hypocrisy of the religious and political leaders of his day. He called for the care of the poor and defenseless. And he warned the rich and the wielders of power that they will have a heavy price to pay. One cannot understand Jesus without understanding Hebrew prophecy.

There are always forces trying to return us to the prebiblical amoral world. Not long ago, China and Russia called for a “new world order,” in which human rights would not be a consideration. There is nothing “new” about that “order.” It is the same old order of the domination of the weaker by the stronger that has always operated in human history. In a previous era of history, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would have proceeded as a matter of course. Now there is worldwide outrage and an organization of democratic states to oppose it. It is not hard to hear the prophetic voice underneath this reaction. Its anti-despotic call for justice has had a profound impact on our civilization.

The call for justice is God’s voice implanted within us and speaking to us in a world without morals. In their search for God, this is what the Hebrew people found. And in its emphasis on social justice, it hints of something beyond the natural, Darwinian world. Jesus called this the “kingdom of God.” It is the promise that the natural world of power plays and brute force is not all there is. Beyond it is a higher, all-encompassing reality that we call eternal. We can channel the eternal and see it manifest even in this world and in our lives. That is the prophetic message, which Jesus made most explicit in his teaching.

The Hebrew Bible is valuable exactly because of all the violence within it. It shows us that even in such a world, God can be found. And it made Jesus and the New Testament possible. If you want to understand the New Testament, study the Hebrew Bible.

March 2022