Class, Week 1: The Hurtful Testament

The Old Testament is like … that … and I … .

Fill in the blanks.

This was the in-class assignment we had in my first session of Advanced Introduction to the Old Testament. We each had to fill in the blanks to create an analogy; the responses were interesting, funny, deep and often completely at odds with each other. Yet I agreed with every one of them.

Because the Old Testament is nothing if not multifaceted, isn’t it? Beautiful Psalms, practical proverbs, fascinating history, archaic laws, a God who rages and dotes – sometimes in successive verses. God-ordered genocide, teenagers being eaten by bears, people being smited seeming everywhere you look, and tall tales about six-day creation, a worldwide flood and a giant, unfinished tower.

It’s easy to have a love-hate relationship with these couple of dozen or so books. It’s easy to love verses like Lamentations 3:22-23:

Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning;  great is your faithfulness.

Maybe not so much verses like Psalm 137:9:

Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

As our professor noted, we could only pick one analogy, even though we likely could come up with several contradictory ones depending on our mood or our most recent interactions with the Old Testament.

Here’s mine:

The Old Testament is like a crazy uncle that kind of embarrasses me in public and I always have to apologize for.

Now I’m something of a rabble-rouser, so I went to the extreme of my feelings for the Old Testament. But who hasn’t thought that maybe the Bible would bring a whole lot more people to Christ if we just started it with Matthew – or at least with Isaiah.

Some of the other analogies, however, were, perhaps not equally, but nearly as ambivalent toward it. One considered it a barbed hook that wouldn’t let him go yet hurts him deeply. Other comparisons included a maze (lost and confused), a box of chocolates (parts to savor, parts to pass over), an old friend with whom he has lost connection and, most sweetly, a great grandmother’s wedding ring that she cherishes and is reminded of a promise made long ago.

Our professor, who I should note has a doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Duke University, topped mine:

The Old Testament is like an abusive relative that everyone says is such a nice guy and I feel guilty for hating how it hurts me.

There’s an inherent dilemma when considering the Old Testament in this way, and that is in 2 Timothy 3:16:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

Our professor was quick to point out, as I have in the past, that “God-breathed” and “useful” are not necessarily synonymous with “inherent” or “infallible” or “absolute,” loaded terms the Bible does not use when describing itself. But the words it does use are still undeniably good words, and the Old Testament as we know it today was very likely already in place when 2 Timothy was written.

So, no matter how we actually feel about it, the Old Testament must be “God-breathed and … useful,” which means it has to be worth studying, even if there’s a little pain, a little confusion, a little embarrassment.


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