How to Read the Old Testament without Wanting to Throw Something, or Drink, or Give Up Your Religion

The Old Testament of the Bible is hard. If you’ve taken any modern science classes, married for love instead of property, or heard about Jesus’s call to love your enemy, you probably struggle a little bit with the God of the Old Testament.

6angry_1The God of the Old Testament seems finicky, impatient, and intolerant. The men of the Old Testament have multiple wives and concubines. The world is created in seven days and the entire human race originates with one man, who is formed from the dust of the earth and one woman, who is formed from the rib of the man.

God regrets making people and so decides to flood the earth, killing everyone on it except for Noah and his family.

God tests one of his followers by asking him to kill his son on a mountain.

How do you reconcile this God with the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who says he and the Father are one?

You don’t have to.

I’ve gotten angry at this God who seems to condemn a whole hell of a lot of things (come on now, bacon?). I’ve been rattled that God would still call King David a man after his own heart even after the soap opera life he led. These and so many other instances have baffled, frustrated, and challenged me and my understanding of God. (There’s so much more.)

And yet I am convinced that’s what the Bible is here for: To rattle. To wrestle. To confound. To be interpreted and then reinterpreted. To be pressed into.

Judaism calls this midrash, engaging with difficult biblical texts by bringing philosophy, hermeneutics, and knowledge together to find meaning and comprehension in what may seem incomprehensible. Through midrash the word of God is made alive and active. Walter Brueggemann refers to this as a traditioning process, using imagination, ideology, and inspiration to make faith relevant for the next generation.

The willingness to engage with the Bible as a follower of Christ means inviting mystery to abide with reality.

It means bringing what you’ve gathered from your pursuit of knowledge of this world in science, mathematics, literature, philosophy, and history and letting the Bible speak alongside, within, and beyond that knowledge. It means allowing your sense of humor and today’s culture to intermingle with the Bible and stretch what seemed so rigid. God is actually quite sarcastic.

It means finding wisdom, employing prayer, and watching for the movement of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, whose presence transcends time and sifts free the chaff of ignorance to make real the grains of truth.

So, midrash. So, wrestle. So, come, Holy Spirit, come.

The Bible as we know it came into being over hundreds and hundreds of years through an intentional, traditioning process comprised of three key factors—imagination, ideology, and inspiration. 

Our imagination, and information, and inspiration, keep changing. But instead of throwing out the earlier narratives and understandings of our faith, the faith leaders built upon what had been recorded previously.

Walter Brueggemann, one of today’s preeminent biblical theologians, says this of the traditioning process:

“The complexity of the text evident on any careful reading is due to the happy reality that as new acts of traditioning overcome and partly displace older materials, the older material is retained alongside newer tradition. That retention is a happy one, because it very often happens that a still later traditionist returns to and finds useful older, ‘discarded’ material thought to be beyond use.

“The traditioning process that came to constitute the church’s Scripture is not an innocent act of reportage. It is, in each of its variations over time, an intentional advocacy that means to tilt the world of the next generation according to a conviction of faith.”

Faith as a traditioning process helps me tremendously as I read the Bible. It makes the text expansive and broadening; it demonstrates through its progression from the earliest writings to the latest an evolving understanding of who God is and how he interacts with us—not a changing God but humanity’s changing perception of God. And yet because those earlier communities were also earnestly inspired, we can still reach back to discover with awe and wonder new truths from the old.

So when we read about the creation of the world, we can remember that the authors of those stories only knew the world as flat and didn’t know about at least two entire continents while simultaneously seeing that this is how they made sense of the world, how they found their identity in God, and how they differentiated their God from all of the other gods around them.

As followers of Christ, everything that happened in the Old Testament must be read through the lens of Jesus Christ.

So when we read about God asking Abraham to prove his devotion to him by killing his own son, we don’t need to mesh what the early followers of God thought he was like with who Jesus was; we look to Jesus to see exactly who God is. Then, we pause to recognize the historical context of a tribe of people surrounded by other tribes who routinely performed human sacrifice.

And then, we see a God who stopped the sacrifice from happening. A God who gave rather than took away. A God who asks for mercy, not sacrifice. That sounds more like Jesus, doesn’t it, the Son of God, who was with the Father in the beginning, who was and is and is yet to come?

When we stop begging the Bible to conform to our ideas of literal truth, we unshackle it and our idea of God.

We open ourselves back up to the mysteries of faith and the wonders of creation. We loose the gridiron commitment to “truth” and soften our hearts to the humility of Love: loving God – the first and greatest commandment – and loving our neighbors as ourselves – which Jesus says is of equal importance (Matthew 22:37-39). And in the process, we discover Truth.

When we allow ourselves the audacity to wrestle with the Bible the way Jacob wrestled with God, we aren’t “threatening our salvation,” or “giving the devil a foothold,” we are admitting our own humanity and the humanity of every person who has ever walked this earth, even the authors of the Bible.

And we are admitting God’s incredible God-ness.

We are opening ourselves to the possibility of falling ever more in love with Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the True Light that Gives Light. And with that love, we can go spelunking through the strange world of tribal life from which the Old Testament emerges, without throwing the book against the wall, or drinking, or losing your religion.

Well, with any luck, maybe we can lose religion altogether. And find Christ.

P.S. If this resonates with you and you’re looking for ways to help your children connect to the God of both the Old and the New Testament, The Family Bible Devotional does just that. You can pick up a copy here. If you’ve already gone through The Family Bible Devotional, keep your eyes peeled for Volume 2: The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others, due out in February 2022. Both are published by Our Daily Bread.

Looking for a few other good books on this perspective on the Bible? I loved Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So, Rob Bell’s What Is the Bible? and Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired. Another one of Rachel’s books, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, takes a little different, lighter approach on the Bible. I know there’s more out there, one by Adam Hamilton I’ve heard is great.

There’s freedom, y’all. 🙂

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

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