A Better Way to Read the Old Testament

The Old Testament is a formidable beast.

Maybe you’re discouraged by the mind-numbing genealogies, dietary restrictions, temple blueprints, and obscure prophecies.

Or, maybe you’re turned off by the graphic violence and apparent endorsement of slavery and oppression against women.

Or, you’re tripped up because no one in the Old Testament seems concerned about the afterlife.

For most of us, it’s just easier to stick with the Sunday School versions of the Old Testament stories and drop a reading from Psalms or Proverbs into our daily devotionals than it is to actually grapple with the part of the Bible that makes up more than 75% of the Scriptures.

And I think one of the reasons we have difficulty engaging with Old Testament is because it’s written from a perspective completely foreign to our lived-in experiences – especially if you identify as white evangelical.

The Old Testament is a conversation between God and an ancient people group. And big chunks of it were written while this particular tribe was oppressed, exiled, or threatened by superior military forces.

The Old Testament (and God) has a lot to say about power, empires, and justice.

And, as citizens living within the world’s largest economic and military superpower in the history of civilization, this means the Old Testament has a lot to say about us.


Out of Egypt

Excluding the four biographies that make up the Gospel, the book of Exodus may, in fact, be one of the most important books in the entire Bible.

Chronicling the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the Biblical themes of redemption, liberation, and justice are introduced in such a dramatic fashion that they echo throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and into the life of Jesus.

So much happens in the book of Exodus that some Biblical scholars consider Genesis – the first book of the Hebrew Scripture – a prequel or prologue to the events in Exodus.

As matter of fact, God is referred to as “the God who brought you out of Egypt” thirty-two times in the Old Testament. He is only referred to as “the Creator” six times.

But when our story opens, 400 years have passed between the last verse of Genesis and the first verse of Exodus. And things are not good.

The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt by the Pharaoh, or Egyptian king.

They’re making bricks, working in the fields, and constructing storehouses.
Oppressed by overpowering fear and ruthless economics, entire generations of Israelites are born and die into slavery.

But even Pharaoh is afraid.
He fears an uprising.

So, what does he do?

He reacts with more violence and more cruelty. He takes their children, ups their work quota, and calls them lazy when they can’t keep up the ridiculous production demands.

A recurring motif throughout the early parts of the Hebrew Bible is that people with the “knowledge of good and evil” will more readily justify evil than they will good.

And as people start families,
and families create cultures,
and cultures design systems,
and systems build nations,
humankind’s propensity to justify evil scales up.

Pharaoh may be the Big Bad in this story, but he’s far from the only villain.
Think of all the Egyptian slave masters, overseers, politicians, accountants, merchants, and consumers who have a financial stake in the continued use of Israelite slavery.

Systems of injustice and oppression rely on the silence and complicity of those who benefit from the system in order to perpetuate injustice and oppression.

Broken and defeated, the Israelites cry out to God and – “because of their slavery” – their cry for help “went up to God.

And God responds.

God says he sees their suffering,
and hears their suffering,
and knows their suffering.

And God commissions Moses – a particularly privilege Israelite – to use his voice to challenge Pharaoh. And, after a whirlwind chain of events, the Israelites are freed.

Following the exodus and the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt, Moses (speaking about God) says, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

But it doesn’t take long for the Israelites to forget where they come from.


Game of Thrones

After several decades of wandering through the wilderness and finally settling within the Promised Land, the Israelites began to get nervous.

They fear (or envy) the neighboring empires of Babylon and Assyria.
And so they ask God if they could have a king “such as all other nations have.”

But God is hesitant to grant their request.
He warns them that a king will turn their children into soldiers, tax their crops and livestock for his own benefit and force them into slavery.

But Israelites continue to demand a king,
and God begrudgingly gives into their request.

And thus, the people of God succumb to the seduction of empire.

It doesn’t take long for things to go south.

Saul becomes king, starts a war he can’t finish, dies in combat and is surpassed by David.

And, for a brief moment, it looks as if the Israelites were wise to go the king route.

Under King David’s rule, they retake Jerusalem and defeat the Philistines and the Ammonites – two of Israel’s fiercest enemies.

And then, within the span of a couple of chapters, David goes out and breaks, like, all the Ten Commandments.

He has sex with a married woman, orchestrates the murder of her husband on the battlefield to cover up the resultant pregnancy, and enslaves an entire town and forces them to make bricks (sound familiar?).

And then Amnon – one of David’s sons – rapes his own sister, so Absalom – another one of David’s sons – kills Amnon out of vengeance, and then Absalom stages a coup against David and is almost successful until he dies in one of the most ridiculous ways possible on the battlefield, and don’t let anyone tell you the Bible is boring, okay?

David dies heartbroken with his kingdom in turmoil.
And his surviving son Solomon becomes King of Israel.

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses says a king shouldn’t amass horses (for an army), take multiple wives, and accumulate large amounts of gold and silver.

But Solomon does all of those things.

He also buys and sells chariots, effectively becoming an arms dealer and profiting from the wars of other nations.

He establishes military bases in Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer.

And he uses slaves to build his palace, the city walls and the Lord’s Temple.

The oppressed becomes the oppressor.
Israel is the new Egypt.
And Solomon is the new Pharaoh.

He establishes an empire built with blood money and slave labor.
And after Solomon dies, his son Rehoboam takes over, and he’s worse than his father.

Even though his senior advisors tell him to go easier on the people than Solomon, Rehoboam decides to double down on his father’s cruelty.

The people revolt, and Israel is ripped apart by civil war.
The nation splits in half.

So, God sends in the prophets.


Age of the Prophets

The back half of the Hebrew Scriptures is made up of a collection of writings called the Major Prophets and the Minor Prophets.

If we’re honest, we probably don’t crack open this part of the Bible very often (except for maybe some select passages from Isaiah and Daniel).

For starters, they aren’t arranged in chronological order, but by length (which is very confusing). And they’re often taught completely devoid of historical and cultural context.

And that’s a shame.
Because the prophets have a lot to say about a lot of issues facing the Church and the world today.

When we hear the “prophet” we often think of people who tell the future or deliver “prophecies.”

But in the Bible, prophets aren’t fortune-tellers. They’re truth-tellers, warrior poets with a flair for the dramatic and sensational.

Some people erroneously believe that because someone becomes a king (or is elected president) that God must approve of this person and all of their policies are representative of God’s plan.

But prophets throw a wrench in this theocratic ideology.
They are a thorn in the side of power.

In The Prophetic Imagination, theologian Walter Brueggemann writes,

“The task of prophetic ministry is nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

Or, in other words, prophets are the people God calls to get others “woke.”
And every time a king takes the reigns of the fractured kingdom, a prophet rises up to call him out.

Even King David, a “man after God’s own heart,” had the prophet Nathan, who called out David’s infidelity and murderous cover-up.

And while prophets were primarily concerned with whether the nation had turned their back to God, one of the most telling indicators that this had happened was how the poor and marginalized were being treated within the society.

The prophet Ezekiel said to the exiled King Jehoiakim, “The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.”

And Jeremiah spoke truth to power when he told King Zedekiah, “Rescue the disadvantaged, and don’t tolerate oppression or violence against the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow.”

And to King Ahaz, the prophet Isaiah said, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people.”

And to King Darius, the prophet Zechariah said, “Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, or the poor.

And during the 2nd Temple period, the prophet Malachi said, “I will be a swift witness against those who oppress the hired worker, the widow, and the orphans, against those who thrust aside the immigrant, and do not fear me, says the Lord.

And to King Uzziah and Jeroboam, the prophet Amos said, “They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.”

Prophets exist because sometimes our leaders need to be called out on their bullshit.

And when God’s people tolerate and participate systems of injustice and oppression, God says he doesn’t hear their prayers and can’t stand the sound of their worship songs.

But, the death spiral initiated by David and Solomon accelerates to a catastrophic level.
And Israel is conquered and enslaved over and over again by a rogue’s gallery of pagan nations.

And for 400 years, God and his prophets are silent.


King Jesus

I think a lot people assume “Christ” is Jesus’s last name.

But it’s not a name.
It’s a title.

Christ means Christos, or “the Anointed One.” It’s linked to the Hebrew word Mashiyach, a word translated into English as “Messiah.”

Both words harken back to a time when kings would be anointed with oil before they ascended the throne.

Therefore, to say “Jesus Christ” is to say “Jesus the King.”

But Jesus rejected our traditional definition of what it means to be a king. He showed the world a new way to exert power and influence.

Jesus spent a majority of his life as a day labor working in a politically insignificant territory occupied by the world’s largest military superpower.

Jesus is the exact opposite of the type of king God warned the Israelites about so long ago.

He didn’t muster an army or rally troops,
or objectify women or collect a harem,
or make political alliances or sell out for a chance at power,
or campaign against the human rights of other people groups.

He also didn’t let ethnic barriers, political tribalism, cultural hierarchies, or moralistic relativism get between him and other people.

He’s feeding the hungry,
healing the sick,
and standing up for the accused.

And he consistently aligns himself with the poor, oppressed, and marginalized, going so far as to say, “What you do for the least of these, you do for me.”

Just as the prophets used the treatment of the poor as a litmus test for the state of a king’s heart, Jesus does the same for our relationship with him.

Some of Jesus’s harshest words are reserved for religious people who turn a blind eye to suffering and injustice occurring in their midst.

Because this is a God who sees,
and hears,
and knows.

And he expects his followers to do the same.


Addendum I: Why Don’t We Talk About This In Church?

It should be noted that Pharaoh isn’t named in the Old Testament.
And that’s very unusual.

The Biblical authors are usually on top of their game when it comes to naming specific locations and individuals.

And while this frustrates modern attempts to historically verify the Exodus, it also gives the story a mythic quality.

Pharaoh, in that sense, isn’t just one man.
He’s an archetype, the embodiment of empire, excess, and oppression.
And his reign reverberates throughout ancient and modern history.

It’s just different characters reading from the same script.

This is fascinating, you may be thinking to yourself. But why haven’t I heard of all this before?

And that’s a really good question.

Some people call this perspective on the Bible “liberation theology.”
And, unfortunately, liberation theology doesn’t have much of a role to play in a religious culture whose primary concern is producing converts and funneling people toward “salvation decisions.”

Instead of a Gospel Culture,
we live in a Salvation Culture.

The main problem with Salvation Culture is that it strips the Gospel of its cultural and historical context. In the age of American consumerism, the Gospel becomes another low buy-in transaction that promises a better life – if not now, then after your final curtain drops.

But in this reductionist version of the Gospel, we lose so much.
We lose our sensitivity to the cries of the oppressed,
the seductive allure of power and empire,
and Jesus as the King.

Instead, we’re left with a Jesus product that’s been edited to serve our needs.

In Gospel-Centered Discipleship, pastor Jonathan Dodson writes,

“This one-third Gospel is hardly the gospel at all. It focuses on Jesus’s death and resurrection as a doctrine to be believed, not on Jesus as a person to be trusted and obeyed. The gospel has been reduced to a personal ticket to heaven. But the biblical gospel is much more than personal conversion to gain a reservation in heaven. It is a conversion to Jesus as Lord.

Salvation Culture produces a Happy Meal version of the Gospel.
It’ll get the job done, but deep down most people know they’re starving for something more substantial and down-to-earth.

But there’s another reason privileged Americans aren’t exposed to liberation theology.

In the book of Proverbs, Solomon calls the wealth of the rich a “fortified city.”

I’ve often heard this verse quoted as a positive, but when we read it in context of Solomon’s rise and subsequent downfall, it takes on a much more sobering tone.

A fortified city keeps people out, and it also keeps people in.

Sociologist (and author of The Social Animal) David Brooks writes,

“As soon as people make money, they purchase loneliness.”

But we purchase more than loneliness. We purchase isolation from anything that makes us uncomfortable. Once we have the means, we sort ourselves into like-minded communities that share our political views, racial preferences, and socioeconomic status.

Liberation theology confronts all of these factors. It forces us to wrestle with the entire Bible, not just the parts that make us feel good or are familiar to us.

And, more than that, it challenges us to recognize systems of injustice, oppression, and silence in our country, organizations, communities, and churches.

It challenges how we spend our money.
Will we continue to believe the products we buy appear magically on store shelves? Or will we choose to avoid companies and organizations that exploit cheap labor and thrive off unjust labor laws?

It challenges how we view our history and privilege.
Do we continue to believe in whitewashed “origin myths” of American history? Or do we acknowledge and seek reconciliation for the physical and economic oppression of minority groups committed by white Europeans in the name of God and country?

It challenges how we pray.
Are we praying for more privilege, comfort, and safety in a world that has already disproportionately given us all three? Or do our prayers align with the cries of the oppressed and marginalized?

It challenges how we engage in politics.
Do we allow the rhetoric of our political tribes to influence what people groups we think are worthy of our mercy and compassion? Or do we advocate for policies, causes, and people regardless of our (or their) political affiliation?

It challenges how we do church.
Is church a place where we gather with like-minded people to sing a few songs and listen to a lecture? Or is it a group of people dedicated to the kingdom-vision established by Jesus?

It challenges the very consumerism that has shaped our modern understanding of the Gospel. And, for a lot of people, that makes this version of the Gospel too radical, too uncomfortable, and too confrontational.

And this is why we should start talking about it.


Addendum II: Supplies

I’ve rarely had an original thought. I’m indebted to these Biblical scholars, writers, and thinkers for exposing me to new (re: old) ways of reading the Biblical narrative.

The Prophetic Imagination and Interrupting Silence – Walter Brueggemann
The King Jesus Gospel – Scot McKnight
Jesus Wants to Save Christians – Rob Bell and Don Golden
Jesus For President – Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw
(Re)Union – Bruxy Cavey
With – Skye Jethani
Jesus the King – Tim Keller
How God Became King and Simply Good News – N.T. Wright

 

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