Friday, June 30, 2017

UNDERSTANDING THE TROUBLING PASSAGES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT





There are many things in the Old Testament that we find perplexing and even troubling. There is the institution the “avenger of blood” (Numbers 35:19-29), something like a bounty hunter. And then there are the institutions of polygamy and slavery, not to mention the destruction of the Canaanites.

How do we reconcile these practices with our modern intuitions regarding justice and even with the New Testament? In “Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal,” Richard F. Lovelace explains this tension through the need to “disenculturate” Israel from the culture of Egypt and from various Canaanite cultures by giving them their own culture:

·       One of the first effects of spiritual decline among the people of God is destructive enculturation, saturation with the godless culture of the surrounding world as we saw in Judges 2:11-13. When men’s hearts are not full of God, they become full of the world around like a sponge full of clear water that has been squeezed empty and thrown into a mud puddle. (IVP, 1979, 184)

How would Israel become “full of God?” Lovelace argues that if a sponge is soaked with oil, it will not absorb anything else. God therefore wanted to saturate Israel with His laws and rituals so that they wouldn’t absorb anything from the surrounding cultures, which Israel had been eager to do.

They had demanded a golden calf they had known and esteemed while in Egypt, even though God had manifested His faithfulness to them in so many ways:

·       When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Exodus 32:1; ESV)

They had also demanded a king, so that they could be like other nations (1 Samuel 8:5). However, even though a king wasn’t God’s first choice, Mosaic Law condescended to Israel’s desires and demands. But for their own good, God had demanded that their choice of kings had to be regulated by His guidelines, and the king also had to be careful to abide by the Law, just like all his subjects (Deuteronomy 17).

Perhaps this is how we have to understand many of the prescribed institutions of Mosaic Law, God’s Law. To some degree, the Law was a concession to Israel’s desires. Therefore, divorce, polygamy, the avenger-of-blood, and many other human practices were allowed but divinely regulated.

Because of Israel’s desire to be like other nations, it even seems that Israel’s prescribed rituals and offerings superficially resembled those of the surrounding cultures. Lovelace explains that, because of this desire, God had to oil the sponge accordingly:

·       The protective enculturation in the Jewish lifestyle was an accommodation to the spiritual infancy of Israel. When we study the near-Eastern people, we discover law codes, taboo systems and other socioreligious patterns which duplicate and closely resemble those of Israel. Some critics have concluded from this that the Judaic cultic [religious ceremonial] system was merely humanly derived rather than God-inspired, but it is also explainable as a simple adaptation designed to give Israel a safe and uncontaminated cultus of its own. (184)

Even though Israel’s religion was not entirely different from those of its surrounding neighbors, it was still God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16-17) in its entirety (Matthew 5:17-19). As such, it is like a language using the same alphabet as other belief systems. However, the letters are arranged distinctively so that they convey an entirely different message. For example, the Israelite Temple was similar to its Egyptian counterpart. However, it was arranged to convey an entirely different message. While the Egyptian temple contained cots for their gods, there was no such thing in the Israelite Temple, conveying the idea that God did not sleep there. Instead, His abode was far more expansive.

Therefore, even though the Israelite Temple and offerings reflected those of pagan cultures, these were, nevertheless, entirely a revelation of Israel’s God. Consequently, the Law was holy, and “the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12).  It, therefore, conveyed a revelation that was able to lead Israel to grace in Christ (Galatians 3:22-24), even if it was symbolic.

In light of this, the Mosaic Covenant was just a temporary covenant until “the fullness of time,” when it would be replaced by the New (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hosea 2:18-19). Consequently, as Paul explained, there was no going back:

·       And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross… Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:13-14, 16-17)

According to Peter, the Law was “a yoke…that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). Therefore, Lovelace explains that:

·       The message [of the OT] must therefore be disenculturated [from the OT culture], freed from its protective shell, so that it may take root in a thousand different cultural and political soils… The oil must be wrung out of the sponge, in order that it may be filled with wine. (186-87)

While the Pharisees clung to the old wine, Jesus argued that He had come with new wine, even though this wine had been prophesied in the OT (Romans 3:21) and argued for new wineskins, which would be able to contain the new – something that would enable Christianity to spread abroad, as the second-century Epistle to Diognetus affirmed:

·       For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country, language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.

In light of this, the Old Testament Law is an accommodation to the desires of Israel and the temptations posed by other cultures, but it is still completely the Word of God.

2 comments:

  1. There is a book I've recently obtained and have been reading which explains many of these deeper (for me) exegeses. It is titled 'Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament'.

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