Getting to Know the Old Testament

Part Two

Answering Some Old Testament Problems

by John N. Oswalt, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature, Asbury Theological Seminary
Elder, Kentucky Annual Conference, United Methodist Church

If the previous article has made a case for the Church’s need for the Old Testament, it has left unanswered the serious problems which were posed at the beginning of this series. It now becomes our task to suggest some ways to deal with these “problems.” It would not be possible, in one short article, to present detailed solutions to all the Old Testament difficulties. Nor would the author be capable of doing this, even if space permitted. What is intended is to suggest four or five principles which should be helpful in working through the most commonly expressed Old Testament “problems.” In the course of discussing these principles, certain representative issues will be treated as examples.

The attempt to demonstrate the necessity of the Old Testament for the Church was consciously put before this treatment of the “problems,” because the manner in which one approaches difficulties in the Old Testament is largely determined by one’s attitude toward the Old Testament. If one is convinced that it is basically a non-Christian book, and thus of little value to the Church, the “problems” will be allowed to stand without serious attempts to find any solution. They will be merely treated as evidence by which to confirm one’s prejudice.

On the other hand, if one is convinced that the Church cannot survive without the Old Testament, one is much more likely to make a strenuous effort to solve the “problems.” When this happens, one makes the pleasant discovery that, in most cases, satisfying solutions can be found. Those who downgrade the Old Testament often accuse its defenders of manipulating the evidence to save the Old Testament. Unfortunately, this has sometimes been true. This tendency must be carefully guarded against. On the other hand, it is fair to say that failure to seriously explore and accept the evidence because one has prejudged the case is equally dishonest.

When one begins to seek solutions to the Old Testament difficulties, one of the usual first discoveries is that the “problem” has been isolated and overstated. When the background and the situation are fully understood, oftentimes the “problem” is much less massive.

A case in point would be the slaughter of the Canaanites. This one instance, perhaps more than any other, is used to show that the Old Testament is sub-Christian. One hears such statements as, “If God had commanded such a thing (assuming that He did not), He would have been violating His own commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.'”

Such a statement fails to understand that the Commandment, as worded in the original, had to do with murder and was not directly related to either capital punishment or warfare.

However, it still may be asked, “How could a loving God simply order a people wiped out so that His own people could have that land?”

This question is based upon two false assumptions: one that killing and love are never consistent; two, the slaughter of the Canaanites was merely to enable the Hebrews to take possession of the land. Thorough study of the Scriptures makes it plain that the Hebrews’ action was God’s judgment upon the Canaanites. In Genesis 15:16, God tells Abraham that he and his descendants cannot yet possess the land because the sin of the Amorites (Canaanites) is not yet complete. In other words, it would have been unjust for Abraham to have destroyed the Canaanites then. They did not yet deserve it. Bur 400 years later, after the tendencies already evident in Abraham’s day had run their course, the actions of the Hebrews in destroying the deeply perverted and decadent Canaanite society was an act of Divine justice. If there is one thing with which love is surely inconsistent it is injustice. To allow flagrant sin to go unpunished is no act of love. On the part of man it is irresponsible; on the part of God it would be demonic.

This action of God’s love, expressed in terms of righteous justice, not only related to the Canaanites’ past sins – it also related to the future. Joshua makes it plain that a further reason for the annihilation of the Canaanite people was so that the Canaanite culture would be wiped out. Why? So that it would not become a trap for the Hebrews. The Hebrews were a people chosen by God to convey His redemptive self-disclosure to the earth. The culmination of that redemption, Jesus Christ, was to be a part of them.

The Canaanites were a near-perfect example of world religions which, by deifying human and natural functions, seek to gain control over the universe for the sake of human security. If the Canaanite religion could somehow contaminate the Hebrew faith, God’s whole future expression of love to the world could be jeopardized.

As a matter of fact, this is precisely what did happen. The Hebrews did not carry out God’s command carefully. (Did they, like we, think it too harsh?) As a result the Hebrew faith was saved only by the narrowest of escapes. Had the Israelites obeyed God’s commands, who knows what agonies they might have been spared or how much sooner God’s redemptive love might have been manifested in its fullness to the world?

Another principle to be kept in mind when dealing with Old Testament “problems” is that of progressive revelation. Not all of God’s truth is revealed at once. Only what can be assimilated at a given moment is opened up; more is added later when God knows the time is right. The process is much the same as that used by wise parents who teach their children only what they are able to comprehend.

A case in point might be the afterlife. Some wonder why the Old Testament is so “this-worldly” when the New Testament depicts salvation in “other-worldly” terms. This is one of those overblown distinctions. The New Testament says much more about this present life than many people realize. Nonetheless, the Old Testament is largely silent on the afterlife. Why? Very possibly because the Israelites had come out of Egypt, where efforts to ensure a happy afterlife through magical rites and a complex polytheism[1] dominated the lives of many.

Before God could reveal the true afterlife to His people, some preliminary points had to be made: there was only one God in all the universe, and He was not pleased by magical rites, but instead required utter trust demonstrated in ethical behavior. Until these important points were fixed in the Israelite mind, any teaching concerning the afterlife could only confuse God’s people.

Similarly with retribution and blessing, the fundamental point had to be made that obedience from the heart results in bliss, and that any other kind of response to God was disaster. (To the Hebrews, in a fairly adolescent stage of development, the blessings and disasters were described in very materialistic terms. After this basic point had been made, then mankind would be ready to learn that in the final analysis, material things do not determine either bliss or disaster for us).

The laws relating to sacrifice, foods, purity, etc., must be understood in this same light. They functioned as concrete object lessons to make a spiritual point. On a spiritual plane, there is that which defiles and that which makes clean. On a spiritual plane, sin is a matter of life and death and therefore may not be treated lightly. How better to learn these and other important truths than through the daily experiences of sacrifice, eating, etc.?

But, it may be asked, since we have progressed beyond the adolescent, object-lesson stage, can we not dispense with those rather boring sections of the Old Testament? The sobering question must be asked, “Have we?” When the Old Testament object lessons do not illuminate and reinforce the reality they symbolize, then we have either perceived truth in its full intensity – or perhaps we have not perceived truth at all.

A third principle is that the Old Testament never idealizes. This is surely one of the marks of its Divine authority. Nowhere else in the literature of the ancient world are human beings depicted so really, both in their glories and in their horrors. Thus, although a David or an Abraham is a hero of God, when he sins it is reported with a kind of clinical exactness. The great man’s weaknesses are neither celebrated nor minimized. The inspired writer seems to be telling us that God is indeed at work in human lives, not in some never-never land of unreal sainthood (unless it is in the kinds of imperfect saints found in Paul’s Corinth). Moreover, the Old Testament writer is saying that we are to worship God, not our human “fathers.” Some of their failings were barbaric and their ends desperate. Yet, praise be to God, He could and did accomplish His purposes through even them! If a Samson was the best that could be had, God could use him. But the Bible does not idealize these heroes, and neither need we. Let us only be sure that we are at least as open to God’s working with us as they were long ago.

Finally, it is important to understand that Old Testament culture was different from that of either Greek and Roman times – or our own. We have said before that the Holy Spirit did not dictate certain timeless truths to men apart from and regardless of their situation in life. (Whenever the Bible is so treated, endless difficulties result). Rather, God began to manifest Himself in certain historical situations. At the same time (or even previously) He began to move in the lives of certain individuals so that they might authoritatively interpret what He was doing and saying in His actions. Necessarily, then, the Old Testament revelation had to be expressed in terms and styles which communicated with the people of that day. Thus, had God somehow contrived to set down an Ezra in the Judges period, he would probably have been much less successful in achieving God’s purposes for that time than were Ehud or Jephthah.

Along these same lines, when certain strange or even apparently immoral acts performed by Biblical figures are examined in the light of the customs of the day, they will often be found to be quite consistent. A case in point would be Abraham’s begetting Ismael by Hagar. In our sub-culture this is a gross and un-understandable act on the part of God’s chosen. However, in that day and time, this was an acceptable way of getting children if one’s wife were barren.

Before leaving this point it must be remarked that despite this different cultural conditioning of the Old Testament, human nature has remained remarkably the same across 5,000 years. Once one gets behind the strange ancient customs and, to us sometimes bizarre behavior, we find the same humanity as exists today. Whether peasant or technocrat one’s hopes, his aspirations, his sins, his failures, his crying needs remain the same. The marvel of the Bible is that it has so well diagnosed the essential human situation as it appeared in persons 3,000 to 4,000 years ago in the Near East … that this diagnosis remains so true today. With these several principles of interpretation in mind, no “problems” need be so severe as to prevent us from seeing in the Old Testament God’s description of ourselves and His provision for becoming our true selves.

Coming in the next issue of Good News Part III: “How You Can Study The Old Testament.”

[1] Polytheism:  belief in, or worship of, many different gods.


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