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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

is the Old Testament Christian?...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I've just finished reading 2 Samuel, and have once again been struggling with the apparently bloodthirsty God found in its pages, and how we understand this portrayal of God as followers of the Prince of Peace. And then I came across this interesting post by Matt Stone at Glocal Christianity, which explores how, as Christians, we must read the Old Testament through the reframing lense of the New Testament. Matt argues that we cannot see the Old Testament in and of itself as a 'Christian text', since it is clearly Jewish and is upheld by other faiths as Scripture even though they might come to differing conclusions about God. If we follow this line, the Old Testament becomes a 'Christian text' when it is reframed by the New, such that we reinterpret what we find there. Matt writes:

"I find the movie Sixth Sense provides a good analogy. If you have seen that movie, starring Bruce Willis, then you’d know that the ending of the movie has a killer twist. In the final moments Bruce Willis’ character has a revelation that reframes everything that was going on up to that moment.... The realization affects his identity and transforms his entire story.... For Christians the coming of Christ is, similarly, a killer twist. Jesus transforms our understanding of God, and hence, our understanding of the Old Testament and how we read it. Reading the Old Testament in isolation from the New Testament is like watching Sixth Sense but walking out fifteen minutes before the climax. You’ll never understand Christianity by viewing it that way, and you’ll never truly understand the Old Testament by reading it that way."

If I understand Matt correctly, the New Testament is the Christian's 'text' (in a Derrida sense) - our interpretive framework through which we see the world, including the Old Testament. Of course, Matt makes a huge leap in the final line of the above quote as other faiths would certainly argue against needing the New Testament in order to "truly understand the Old Testament", but as a Christian believer myself I'm happy to go along with him here!

The question remains though... what do we do with the Old Testament narratives of the boodthirsty God and the faithfulness of his people being seen in their willingness to comit mass slaughter? Do we simply reject such texts as ancient misconceptions of God, based on the new understanding arising from the teaching and sacrificial example of Jesus, or is there a more subtle way to reframe the Old Testament?

Read Matt's whole post here

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 1:11 PM


Hi Malcolm,

Really interesting post!

I've often heard (and agree with!) the idea of reading the Old Testament through the lens of the New. What I have never been able to work out is quite how to do that in relation to those disturbing bloodthristy passages you mention. Jesus himself was an Old Testament reader, and it would seem to me, believed in its inspiration and authority and he said that he didn't come to abolish or negate what had gone before, but to to bring the OT to its proper fulfillment.

None of which for me answers the question of what Jesus thought about the slaughter of the Cannanites, for example? Did he think that was wrong? Did the Israelites hear God wrong? Is the OT not recording history with regards to the slaughter?

There's a writer called Vernard Eller, who's sadly passed away now,who writes some interesting stuff on this. He basically takes the position that the Israelites got it wrong, and that the Bible accurately records their error. His proposal is that the real "warrior" spirit that is part of us as beings made in the image of God, an urge to advance God' good purposes for creation have been twisted and distorted. Our battle is against principalities and power not against flesh and blood as Paul would later say. The Israelites didn't get this and twisted the good intention to takes God's Kingdom project forward, and instead went down the path of destruction. That's one perspective anyway!

Would be grateful for your thoughts Malcolm!

commented by Anonymous Adam, 2:11 PM  

Hi Adam

thanks for your comments. Vernard Eller's perspective on this is certainly one way of understanding these difficult Old Testament texts, although, as you can imagine, not everyone is comfortable with this view. For what it's worth, I'm ok going with it to a point - for example, I don't know of anyone who would argue that God derives pleasure from smashing young children against rocks on the basis of Psalm 137:9! It would seem that, in this text, the Psalmist is getting carried away with his sense of rage and is simply venting human emotions, even if they are ungodly ones. Why are verses such as this in Scripture? Maybe to show that God can cope with all sides of humanity and that he is more than capable of shouldering our deepest (and darkest) feelings.

I think that this becomes a bit more difficult when it comes to understanding texts that purport to be history; but even here we must acknowledge that we are reading history through the eyes and pens of human beings living it as it unfolds (even if writing years later). What I love about the Christian notion of revealed Word is that God chooses to reveal 'truth' in relationship with humanity. So scripture isn't dictated (as with, say, the Qu'ran) but is an interaction of human and divine. Of course, this interaction of human and divine is seen supremely in the person of Jesus. Could it be then that we see ancient misunderstandings of how God chooses to bless nations in the passages of mass genocide? Or could it be that we are actually reading allegory and story rather than history, and a theological point is being made about holiness and being 'called out' from the surrounding nations?

I guess I'm slow to nail my colours to the mast in this, because I want to remain faithful to Scripture and historic tradition, and yet that same Scripture and tradition tells me very different things about God to what I read in some Old Testament passages. Therefore, I am open to the suggestion that we see in these passages a misunderstanding of God. But, if this is the case, we are then left with the question, why do we find such passages in Scripture? Could it be that we are reading of God's continued faithfulness to a people who have, in so many ways, violated the One True God. Are we reading of a perfect parent whose love is unconditional even when his so-called people commit horrific acts in his name?

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 3:26 PM  


You will see I explained that 'huge leap' in the comments.

From a Christian perspective I would say you the New Testament in order to "truly understand the Old Testament", but putting on my interfaith hat, I can understand that a Jew would say you need the Talmud and a Muslim would say you need the Quran. My critical point is that we need to take the scriptures of each religion as a whole, that there is no 'neutral' position from which to interpret the Old Testament. When Atheists assume there is they make a critical mistake.

This problem becomes even more acute when the Kabbalah comes into the picture. The Kabbalah radically reframes how the Old Testament is to be interpreted. Most evangelicals would view Cabalistic commentaries on the Old Testament with complete bewilderment, saying, "How do you get that teaching out of that text?" or maybe something less polite. Well, that's the interpretive framework in operation.

Are all interpretive frameworks equal? If not, which one is superior? Well, obviously both those questions will be subject to much debate. For the purposes of studying (or critiquing) Christianity however, a Christian framework must be used, and that's the New Testament.

In interpreting the wars of God, I would say, why interpret them different to anything else? Christians allow the New Testament to reframe how we worship (despite what the Old Testament says), we allow it to reframe how we treat adulterers (despite what the Old Testament says), why not let it reframe how we treat enemies?

When we allow it to do that a number of insights emerge out of the Old Testament text:

1/ The constant refrain in the Old Testament was that "God will fight for us", so was faith not might that was important. How did God fight for us in the New Testament? On the cross! That's how God's wars came to their climax.
2/ A number of the enemies of Israel had an entrenched culture of child sacrifice that God wanted to utterly deconstruct. The wars were just about establishing Israel, they were also about deconstructing a great injustice. In fact, God explicitly said to Israel that they should not get all self righteous in the pursuit of these wars, for in many ways they were no better. God emphasized this was about his holiness, not theirs, that they were a 'stiff necked people' that in many ways were just as sinful. Hardly a nation glorifying picture.
3/ God commanded them to fight from a position of weakness, to reinforce all this. When they fought from a position of strength, it was generally taken as backsliding (that sit well with American military rhetoric). Again, how does Jesus' renunciation of the sword in favour of the cross speak to this?
4/ The heir to the covenant is the church, not America or any other nation state, so it is very dodgy to construct a just war doctrine on an Old Testament basis.

So it depends what you mean by misconceptions of God. As Christians we believe God has revealed himself progressively, culminating in his revelation through Christ. Does that not suggest that the Old Testament revelation was incomplete?


commented by Anonymous Matt Stone, 10:02 PM  

Actually, to put this another way, the wars of the ancient near east were a primary mode through which Israel in general, and its kings in particular, wrestled with issues of faithfulness. The high waters marks were where Israel totally relied on God (for example, the Red Sea crossing and the destruction of the walls of Jericho). The low water marks were where Israel took matters into its own hands and made alliances with Pagan powers and their gods. Seen in this light, the crucifixion and resurrection of the messiah was the climax of this process. Here, finally, was a king who trusted God completely.

commented by Anonymous Matt Stone, 10:59 PM  

Your clarifying comments were helpful Matt. I have to say, I hadn't really thought about hwo we allow the NT to totally change the way we interpret the OT. I can't remember the last time we stoned an adulterer at church! Yet no one seems to get hot under the collar about that!

The question I am left with then is, what use are these Old Testament passages to us now. Has God had a change of tactic? How can the passages which commanded the death of adulters and homsexuals, and the wiping out of Canaan be read today other than to say, "Well, we know better now?". Surely God's moral character is unchanging? Aren't we then left with people hearing God wrongly and the Scriptures then being wrong in terms of what it means when it says "and God said.."?

Not a very well thought out post.. on a long shift at work and still not done yet!

commented by Anonymous Adam, 5:00 PM  

Hi Malcolm,
Your doubts, are many christian doubts.Most christians believe that the old testament is gone, and they have nothing to do it anymore.But the truth is that bible says the old testament is important to us christians.God is awesome and smart. He had a plan for the humanity's redemption since Adam and Eve sinned [Genesis 3:15], making a promisse that a man[Jesus] would destroy the devil and his acts, that entered the earth since their sin.God is the same, he's the "I am" God, so he just IS.He will never change. He would not tell people to write the old testament just to be used in a certain time and than, by time Jesus come, to become useless.
When Jesus comes, he comes to fullfill the Old Testament and the Law and not to abolish it {Matthew 5:1}, because he himself was the Law, the Word of God [John 1:1].He couldn't run from his own nature and he could'nt break any of the decrees and commandments that are set in the OT, because He had to remain holy to be an acceptable sacrifice for all mankind.And He also told the people to keep on following the OT decrees and commands [Matthew 23:3].
The Old testment remains "christian", because it must be part of our faith.We won't know what is sin if we don't read the old testament, because 1 John 3:4, that everyone who sins breaks the law.So we must follow what God said in the OT {even keeping the sabbath holy and other stuff}, so that we can live a life that is gonna please God and that will give the legal permission to God bless us.The things we don't need to follow are the sacrifices and the laws for the priets.Because we are the temples of God's Holy Spirit now and Jesus was our perfect sacrifice and our high priest.Of course we are not going to die if we fail, because we're living in grace times and that's what grace is: not die when fail.But that's not a reason to sin.However, the curses atracted by sins, that are described in the OT comes to someone who sins [that's why we need to ask Jesus to carry the curse attracted by the sin when we sin and ask for forgiveness to God], because the things of the OT are still remaining, that's why 1 John 5:16 says there are sins that leads on death, beacuse the curse attracted by that sin was death.So people are not killed nowadays when they commit the sins that people in the OT times would die if they did, but the curse of death is atracted to them.Want it or not, if we did a covenant with Jesus we are part of the people of Israel and became Jews, with the difference that we believe that Jesus is our Messiah [Ephesians 2:11-13 and Exodus 12:48-49 and our passover lamb was the perfect Jesus] and we are under the same decrees and commandmets that God gave to them, since we are part of them too thorugh Jesus.

commented by Blogger Diego Almeida, 8:32 AM  

And about the verses that show that God was angry and wrathful, He can be that, be He's love a really deep love that we'll never understand. If he wouldn't He would not gave his Son to die for us, and we can see God's love and goodness even in the OT, like in Psalms or in Jeremiah when a the Lord as passionate husband calls his people to come back to him and his ways.He sometimes was angry and wrathful, because he has to be fair too. He gives time to anyone to know his ways. was like this with the Caananites, God gave them about 400 years before they got killed by the Israelites, to see if they would learn with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob's example and with the wonders that God made to get his people out of Egypt, but they didn't.So God, who's is faithfull and rightous had to get them out of the land so that the promisse that He made to Abraham, that the land of Canaan would be of his offspring.So the battles that Israel fought in the OT were to get the land and to defend it from the enemies of the surroundings. And God helped his people to destroy their enemies, because otherwise the land that he promissed to Abraham would be in other people's hand he would become a liar, which He's not. And on that time the devil made nations fight against Israel, so God's plans would not be fullfilled.Israel's enemies didn't learn that God is the only Almighty God, and the Israelites failed sometimes in giving this example beacuse they sometimes left God for another gods woshipped by their enemies.So they could influence Israel to sin if they were left in peace and take their land, since God wouldn't be able to help Israel because of their sins.And that happened many times, when Israel people left God and stater to sin and had not returned to God, they become captives by a nation.And as they didn't make a covenant with the Lord, but keep on sinning, the Lord had to judge them and killed them, because when Satan was an angel of the Lord and sinned against Him, the Lord put him away from heaven and he "requires" from the Lord the same justice for sinners that was applied to him.So if He did nothing his rightousness would be questionable.
But now our fight is not against flesh or blood but against rulers, authorities, the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.And we have to love our enemies, as the Jesus said, because our problems is with the "spiritual forces of evil" that are working through our enemies.
And the New testament only appeared amy many years after jesus's death by the Council of Nicaea in 325, when the gospels and the letters of paul and other apostles were compilled, so the Christian before it were and the apostles were based in what? The OT of course.The NT is the explanation of the OT, since most of it are the Gospels and the letters where Paul explains the OT [torah{five first books of the bible}, psalms and prophets] or Scriptures to the people that were not Jews, but became Jews through Jesus, as I told you above.And that's why in Luke 24:45, it's written that the minds of the disciples were opened so that they could understand the Scriptures, but what Scriptures are the bible talking about there, if there wasn't the NT yet? The Old Testament.Which means that the disciples of Jesus would read it and finally understand it and base his faith on it.But no way, i'm telling the only the OT is important.The NT is important the same way since show us Jesus teachings[that were based on the OT that he learned and read as a Jew] and the explanation of many things of the OT.
Sorry for taking so long, but it's a big subject
hope you understand

commented by Blogger Diego Almeida, 8:33 AM  

Dear Malcolm,

Apparently I am a year late in commenting, but this is an issue I have been wrestling with for a while. I have come up with the following points:
-The situation for Israel in pagan times was drastically different than it is for us today. We live in a comparatively safe world. The towns which are utterly wiped out are basically criminal in nature (from our modern point of view). Child abuse, sexual and otherwise, up to and including child sacrifice, was the norm. Sexual license and acting out with whomever and whatever (animals as well) was socially acceptable. Making war for sport and profit was a way of life. Torturing people for the fun of it, as, in recent memory, some Indian and African tribes did, was also common. There were no jails, no police, no higher authority to make them stop, except God.
- In addition, killing only the men was not a safe option, since vendetta was a way of life. Anyone you left alive, boy, girl or woman, would regard it as their duty to grow up and kill you, or to raise children to kill you (as is happening to 5-year-olds in Syria today.)
- This would also make it impossible to safely take the non-combatant population as slaves. The propensities of the slaves, once ensconced in your household, would corrupt your other slaves and even your children.
- Even to take a child and raise it as an Israelite was not practical. The minute he or she discovered that they were of a previously slaughtered tribe, they would become potentially deadly to you.
- That the innocents slaughtered in these situations were saved from a debased and evil life. (I have problems with this because a similar argument exists to support abortion, but it really isn't the same. In abortion, children are really slaughtered for the convenience of their parents, which is much more similar to the child sacrifice of the Canaanites than to the necessary killing of people who would otherwise do their best to wipe you and all your kin off the face of the earth.)
I was recently shook up to discover that immolating entire towns to honor your god was common among pagans of the time,(or at least in later generations) as well. Because, my concern was, why would God encourage such a bad example by demanding the same of His People? This is my partial answer (still worrying at it): Perhaps, in each case, there is such a thing as a 'point of no return', where a entire culture is so far gone in wickedness that it is basically unsalvagable. Perhaps God had been sending prophets and various events to shake up this particular group, but that He was finally utterly rejected. In that case, the only way to save some of them (the innocents not yet corrupted because of their tender age)and to save surrounding towns and cities from the polluting influence of their neighbor is to wipe out the entire poisonous plant, root, stock and tree. It could be that the timing of the invasion of Canaan and the fall of Jericho was precisely that: the moment when all virtue was lost and no other remedy was possible.
There are some passages in the OT that indicate exactly that. However, I find this a very frightening thought, that an entire town or culture can become so corrupt as to be fit only for the fire. Still, if this can happen to an individual, and if we, as individuals, influence one another for good or ill, I can see it happening to whole groups.
Also, I wonder if the other kings wandering around slaughtering whole towns down to the valuable livestock and plunder in order to honor their god wouldn't have done so anyway without having God set them such a bad example.
Still thinking about all this. Would be interested to hear your further thoughts.


commented by Blogger AliciaAMG, 4:10 PM  

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