How great are God’s riches! How deep are his wisdom and knowledge! Who can explain his decisions? Who can understand his ways? Romans 11:33
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things Ephesians 3:8-9
Point by Point
- The Old Testament is not only old and strange; it is brutal and gory
- Even the “good guys” are brutal and gory
- Even God is brutal and gory
- We read the old stories from the relative high ground of our world
- We can get our arms around how bad those bad days really were
- We can realize that our higher ground exists because of what they went through
- We can have an epiphany and realize what God did then for our sake
- We can turn our questions around from accusation to trembling inquiry
- We can become risk-taking people like those ancients who stepped out and made the world better
For most Christians in most times, the Old Testament has been a real embarrassment. It’s more than just that the Old Testament is old. The real problem is, the old Bible-books are strange and bloody and really gross. They really are. And it’s not just the identified bad guys who gross us out; the “good guys” are sometimes even worse. Jephthah makes an oath and so he has to kill his own daughter (Judges 11). And he is one of the good guys? God required those who were faithful to slaughter tens of thousands of innocent animals on a regular basis to pay a price for their misdeeds. (I Kings 3:3-4, etc., etc.) Tamar, a furious, scorned woman tricks her father-in-law, Judah into having sex with her (he believing her to be a prostitute) and when she gives birth to twins, God implicitly blesses the family (Genesis 38). And even prior to that, the father/grandfather of the boys even calls Tamar righteous! And on it goes. What gives?
What we miss about the old book when we read it now is our relative place in the story of God as compared to people and conditions in the ancient stories. For instance, I remember vividly an older woman in one of my early classes who was completely disgusted with Ruth, the Moabite gal who moved from Moab to Israel with her aging mother-in-law, Naomi.
The woman, Beth, complained, “She [meaning Ruth] literally threw herself at the feet of a man! She expected a man to solve her problems!”
I asked her, “Um, Beth, what exactly did you expect her to do?”
Said she, “Well, she could have gone out and gotten a job!”
I had to explain to Beth that in Ruth’s time, there were no jobs for women, no kindergarten teachers, no dental hygenists, no court stenographer jobs, let alone could women do what Beth’s generation thought of as “men’s work.” Indeed, the only “job” Ruth could have gotten other than “farmer’s wife and mother” was one which Beth would not have wished on her, the same oldest profession which Tamar had taken up for one afternoon in order to trap Judah. Prostitution was a woman’s only other option.
If we look for them, the old stories give us many hints as to how bad things were in those older times and how few options people had. What we often miss is that in the big old story, God took really awful situations, like those in which Jephthah, Tamar and Ruth found themselves and used their wretched circumstances to bring the whole world to new places where more and more options existed. The grand story is that good possibilities have continued to open up for people until today nearly no one ever has to face the brutal things which the ancients faced all the time. This process of cultural, political, economic and social change, “the long arc of history” which “bends toward justice,” is what we call “redemptive history.” Things today can be very bad and truly evil, but almost no one today, at least in the parts of the world which have long been soaked in the saving effects of the gospel, has as few options as what were “just the way things are” way back then.
The problem for us is that we have a record of all those awful times and all the awful “solutions” in our holy book! And, ironically, we are able to sit in the seat of the scornful concerning the older book precisely because the world is a relatively better place today and because from the point of view which is our norm, the old norms just look terrible. So we can indignantly ask, “How can God have ever used polygamy as a solution to a problem?” “How can blessing a woman who prostitutes herself and commits incest be the best option?” “How can slaughtering tens of thousands of people and taking their land, crops and homes away from them be the best solution?” I have heard these and many questions like them in the classes I teach. And as I tell folks in my classes, the problem is not with the stories; the problem is us. We take the world as we know it and we assume the world was always as it is today. We do not understand that we are the beneficiaries of tens and hundreds and thousands of people who have gone before us and blazed trails which we take for granted.
That’s fine for people, you might say. But what about God? Surely God could have come up with better options than the mayhem and gore which the biblical stories take as solutions? The answer, apparently, is no. No. God was doing the best that could be done and often used what by our standards are solutions which neither we nor God accept as solutions today. If we can see this point or if we can even try it on to see if it fits, then maybe we can stand back from our questions and ask them again in the context of that old world rather than in our own, much redeemed context. When we do that, the questions become tremulous queries rather than righteous accusations.
“Really, God? Was that the best you could do right then? Were conditions really so wicked that your best choice was this or that thing from which we today recoil in horror?”
I think when we look at the whole history in this way, we can hear God quietly, sadly and quite seriously respond, “Yes. It was that bad. And yes, that was the best option available at the time. Things were truly that horrible.”
And then, when the power and light of our epiphany soaks in, we can respond at last, “Oh. …. Thank you, God and thank you, early people of God, for going through all that for us. We had no idea, God, you had to stoop so low.”
For me, these issues give me some insight into all that was really involved when Jesus revealed God’s glory on that miserable cross.
“Thank you, Lord God, that Tamar played the prostitute so that Ruth and thousands after her, did not have to do so. Thank you for all those in Israel who were scarred by the horrors of Joshua’s Canaanite wars so that later generations could live in relative safety. Thank you that David fought Israel’s enemies so that Solomon could be the Prince of Peace. Thank you for the days of Hezekiah when you took on war for your people, proving that your people need never again lift a sword if they will trust you to bring in your kingdom through their witness and ours. Truly, God, thank you for shutting off the tap on the innocent rivers of shed blood which had flowed incessantly for millennia, with one, final, decisive and perfect shedding of innocent, royal blood on a horrid, torturous, shameful cross. Thank you for the first fruits of Jesus’ kingdom, the generation in the land who went through a terrible time of persecution in order that nothing need ever be that bad, ever again. Thank you for the relatively open and possible lives your ongoing gracious redemption has won for us. Thank you, Lord. May we not waste our opportunity to pay your gifts forward.” Amen.