Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month Matthew Schlimm will be discussing how we can approach the Old Testament as a friend in faith, in spite of its strangeness.
Also, as part of this series we are giving away three copies of his book This Strange and Sacred Scripture. The winners will be announced at the end of the month.
For thousands of years, people of faith have claimed the Old Testament is the very word of God. Yet, it’s the last thing on earth we would imagine God’s word actually looking like.
On its first page, readers learn about the world’s origins, and there isn’t a single reference to a big bang, Darwin, or evolution. How do we overcome such a big stumbling block so early?
As we encounter the people of the Bible, we find they’re not saints—they’re horrible sinners! Abraham, the father of three great world religions, is a habitual liar who has sex with his wife’s slave (Gen. 12; 16; 20).
And the violence. It makes our evening news look tame. Fathers kill daughters (Judg. 11:39). Kings cut out the eyes of entire populations (1 Sam. 10:27-11:2). Mothers eat their own children (Lam. 4:10).
Gender is another huge problem. Why do we find references to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”? Why isn’t it the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel? Don’t those women matter just as much as those men?
Tread deeply into the Old Testament, and you’ll find yourself awash in a sea of laws. Only a few seem relevant today. Some would even be illegal! For example in Exodus 21—just one chapter after the Ten Commandments say “Do not kill”—we read that we should kill people whose farm animals repeatedly gore others. How does such a commandment relate to us today?
Or, what do we make of the tension between the command not to kill in Exodus 20 and the command to kill in Exodus 21? What do we make of other apparent contradictions throughout the Old Testament?
The Psalms are one of the most popular parts of the Old Testament. And while Psalms like the 23rd offer great peace, others are angry and bitter prayers where the people praying suggest that God needs to stop loafing on the job: “Wake up! Why are you sleeping, Lord? Get up! Don’t reject us forever!” (44:23 CEB). What on earth is the Bible doing with these sorts of prayers?
Or, what do we make of God’s wrath? God’s fury haunts many who dare read the Old Testament, causing fear and even a rejection of religion altogether.
What do we do with all these problems?
In This Strange and Sacred Scripture, I get into specifics. I’ll also use this blog this month to examine science and faith, R-rated Bible stories, and whether God plays favorites. Here, I want to mention one overarching idea that I return to throughout my book.
We need a model for thinking of the Old Testament that both preserves its sacred nature and acknowledges its odd and peculiar qualities. One way forward is to think of the Old Testament as a friend in faith. Friends exert greater influence on our lives than anyone else. Yet, among friends, there are communication breakdowns. Our friends do things that don’t make sense. Moments of disagreement exist. Our commitment to our friends, however, means that we don’t give up on them just because they say something that we wouldn’t have come up with ourselves. Seeing the Old Testament as our friend in faith allows us both to respect it and admit our struggles with it. Like the best of friends, the Old Testament not only challenges us. It also has the ability to change our minds, to shape and form us, to inspire us to new patterns of faithfulness, to help us become better people than we would ever be on our own.
Matthew Richard Schlimm (PhD, Duke University) is assistant professor of Old Testament at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He previously taught at Duke Divinity School and has held various ministry positions in United Methodist churches. He is the author of From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis and coeditor of the CEB Study Bible.