I have found that people often have difficulty reading the Old Testament. It’s either too disjointed, or too hard to understand. It raises concepts that are foreign to our culture, and issues which in modern thinking seem to be totally disagreeable. As a consequence the Old Testament often gets neglected, or relegated to being irrelevant.
The problem is, though, if you dispense with the Old Testament then you totally undermine the New, because the New Testament relies heavily on the concepts that were the basis of Old Testament faith.
What I’d like to do today, then, is to raise some of the difficulties—some of the issues and practices of the Old Testament that many people find difficult or unpalatable today—and I want to examine briefly the principles behind each.
B. FAMILY TREES
1. The Purpose of Genealogies
And the first stumbling block to reading the Old Testament, that many people face, is the constant lists of names which seem to interrupt the flow of the narrative.
Now in Hebrew times remembering one’s family tree was a very important thing to do—it has also become a very popular pastime today. Consequently what we find scattered throughout the Bible’s pages are lists of names. But why are they there for us to read?
Well in the bible the list of names are not just recorded because someone wanted to record their family tree. No, they have quite another purpose. And the purpose is: as a means to trigger off memories of events involving God and his people.
So, for example, as the family met around the dinner table, or the camp fire, they would recall their family genealogy. They would retell their family history in terms of its faithfulness (or unfaithfulness) to God. And in this way they passed down from generation to generation the story of their family’s or their nation’s relationship with God.
2. Skeletons in the Cupboard
Now accepting the purpose of biblical genealogies is one thing. The problem, today, though is that these genealogies throw up aspects of Hebrew culture with which some may not be totally comfortable.
a). Abram and Sarai
For example, we’re told that Abram’s father had three sons: Abram, Nahor and Haran. He also had at least one daughter, Sarai. Now we don’t know who the mother of Terah’s three sons was. But what we do know is that Abram and Sarai did not share the same mother.
We also know that Abram married Sarai, who apparently was very beautiful, and on at least two occasions, for his own safety, tried to pass her off as his sister rather than as his wife.
Now marrying your half-sister was quite acceptable in those days. That kind of relationship was only banned during the time of the Exodus from Egypt. However Sarai (or Sarah) was unable to have children. So instead she gave Abram (or Abraham) her Egyptian servant, Hagar, as a concubine, so Sarah could give Abraham children through Hagar.
Eventually Sarah gave birth to a son—Isaac. But when Isaac was forty, Abraham was concerned that he hadn’t married. But he didn’t want him to marry a local girl, so he sent his servant to his brother Nahor, to get a wife for him. Isaac then married Rebekah (who was effectively Isaac’s second cousin).
In time Rebekah gave birth to twins—Esau and Jacob. Esau married two local girls—in order to get up his parents’ noses. Then he married Ishmael’s daughter to appease his parents. Jacob however was sent away, and he married two of his cousins (third cousins through Abraham, but first cousins through Rebekah.) He then had twelve sons through his two wives and two concubines.
3. The Point of the Story
Now I may have lost some of you with the relationships. Despite that when you look at the early genealogies of people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the Patriarchs) there’s an obvious pattern. And the pattern is that each successive generation was encouraged to marry within the family. Indeed any marriage relationship outside of the family (excluding concubines) was distinctly frowned upon—as Esau found out to his cost.
Now if anyone came up with a family history like that today, many might think that the relationships within the family were all a bit too close, and that fresh blood was needed in the family. And maybe that kind of genealogy would not be one that many people would want to publish. But we need to remember, that in regards to the Old Testament, this is a story of the relationship of God with his people. And there was one thing above all else that would have been in the mind of Abraham’s family, and that was the need to maintain their relationship with their God. And that is the point behind their selective breeding.
Living in Canaan, amongst the Canaanites with their devotion to their Canaanite gods, was a very risky thing for Abraham and his family to do. At the time household gods were a very important aspect of many peoples’ lives. As a consequence, Abraham’s family were very keen to avoid contaminating their faith in God; they were keen to keep out other deities from their way of life.
Yes, these were the days when large families, and many sons, were a sign of wealth. And these were the days when servants willingly became concubines—because it provided security, and because their sons were treated as equals with the other male heirs in the family. But as far as Abraham and his line were concerned, the need for their sons to marry into a family where their God held centre stage was paramount. As a consequence they were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the faith pure.
C. GOD’S LAWS
1. God’s Instructions
Now many people who try to read the Old Testament often begin with Genesis chapter one verse one, skip over the genealogies, struggle with the relationships, get two-thirds of the way through the book of Exodus, and then come to a grinding halt. Because the next stumbling block to reading the Old Testament is the laws. And after the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, there are: lists and lists of laws which the people were expected to keep; there are specific rules about the building of a Tabernacle; there are regulations in regards to Sabbath laws and the annual festivals to be kept; and there are strict ordinances regarding various sacrifices required to be made.
Now, yes, there are short passages of narrative mixed up with all those details, but it is God’s laws and commands that dominate the remainder of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—many of which just don’t seem relevant or make sense today. In other words they act as a huge barrier for the modern reader from progressing through the Old Testament. As a consequence they block a good understanding of the Old Testament, on which the New Testament depends.
Now I’m not going to go through all the different things that are mentioned. But I do want to mention some typical examples, and try to make some sense of why they are there.
2. Some Typical Rules
a). The Need to Keep Species Pure
There’s the rule: “You are not to plant a vineyard with two different kinds of seed. For you would defile the seed crops that you planted and the fruit of the vineyard. You are not to plough with an ox and donkey yoked together. You are not to wear clothing woven from different kinds of material (e.g., wool and linen woven together).” (Deuteronomy 22:9-11)
Now as we’ve just discovered, through looking at Abraham’s family tree, Abraham’s family went to extraordinary lengths to keep the faith pure. So there are religious reasons behind the need to keep each species pure too. These rules serve as enacted reminders of the need to keep the faith pure.
So just as unnatural combinations violate the purity of a species—whether seeds for sowing, beasts for ploughing or fibres for weaving cloth—the practice of keeping things separate in one’s day to day life, was a constant reminder of the danger of what would happen if one’s faith in God was contaminated from other sources.
b). The Need to Avoid Magic Rituals
Similarly, the rule “You are not to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19b), stands as a reminder to be unique.
Now there has been many an expert puzzle over the purpose of this particular rule, particularly as there seems to be no practical purpose behind it. However, the fact is that the Canaanites practised cooking young goats in their mother’s milk as a magic spell—probably as part of their fertility rites. As a consequence, the prohibition of this practice—as well as the prohibition from eating donkey and pork, which the Canaanites used for similar purposes—begins to make sense.
c). Health Considerations
Now no doubt there were also health considerations in these rules that I’ve mentioned. For example the need to wear appropriate clothing whilst travelling in a desert, which can be extremely hot and extremely cold, should have dictated the kind of materials that were worn. And keeping pigs (which are prone to disease in hot climates) just doesn’t make sense. But by far the most important aspect of all of these laws was the need to keep the faith pure. God’s laws were unique to the Israelites. No other nation practiced such a devotion to keep things pure.
d). The Sacrificial Rules
And as a consequence the sacrificial rules met the same criteria too. Yes, all the surrounding nations made sacrifices to their gods, but the rules that God gave the Israelites to practice were unique to them.
Consequently whilst others included using yeast and honey in their sacrifices (honey being the favourite food of the gods in some heathen cults), this wasn’t a practice that was acceptable for the Hebrews. Indeed, “All Grain Offerings presented to the LORD are to be made without yeast. No yeast or honey is to be burnt as an offering made by fire to the LORD.” (Leviticus 2:11)
And why? Because there was the danger that if the people started to incorporate anything related to other religious practices in their worship, then it wouldn’t be long before more and more elements of those other religions would begin to be incorporated in the worship of the Hebrew God too.
Now without the covenant (the laws of God) of the Old Testament, and without the sacrificial system, we would have no Messiah. Indeed the death and resurrection of Jesus would be meaningless, and we would have no reconciliation with God.
The Old Testament covenant and sacrificial system, then, are vital to a New Testament faith. Is it any wonder then that the Old Testament is so strong on keeping the faith pure?
D. THE CONQUEST OF CANAAN
1. The Book of Joshua
Now I’m going to end our short journey in the book of Joshua. And I do that because having skipped through the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, that is where we find ourselves. In the book of Joshua the narrative beings again with a vengeance. It is also where many of those who have stuck with the story so far, finally give up.
Why? Because Joshua is about the conquest of Canaan; it’s about God’s people fulfilling the demands of God.
2. The Command to Kill
Because this is what God instructed his people to do: “As for the cities that belong to the nations that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you are not to leave anything that breathes alive. Indeed the LORD has commanded you to utterly destroy the cities of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)
Now these days some people look back at the Old Testament—look at all the bloodshed—even liken it to what’s going on in the name of Islam today, and say, “I don’t want anything to do with a God like that.” Some people even try to make a distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. The problem is, if we dismiss the God of the Old Testament, we effectively dismiss the God of the New Testament too. The two are the same. So rather than dismiss the wars and the killing, it’s perhaps better to understand what was going on. And the first thing we should note is why God wanted to eliminate the Canaanites.
Moses’ words to the Israelites on the east bank of the Jordan: “You are not going over to inherit the land because of your righteousness or virtue, but because of the wickedness of these nations. The LORD your God will drive them out before you, and in this way fulfil what he promised to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 9:5)
In other words the Canaanites had become so bad, so evil, that God was forced to act. And he was going to use the Israelites to deal with the problem of the Canaanites.
And what was so bad about the Canaanites? Well there’s a specific example buried in the laws that often get ignored: “No one among you is be found practicing the following: divination or sorcery, interpreting omens, witchcraft, casting spells, being a medium or spiritists, or consulting the dead. Anyone who practices these things is detestable to the LORD. It is because the nations engage in these detestable practices that the LORD is going to drive them out before you.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)
The second aspect, however, was the need to keep his own people safe and pure. Because if they didn’t eradicate the Canaanites “. . . they will teach you all the detestable things that they practice in the worship of their gods and you will sin against the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 20:18)
God’s instruction may seem to us to be severe, but if the people had not eliminated the people, and the things that would contaminate their faith, God’s people would have become contaminated too. And if God’s people had become contaminated, it would not have been long before there would be no God’s people at all.
What was at stake was the relationship of God and his people. And God was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to keep that pure.
What happened of course, is that yes, the Israelites did fight—indeed they eliminated many of the Canaanites that were living in the land. However they also made some fundamental mistakes. They ignored God’s instructions; they made a treaty with one of the local Canaanite tribes; and many adopted Canaanite religious practices. As a consequence, they never fully took over the land, and they left themselves open for their faith to become contaminated, by doing the very things that God was at pains to tell them not to do.
1. Summary of the Old Testament
Now as you can see the Old Testament may not be the easiest book to read. But even the things that interrupt the narrative have their place—if only we can examine the culture and understand the purpose behind it all.
Now I’m not saying that understanding what is going, will necessarily mean that everything will suddenly make sense, or that the Old Testament will suddenly become an easy book to read. But it certainly should help us to make more sense of it, and recognise its value in our own Christian journeys.
The major aspects of the Old Testament all point in the same direction. And that is the need to have faith in God; and the need to go to extreme lengths to keep the faith (and our faith) pure. Then others can depend upon faith in God for their salvation.
Now, today, the line between faith, tradition and culture has become very blurred. But it shouldn’t be like that, because we should be as keen today to keep the faith pure, as they were back in Old Testament times.
That’s why we should be pursuing a good understanding of the Old Testament (with all its difficulties). Because without a good understanding of the Old Testament, our understanding of the New Testament is on very shaky grounds indeed.
Posted: 17th April 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis