The Hebrew Scriptures, Matthew R Schlimm
Photo Credit: Jake Fabricius
1) How has the OT been misread and misunderstood?
In too many ways to count! Here are four common ways to misread it. First, people impose their own ideas onto the text, rather than drawing the text’s ideas out into their lives. Second, readers cherry-pick whatever they like out of the Bible and disregard the rest. Third, people ignore the ancient audiences who first connected with biblical texts. We act like we are the only audience of a book meant for the ages. Fourth, people get lost in the past. Consider, for example, Exodus 34:6-7. It’s an incredible part of scripture. God passes before Moses. We expect to learn what God looks like. Instead, we glimpse God’s heart: And [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (NIV) It’s tempting to read this passage and say, “Oh yes. It’s another reminder that God loves me and thinks I’m great!” But how does this passage redefine what love is? What happens when we read it to the end—including the uncomfortable parts about punishment? What would this text mean to a Jew who suffered exile in Babylon, living as a member of a persecuted people? How is the God of this text bigger than the God we normally think about? Those types of questions are easy to overlook, but very important.
2) What are some faithful ways of interpreting the OT?
Sin has left enough of a taint on us that there’s no surefire way to read the Bible with perfect results. However, we’re more likely to interpret the OT faithfully when we read it slowly and repeatedly. It also helps to read it prayerfully, with other Christians, and with good study guides (like commentaries and study Bibles). An important trick is learning to live with questions, paying attention to how our faith grows even when we lack easy answers. The OT is a friend in faith who wants to share with us its unforgettable memories of encountering God.
3) Let me ask, is there a narrative to the OT? Or, is it just random stories? Does the story actually find a meaning and conclusion in Jesus the Messiah?
In a technical sense, the OT isn’t a single narrative. It contains writings that have little to do with stories, like legal codes, psalms, and proverbs. If we only talk about the OT as a narrative, we lose sight of some great material. So, I want to guard against that. However, in a loose sense, we can talk about an overarching narrative of the OT. God picks Abraham and Sarah and later the nation of Israel to bless the entire world. God relentlessly sticks with this people though they mess up every bit as bad as we do. From the celebrations of leaving Egypt to the dreadful moments when Jerusalem fell, God refused to give up on the people of Israel. Jesus appeared on earth two thousand years ago, overturning many expectations and adding some incredible twists in God’s story. But we don’t currently live as though every OT promise has reached fulfillment. We’re still waiting for the new Jerusalem. We wait for Jesus to return, just as Jews today still await a Messiah. Only at the end of time will the OT find its true fulfillment.
4) There has been a lot of talk about the OT being evil and hateful, especially by many secular groups. Is this true?
I once heard Richard Dawkins say that the Bible is incompatible with virtues like love, compassion, and peace. In response, I wanted to ask him where he learned those things were virtues—if not the Bible! Can the Bible be used for evil and hate? Of course. Think of it this way: nothing lives without water. Every animal and every plant needs it to survive. Yet, water can also kill. We check the news and learn of hurricanes, tsunamis, even backyard pools that toddlers get into. Water is both life-giving and extremely dangerous. The same is true of the OT. People can easily use it for evil and even deadly ends. The Bible isn’t a failsafe document that somehow allows humans to set aside their moral responsibility when using it. The God of the Bible loves giving people moral choices. God sets Adam and Eve near the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3). God asks Abraham to sacrifice his miracle child (Genesis 22). Through Moses, God asks the Israelites to choose life or death (Deut 30:19). Today, God has set the Bible before us. We can use it for every manner of good, but we can also use it as an excuse for evil. The Bible is acutely aware that religious leaders abuse power. Eli’s sons would rob people who worship and then have sex with women outside the tabernacle door (1 Samuel 2). Jeremiah deals with religious imposters who tell people what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear (Jer 6:13-14; 29:8-9). Jesus warns about wolves dressed in lamb’s clothing (Matt 7:15-16). Given the Bible’s awareness of human evil, especially among religious leaders, it’s no surprise that the Bible can be used for the worst things imaginable. That’s actually consistent with its message about human sinfulness. Anything with power has the potential to be used for evil. And the Bible packs a lot of power.
5) Is the God of the OT the same God as the NT?
Absolutely. There’s no doubt that when Jesus called God “Father,” he was referring to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Sometimes, people say that the God of the Old Testament is wrathful while the God of the New Testament is loving. That’s a lazy way to read the Bible and a lazy way to think about God. Where do we read that God separates our sins as far as the east is from the west? The Old Testament. Where do we read about hell? The New Testament. The fact of the matter is that the God of both the Old and New Testaments is loving and compassionate—but also vehemently opposed to evil, especially when that evil is enduring and systematic. The God of both Testaments is fundamentally good. Sometimes, that goodness is expressed in love. Other times, it’s expressed in opposition to evil. If people have a problem with a God who opposes evil, they have a problem with true goodness—and with the God of both Testaments.
7) How has being an OT scholar drawn you closer to God?
The OT is constantly upsetting what I thought I knew. Its strange qualities continuously cause me to see God in new ways. We always want to nail God down, to define who God is, to put God into a box. But the God of the OT refuses to be neatly stored away. This God is alive and on the move, upsetting our expectations. On a personal note, I’ll also share that I haven’t had the easiest life. But that’s what I love about the Old Testament: it’s all about people who haven’t had easy lives. Feel like everything is pointless? Read Ecclesiastes. Filled with grief? Let the psalms give you the words to express your deepest sorrow. God’s ways don’t make sense? Read Job. Feel like your family is dysfunctional? Wait ‘till you see Abraham’s. I’m at home among such characters.
Check out Matthew's book "This strange and sacred scripture."