Tim Mackie, Brief Interview On The Old Testament

Tim Mackie, A Brief Interview On The Old Testament

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Tim Mackie is a pastor at Door of Hope  and a professor at Western Seminary and has started a really good project on the Bible with his friends Jonathan Collins and Gerry Breshears , of which I personally think is the best videos on explaining the Bible yet. Check it out The Bible Project  and support these guys.  I wanted to pick Tim's brain on the OT given the fact that he teaches the OT for a living and remains committed to the church through all his studying. We are very excited about this one, we hope that you are encouraged by this interview. - Casey Dayton

1) How should one understand the OT ethical codes along with the kosher laws? I mean why would God command people to stay away from Lepers (sick people) and pigs etc.?

The key to understanding the laws in the Pentateuch is to pay attention to the role the laws play in the storyline, and then the worldview underneath them. The laws are introduced as Israel arrives at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19:1-6, and we find that Israel is to be shaped by these laws and become a people holy and distinct among the nations, so that they become a “kingdom of priests.” In other words, when Israel organizes its life according to these laws, they will play the priestly role of representing and mediating God’s character to the surrounding nations. Another key passage explaining the rationale of the laws is in Deuteronomy 4:5-8, where Moses says the laws will demonstrate God’s wisdom and justice to the nations, if only Israel lives by them.

So, many of the laws have a clear justice emphasis, shaping how Israel was to care for its poor (see Deuteronomy 24:19-22), and maintain a corruption-free legal system (see Deuteronomy 16:18-20). These laws are fairly intuitive for us. The laws concerning Israel’s purity are challenging for modern readers, because they assume a symbolic worldview that is totally foreign.

The basic idea is that Israel’s life is to be shaped around the reality of God’s holy presence in their midst: Leviticus 11:44-45: ‘For I am the Lord your God. Make yourselves holy therefore, and become holy, because I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the defiling things that are in the land... For I am Yahweh who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.’ ”

God’s holiness is his utterly unique status as the creator and life-giver (see the connection of God’s holiness and creative power in Isaiah 6:3), and so his presence is pure power and life-energy. And it’s dangerous, not because it’s bad, but because it’s so good.

To honor the reality of God’s holy presence in Israel’s midst, the laws create a system of social symbols that separate the pure and impure. Essentially, to be pure is to be in a state that’s ready to enter into the presence of pure goodness, power, and life. To be impure, is to be in the opposite state. There were three basic ways an Israelite became “unclean”: (1) touching diseased skin or mold, (2) touching bodily reproductive fluids, or (3) touching a dead body. If you think about it, all these are associated with life and death. Disease and death, and reproductive fluids put you in touch with ‘forces of life and death’ so to speak. It’s connected to an idea that impurity, like disease and death, is contagious. And so if you touch those things, you should not come into contact with God’s holy presence. It’s similar to how modern surgeons wash their bodies and wear protective clothing before entering an operating room. Some things simply don’t belong in holy space, and for Israelites, these three things were symbols of death that marked you as unready to enter God’s holy presence.

Israel’s entire life was to be organized around honoring the holy presence of God, and was a witness to God’s life-giving power and presence. All the holiness have this idea at their core and were meant to point to it. So, while the principles seem odd to us, we do well to respect their ancient cultural context and try to understand them sympathetically.

It’s crucial to remember that being ritually impure was not sinful, nor was it permanent. Most people would be impure for a short period of time, and then after a bath and a sacrifice one could enter the temple and God’s presence again. What was sinful was not being impure, everybody was on a periodic basis, rather it was to waltz into God’s holy presence carrying the symbols of death on you. That was inappropriate, and needed to be dealt with immediately as a way of honor God’s goodness and holiness.

As for the Kosher food laws (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14), they don’t have the same neat logic to them, and it seems that different animals were considered impure for different cultural reasons. Pigs were eaten and sacrificed widely among Israel’s neighbors, and so the cultural contrast is surely part of the motive: to keep Israel separate from the nations. The hygiene interpretation seems to apply to some animals (no bats or slugs!), but not all (the rabbit). Another explanation that seems to cover many of the animals is the idea that God created creatures according to their kinds (see Genesis 1:24-25), and so any animal that crosses “kinds” was impure: so birds belong in the sky and most are vegetarian, but some birds are carnivores and eat like land-creatures, and that accounts for many of the impure birds. The idea is that Israel was to be distinct among the nations in its practices of social justice, of family, and even in its diet. God’s holiness affects every aspect of life.

2) Why did God set up a sacrificial system, with all the blood and gore?

It’s important to remember that God didn’t innovate the idea of animal sacrifice with ancient Israel. It was practice already long established in human history, rooted in the idea that humans take what is most valuable and offer it to the gods to buy favor and protection. What the sacrificial laws in the Bible represent is God accommodating to this ancient practice, but transforming its meaning for Israel to become a symbolic expericne of his justice and grace.

We also have to remember that almost all generations before the last 75years (before the widespread industrialized production of meat) had regular contact with animal blood and gore, and would not have considered it bizarre or gross the way most modern Westerners do today.

The revolutionary understanding of sacrifice in the Bible is that Israel never did it to secure the favor of God. Rather, God in his sheer grace choose Abraham and rescued Israel from slavery before one sacrifice was ever offered. So whatever the sacrifices do, they don’t buy God’s mercy. Rather, all the laws for the sacrificial system come by God’s initiative as a response to Israel’s rebellion and sin against God, specifically the incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32. God had invited Israel into his presence, made a covenant with them, and Israel then proceeded to create and worship idols right there in his presence. And so the sacrificial system is provided by God as an elaborate symbol system for how God wants to deal with their sin: Human evil contributes to and creates death and tragedy in God’s good world, and so the just thing to do would be to remove the human who commits evil. However, in his mercy, God allows the life of the animal to ‘cover for’ or ‘atone for’ the life the perpetrator, and the blood of the animal is a symbol of its life (Leviticus 17:11). The blood is a visual image of the death I contribute and perpetuate when I sin against others and God. The animal’s death for me is a testimony that God doesn’t actually want to kill me, but rather wants to be reconciled to me, but not at the expense of justice. And so these ancient sacrifices were a powerful experience of God’s love and justice, showing how seriously he takes our decisions and how much he wants to be in right relationship with us.

3) Who is the Angel of the Lord in the OT? Many people have said Jesus, and I have even heard people respond by saying, "see Jesus is an angel." What would you say?

The angel of the Lord clearly identified as a physical manifestation of God’s presence. On many occasions, this figure appears to someone, and is identified as the Lord God of Israel (Genesis 16:7-13; 18:2; Exodus 3:2-6). It’s important to remember that the biblical word “angel” simply means “messenger”, and could be used of humans sent as messengers on behalf of a person (see 2 Samuel 11:18-19). God also has his messengers, and so the word can refer to the human prophets (see Haggai 1:13), or heavenly creatures who serve God’s purposes and communicate his intentions (see Genesis 19:1). However, there are some occasions where God plays the role of his own messenger, and usually this is because the moment warrants God’s full attention and involvement in redemptive history. I think this is the basic idea behind the angel of the Lord’s appearance to Abraham (Genesis 18), Moses (Exodus 3) and so on. I don’t think it’s necessary or warranted to say it’s a pre-incarnational appearance of Jesus. The Gospels are clear that the incarnation of the Logos in the person of Jesus was a unique, one of a kind event, where the Creator God bound himself to humanity (John 1:1, 14), and at most the angel of the Lord is a pointer to that reality, but only a pointer, not the reality itself.

4) Does the OT have a narrative? if so, what is the driving story behind all the texts?

Absolutely, and it’s crucial to recognize it. The great narrative complex that binds Genesis thru 2 Kings is the basic story, showing God’s covenant commitment to restore his blessing to all the rebellious nations through the family of Abraham. However, Israel’s own rebellion causes a huge problem in the plot-line, and so the prophetic books fill in what God is doing to bring his justice and mercy on Israel, and how he will fulfill his promises despite Israel’s failure. The wisdom books explore how God’s people are to live in a world broken by sin and still touched by God’s creative grace. The Gospels recount how Jesus of Nazareth brought the covenant story of God and Israel to its climax, and how God defeated sin and death through life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Acts the apostolic letters show how the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit launched the new creation here in the midst of the old one, and how the kingdom of God is spreading through the nations until Jesus return.

That in a nutshell is how I’d summarize each main block of the Bible and how it contributes to the overall storyline.

5) Does the OT endorse ethnic slavery? Many people have been told that the slavery in the Bible was the same as the African slave trade, is this true?

That is definitely not true. Slavery in the biblical world included one ethnic group enslaving another (like Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites in Exodus), but in ancient Israel the practice of slavery was mostly ‘inter-Israelite,’ and due to economic circumstances, and it was also a temporary institution. When people fell on hard times, ran out of money, and couldn’t borrow anymore, they would often sell themselves into what was called ‘indentured service,’ and you and your family would move into the estate of another family and work there until one of two things happened: (1) you work off the loan, or (2) 7 years pass (check out Deuteronomy 15:12-18). As a symbolic celebration of Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt, no one could be a slave more than seven years. So then, it’s a grave misunderstanding to say the Bible supports slavery. Rather, slavery was a existing institution in the ancient near east, and in Israel, the laws about it highly improved the status of slaves, gave them rights and full status in the community, and limited the negative affects of the institution. It’s a great example of how the laws of Israel fit into the cultural context, but also adapted and pushed Israel in the direction of greater justice than any culture before it.

6) Here is a question many have, is the trinity seen in the OT?

Not in the sense that the Christian theologians of the 2nd-4th centuries defined it, but all the language and conceptual categories for the idea are found in the Old Testament. The idea of God being one, yet having some kind of inner-complexity is found on page one: we have God creating heaven and earth (Genesis 1:1), but then the key agent in transforming the darkness and disorder into life and beauty is God’s Spirit, his personal life-presence, or literally ‘breath” (Genesis 1:2). So, in the first sentence of the Bible, we have this idea that God is transcendent, creator of all things, but then also personally present within the creation, and to talk about that reality the Bible uses the phrase “breath/spirit of God.” And then, when God goes about creating light and land and so on, he does so through his “word” (Genesis 1:3), which is God’s will and purpose released out into the world with great effect. The later poets of the Bible saw something significant here, and so distinguish between God and God’s word and God’s Spirit (see Psalm 33:6).

Also significant is the moment when humans are made in the image of God, and we’re told that humanity as a species reflects the divine image (Genesis 1:26), but also that male and female together and separately reflect the divine image (Genesis 1:27). So you have one humanity, with an inner-distinction, male and female. They’re made for each other, to become one, and yet distinct. And all this is said to be an image of the Creator God of the Bible.

So then, I think the basic ideas of there being one God, but that God have some kind of inner-complexity that is progressively revealed through the story of the Bible, that’s all right there in the Old Testament.

What the apostles are doing in the New Testament is taking this language and imagery from the Old Testament (Word, Spirit, Wisdom) and using it to describe the reality that confronted them in the person of Jesus: a human who acted and spoke with God’s authority, and, who, they believed, was the God of Israel become flesh and blood (John 1:1, 14).

7) What are some of your favorite books of the OT to study? why?

Oh man, impossible to say. Whatever book I happen to be studying at the time! I have a special place in my mind and heart for Genesis, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and the Psalms. These are the books most quoted by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, and so early on as a Christian I made the study of those books a special focus. As soon as I learned Hebrew I dedicated one full year to reading them repeatedly, and that transformed my reading of the New Testament in a major way.

8) How has studying and teaching the OT informed your Christian faith?

In too many ways to say. Jesus and the disciples grew up in a culture that was completely shaped by the biblical writings. The songs, prayers, stories of Jews in Galilee and Judea were immersed and rooted in the scriptures. They didn’t have internet or movies: the biblical scrolls were their media and formed their imaginative worlds. All of Jesus’ parables and teachings are rooted in the poetry of the prophets and psalms. The apostle Paul’s entire thought world was shaped by an immersion in the Torah and Prophets, re-read in light of his encounter with the risen Jesus. The way the apostles explain the meaning of the cross, the kingdom of God, the role of the Spirit, the hope of New creation, all rooted in the language and hope of the scriptures. So, in a way, there isn’t really any facet of my experience of following Jesus that hasn’t been influenced by my study of the Old Testament scriptures.

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One Comment

  1. Tim,

    There is an increasing distaste towards Christianity in popular media today. How do you approach sensitive subjects when non-believers ask you directly about hot topic issues? You addressed the topic of slavery, and I completely agree with the realistic nature of YHWH in the OT by tolerating Israel’s less-than-perfect practices to make life better for slaves, women, captured enemies, and even animals.

    I feel like it’s such an uphill battle sometimes and people already have their view of Christianity cemented in their minds and immediately jump to, “Christians are so primeval and think that it was okay to own slaves! Just look at the Old Testament!” While I know they are utterly wrong, how do we tell them that gently? It’s hard to talk to someone who has preconceived notions about our beliefs. and it’s more like stepping into a boxing ring than it is having a conversation, especially when OT practices are brought up on their side of argument.

    How have you dealt with this in people asking you about issues? I know a gigantic topic of conversation is whether or not the church is okay with homosexual unions. I understand that we should take a stand against all types of sin, but how do we approach issues delicately? I’m not suggesting a passive or unoffensive response, but I don’t want to come across as the bigot, conservative that hates everyone. On the other side of the coin, I don’t want to be a people-pleaser that says everything is okay and as long as you’re okay with it, God’s okay with it. That seems just as bad.

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