Wrestling with Tough Old Testament Questions

Wrestling with Tough Old Testament Questions

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Matthew Schlimm is Associate Professor of Old Testament at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. His most recent book is This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities (Baker Academic).

1) Why does Genesis have two creation stories?

On really important matters, the Bible gives us more than one perspective. So, we don’t have one Gospel. We have four. We don’t have one account of the Ten Commandments. We have multiple (Exod 20:1-17, 31:12–17; Deut 5:6-21, cf. Lev 19). We also don’t have one story of Israel’s kings. We have several (1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles).

Similarly, we don’t have one account of creation. Instead, Gen 1:1-2:4a describes the goodness of creation, while Gen 2:4b-3:24 provides a close-up of humanity and how evil entered the world. In fact, the Bible’s accounts of creation aren’t limited to Genesis. Isaiah 45 contrasts God the supreme creator with idols made from wood. Proverbs 8:22-36 describes the role of wisdom in creation. Job 38-41 exalts how God, as creator, has done more than we can even comprehend. Why does the Bible give so many perspectives? 

First, something like the life of Jesus or the nature of creation is too complicated to encapsulate from one perspective. Only fools would claim they could capture everything about these complex matters with a single account. 

Second, multiple creation accounts teach us what’s important and what isn’t. For example, consider what matters more in Genesis 1:1-2:4a: the order of creation, or the fact that God created a good world? Well, Genesis 2:4b-3:24 offers a different account of whether humans or animals came first. This suggests that order isn’t of great importance to those who put Genesis together. On the other hand, Genesis 1:1-2:4a describes the world being “good” 7 times. The goodness of the world merits more attention than the order of things.

Third, multiple creation accounts suggests that Christians can develop more accounts. We shouldn’t challenge the overarching themes of the Bible. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with Christians having a scientifically plausible account of how God created the world. In fact, it’s entirely appropriate for us to bring together what the Bible says about creation with issues today. God tasks humanity with being stewards of creation (Gen 1:28), so Christians should be on the forefront of caring for God’s good world, learning about it, opposing pollution, and embracing sustainable practices.

Finally, multiple creation accounts suggest that there’s room for Christians to have different beliefs. I disagree with those who think that humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs. Yet, I need to tolerate their perspective, even as I hope they’ll tolerate mine. At the end of the day, I need to be willing to break bread at the same table as Christians who think differently than I do about creation. There’s room for diversity in the Bible, and I need to have room for diversity in my practices.

2) Does the OT contain myths or is it all historical, and can you maybe explain how both views can be right?

“Myth” is a tricky word. I tend to avoid it because it has different meanings that can be difficult to keep straight. On the one hand, “myth” can mean something false or fictitious. Most Christians would object to talking about the Bible in such terms. On the other hand, people can use the word “myth” to talk about a story from which we understand fundamentals about the divine, the world, and ourselves. In that sense, the Bible is filled with myth. It describes who we are with crystal clarity.

So, we have two very different ways of defining myth, and they mean nearly opposite things. The first communicates a disagreement with the Bible. The second can communicate that the Bible holds the key to making sense of life. I have huge problems with the first meaning, but I agree with the second meaning. Given that the same word can lead people in such drastically different directions, I don’t like to use it. So, I talk about how the Bible describes who God is, who we are, and what the world is really like. 

“History” isn’t a very useful word either. Modern people have been enthralled by this term, assuming that history is the main medium of truth. In other words, if “something really happened,” then it’s true. But if it didn’t happen, then it’s false. The problem is that if you’re talking about the deep things of life, like the nature of God’s grace, then you need all sorts of writings like poetry, allegories, exclamations, songs, proverbs, and questions. You place dark blinders on your head by focusing on history. Certain historical events, like the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, are certainly reflected throughout parts of the Old Testament. However, what makes the Old Testament interesting isn’t that it talks about the Babylonians conquering the city then. What makes the Old Testament interesting is how it frames the event theologically. It boldly claims that the people of Jerusalem enraged God with generations of unceasing sinning. It goes on to say that as a response to continued faithlessness, a heartbroken God sent the Babylonians against the people in a desperate attempt to transform their hearts. That’s a fascinating claim—far more than historical speculations about the number of people deported to Babylon. 

So, if you frame things right, you can claim that the Bible contains both myth and history. But those categories are best abandoned to focus on the really important theological claims of the Old Testament. The Bible is sacred scripture. As such, it has stood the test of time, and it describes with remarkable clarity the story of humanity and the one true God.

3) Why did the Israelites keep the virgins for themselves in Numbers 31? 

In my book This Strange and Sacred Scripture, I devote two chapters to the issues of violence and gender. Here, the best I can say is that these passages are not something to be repeated by subsequent generations. 

Because I’m committed to the Old Testament as scripture, I’m still waiting to see what God may say through these texts. However, the overarching biblical emphases on non-violence (Gen 9:5-6) and gender equality (Gen 1:27) prevent me from assuming that we should take these disturbing passages about violence as a model for what to do today.

4) What are some important hermeneutical approaches to the Old Testament?

For starters, we need to let the text speak to us, rather than imposing our own beliefs upon the text. The Old Testament is our friend in faith. For such a friendship to flourish, we need to listen carefully, being careful not to interrupt, give rote replies, or assume we already know what it has to say to us. We need to give our time to really understand the Old Testament. We need to read its words repeatedly and consider it in different lights.

It’s important to ask ourselves, What’s important in this text? To answer that question, it’s useful to think about what things are repeated, what comes at the beginning and end, and what comes at climactic moments. 

Understanding the historical and cultural background is important too. Much of the Old Testament appears to be written in response to the Babylonians destroying Jerusalem and exiling key leaders. So, that’s a historical context I like to think about a lot. 

Literary context matters a great deal as well. Church services would go too long if we tried to read an entire book like Genesis in it. So, we focus on small passages. However, that small piece is part of a larger whole. So, it’s important to ask how that small piece relates to everything else. Much more could be said about interpretation, but these points put readers in the right direction.

5) Does the OT have theological diversity? Does this mean it's not trustworthy?

The OT has ample theological diversity. That’s because it’s a book for the ages. When you think about the peoples of this world across the centuries, we humans are an enormously diverse group. And the Old Testament has something for all of us. Some passages work well in certain contexts, but others would be less applicable there. 

For example, think about two people. One is strangled by guilt about past actions, doing everything conceivable to avoid sin, but fears that God is just out to get her. That person probably needs to hear a whole lot about God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. However, suppose that another person is living a life that bears very little similarity with the Bible’s teachings. That person might need to hear less about God’s love and more about how sin leads to disastrous consequences. The Bible tells us God is loving and God is opposed to evil. Those are diverse statements, but both are true and trustworthy.

Talking about an infinitely complex God will require many perspectives. Our human brains would explode if we could understand God from a single perspective. A great book on this topic is John Goldingay’s Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament.

6) Does the OT teach heaven and hell? Where did these views develop?

The Old Testament says much about heaven. However, it usually talks about heaven as God’s home. Or, it talks about the heavens as a way of talking about the sky. The OT doesn’t say much about people going to heaven after they die. 

Similarly, the OT says very little about a hell. Instead, it uses a word called “Sheol” to talk about the grave. When people went to Sheol or the grave, they were buried in the ground. 

So, what we have in the Old Testament is an entire faith built without much based on reward in the afterlife. And that’s really quite remarkable. In essence, the Old Testament is saying, “Even if all that’s here is this world, your best bet is to commit yourself fully to the Lord. You’ll live a better life by loving God and your neighbor.” 

There are times, though, when Old Testament writers were made aware that things didn’t always work out the way they should. Sometimes, people were faithful and only received death in return. Other times, the wicked prospered their whole life long. In response to these challenges to faith, a handful of Old Testament texts daringly imagine life beyond death. An important one is Daniel 12:2-3. There, we read, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” 

This idea of rewards in the afterlife develops in the intertestamental period and is articulated nicely in the New Testament.

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