I love the Old Testament.
My suspicion is that that isn’t what the average Christian would say. The Old Testament has some gems–Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, Daniel and the lion’s den, etc.–but, others parts are odd, uncomfortable, and seemingly out of place in the Bible.
In a previous review (Did God Really Command Genocide? [Baker, 2014]), I briefly discussed Marcion. Marcion was an early church theologian who rejected the God of the Old Testament as being responsible for the material realm, rather than the spiritual realm (which was attributed to the God of the New Testament). Therefore, he also rejected the Old Testament as being irrelevant for Christians. In fact, Marcion was the first to develop a New Testament canon, although his intent was for his canon to be the entirety of Scripture. This was deemed a heresy, and became known as Marcionism.
Although this sentiment is not explicit throughout the church, it sometimes seems to be implicit. Within the churches that I grew up in, an all-to-common phrase was “New Testament Church.” “We’re striving to be a New Testament church,” church leaders would say. Unfortunately, though not intentionally, it is language like this that fuels implicit ideas that lean toward Marcionism. What about the Old Testament?
In This Strange and Sacred Scripture, Matthew Schlimm introduces his readers to some of the oddities in the Old Testament that make some people avoid it. If you’ve studied the Old Testament academically, or otherwise in depth, some of this stuff is repetitive. It really serves as an introduction for college students and educated laity to some oddities in the OT.
The Old Testament is our Friend in Faith
Schlimm personifies the Old Testament in a uniquely helpful way, looking at it as a friend. Anyone with friends will agree that you don’t always get along. Sometimes you don’t know what the heck they’re doing, but you respect them for who they are, and don’t simply ignore them because they’re a little odd sometimes. But, he is right in saying that “friendship with the Old Testament isn’t for the faint of heart” (82). It can be messy, confusing, and seemingly absurd to our 21st century western minds.
I recently returned from my fourth trip to eastern Asia. During my trips over the last 6 years, I have developed a unique friendship with a citizen of the particular country I have travelled to. As I was finishing this book I was still in Asia, and I came across the statement that “The Old Testament is like a friend from another country” (120). That is incredibly true, and it stuck me particularly strong when I read it because I had just spent time with my Asian friend the day before. There have been times in our friendship when we simply haven’t understood one another. We have had our share of “what on earth are you doing” moments. We’ve gone significant time without speaking to one another because of cultural misunderstandings. But, we’re still friends!
When it comes to the Old Testament, things are similar. “Wait a second, OT… You’re telling me that David had sex with this guys wife and got her pregnant, and then basically arranged the guys death? But, he’s a man after God’s own heart?”
We don’t always understand our friends, but they’re valuable nonetheless. They give us insights into things that we wouldn’t receive otherwise. They teach us things in the midst of their oddities. The Old Testament can be our friend in faith if we let it.
More Questions than Answers?
Ultimately, when it comes to the Old Testament, we’ve got to be okay with questions. Everything isn’t as black-and-white as some people try to claim. It just doesn’t work that way. And, that’s okay! “God created us for love and holiness, not for solving every problem” (102).
“God created us for love and holiness, not for solving every problem.”
Schlimm not only discusses and engages with the complexities of individual issues, but also the overall complexity of the Old Testament, and the complexity of truth in general (see especially chapter 9).
When you’re working with the Old Testament’s oddities, an inevitable question that is encountered is: “How should we think of the Old Testament’s authority?” (198). What does it mean for the Old Testament to be authoritative? How do we use it in our lives? The book closes out with a discussion of various models for looking at the authority of the Old Testament. Ultimately, how we view the authority of the Old Testament determines how we read and interpret it, and how we deal with its oddities.
As strange as it sometimes may seem to us, the Old Testament is sacred, and should not be ignored or neglected. It is odd, but so are we! It can certainly be a valuable friend in faith, and give us great insight into God and living godly lives.