Thursday, 29 September 2011

Is The God of the Old Testament a God of Wrath?

1. The Nature of the Bible

The Bible was not written by God.

Not quite.

It was written by many many human authors, who were inspired by God.

There is a subtle difference. It means that the message is incarnate in the culture of whatever time the message was revealed in. In the case of Moses we’re talking about a long, long time ago. About 2,500 years. This is easily forgotten.

And Moses had an axe to grind, a people to lead, a fledgling nation to unite. So when we criticise his successor, Joshua, for genocide, we need to remember that if hadn’t been for that genocide there would have been no nation, no history of Israel, and no Messiah. How would that feel? What would that be like? It’s hard for us to imagine.

The Bible is written in all kinds of different genres. We have teaching (‘law’), prophecy, songs (‘psalms’), proverbs (‘wisdom’), parables (stories with a point), and letters, amongst others. None of these were written in a vacuum. Paul may have been aware that letter he wrote to, for example, the church in Corinth, was about to become scripture, but he still intended his message for that particular audience. Songs are not meant to be read but sung, or chanted. Parables are pithy sayings designed to make us think. They were designed to help us live. Practical stuff for us to mull over. Teaching is supposed to be followed – but like any good sermon, the teaching always gives us reasons for obeying. It is a mixture of divine wisdom from above, and grounded common sense.

Coming back to Moses, it is quite likely that his teaching was born from a life spent solving problems, as well as spending time in Yahweh’s presence in the Tent of Meeting. Eventually he appointed seventy elders to help him in his task. We can imagine him getting these elders together:

‘Hey, anything interesting happen today?’

And he would listen to them as they passed on the more interesting cases. From this wealth of experience Moses wrote some of the laws. Others were simply borrowed from the surrounding cultures, though adapted to fit Yahweh’s high standards of righteousness, justice, love and faithfulness (Psa 89:14).

So, when we sit down to read the Bible, we first need to take time to think ourselves into their time and their culture. Otherwise we may be guilty of jumping to conclusions.

The big issue, it seems to me, is this – do we take the authors’ views as God’s verbatim word to us now, as culturally conditioned, or something in-between?

By the way, this is how the Jews categorise their Bible, what we call the Old Testament:

• Genesis – Deuteronomy Teaching
• Joshua – 2 Kings Former Prophets
• Isaiah – Malachi Latter Prophets
• Psalms, Proverbs etc. Writings

The main difference is that what we blandly call ‘history’ is thought of as ‘prophecy’ by the Jews. This makes much more sense. Prophets spoke God’s word into the political situation they had to live in. If a leader (king) failed to follow God’s standards of righteousness, justice, love and faithfulness, they were eventually removed or replaced by someone who would. Or, rather, might.

More tomorrow...

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