Incest, murder, graphic violence, family drama, competing royal lines, primitive religious rituals, and of course, dragons. No, it’s not the blockbuster fantasy show Game of Thrones. The Old Testament has received a less enthusiastic reception by its contemporary audience. Richard Dawkins insists that "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction." It was written, Sam Harris adds, by "sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology."
Yet the Old Testament makes up a full two thirds of our sacred script. When the early church, dominated by an influx of non-Jewish converts, had ample room to reject the written form of her Jewish roots, she instead deemed such an attempt a heresy and gave it the name Marcionism. In our first essential tenet, ECO proclaims that in both the Old and New Testaments we recognize and receive God's authoritative self-revelation. The Old Testament isn't just an odd inconvenience, a clunky caboose we are obligated to drag behind the New. It's foundational to our faith in Jesus Christ, who claims not to eliminate its recorded promises, but to fulfill them (Matt 5:17).
The celebrated North African theologian, Augustine, is attributed for claiming: "the New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed, the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed." The Old Testament is a library of books shaped and painstakingly passed on by mouth and hand through generations of God’s people. It records God's determination to dwell with his creation through a swath of genres and styles. At the start there's the creation story, which relays God's creating a home for humans to reflect his own glory within the cosmos, and their forfeiting of that paradisiacal position. There's the story of his promise to provide occupied land to an obscure, rag-tag people buffeted by one of the world's most ancient superpowers. There's the story of the construction, maintenance, and disarray of the temple building, designed to serve as a sign of his presence in that land. And there's the story of how even when stripped of both land and temple, God remained present with that people in their exile and return. Interwoven throughout are both large-scale histories and zoomed-in tales, poems and prophecies, laws and laments, all of which capture and narrate the triumphs, failures and uncertainties of the people of God in their journey back to him. Eventually, God's faithfulness enters the story and becomes a person: Jesus Christ.
But still, that story takes some odd twists and turns along the way. There are strange laws, some amusing (like Deut 23:12), others alarming (such as Num 15:32-36). There are unsettling episodes in which God appears grossly absent, even unjust (Josh 10; Judg 19). The disciple's duty lies in discerning both how Christ's fulfillment of the Old Testament makes claims on us today, and how the Old Testament illuminates aspects of the character of God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. Even so, it's no easy task to reconcile those passages which offend modern sensibilities of human rights and justice, especially those in which God himself seems to license troublesome acts of violence.
Here's where the Old Testament itself offers tools to handle our very discomfort with it. After all, Israel means "one who wrestles with God" (Gen 32:28). It's by authentically grappling with our textual heritage, rather than ignoring or unhitching ourselves from it, that we embody what it means to be the people of God. Such grappling even has a name: prayer. We don’t need to dig more than a half-book deep before we strike a model of such grappling prayer in our forefather Abraham (Gen 18). And throughout its pages the Old Testament hands us language with which to address God and to question, protest, and demand from him (Ps 4:1; 10:1). We're even given voice to vent the ugly desires that pollute our own heart (Ps 137:9), and license to tell God 'leave me alone' more than once (Job 7:19; 10:20). At the end of Job, we learn that the tidy theological formulas of Job's friends weren't simply off by a decimal, they failed wholesale to speak rightly of God - unlike Job who aired his pained and honest grievances.
As Protestant heirs of Luther, we're big fans of God's grace. But the same fierce passion which indecently gathers its hems to run and hug a wayward son (Luke 15:11-32) also permits no rivals – not even our ethics (Gen 22). Yet God's sovereignty is one which our Reformed tradition has often stressed. It's also one we should probably reclaim, perhaps because it is bound to challenge our liberalism-steeped notions of individual autonomy. After all, his ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), and scripture doesn't record our relationship to a set of moral principles, but a dynamic and living God. As Mr. Beaver once observed, "he isn't safe. But he's good."
Someday we will see him face to face. Then we will see clearly - not imperfectly – his coordinated authoring of both scripture and the cosmos (1 Cor 13:12). Perhaps we will know then what we should realize now: that 'these are but the outskirts of his ways…but the thunder of his power who can understand?' (Job 26:14).
*some interpretive license may be taken with the last item of the first sentence; cf. Job 41.
—The Standing Theology Committee