Christians often struggle over “how can I use the Hebrew Scriptures” or Old Testament “in my life?”
A mentor of mine early in my ministry, Rev. Jonathan Stepp, wrote a wonderful article about this in the magazine The Adopted Life. I’m including an excerpt of his article below before sharing my reflections on the Hebrew Scriptures for this week. Please bear his words in mind while you read through these verses along with me.
“So from the very beginning, the Church has struggled with the Old Testament and sought to understand it more fully in the light of who Jesus is. Here are some basic points that we should keep in mind as we read the Bible of Israel:
“1. Jesus is the Word. God the Son, in the flesh as the man Jesus Christ, is the revelation of God. Therefore, all other descriptions and revelations of God – including the Bible itself – must be interpreted in the light of what Jesus reveals about God’s nature. Jesus reveals God to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“We cannot ever allow any statement in scripture, including the Old Testament, to undermine or undo what Jesus shows us about God. If a scripture seems to tell us something that contradicts the nature of God as revealed in Jesus then we need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us see the meaning of scripture that fits with who Jesus is and who he reveals the Father to be.
“2. When we look back on human history, especially as it is reflected in Israel’s experience, we realize what profound blindness has enveloped our human nature in Adam’s fall. We have believed that God is a blood-thirsty ogre demanding his pound of flesh before he will grant forgiveness. But God did not need the sacrifices.
“He was accommodating our blindness because he knew that we could not imagine ourselves as loved and welcomed in his presence unless we came bearing such gifts. Even when God was welcoming sacrifice because of our hardened hearts, it was not the sacrifices that made humanity acceptable but the Son of God who made us acceptable.
“3. We know that Adam’s fall plunged humanity into blindness; we also know that the Holy Spirit has been patiently educating the human race about the truth of who God is. This has been a process that has been worked out over thousands of years and finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, the light of the world and the healer of our blindness.
“Therefore we should not be surprised if those who lived before Jesus sometimes expressed darkened and blinded perspectives on God. Just because their words are to be found in the inspired pages of the Old Testament doesn’t mean their words represent God as accurately as Jesus does.
“When the Psalmist prays that the infants of Babylon will be smashed against rocks (Psalm 137:9), we know that the Holy Spirit did not dictate those words to the Psalmist. Those words are found in the inspired scripture, but the Holy Spirit did not whisper in the Psalmist’s ear “and now I want you to wish for the murder of babies.” How do we know the Holy Spirit did not dictate those words? Because we know Jesus, and that is not who Jesus reveals God to be! In Psalm 137, as in some other places in the Old Testament, we are seeing the blindness and fallenness of humanity. These words are inspired in the sense that the Holy Spirit has preserved them as a faithful record of Israel’s pain and of her blind and fallen response to that pain. Based on all of this, we have to conclude that every verse of the Old Testament must be filtered through the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. We have to look at each passage and ask ourselves ‘Do these words express the fallen human perspective on God’s nature, or do they foreshadow and express the truth that would be later revealed in Jesus?’
As we read through the Hebrew Scriptures together, let’s remember what Rev. Stepp invites us to acknowledge: there is a mixture here of human words and the words of the Holy Spirit. I would go further and say this is also true with the writings in the New Testament as well. This means reading Scripture is not finding a rule book or an exact transcript of what God is saying. Instead it is entering into a conversation, a living relationship, with a living God and also with the saints who came before us each who had their own flaws, insights, and challenges as we do.
Join me in this exciting journey. Let’s open our Bibles and explore its words of promise and challenge together.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
What strikes me as I read Judges 16:1-14 is that all this talk I heard growing up in the church about ‘sexual purity’ doesn’t seem to be as prized in the Bible itself. Here Samson is with all kinds of women, including a prostitute. Samson may not be the best role model, of course, but look at David and all his romantic dalliances. He is called a man after God’s own heart! The only time he’s condemned for his romantic dalliances with various women, and possibly some men, is when he murders someone to cover it up. Look at Rahab the harlot, held up as a saint in Scripture for trusting God. There’s no evidence I can see that this saint ever quit that job. Look at Tamar who while working as a prostitute is declared more righteous than the patriarch. And even in the book of Ruth it is pretty clear in the Hebrew that when Ruth visits Boaz at night it ain’t to play cards even though they aren’t married yet.
I’m not saying faithfulness to your spouse or partner isn’t important, nor that we should be thoughtless in romance or sex. But examples like this reading and the other saints of Scripture I mentioned make me think that the way we elevate people’s romantic or sexual choices as if they determine if someone is a good or bad person, close or far from God, just doesn’t seem to be how the Bible defines it. The Bible seems to recognize that we are sexual beings and there are a wide range of romantic choices women and men who love God make. Perhaps as believers we need to be less judgmental and invasive of people’s bedrooms and more focused on what the Bible makes clear is the work of a believer: Doing justice. Loving mercy. Walking humbly with our God. And making space for others to do the same, even when the way they do so isn’t how we would.
Judges 17 shows how easy it is to have your personal faith become a matter of idolatry. Micah and his mother begin with a personal relationship with God as they understand God. Yet without grounding their connection with God in relationship to a wider community and those whom they are committed to love, support, & care for around them, this slides into treating God as a possession. This story reminds me that without both a personal connection with God and a community I am living that out in, my spirituality can become treating God as either a distant idea or demand or my possession, both forms of idolatry.
Judges 18 continues the theme of how we can make God into a commodity to be sold or marketed and begin to feel God is our possession. God can’t be bought, controlled, or owned. God isn’t the property of your race or your sexual orientation. God is not the property of America or Israel. God is not even the property of Christians. God is present with, in, and under all and can’t be boxed in by our prejudice. God is with and for all. We should strive for the same.
The priest’s response to Hanna deep in prayer in 1 Samuel 1 stands out to me as I read it. She is in deep prayer, seeking God in the midst of fathomless despair. The priest mistakes her for one drunk out of her mind, come to make a mockery of the way of faith. How often do we rush to judgment, assuming they can’t be seeking God because of how they look at first glance? Could we be losing out on an opportunity to join with them in their search for the sacred, as a companion on their journey, with our judgment? Might our intervention actually hinder what God is doing with them?
I also think of how great movements of transformation or renewal have been viewed as mockeries at first. Most of the great renewal movements in the church, from the Reformation to the great awakenings to the charismatic renewal movements, all were treated by others as if those involved were making a mockery of the faith. Even today there are those who, as many did in Dr King’s day, view those who use his model of nonviolent resistance to oppose injustice as making a mockery of faith. We need to be careful not to let our tendency to try and push God into a box cause us either to miss an opportunity to join God as God prepares to be revealed in a new way in a seeking person’s life or stand in another’s way from an experience of the living God.
As someone who will likely have to adopt to be a father, Hanna’s response to long term childlessness being broken by the birth of a boy in 1 Samuel 1:21-2:11 speaks powerfully to me. She learns that this child is not hers but sent by God, eventually returning to God. She chooses then to give up control over his fate and devote him to God early. I think difficulty having children can wake people up to the fact that all children are God’s. I’ve seen some couples who can easily have kids just take those kids for granted or even try to live vicariously through those kids, sending the message that only if those kids look, act, or seem a certain way will they be accepted. There’s something to this image of devoting that child to God. Devoting a child to God means recognizing they are precious and not to be neglected or taken for granted. It means acknowledging that they aren’t my property, but sent from God. It’s a commitment to support whoever they end up being or however they end up feeling called to live, even if its so radically different than what I’d do in their shoes. Perhaps especially when it is different. After all, they ultimately have their own calling from God which may be something I could not dream up. I imagine it will be harder work when I have a child of my own. I hope though that I am able to recognize that their unique quirks, gifts, passions, and interests are blessings to be celebrated even when I don’t understand them.
1 Samuel 2:12-26 is both a sobering challenge and a promise of hope for me. It shows that our individual calls into relationships with God are linked intrinsically with real points of hurt and need. The priests of the day were fleecing God’s flock, ripping people off, extorting them, and abusing them. So God calls out the name of little Samuel, drawing him into a friendship with God. As much as I love the old Gospel song, it cannot be that it is just “me and Jesus we’ve got our own thing going / me and Jesus we’ve got it all worked out”. It has to begin there of course. Without the deep well of spirituality to bolster you, you will not be able to sustain working for justice. But our relationship with God, like Samuel’s, is a call we receive also to speak up against oppression, to stand against those who fleece God’s flock, and abuse the least of these. That’s sobering. The encouraging part: apparently, whenever abuse goes on like this, whenever the poor are oppressed, minorities disenfranchised, God reaches out, calling out Samuels-to-be. Do they hear? Do they listen? Not always. But this example reminds me that no matter how bad it gets here, God will continue to work to turn it right, and call people to transform. Our job is to listen for that voice, and be ready.
My breath prayer today used Samuel’s prayer in 1 Samuel 3 of ‘Speak for your servant is listening’ . My experience reminded me that being a person of God is less about doing than being. I have this frenetic drive to be more and do more, as if that is what will make me a servant. Yet it is exactly that drive which I must stop to be able to truly listen as the prayer promises not just to God but others. It is not that doing is unimportant, but without being able to be present one cannot truly connect and share the love without which our doings ‘profit nothing’. Mindfulness practices like breath prayer help me pause the steady torrent of the shoulds, oughts, and have to’s so I can be truly present. It enables me to be more present with God and be more aware of how God is always with and in me through people and things I encounter. It helps me better truly be present with others, hearing them, seeing them, & seeing their hopes, needs, and desires. It helps me connect with myself for its only in quieting the noise to hear my own heart that I can begin to know and be who God always made me to be.
What strikes me in 1 Samuel 3:1-26 is what courage young Samuel must have had. A mere boy speaking to the head priest, directly addressing the grave abuse of God’s people. How his knees must have knocked, and how he must have wished to be doing anything else. In the many times I’ve felt called to speak up in the face of injustice, I don’t think a part of me hasn’t felt the same way. I’ve watched some friends this week sought to speak up full of fear and trembling this week. Know that’s not a sign that you lack courage but that you’re human! The fact that you still follow your convictions shows your courage. Oh for an army of Samuels, people willing to speak up against God’s children being used and abused, even though their knees knock with fear.