The Protestant Bible is divided into two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. My Ph. D. is in Biblical studies with a focus on the “Old Testament.” Like most serious students of the Bible, I prefer calling the earlier part of the Scriptures “the Hebrew Scriptures.” The term “Old Testament” implies for many that its contents are outdated, irrelevant, or superseded by the New Testament. But the Hebrew Scriptures have powerful and relevant messages on their own. They should not be valued simply as “predictions” of or preparations for of the coming of Christ. They have their own integrity and validity.
Jesus was a Jew. Paul was a Jew. Probably most of the other writers of the New Testament were Jews. The earliest church was primarily made up of Jews. And the only “Bible” these people had was the Hebrew Scriptures. Yes, they had the teachings of Jesus as well as the stories and traditions surrounding him. But these originally were passed down orally. To Jesus and these earliest Christians, the Abba Jesus trusted and obeyed was Yahweh, the God of Israel who spoke and acted in the Hebrew Scriptures. No one can even begin to understand the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the letters of Paul, or the rest of the New Testament without an appreciation of the Hebrew Scriptures. What the church, for the most part, does not yet understand is that Judaism is the Mother of Christianity. And you don’t ignore or abuse your Mother!
So, we must have a knowledge and appreciation of the Hebrew Scriptures if we are to interpret authentically the New Testament. For example, the vast majority of the symbols in the Book of Revelation come right out of the Hebrew Scriptures. John often modifies the meaning of these symbols in light of the Christ event, but without an understanding of the background of these symbols, it’s impossible to understand what John intends to say. That’s one reason Revelation has suffered so much distortion and misuse over the centuries. Because of this ignorance the result has been a heretical perversion of a powerful message by those who use Revelation to predict a future which denies the grace and love of God. And this is just one example among countless others of the dangers of ignoring and misinterpreting the Hebrew Scriptures.
What many people do not realize is that the Hebrew Scriptures are a minority report. We are familiar the concept of a “minority report” from the rulings of the United States Supreme Court. Currently there are nine justices sitting on the court. Each justice has a vote regarding every case that comes before the court. Rarely does the court issue a unanimous opinion. Those in the majority issue a majority report explaining their decision. Those in the minority also issue a report giving the reasons for their dissension. What’s important about minority reports is that they often serve as the foundation for future majority opinions when the court reverses a previous decision. It’s helpful to see the Hebrew Scriptures as a minority report.
For most of Israel’s history, idolatry and injustice were rampant. The Exodus tradition was too often ignored or forgotten. The lure of the Canaanite religion was a constant temptation to which the Israelites succumbed time and time again. The Exodus tradition focused on worshiping only one God and on a non-negotiable demand for justice. The Hebrews had been delivered from slavery. They knew what oppression was like. Beginning with the Ten Commandments they were required to seek fairness, compassion, and justice is all aspects of their society. The Israelite faith was based on the liberation of former slaves and a decision by that liberating Yahweh to make these former slaves and their descendants God’s chosen people. Priests and prophets were responsible for keeping the Exodus tradition alive and relevant. However, both groups failed much of the time, and the people of Israel preferred to listen to prophets and priests who told them what they wanted to hear and which affirmed and legitimized their greed, nationalism, and lax obedience to the covenant which established their original identity.
As a result, there were “true” prophets and “false” prophets at work in Israel. The “false” prophets were instruments of the kings’ propaganda. They assured Israel that no matter what, God would protect and preserve them as God’s chosen people. They promised “peace” when there was no peace. (Peace, shalom, in the Hebrew Scriptures is always the fruit of justice, and as the “true” prophets make clear, there was no justice in the land. Read Jeremiah 6:14, and Jeremiah 7 to appreciate this lack of peace in Israel.) In the Southern Kingdom of Judah the official theology was that God had chosen the House of David to rule Israel forever. Furthermore, Jerusalem and the Temple would never be destroyed, and God would dwell in the Temple forever. Judah’s safety was assured. This “once safe always safe” theology resulted in arrogance and insane military and international madness. Eventually the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians. Jerusalem was destroyed, the Temple was leveled, the last king of Judah had his eyes put out after he was made to witness the murder of his family, and many people were taken into Exile in faraway Babylon.
It is important to realize that before the fall of Jerusalem, those we now see as “false” prophets were seen by many as God’s “true” spokespersons. And those we see as “true” prophets were viewed as “false” prophets. It was only after the fall of Jerusalem that some of the people began to reevaluate their faith. There is no way we can appreciate the shock the fall of Jerusalem had on the inhabitants of Judah. Everything they had believed was ripped from their souls. They had three choices: they could abandon their faith believing God had been defeated by the Babylonian gods; they could live on nostalgia and weep bitter tears over what was lost hoping that eventually the “good ole days” would return; or they could let go of the past and struggle into the future trying to understand their mistakes and how God might still be their God.
It was the third choice that helped form the Hebrew Scriptures as we have them. Those in Exile now understood that Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were right and all those other supposed prophets of God were charlatans. They rediscovered the central place of the Exodus in their faith as they insisted that they would worship only Yahweh and would seek justice and liberation, fairness and compassion whenever and wherever they could. As biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann asserts, those living during and after the Exile had to relinquish the old which was no longer possible so they could receive the new from God’s hands, even if the new was not what they had expected or most wanted. And from that decision, the Hebrew Scriptures as we now have them came into being. I do not mean that everything was “made up” during this time. The traditions of the prophets and so much of the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures existed before the Exile. Much of that tradition had been passed down orally. But all these traditions, from the opening chapters of Genesis to the last of the pre-exilic prophets were embraced, appropriated, reinterpreted, and supplemented to reflect the current situation of God’s people. Unfortunately, after the Exile and the return of some of those Jews from Babylon to the remnants of what had been Israel, the lessons learned during the Exile were soon forgotten or degraded by legalism, exclusivism, and militant nationalism.
So, what might we learn from all this? Maybe we could express the appropriate lessons from Israel’s experience by a series of questions.
- Whom do we see today as “true” spokespersons of God, and whom do we see as “false” spokespersons? Might we be wrong in our designations, preferring those saying what we want to hear instead of what we need to hear?
- What is the official propaganda of the “king” in our day that we have swallowed “hook, line, and sinker” without a proper critique of the purpose behind that propaganda? Might we learn something from the children’s story about the emperor who wore no clothes? How naked before God is our political and economic arrangement?
- Is our “peace” the fruit of authentic justice? Walter Brueggemann (perhaps the greatest scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures today) defines justice as “deciding what belongs to whom and returning it to them.” Ouch!
- Have we co-opted God so He (and the co-opted God is always a “He”) merely reflects American, capitalist, white, patriarchal, greedy, and violent values? Is it possible for those of us claiming to be Christian to be guilty of idolatry if the God we believe in is made in our image, even if we call that idol Jesus or the God of Jesus? Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name, and do might deeds in the power of your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me you evil doers.’” (Matthew 7:21-24) Who are the ones who will claim to have prophesied, casted out demons, or done mighty deeds in Jesus’ name? Apparently, it will be those who claim to follow Jesus and use his name, but do not do the will of God. And what is the will of God? Jesus just made that will very clear in the three chapters containing the Sermon on the Mount.
- It took the Exile for God’s people to realize they were following a counterfeit faith which just happened to reward the top 1% of the population with most of the wealth while the vast majority struggled just to get by. What might it take for us to realize that “trickle-down economics and justice” are blasphemous to the God of the Exodus and the One Jesus called Abba?
- Every empire that has ever existed has assumed that it was the exception, that it was immune to the dangers that destroyed other empires, and that God was on its side. And every single empire in the history of the world has fallen. Why should the United States be any different? And yes, we are an empire—an empire designed to reward the top 1% with over 40% of the nation’s wealth (which just happens to be the same arrangement of the ancient Egyptian and Roman empires).
- Do we have even a clue how radical the Bible really is? (The word “radical” goes back to the Latin word for “root.” That’s why a radish is called a “radish.” It’s a root vegetable. A true radical always goes to the root/to the source and is never distracted by the surface or the periphery. Jesus was a radical. He always went to the root of any issue. What I cannot understand is why the church for the most part refuses to follow his example.)
- And finally, can we be loyal to the One we call Lord if we ignore, misinterpret, or abuse what He saw as His Bible? His stress was on compassion, love of enemies, justice, peace, forgiveness, truth, and reconciliation, all of which had their roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. In his interpretation and application of the Hebrew Scriptures he edited or omitted those passages which do not reflect what he saw as the essence and best of the Jewish faith and what he encountered as truth in his deep and unique communion with the One he called Abba. But too many Christians in our culture have abandoned any authentic and radical commitment to the Jesus of the Gospels. We too have our false prophets who preach “peace, peace when there is no peace.” Their “fake” gospel is molded by the arrogant, violent, prejudiced, and greedy values so prominent in our society. They and those they have seduced wrap their Jesus in an American flag and in the almighty dollar. Such a Jesus is as idolatrous and abominable as the false idols many in Israel worshipped. As Clarence Jordan said, “We’ll worship the hind legs off of Jesus, but we won’t do a thing he says.” Lord, have mercy!