Using and Abusing the Old Testament

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Warning: This is not a well thought out research project.  It is a matter of personal rumination, that I want to discuss with the group for the sake of gaining insight.  Consequently, expect to find personal bias, agitation, incredulity, and hilariousness herein.

      It has always perplexed me to see how scitzophrenically Christians utilize the Old Testament.  As one who spends a fair amount of time training people to interpret Scripture, watching the sloppy implementation of sound hermeneutics being lobbed “Hail Mary style” at the Old Testament is much like watching the bocce event at the Special Olympics (now, if you are a bocce player, a special olympian [James?], or just sensitive – get over it.  I think the analogy works on many levels).

     I know what many may already be thinking, “Okay, fine, you’re so smart – why don’t you just tell us (Oh, Great and Wonderful Hermeneutical Rhetorician – [henceforth GWHR]) how we ought to be interpreting the Old Testament?”  However, the sophisticated and intelligent reader will immediately know this would be the worst thing I, the GWHR, could attempt for several reasons not limited to, but including…  /1/ Nothing I am capable of producing would encompass the greater history or tradition of Christian Scriptural exegesis (does such a hermeneutic even exist?), /2/ The internet trolls would seize my post and proceed to argue over whether to make soup or pancakes out of it. 

The trouble with trolls: they love picking at minutiae, but rarely have anything productive to contribute to an ongoing dialogue. 

/3/ I am not annoyed about any particular hermeneutic, I am annoyed at our seeming inability to systematically apply ANY hermeneutic to the Old Testament.

     Really, the crux of my complaint contends with the catastrophic conceit that no one really knows what to do with the Old Testament, so they just do whatever the hell they please with it.  When did the Old Testament become the cecal (read, “appendix”) of Christ’s Body?  We have some exegetes claiming that the Old Testament (especially the Torah) is totally in effect, some claiming that it is only partially in effect, some claiming that it is null and void, and some claiming that only elements which adhere to God’s person matter.  With all of these hermeneutics, you would think that some could find one and stick with it.  Nonetheless, such machinations of the interpetively literate seem to escape even the cleverest of them. 

     I watch in utter horror as some (many times the same person, if not the same group) will use the Old Testament to prove that homosexuality is an abomination, that tatoos are a sin, that polygamy was not part of God’s plan for marriage, that we should not pay a 10% tithe, that the United States’ war on Iraq was justified, etc. etc.  The problem, of course, is that this is the same person/group utilizing three different hermeneutics in order to manipulate the outcome that they want.  All those who agree please join me in a collectively exasperated, “WTF?”  With all of this inflamation from ego, culturally derived ethics, and personal self-soothing, Christ’s body will surely suffer appendicitis.   Will we then have to just cut the Old Testament off in some kind of Marcion inspired bris before we suffer a rupture?

(I hope the more perspicacious among you will enjoy the added level of irony accorded to that last bit of rhetoric – allow the GWHR to include this explanation for the trolls: its funny because I talk about chopping up phalluses [weiners], and such a practice finds justification in the Old Testament, which is what we are going to chop).

     This is a link to a discussion going on over at AGThinkTank that I believe demonstrates my point well.  Go, my lovelies, read it and ponder the fate that we will ultimately suffer, and then discuss among yourselves.   How do we solve such a conundrum?  Is a solution even desirable?


  1. Shawn,

    Great post, your humor is as subtle as it is crushing. In context your appendicitis comment is, like the bris joke, a pun on multiple levels. I like it.

    So, my question (and its not loaded) is: Is the historical-critical method, you know the one you teach from your textbook “Grasping God’s Word” at least partially to blame for all of this confusion you speak of? Do we get muddled up trying to figure out the context, doing historical criticism, etc? Obviously we get muddled up when we take things out context, but intuitively I feel that in our attempt to put things into context we mess things up. Almost like its an impossible task to really understand the context of the OT. I know these thoughts are not developed very well, but maybe you can articulate them better (Shawn, or some other GWHR). As for me, I need to go back and re-read some Wallace Steigner before I go further with this.


  2. I think I will use your post to initiate my reflection on Acts 2, which I think relates directly to this. I tend to posit a radical break (through fulfillment) between “law” covenant and “passion” covenant.

    As always I consult Breuggemann, and of late James Barr, who is a fantastic OT scholar: quite the iconoclast.


    I think that the Historical-Critical method messes up the theological vision of the ‘finished’ texts yes. But I also think that the method is fundamentally necessary to understanding the nature of “revelation.”


  3. Reed,

    Thanks for pointing out the elephant in the room.


    Thanks for petting the elephant in the room.


    I like your take on the historical-critical method.

    Anyone who cares,

    Allow me to reiterate, I want to brainstorm how to /1/ shut the crazies up, /2/ enforce the need to apply an interpretive model systematically, and /3/ come up with the most asinine analogies possible (I’m feeling my oats today, what can I say?)

    I am reluctant to admit that I feel more at ease with the wack-job literalists that want to read and apply everything in the Bible the same way, but at least they’re consistent. I just don’t know how much longer I can stomach this “What?! Fags wanna get married? the Old Testament says no! – What?! You want me to set aside my own money for the illegal immigrants? That’s in the OLD Testament, I’m under a new covenant, hallelujah! What?! Those towel heads attacked us? Let’s put a boot in their @$$, its what God sanctions all righteous nations to do in the OT!” crap much longer.


  4. Shawn,
    My own hermeneutic is a little complex on the OT, but it seems consistent to me. First of all, I accept the OT canon as inspired. Second, I believe the old covenant portions do not apply to those of us who are under the new covenant. Third, I believe there are some statements included in the old covenant that accurately describe the eternal, unchanging God.

    If an inspired message within the old covenant stated that a practice or a thing must be hated by the people living under that covenant, then the people living under a different covenant are not necessarily obligated to hate that particular practice or that thing.

    However, if an inspired message in the old covenant stated that the unchanging God hated something, then changing the covenant does not change the God. It seems that He would still hate it.


  5. Shawn wrote:
    What?! Fags wanna get married? the Old Testament says no! – What?!

    First of all, most evangelicals do not use the word “fag” because we have more respect for people than to call them unkind names. Second of all, the statement above over simplifies the matter. Most evangelicals do not claim to find such statements plainly written in the Old Testament. What we do find is that God looks on homosexual acts as sinful. This is not a condemnation of anyone, this is an honest answer to a simple question. The question is, “What does God think about homosexual acts?” I have tried to explain this a couple of times, but it seems to get lost in the shuffle.

    People are people… God loves them in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

    Sin is sin… God hates it in all shapes and forms.

    Shawn wrote:
    You want me to set aside my own money for the illegal immigrants? That’s in the OLD Testament, I’m under a new covenant, hallelujah! What?!

    Let’s try not to confuse FOX News with evangelical Christianity. 🙂 The political extremes of evangelicals can usually be found on TBN too, but we do not all follow Pat Robertson.

    Shawn wrote:
    Those towel heads attacked us? Let’s put a boot in their @$$, its what God sanctions all righteous nations to do in the OT!”

    Abraham lived before the Old Covenant was given. What did he do when his nephew was taken as a prisoner of war?

    War is a very complex issue. We could argue that God never wants the United States to ever go to war with anyone, but I believe that is a gross over simplification of the issues. Sometimes, I question whether we should have ever been involved in WWI or WWII, but when I consider the possible outcomes if we had stayed neutral it seems like our country did the right thing. I certainly wish we had never been involved in the Vietnam War, but I am not God and I do not know if He had some purpose for it. Perhaps He drew us into it for reasons beyond my understanding, but from my vantage point it seems like we wasted thousands of lives on both sides. The war in Iraq is another big question mark. Why are we there when we were supposedly looking for Bin Laden? Perhaps Chene and Bush had some oil investments? Perhaps God actually had a purpose for us kicking Hussein out of power? How much of it was God’s purpose being fulfilled and how much of it was simply man’s foolishness being fulfilled?


  6. Shawn: May I recommend a read of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s God’s Word in which he lays down a good framework for these types of issues especially J. S. Stambaugh’s query regarding the historical-critical method. Two helpful extracts:

    a. There is an Old Testament theology of the Old Testament, which the historian ascertains within the Old Testament and which has of course already developed a number of overlapping layers even there, in which old texts are reread and reinterpreted in the light of new events. The phenomenon of texts growing and developing in new situations, of revelation developing through a new interpretation of the old, quite substantially shapes the inner structure of the Old Testament itself.

    b. There is a New Testament theology of the Old Testament, which does not coincide with the Old Testament’s own inner theology of the Old Testament, though it is certainly linked to it in the unity of the analogia fidei. We could perhaps on this basis even say in a new way what the analogia fidei between the testaments means. As we said, the New Testament theology of the Old Testament is not in fact identical with the Old Testament’s own inner theology of the Old Testament, as it can be historically discerned; rather, it is a new interpretation, in the light of the Christ-event, which is not produced by mere historical reflection on the Old Testament alone. By effecting such a change in interpretation, it is not however doing anything completely foreign to the nature of the Old Testament, approaching it only from the outside; rather, it is continuing the inner structure of the Old Testament, which itself lives and grows through such reinterpretations.


    That means that all of what is said in Scripture is human utterance and has to be interpreted as such in the first instance. Yet these human utterances are based on “revelation”, that is to say, on being touched by an experience which goes beyond the writer’s own inventory of experience. God is speaking through human words, and thus arises the strange incongruity between the concrete words and the One from whom they come. In contemporary theological language, it is customary to call the Bible simply “revelation”. That would never have occurred to people in the past. Revelation is a dynamic process between God and man, which consistently becomes reality only in an encounter. The biblical words bears witness to the revelation but does not contain it in such a way that the revelation is completely absorbed in it and could now be put in your pocket like an object. The Bible bears witness to the revelation, and yet the concept of revelation as such goes beyond that. In practical terms, this means that a passage can signify more than its author himself was able to conceive in composing it. That is of course true of great poetic texts, and it is with even stronger reason true of the biblical word. There is a surplus of meaning in an individual text, going beyond its immediate historical setting, and that is why there was the possibility of taking it up in a new historical context and setting it within a wider matrix of signification – the right of “rereading” it.


  7. Reed: I think you are on the right lines, using your example of the Song I would suggest that it is probably all three, i.e. it is read and reread in different historical situations so originally it was Hebrew erotic poetry which reread in an exilic/post-exilic situation spoke to Israel of a love story about YHWH and the people of Israel and which the early Church reread in the light of the Christ-event as a picture of Christ and the Church.

    You certainly won’t regret buying the book I noted above, it is excellent. Strictly speaking it is a collection of three essays on Revelation, Tradition, Scripture, the Apostolic Office and Biblical Criticism.

    You will probably want to check out The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible also.


  8. That’s it Richard. Now I must get the Ratzinger book. The problem being that with the second baby and now school, my alternative reading has slowed to a standstill.


  9. I’ll jump in here, if I may.

    I think a sound, rational thing to do with the Old Testament can be derived from what most Buddhists do with a lot of what is written about the Buddha.

    They have the core, the stuff they know happened more or less how it’s recorded, which is honestly very little; and they have the ten basic precepts, much like the ten biblical commandments. These things are considered as close to fact as one can approach regarding the historical figure Guatama Buddha.

    That forms the core of Buddhism, off of which there are many offshoots.

    There are hundreds or other precepts, sort of like all the extra laws the priests observed way back when in Jewish culture. Some strict or ascetic sects of Buddhism adhere to varying numbers of these still today, but they aren’t fundamental liek the ten precepts. Things like; Not to have sex with cantaloupes. Does that really need to be said? 😛

    As for the rest of it, the virgin birth myth, spiritual guide predecessors, Dharma transmission, Buddha being tempted by the devil at the beginning of his ministry in the wilderness; Buddhists mainly look at these stories to determine a basic teaching point or moral of the story, and little else. They didn’t really happen and Buddhists acknowledge that, but it was part of the developing tradition about him within the context of an Indian culture.

    It’s true that some Buddhists hold more of these stories as reality than others, but from what I have read so far, this is an exception rather than a rule.

    So when I read the Old Testament, some stories come up that seem only time period appropriate, or that come off much too far fetched to be grounded in reality. Others have a transcendent truth or moral value aspect to them.

    Simply asking, What did it mean then, and can it still apply now? or Does it make sense? would eliminate so much headache and confusion.

    I can get plenty of value from the ten commandments. But I can get little from the story of Elijah and the She Bears aside from it likely being a cautionary tale to warn kids against making fun of their elders. And there’s nothing wrong with cautionary tales. But turning that into a true story, and placing Elijah’s curse, in the name of God, as a catalyst for literally having bears maul 42 youths, well, that does very little in the way of forming a teaching point that helps me live a better life.

    The longer the explanation becomes, the less and less useful that narrative sounds. The apologist begins to come off like a spin doctor, trying to save face for God doing something awful, when the more likely idea that it was a story simply meant to keep kids in line not only makes more sense, it requires no suspension of reality or morality.

    I know, you can all make fun of my love for reason if you want, but I don’t see the need to make things more complicated when the simpler answer not only makes more sense, it has a nugget of useful teaching that still applies today. Making it a true story, thus implying if children don’t respect their elders they might be subject to some horrendous supernatural retribution, isn’t the kind of thing I want my child to grow up being afraid of.

    There are plenty of other real dangers she needs to be aware of, like not eating paint chips or not talking to strangers.



    1. ADJ,

      I think you make some fair observations and I’m glad you commented.

      A few quick replies

      1) I’m not sure anyone “makes fun of your love of reason” (or at least I don’t) – if by “reason” one means a systematic critical critique of natural and historical phenomenon – but, I think, that sometimes your former beliefs are replaced by a similar “belief” in a method of inquiry; which is to me to a strange thing to “believe” in. It seems sometimes that what you really believe in when you say you believe in Reason is that you believe in the Enlightenment meta-narrative of “Reason” banishing “Religion” and bringing peace and prosperity to the world and giving us a pure and objective understanding of every object in existence, if not now, then in the future. That, as a post-modern, I cannot abide without persistent deconstruction.

      2) As to “historicity” I think you still assume all of Christian theology treats the Bible like conservative Evangelicals do. That is, it is all absolutely true and historical in every instance. That is not how Christians traditionally have viewed Scripture, OT or NT.

      For one thing, whether a thing “actually happened” or not is no barrier to the story being “true,” even in an authoritative way. For instance the story of Jonah is obviously not a “historical” story. There was no prophet Jonah who was swallowed by a big fish. But the theological vision of the story is quite powerful, so it need not be “historical.” The same can be said of many things in Scripture; for instance the book of Job or the Temptation stories of Jesus. One need only read The Brother’s Karamazov to see how the Temptation narratives are powerful without being “historical.”

      In this I think we find some agreement.

      But your phrase “I can get plenty of value from the ten commandments. But I can get little from the story of Elijah and the She Bears” is where I would depart with you in certain regards. For one, though there is a personal ‘devotional’ element to the reading of Scripture, I do not approach the Scriptures with an “I” attitude. Rather I read it “with” the Church and locate my readings within Tradition. If by exegesis or whatever, I come to understand a particular passage in a novel way, I am more than happy to say “This is what I think the passage does or can mean” but I don’t expect that my reading is necessarily the/a “correct” way to read as a Christian.

      So I am not so quick to make highly individualized statements concerning the relative worth of a passage, be it the Elijah she-bear passage or whatever. Otherwise one lapses into arbitrary subjectivism as the moral aribter of Scripture.


  10. AJ wrote:
    But I can get little from the story of Elijah and the She Bears…

    The story is about Elisha, not Elijah. Perhaps it is a story to tell us that we will not understand everything, especially if we are not careful with the details. The story does not say that the two bears “killed” 42 “children,” It actually says 42 YOUTH were injured by the bear. How badly or how permanently they were injured is a matter of conjecture. The fact is, they were disrespectful to someone and a couple of bears taught them some respect.

    2 Kings 2:23-25 (NIV) 23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. 25 And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.


  11. Tony,

    I always have to admit that I’m primarily critiquing the paradigm within which I was raised. That is usually short-sighted, I know, but it’s the most coherent I can offer at times.

    I do like your distinction between “actually happened” and “true” in an authoritative way. I still don’t know where to locate that authority, since there are so many who claim to have it within Christendom. I think that is why I’m just so baffled by it all. It’s daunting.

    And honestly, I do like the sentiment of most of what you present on biblical topics, but then I can’t stand the actual liturgy of the tradition you subscribe to. I mean no offense, really. I respect that tradition, but I just don’t feel I can take part in it.

    Conversely, while I tend to appreciate a more post-modern approach to religious community and local outreach, I can’t stand the practically meaningless interpretation of scripture that comes off so unbelievably watered down and seeker-friendly from their emergent pulpits.

    I want the best of both worlds, but I don’t know if it exists.

    But enough about me, lest I get too highly individualized. 🙂


  12. Interpreting Scripture is a daunting task. In “Exploring the New Testament World,” Albert Bell gives a good illustration of why it is so difficult. He states:

    In an “Arlo and Janis” comic strip, Arlo tells his son Gene a positively ancient joke that concludes with a punch line about Dale Evans seeing a cougar near the ranch and saying, “Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat who chewed your new shoes?” Gene looks at Arlo as though he’s speaking a foreign language. Arlo tries to help him by adding, “There’s this old song .… ” Gene could not appreciate the pun because he did not know the cultural context of the joke. To share his father’s laughter he would have to be familiar with Glenn Miller’s old song, “Pardon Me, Boy, Is That the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?” (We won’t even get into the possible racist overtones of the term ‘boy’.) Gene would also have to know who Dale Evans and Roy Rogers were. Without that cultural context, he could make no sense of the text of his father’s joke.

    Even the Arlo and Janis comic strip is based on cultural jokes that most people do not understand anymore. The title characters are named after Arlo Guthrie and Janis Joplin. They were celebrities of the late 1960s. Gene is named after Senator Eugene McCarthy, and the McCarthyism is another cultural aspect of these jokes that most people today just can’t grasp. Those of us who lived through the 1960’s have a much deeper enjoyment of these comics.

    It is a similar story when we try to understand the Bible. The more we learn about the culture in which it was written, the better we can appreciate the text. When we attempt to express truths that we find in the Scripture we often struggle with how much of the context needs to be shared in order for our audience to understand it and enjoy it. That is a difficult task.


  13. Anthony: I hope you don’t mind my jumping in here concerning ‘What really happened’. What I find to be helpful is to start with the basic formula that God reveals himself through narrated event (i.e. in word and deed). This original event or “raw event” has been reflected upon by the believing community and scripture reflects this rather than an historical account of what really happened. This however should not cause us to deny that an event really happened, it just means we are unable to access that event in its pure form, but then we should ask whether we need to do that anyway.

    Here is Eugene Ulrich:

    Since the biblical narratives are usually not eyewitness accounts of events but “classic retelling(s)” of the traditions, one must carefully analyze [sic] and differentiate the epistemological levels from experience or “raw event” to the final written text: experience, understanding, and judgment, followed by explicit articulation of the judgment. We usually do not have direct witnesses to “what really happened,” but later communities’ proclamations of the significance of what had been experienced. Even the very early layers of the biblical text are already selected and interpreted repetitions of Israel’s traditions.


  14. Richard,

    I can certainly appreciate that approach. To me, the logical end would seem to emphasize this verse as part of Israel’s history and help them understand how they should understand it in context. I can definitely utilize whatever nugget of wisdom this approach yields if it is applicable to my life, however…

    I am not part of that community so I don’t really consider it a part of my history. I have gone back and forth on the idea of “adoption” or however else it is represented in theological debate, but I feel like I have to leave much of the Old Testament as spiritual guidance to the Jewish community.

    This is not to say there is nothing I can gain from understanding the OT better in a more broad sense (wisdom literature, to be sure, has much value if understood and applied properly). It just means these things have more impact and relevance to a community which I am not a part of.

    I’m okay with that, too. I just see the dividing line.


  15. Anthony: You are of course correct that some of the Old Testament is specific to Israel and yet the Old Testament is essential to the Christian faith in that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament. As H. U. von Balthasar notes:

    [Christ Jesus] assimilates the scriptural word into his own life, making it live and there take flesh, become wholly actual and concrete. As his life proceeds two things stand out: the Word more and more becomes flesh, inasmuch as he imparts to the abstract nature of the law and the expectancy of prophecy the character of a divine, factual presence, and the flesh becomes more and more Word, inasmuch as he increasingly unifies the scriptural words in himself, making his earthly life the perfect expression of all the earlier revelations of God. He is their living commentary, their authentic exposition, intended as such from the beginning. He fulfills not only the Word of the Father coming down from heaven, but equally the word stored up for him in history and the tradition of scripture – the Word, that is to say, both in its vertical and horizontal provenance.

    Once we see the OT as fulfilled in Jesus we should realise that its true meaning is to be found in Christ and the Christian mystery and so it is our task to reread it in that light. Just think of the exodus and how it was reread by the Jewish community in exile in Deutero-Isaiah and then reread by the apostolic Church as a motif of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

    I don’t agree that it means these things have more impact and relevance to a community which I am not a part of. 🙂


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