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Confused about the Old Testament? Read it as a victim of oppression might.
There is no difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. When we think we’ve encountered some essential distinction, it’s best to look for deeper solutions.
In the process of working on the Anabaptism at 500’s Anabaptist Community Bible, I’ve had the opportunity to read through various community comments on the Bible to check for sensitivity. It was my job to provide an initial pass-through so that our team could delve even deeper. One thing that was clear to me is that many Christians don’t know what to do with the violence in the Old Testament, and sometimes make appeals to the New Testament to make sense of it. In their minds, the peaceful, loving, and compassionate God of the New Testament stands in stark contrast to the vengeful, brutal, and vindictive God of the Old Testament. This type of thinking is akin to “supersessionism"—the belief that the New Testament was written to supersede the Hebrew Bible—which led to anti-Jewish rhetoric and behavior in Europe. It must be repudiated.
But many Christians are not versed in the Old Testament and their pastors, feeling the same discomfort, simply avoid the challenging texts. But there is so much wisdom and beauty in the Old Testament! Pastors who don’t address it not only make way for anti-Judaism, and anti-Semitism, they rob their congregation of a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow.
The most important thing to realize when reading the Old Testament is that it is written to and by oppressed people. Until we put ourselves in their shoes, or realize that we ourselves are oppressed, we will either struggle with those early books, or avoid them.
The story of the Exodus, for example, speaks to the liberation of the Israelites from their Egyptian enslavers. God saves Israel through Moses, hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and then crushes his army for oppressing and enslaving the chosen people. Readers of this story may feel sympathy for the Egyptians, who drown in the Red Sea. However, from the point of view of Pharaoh's victims, a God who rescues them with holy might and power is one who can continue to save them. The promise of God’s salvation is the heartbeat of the Old Testament, of all Jewish people, and also of Jesus, who comes with the same liberatory and salvific promise. When we read that scripture from the perspective of those in exile, we can learn to empathize and love this liberatory God.
This liberatory God does not exist in opposition to the person of Jesus Christ, because Jesus also came to liberate captives and free the oppressed. Some readers may cite the Sermon on the Mount and love of enemy as a contradiction to that love, but the heart of Jesus’ teaching comes from the very compassion that we find in Torah and in the story of Israel. God is generous toward immigrants and strangers and insists that Israel include them. The law of Moses is written with the oppressed in mind.
The same is true of the numerous imprecatory Psalms. In many of them, we hear the cry of oppressed people asking for God to liberate them and free them from their enemies. They are sure God is on their side as they long for liberation. They share their grief openly with the Redeemer as they wait. Their grief, in fact, is an expression of their faith. Those who can’t relate to those Psalms of lament perhaps haven’t been oppressed or haven’t acknowledged the emotional weight of their oppression.
When we turn to Deuteronomistic history, we encounter brutal passages, though, that are less easily explained through this lens. In these passages, Israel’s fictitious military might seem oppressive in its own right. What do we do with these passages? Again, it’s essential to note that their historicity is questioned within the corpus of the Bible itself, as well as by later scholars. Israel was not the dominant force the writers of the books of Joshua through Kings describe. Ultimately, the Deuteronomistic History is a story of Israel’s fall from grace, a mighty united monarchy that ends up divided and captured because of its infidelity to God. Israel breaks the treaty, the love, it has for God and suffers major consequences. In fact, it is within this very backdrop that the treaty Israel made with God is codified in Deuteronomy– the book that precedes this historical account. Israel suffers its losses because it elects to make treaties with warring empires, instead of maintaining the one it had with God.
The conquest of Canaan can be justifiably critiqued from a postcolonial perspective, since it glorifies the robbing of indigenous people of their land, but we can actually find that critique within the Old Testament itself. God commands God’s followers not to kill, for example! God commands hospitality and inclusion of the stranger. We need not turn to the New Testament for that insight. When Christians, who were and are colonial, point the finger at Old Testament values, absolving themselves simply because they claim to be followers of Jesus, they are indeed pointing out the speck in the other’s eye, while not seeing the log in their own.
While postcolonial criticism has made important contributions, to reflexively burden Judaism with it risks fueling anti-Semitism. It’s essential that we critique interpretation, application, and understanding, while understanding that this story, within itself, is a story of the failure of a military and a monarchy. It is ultimately an indictment of Israel’s turning away from God when, for example, the people ask for a King in 1 Samuel 8. The moral of the story for Israel, and for us, is that when we ally with forces other than God, doom follows.
All of this is, of course, not in opposition to the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament; the two work in tandem. For Jesus, turning the other cheek and going the extra mile, repudiated the Roman law to which his enemies were subject! Jesus brings the same intensity and force as God has always done with God’s love.
Jesus denounces sin, destruction, and idolatry just as God has always done. In fact, the words Jesus uses for God’s enemies are intense and harsh at times, and death itself is associated with the wrath of God throughout the Bible. Furthermore, Jesus admonishes those who lead little ones astray with a brutal judgment, saying it would be better for a millstone to be hung around their neck and for them to be thrown into the Sea of Galilee than to meet the judgment that awaits them. And what about people who reject his disciples? Jesus invokes the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah on them, saying their fate will be even worse than those of those ancient, doomed cities.
Moreover, the Gospels make clear that Jesus came first for the Jewish people, and that he, in fact, isolates himself from the Gentiles. The Apostle Paul embarks on a more inclusive project, but it is one that is also in line with the Old Testament (e.g. welcoming the faithful stranger into the fold).
The love of God endures forever. God’s compassion and mercy are endless. God’s thirst for justice and for peace is eternal. It is precisely this character that is found throughout the whole of the Bible. When we feel we have lost that God of mercy, we must look deeper, ask bigger questions about history, and consider what is happening within the text. When the Bible is used to justify war crimes, genocide, and wickedness, it is committing the very sins that scripture condemns. When we misinterpret the truths of the Old Testament and of Judaism, we are, in fact, committing the kind of violence we claim to reject.