The Old Testament
A Christian Alzheimer’s Disease
Two-thirds of the story of redemption is known to Christians as the Old Testament. Yet in the decades that I have been teaching Bible, I have found that most Christians, if allowed to answer honestly, might be tempted to dub this section of the Bible the “unfortunate preface” to the part of the Bible that really matters. But the reality is that the Old Testament is the bulk of redemptive history. And the church’s lack of knowledge of their own heritage renders much of the wealth of the New Testament inaccessible to them.
One of my dear friends and colleagues, Mary Fisher, refers to this widespread condition as a sort of Christian Alzheimer’s disease. I realize that this is a painful metaphor for many of us, but it is, unfortunately, appropriate. The great tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease is that it robs a person of themselves by robbing them of their memory of their experiences and relationships. Hence, an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s can watch her own children walk through the door and need to ask their names. (As a mother, I cannot imagine the agony of such a state.) The church has a similar condition. Just as the Alzheimer’s patient must ask the name of her own children, the church watches her ancestors walk through the door with a similar response. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are unknown and unnamed. The end result? The church does not know who she is, because she does not know who she was.
Taken from The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament by Sandra L. Richter Copyright (c) 2008 by Sandra L. Richter. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Seeking a Spiritual Home in the Bible
Many people these days feel an absence in their lives, expressed as an acute desire for “something more,” a spiritual home, a community of faith. But when they try to read the Bible they end up throwing it across the room. To me, this seems encouraging, a good place to start, a sign of real engagement with the God who is revealed in Scripture. Others find it easy to dismiss the Bible out of hand, as negative, vengeful, violent.
I can only hope that they are rejecting the violence-as-entertainment of movies and television on the same grounds, and that they say a prayer every time they pick up a daily newspaper or turn on CNN. In the context of real life, the Bible seems refreshingly whole, an honest reflection on humanity in relation to the sacred and the profane. I can’t learn enough about it, but I also have to trust what little I know, and proceed, in faith, to seek God there.
The Two Main Barriers to Reading the Old Testament
My brother, who attended a Bible College during a smart-alecky phase in his life, enjoyed shocking groups of believers by sharing his “life verse.” After listening to others quote pious phrases from Proverbs, Romans, or Ephesians, he would stand and with a perfectly straight face recite this verse very rapidly: At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar. 1 Chronicles 26:18.
Other students would screw up their faces and wonder what deep spiritual insight they were missing. Perhaps he was speaking another language? If my brother felt in a particularly ornery mood, he would quote an alternative verse: O daughter of Babylon…
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. Psalm 137:9. In his sassiness my brother had, quite ingeniously, identified the two main barriers to reading the Old Testament: It doesn’t always make sense, and what sense it does make offends modern ears. For these and other reasons the Old Testament, three-fourths of the Bible, often goes unread.
Who Were the Amelekites Anyway?
The experience of Barry Taylor, former rock musician and now pastor, suggests a reason. He told me, “In the early 1970s my best friend became a Jesus freak. I thought he was crazy, so I started searching the Bible in order to find arguments to refute him. For the life of me, I could not figure out why God was concerned with the bent wing of a dove, or why he would give an order to kill, say, 40,000 Amalekites. And who were the Amalekites anyway? Fortunately I kept reading, plowing through all the hard books. When I got to the New Testament, I couldn’t find a way around Jesus. So I became a Jesus freak too.”
The World of the Old Testament (Can Seem a Bit Edgy)
The Old Testament portrays the world as it is, no holds barred. In its pages you will find passionate stories of love and hate, blood-chilling stories of rape and dismemberment, matter-of-fact accounts of trafficking in slaves, honest tales of the high honor and cruel treachery of war. Nothing is neat and orderly.
Spoiled brats like Solomon and Samson get supernatural gifts; a truly good man like Job gets catastrophe. As you encounter these disturbances, you may recoil against them or turn away from a God who had any part in them. The wonderful quality of the Old Testament is that it contains those very responses as well! God anticipates our objections and includes them in his sacred writing.