Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

WisBits Archive

May 2009

Old Testament Treasures

Why do so few Christians read the Old Testament law—even distrust it? Does it make disturb us because it seems to indicate that God gives strange, remote, old-fashioned commands that make no sense to real life and lack tenderness?

When I was drawn to practice lectio divina through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, I decided to test Dallas Willard’s assertion that the law is full of tenderness. To my amazement, I marked loads of verses with a capital T for tenderness. So much of it is about helping the poor, the forgotten and the underdogs of society: non-Israelites living among Israel (e.g. Moses’ wife), women left unprotected (Zelophehad’s 7 daughters got to inherit his property), slaves of other nations automatically set free in Israel (Israelite slaves were freed in every 7th year). Several places command: “Do not withhold help!” - which Jesus quoted when defending his healing on the Sabbath. Being a good Samaritan was not optional.

The Hebrew law was an advanced form of justice--a thing of beauty--in the midst of the horrific brutality of Ancient Near East (ANE) culture. For example, “an eye for an eye” was a complete turnaround from “your life for my eye” as ANE culture dictated. Unlike ANE laws, children couldn’t be put to death for their father’s sin. Jesus quoted “Love your neighbor as yourself” from Leviticus 19, which is full of laws about helping the poor and needy--you couldn’t strip your vineyard meticulously bare but had to leave some for the poor to gather.

People say the OT law deals only with outward actions not the inner person, but “heart” occurs 34 times in Deuteronomy, emphasizing the internalization of the law and its focus on love and justice (including “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart”). The covenant itself is a marriage-like relationship of mutual faithfulness; Deuteronomy 29-30 reads like a marriage proposal. In this atmosphere of mutual loyalty, love would have grown and prosperity would have abounded except that Israel constantly “committed adultery” by flirting with the ANE gods of idolatry.

Even the oddest sounding laws offered timeless wisdom: two different crops should not be planted in the same field because the taller one blocks sunlight and so the shorter one lacks nutrients; garments should not be woven from two kinds of thread because they won’t wear well, falling apart after a few washings. Thus the law promoted such common sense things as nutritious food and high-quality clothing.

Sexual sin was forbidden not because God is grumpy but because it destroyed relationships in the community, tearing down respect and trust of couples, children, relatives and the entire tribe. In the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, our tender God commanded Sabbath rest for the land and the animals, freedom for slaves and remission of all debts. After fighting in war, soldiers were given time apart for purification—to debrief, recover and let go of their warrior ways. (If you struggle with the supposed barbarity of the Old Testament, please read this excellent article: http://www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=45).

Because the Old Testament law doesn’t have the power to justify us (only grace does that), Christians sometimes ignore or even disparage it. But consider that Paul delighted in the law in his inner being (Rom 7:22) because its principles of life were good and true and beautiful. The law presents a picture of how God works with creation. That’s why the psalmist said: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (Ps 119:18).

My study of the law further convinced me that God is deeply wise, good and far advanced of the times we live in. I see how God’s eternal purpose is to create a transformed Beloved Community in which we treat each other with love and respect, thriving and rejoicing together all because God is drenched in magnetic, powerful goodness.

Grace and peace,
Jan Johnson




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