AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post, like many old things I’ve written, reflects a “this world is not my home” view that I don’t affirm anymore. Nevertheless, I’ve kept it to show where I come from.
I spend most of my free time either hiking or studying the Old Testament. That’s kind of weird.
The other day a friend of mine took me out to lunch, and he made a statement I get a lot: “I get why you love the Old Testament. It’s because you’re a lawyer and the Old Testament is full of laws.”
Yes, because as a lawyer I love nothing more than converting to long-term memory the intricate, never-ending instructions for cutting open bulls and heifers and waving their internal organs before an altar, quarantining people with skin diseases, what you can and can’t do on the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and who or what you can’t have sex with. Like most lawyers, it tickles my fancy that the atonement cover is only two and half cubits long instead of a full three cubits.
And can you believe the curtains of the tabernacle are all the same size and dyed red? I know, you only live once, right?
No, I don’t get excited to read details like that.
I like football.
I like beer festivals.
I like Bass Pro Shops.
But I don’t like reading about that kind of stuff. There are too many things to distract me, such as, well . . . anything.
“I think Chris secretly wants to make us all Jewish.” That’s another thing I hear from time to time.
Several centuries before a Jewish rabbi named Jesus was born, a prophet named Jeremiah foretold the coming of a new covenant. Sometime later, a Jewish Pharisee named Paul wrote that “apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” When he wrote that—and I’m glad he did—he no doubt had in mind Jeremiah. I firmly believe we live under that new covenant today and that the new covenant is better than the old one.
Why? Because Jeremiah described the new covenant being “written in our hearts,” as opposed to an endless list of rules and regulations we would have to memorize. It’s no wonder that when Jesus described his yoke (all rabbis had “yokes,” which were their interpretations of how to live out the Torah), he said it was “easy.”
Also, I like bacon.
I simply want to love God and treat my neighbor as I would like to be treated, which I get to do as a follower of what the New Testament calls “the Way.”
So, if I don’t follow the law of Moses, why do I read the Old Testament? Why do I teach the Old Testament? Who puts themselves through so much torture? I do, and for two reasons.
Jewish Authors, Jesus
First, Jesus was Jewish. Not just Jesus, but everyone who wrote anything in the New Testament. And most of the people they were speaking and writing to were Jewish. Take a moment to let that sink in. These people did Jewish things, said Jewish things, thought Jewish things, debated Jewish controversies, and told jokes that everyday Jews were telling. Meaning, to understand what did or didn’t push Jesus’s buttons, you sometimes need to step into the world of ancient middle-eastern poets.
If you don’t know what people did all week during the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, you probably will miss at least half of Jesus’s message when he shouted at the top of his lungs to a boisterous and inebriated crowd, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as [Jeremiah 17] has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”
See what I did there? Got your interest, didn’t I?
The second reason is this satellite photograph of Egypt and Israel.
There are two visibly green spaces along the Mediterranean Sea in this picture. The left one is Egypt; the right one is Israel (formerly called “Canaan”). As you can see, Egypt has the Nile River Valley and so does not rely on rainfall, but Canaan does not have that luxury and is extremely vulnerable to the rain seasons. When four thousand years ago Abraham settled in Canaan, he was told that he and his descendants would be given that land forever. Only problem was every time Canaan had a drought, either Abraham or his descendants would have to decide whether to leave Canaan and go to Egypt because Egypt would be the only place with grain. There are three droughts in the book of Genesis. It turned out well for Isaac when he braved the drought and stayed in Canaan.
But it never turned out well for anyone who sought the comfort of Egypt.
Four generations later, after abandoning Canaan and settling in very good land near the Nile, the Egyptians forcibly enslaved them and would hold them as slaves for more than four centuries. Of course, slavery is terrible. And the work they did was terrible. But the thing you can’t miss is that while they were slaves in Egypt they never went thirsty. They never went without food. Their food source was the Nile, a thing they could see.
So, when this mysterious God named YHWH sent Moses to free them and bring them back to Canaan (the “Promised Land”), the problem was that getting their freedom meant going back to a land where they would once again be vulnerable to the seasons. As odd as it may seem, not many of them were happy about leaving slavery and returning to Canaan, especially since getting there required living in the Sinai desert for a long time.
So, at the end of Moses’s life, just as they were about to resettle Canaan, God gave through Moses this promise:
The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end. So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.
I read the Old Testament because I believe Hebrews 10:1 (and many other scriptures) says that the purpose of the Old Testament—in all its weirdness—is a physical picture of the invisible world of YHWH. For the Egyptians, the Nile meant that the weather didn’t control their fortune; they did. The Nile gave the Egyptians a lot of power. And our lives are a lot like that. We like power, and we like control.
Like Abraham and his descendant, we have a way of abandoning things that rob us of control. We even have a way of wanting to return to things that enslave us, but feel safe.
We behave this way, and yet what the Bible really is all about is living life in sync with the power structures of the invisible world and not this one. The first covenant was entirely about the physical provision and security of the Hebrew ethnic group in Israel (see Deuteronomy 11 and 28). In the same likeness, the new covenant is about spiritual provision and power.
I teach the Old Testament because I see far too many people who profess to be followers of Christ and yet they live in lock step with the power structures of this world. Jesus demonstrated the new way when he said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
This means that the things we do to be powerful here on the Earth demonstrate our lack of faith in God’s power in the spiritual world, and ultimately separate us from God. We’re stingy with our resources; we’re greedy; we’re prideful; we give our time and energy to people and things that benefit ourselves, but not to those who cannot; we avoid danger; we’re hyper-sensitive to our safety; we retaliate when people wrong us; we tell mistruths to manipulate people and get what we want . . .
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.
If you want to see what living in a kingdom not of this world looks like—if you want to follow Jesus—read the Old Testament.