The Old Testament: Why Can't We Just Get Rid of It?
by John Bergsma
Let’s face it: The Old Testament can be hard to take. Parts of it are full of famines, wars, and people who should have known better doing terribly immoral things. God seems to be angry a lot. He gives the people of Israel hundreds of laws that sometimes don’t make sense, other times seem harsh, and always seem boring. When the Israelites break these laws, God sends plagues that kill lots of people.
As the resident "Old Testament guy" in the theology department at my university, I deal with questions about the Old Testament almost daily. Students frequently come to me with a puzzling passage wondering, "How can this really be God’s Word?"
So who needs the Old Testament? Why can’t we get rid of it? Mass would be shorter—one less reading! Students would have less to study. Publishers could cut costs—bibles two-thirds smaller! Think of the time and money we’d save!
Questions like these are nothing new. Already in the second century, Marcion, a popular and influential bishop, went so far as to deny that the Old Testament was the Word of God. He insisted it was the product of an evil deity different from the God of Jesus Christ. He promulgated a smaller Bible consisting only of Paul’s Epistles and an edited version of Luke.
The other Church Fathers rightly condemned Marcion as a heretic, but his basic impulse is still with us in various forms. So, in honor of the Year of St. Paul, one of the Church’s greatest Old Testament scholars, I’d like to say a few things in defense of the Old Testament—after all, without it I’d be unemployed!
A Complete Package
The basic reason we can’t get rid of the Old Testament is this:
Jesus won’t let us. Sorry! Jesus treated the Old Testament as God’s Word and taught His disciples to do the same. In John 10:35, He insisted that "Scripture cannot be broken," meaning, "it cannot be in error." The "Scripture" He was talking about was, of course, what we call the Old Testament. None of the New Testament had been written! These Old Testament Scriptures, Jesus insisted, actually spoke about Himself. "You search the Scriptures," He told the Pharisees, "because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me"(Jn. 5:39). In the well-known "Emmaus road" encounter, Jesus began "with Moses and all the prophets" and "interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Lk. 24:27).
Because the Old Testament Scriptures testify to Jesus, faith in the Old Testament goes hand-in-hand with faith in Jesus. In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus teaches that if people do not believe "Moses and the prophets"—that is, the Old Testament—neither will they believe "if someone rises from the dead"—that is, by Jesus’ death and Resurrection.
The New and Old are a package deal; the Church can’t have one without the other.
Jesus: The God of the OldTestament?
But the issue is even deeper than that. Jesus made some astounding claims about His relationship to the God of the Old Testament. One of the best examples is to be found in John8. In verses 31–59, Jesus is having a discussion with some Jews who are inclined to be His disciples. Unfortunately, the discussion degenerates into an argument, as the Jews are offended by some of Jesus’ claims about Himself.
Near the end of their debate, Jesus asserts, "Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad." To the Jews this sounded like nonsense. "You are not yet fifty years old," they said, "and you have seen Abraham?" Nothing could be more outlandish, unless it was what Jesus then said in reply: "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am!" Jesus’ audience was now in total shock. They realized that He had just used the divine name "I am," which God had revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14–15, the encounter at the burning bush. This name was so sacred that most Jews would never even pronounce it. But here was Jesus applying the name to Himself. This was nothing other than a claim by Jesus to be the God who revealed Himself to Moses, to be "YHWH," the God of the Old Testament.
So you can see that Marcion, by splitting Jesus from the "god of the Old Testament," was making a tragic error about the identity of Jesus Himself. Many modern thinkers continue to make the same mistake.
Eternal Love, Eternal Justice
"Well and good," someone might say, "the God of Jesus and the God of the Old Testament are the same. But that still leaves us with a problem: How can the ‘loving God’ revealed in Jesus be the same as the ‘angry God’ of the Old Testament?"
On this question we would do well to take some guidance from St. Augustine. Augustine wrote several defenses of the Old Testament and pointed out that people generally exaggerate how differently God is portrayed in the Old and the New Testament. The common caricature is the God in the Old Testament is a God of justice, wrath, and war. Jesus, on the other hand, is a pacifist who preaches mercy and reveals a God of abounding unconditional love. But is that accurate?
The God of Love in the Old Testament. People forget, on the one hand, that Jesus’ twin commands of love, to "love God with all your heart, soul, and strength" and "your neighbor as yourself " (Mt.22:37–40) are taken directly from the Old Testament (Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18). "On these two commandments," Jesus says, "depend all the law and the prophets," meaning: The command of love is the basis of the Old Testament. And as for mercy, remember in the Old Testament that God is unwilling to slay Cain even though Cain murdered his own brother (Gen. 4:15), and He is willing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if even ten righteous people could be found among the thousands in those cities (Gen. 18:32).
The God of Justice in the New Testament. On the other hand, people forget that Jesus once braided a whip and drove money changers by force out of the temple. He recommended, at one point, His disciples buy swords for self-defense (Lk. 22:36). He never told the centurions or soldiers that they had to leave their profession—nor did the disciples or John the Baptist. Moreover, He warned that those who failed to clothe, feed, or give a cup of cold water to His disciples would find themselves cast "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mt. 25:41–46).
This last point is worth pondering. St. Augustine observes that the punishments of God in the Old Testament, though sometimes severe, were only temporal—that is, they did not extend beyond this life. Jesus, on the other hand, clearly threatens the eternal punishment of hell. Yet which is more severe: the temporal punishment or hell? To pose the question is to answer it. As Jesus says, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?" And again, "Do not fear those who kill the body, but fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell" (Mt. 10:28). Therefore, Augustine says, those who contrast the supposedly "harsh" God of the Old Testament with the "kindly" God revealed in Jesus are thinking superficially. In point of fact, the stakes are much higher in the New Testament: The rewards are greater (heaven) and the consequences more grave (hell).
The supposed contrast between the "God of justice" in the Old Testament and the "God of mercy" in the New is exaggerated and ultimately false. In both Testaments, God promises and displays both His mercy and His justice.
Indiscretions, Crazy Laws, and Warfare
Even if we accept that the same God reveals Himself in both Testaments, there are still several awkward issues in the Old Testament: the scandalous behavior of many of the main characters, the numerous strange laws given to Israel, and especially the permission or even command to make war on certain pagan nations.
Let’s take these issues in order.
The immoral actions of certain Old Testament characters is particularly disturbing to folks who approach it with a "Sunday School" mentality, expecting the Bible to be a collection of edifying stories with a moral for our imitation.
However, the Bible is not actually a book for children, and much of the biblical story line is descriptive, not prescriptive: It describes history the way it was; it does not prescribe the way it should have been. The Bible is about real human history, not fictionalized, whitewashed accounts. It is about God saving sinful human beings, not pre-fabricated saints who had no need of salvation.
The laws in the Old Testament pose a different challenge. Why all these sacrifices, these ritual washings, these prohibitions of certain foods?
Although the reason for each Old Testament law deserves a separate discussion, here we can at least make a general point: Most of the Old Testament laws were given to Israel by Moses after Israel had grievously sinned, first with the Golden Calf, and later in a series of rebellions in the wilderness (see Numbers 11–25). Therefore, from ancient times it was already realized that the laws had a penitential purpose. The things commanded (like various sacrifices, purifications, and abstinence from certain foods) weren’t necessarily universal laws for all times and places, but were penances (or we might even say mortifications) placed on Israel to rehabilitate them from their idolatrous ways and pagan culture. Paul refers to the penitential character of these laws in Galatians 3:19, when he asks, "Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions. "He goes on to compare the Old Testament laws to a "pedagogue"(RSV: "custodian"), a servant who was responsible for restraining and disciplining a child on the way to and from school, in order to make sure that the child attended his lessons. With the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, this "pedagogue" is no longer necessary—God has enabled us to become spiritual adults (Gal. 4:1–7).
Finally, there is the troubling issue of warfare in the Old Testament, especially against the Canaanites, whom God commands the Israelites to destroy (Deut. 20:16–18).
The Church Fathers struggled with this issue. Some, like Origen, solved the problem by insisting that the commands and accounts of war in the Old Testament had no literal sense. In other words, none of it really happened. However, most of the Church Fathers felt Origen went too far by dismissing the historicity of Israel’s wars. The human author seems clearly to be asserting that these things were historical events. And, as Vatican II stated clearly (Dei Verbum, no. 11), whatever is asserted by the human author is also asserted by the Holy Spirit, and is therefore true.
Instead, most of the Church Fathers regarded Israel’s warfare against the Canaanites as a punishment for the Canaanites’ perverted culture (Deut. 20:18). While God could have chastised the Canaanites supernaturally, as He did with Sodom and Egypt, instead He used the Israelites as the means to judge them.
What was Canaanite "culture" like? Take a look at Leviticus18. By the time of Moses, they were practicing every kind of sexual perversion—including incest, prostitution, and homosexuality, as well as witchcraft and child sacrifice to their gods. Moreover, as the Israelites approached the Promised Land, the Canaanites heard of the miracles God had done during the Exodus and realized that the true God was with Israel (Josh. 2:8–11). Despite this knowledge, the Canaanites chose to remain in the land and do battle against the true God and His people rather than evacuate before them.
In light of the New Testament, we can see that the Canaanite culture was profoundly demonic. God put an end to it by means of the Israelites. Was there any mercy in such a severe application of God’s justice? I would argue there was—God put a stop to a culture that was raising generation after generation of people to follow the practices of demons and thus share the eternal fate of demons (Mt. 25:41).
There is mercy even in God’s judgments. From the beginning of history, in the Garden of Eden, God stated a principle: Sin will result in death. This is inevitable: Since God is the source of life itself, and sin is separation from God, sin cannot lead to anything but death, both physical and spiritual. Yet death also stops our sinning, and thus puts a limit on just how long we can go on storing up punishment for ourselves in the next life (Rom. 2:5). So there is mercy even in the judgment of death—it limits how long we can rebel against the Source of Life.
But weren’t there perhaps innocent people killed in the warfare between Israel and the Canaanites? How could God permit this? We are faced with similar questions about God’s will even today. The 3,000 or so unsuspecting Americans suddenly killed on9/11 comes immediately to mind. How can God allow the death of the innocent?
In any given case, this question cannot be completely answered until we see God face to face. When we consider mysteries like these, we do best to look to the Cross of Christ. At the Cross, we see God Himself, incarnate in Jesus Christ, suffering a most terrible death, despite His complete innocence. Yet at the Resurrection, we see this innocent death turned into triumph, into the salvation of the human race.
Whether in the Bible or our own experience, we don’t know the reasons of providence for allowing a death. But we do know our God has shared the death of the innocent Himself and has made it the gateway to eternal life. This truth was only hinted at in the Old Testament (Gen. 22:1–18; Wis. 2:21–3:9). It had to await the New Testament to be fully revealed. For
Further Reading . . .
In this article we’ve looked at "difficult" parts of the Old Testament. Let’s remember, too, how much of the Old Testament is beautiful and encouraging even to a first-time reader: the wonderful poetry of the psalms; the excellent advice of Proverbs, Sirach, and the other Wisdom books; the romance of the Song of Songs, the inspiring examples of faith in the historical books (recounted in Hebrews 11); the startling prophecies of the Messiah (Ps. 22; Is.52:13–53:12; Jer. 23:5–8; Ezek. 37:24–28).
I know I haven’t answered every question that may arise from reading the Old Testament. That’s not possible even in a semester long college course! Here are some further resources that would help:
Genesis, David and the Psalms, and Prophets and Apostles by Fr. Joseph L. Ponessa and Laurie Watson Manhardt. These Catholic Bible studies take readers through the Bible, incorporating Scripture with the Catechism, writings of the saints, and other treasured Catholic devotions.
Singing In The Reign by Michael Barber shows how the Psalms are not only the story of David, but of Christ as well—and, in Christ, the story of every Christian.
Genesis Part I: God and His Creation
and Genesis, Part II: God and His Family by Gayle Somers and Sarah Christmyer. These two volumes approach Scripture as a living encounter with God and cover the book of Genesis.
Letter & Spirit: Word, Worship, and the Mysteries
edited by Scott Hahn. Volume one of this journal of Catholic biblical theology highlights a number Old Testament topics.
E-mail this article to a friend
Dr. John Bergsma is a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. A former Protestant pastor, he and his wife, Dawn, entered the Catholic Church in 2001. This article first published in the November/December issue of Lay Witness Magazine and reproduced with permission of Catholics United for the Faith
. All rights reserved.