I love the scene in the first “Ghostbusters” movie where the team warns the mayor of New York of a coming “disaster of biblical proportions”:
Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.
Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…
Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!
Actually, except for the “dogs and cats” part, this is a pretty fair summary of the impression many people, even life-long believers, have of the Old Testament. No wonder we are reluctant to read and study, let alone preach from, the first two-thirds of Christian Scripture!
I am going to list the top three reasons I have heard for not preaching from the left-hand side of the Bible. I am then going to argue that each one is actually a reason that we need to preach these texts.
1) The Old Testament God is wrathful and violent.
Certainly, there is bloodshed aplenty in the texts south of Matthew (for example, see the account of Nineveh’s fall in Nahum 2–3). But the New Testament certainly is not lacking in texts witnessing to this theme (for example, Revelation 16:1-20; Matthew 10:34; or Luke 22:35-37). Avoiding the Old Testament doesn’t solve the problem. However, addressing these texts carefully in context reveals a God who cares passionately about justice, and who sides with the oppressed against the oppressor–themes we must address from our pulpits. For example: the horrific texts in Nahum are introduced in the final form of that book by a psalm (Nah 1:2-11) affirming that the LORD is a God of justice who punishes the wicked and the oppressor:
The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty (Nah 1:3 NRSV).
Nineveh’s destruction, then, is presented as a measured act of just punishment, not the capricious act of a violent deity. Indeed Habakkuk, the book that follows Nahum, wrestles with the problem of divine justice in the face of violence and suffering:
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you are unable to look at disaster.
Why would you look at the treacherous
or keep silent when the wicked swallows one who is more righteous? (Hab 1:12-13).
Rather than providing simple, condescending answers to our questions, the Old Testament invites us to join in the age-old struggle for meaning, and so to find ourselves in conversation with the Divine.
2) The Old Testament is law, the New Testament is grace.
This misunderstanding of the Bible derives from a misreading, not only of the Old Testament, but also of the New–particularly, the letters of Paul, who sometimes opposes legalism to faith (for example, in Romans 4:13-16). Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is the idea expressed that, by proper observance of the law, one earns God’s favor. Rather, always and everywhere, obedience is a faithful response to the love and grace that God has shown. Micah expresses this very aptly:
With what should I approach the Lord
and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
what the Lord requires from you:
to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).
Grace is the beating heart of the whole of Scripture. Indeed, hearing that grace expressed in the pithy, earthy language of the Old Testament, rather than the often otherworldly language of the New, may make its message all the more potent. This leads to the third objection:
3) The Old Testament is odd.
Guilty as charged! The Old Testament is, after all, old: it reflects the worldview of ancient cultures, far removed from us in time and space. The oddity of texts such as Ezekiel’s vision of the LORD’s glory (Ezek 1; depicted effectively in the woodcut above) should not, indeed cannot, be denied or explained away. However, precisely because they are strange, these passages may be able to help us hear anew a message that more familiar texts no longer effectively convey. The message of God’s caring, and God’s determination to come to us where we are, may no longer sound so strongly in passages we have heard over and over again (such as John 3:16). But the wheels beneath the divine throne in Ezekiel’s vision reveal that God is enthroned in a chariot, enabling God to be present in God’s full glory wherever God wishes–a striking image that, in its very strangeness and unfamiliarity, may break through to us as it did for African slaves discovering the Bible and its faith.
Preaching the Old Testament is not optional: if we believe that the Bible is indeed word of God for the people of God, then we need to preach Scripture in its fullness. When we do so, we will experience the power of God’s word and God’s presence anew.
AFTERWORD: Wendy and I are just back from a glorious vacation in New England and Atlantic Canada. The Bible Guy series on how to read the Bible will resume next time. This week’s blog responds to a request from Melissa Logan, Director of Communications at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, for ideas on preaching from the Old Testament. Hope you find it useful.