Old Testament


I appreciated these comments by Iain Provan about Cain’s shameless question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). Provan notes:

The question is never explicitly answered, because it does not need to be. From the perspective of biblical faith, the answer is obvious. Yes, if you have been created to work the garden and take care of it (literally to “keep” it, Hebrew shamar; Genesis 2:15), you are certainly also to “keep” (shamar) your brother. Just as the good God “will keep you [shamar] from all harm — he will watch over [shamar] your life” (Psalm 121:7), so also a righteous image bearer of God will watch over the life of his fellow image bearer. That is the core of right relating to my various neighbors: to “keep” them.

What is amazing about the story of Cain and Abel is that God continues to “keep” Cain even though Cain did not “keep” his brother. Instead of putting Cain to death, God sends him into exile with the promise that he won’t be overtaken by bloodshed (Genesis 4:14-15), the very blessing that Cain denied to Abel. God watches over and protects Cain even though Cain does not deserve it.

If neighbor-keeping is being “like God” and reflecting his image and imitating the way he keeps people, then we should think about the way God treats Cain. It teaches us that we are to be our neighbor’s keeper even when they don’t deserve it, even when they’ve acted like an enemy, even when they can’t see their own hypocrisy (after all, what is more hypocritical than Cain complaining to God that someone might kill him?). God’s “keeping” is always rooted in grace and not in the worthiness of the recipient of his care.

Old Covenant vs. Old Testament

There are two terms that I often hear people confuse: Old Covenant and Old Testament.

These two terms are not the same.

The Old Covenant refers to the particular relationship that God established with Israel on Mount Sinai (cf. Exodus 24). The Old Testament refers to the Scriptures of Israel before the time of Christ, what Jesus called “the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40) and what Paul called “the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2).

The Old Covenant is temporary and provisional. It includes land, law, temple, priesthood, sacrifices, etc. as part of God’s dealings with Israel that find their fulfillment in Christ. The Old Testament is not temporary or provisional. The books of the Old Testament form an enduring witness to God and his ways that continues to have authority alongside the New Testament.

The Bible says some things about the deficiency of the Old Covenant (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8:7-13). But the Bible never speaks about the deficiency of the Old Testament. Just the opposite: Jesus said if people don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets they won’t listen even if someone rises from the dead (Luke 16:31). And when Jesus rose from the dead and met a pair of confused disciples on the Emmaus road, he used the Old Testament as the way of providing the context and content for making sense of who he is. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (Luke 24:27)

Today the church does not live under the Old Covenant. But that doesn’t mean that the church does not live under the continuing authority of the Old Testament as it teaches us in its own way who God is, the shape of his salvation in Christ, the character of his people, the nature of worship, the goal of mission, etc.

Someone once told me that theology is the art of making distinctions. It is important to distinguish Old Covenant (a temporary covenantal arrangement) from Old Testament (Israel’s scriptures as an enduring theological witness).

Does God Have Anger Issues?

Anger is an aspect of God’s character that we probably don’t like to think about. It’s also an aspect of his character that we easily misconstrue. People who have had an angry parent, an angry spouse, or anger issues in their own heart can start to view God as having similar kinds of anger issues. He’s mean, disagreeable, easily provoked, and harsh.

Iain Provan, one of my Old Testament profs, has some helpful comments about God’s anger in his new book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters. He notes three things about God’s anger:

1. God’s anger is reasoned

God’s anger is not arbitrary, capricious, or spiteful. It’s not the result of wounded pride or having a bad day. God’s anger is his outrage against evil and his passion to bring justice to those who are oppressed. In this sense, God’s anger gives us hope that, since he cares about creation, he will intervene and set things right.

2. God’s anger is slow

God does not blow his top or act rashly like we often do. Provan notes, “God is for his creation, and his anger is always constrained by his compassion and grace. This is why the world continues on its way at all, for, as the psalmist asks, ‘If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?’ (Psalm 130:3).” Ironically, it is God’s being slow to anger that makes Jonah (who is quick to anger) so upset.

3. God’s anger relents

Those who suffer God’s anger can still experience God’s compassion. Micah 7:18 says that God delights in showing mercy (I am not aware of any passages that states God delights in showing anger). Provan says, “There is hope that once an accounting has been made of wrongdoing, there might be a restoration.” This is the news that Isaiah brings to Israel: “For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer.” (Isaiah 54:7–8)

Because God’s anger is reasoned, slow, and relenting, Biblical authors can talk about it with frequency while not feeling that it contradicts or obscures God’s goodness.

Moses, an Egyptian, and Injustice

Many of us have been sheltered from the harsh realities of suffering and oppression. When we are exposed to them, our first reaction might be to strike out at injustice, to do something (anything) to eliminate the problem.

That’s what Moses did. He grew up as a rich kid in Pharaoh’s house. He was sheltered from what his brothers were going through. But eventually his eyes were opened:

“One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people.” (Exodus 2:12)

Moses wanted to strike back at injustice and oppression. He looked left and right and, seeing that the coast was clear, struck down the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.

Interestingly, this approach didn’t win Moses any brownie points with the Hebrews. The next day (when Moses took another crack at using his conflict resolution skills) the Hebrews dismissed him: “Who made you a prince and judge over us?” To the Hebrews, Moses didn’t look any different than their Egyptian oppressors. He was just another person who exercised power through violence.

It is interesting to compare Moses’ reaction to Israel’s oppression with what God tells Moses from the burning bush. Remember that Moses saw the affliction of the people. But God says,

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land.” (Exodus 3:7-8)

Both Moses and God saw affliction. But unlike Moses, God also says “I have heard their cry” and “I know their suffering.”

In some mysterious way, God identified with Israel’s suffering in a way that Moses did not. That God heard the cries of the people and knew their suffering means that God was not spending his time in the halls of privilege and power (where Moses grew up) but in the camp with the Hebrew slaves. Wouldn’t Pharaoh’s palace be a more fitting place for the God of heaven than a slave camp? Wouldn’t a holy God draw back from cries, pain, and squalor?  But God said, “I have come down to deliver them.” He lowered himself to be with his people. God descended into the condition of the oppressed.

What was the difference between God and Moses? Moses struck out at injustice without identifying with the people he would deliver (which only created further injustice). But God entered into the suffering of his people. He was with them in suffering so that he could lead them out of it.

Here are two brief lessons I take from this:

1. Those who would be instruments of the Lord must enter into the sufferings of others. There is no real ministry without solidarity. God would eventually send Moses back to deliver the people, but only after Moses spent years as a refugee, slaving away as a shepherd in the wilderness. Moses learned to identify with his Hebrew brothers in Egypt.

2. Even more fundamentally, it is God’s character to descend into the condition of the oppressed. It is his nature to enter into the sufferings of his people. When God acts in justice and salvation, he does not exercise his power apart from identification and solidarity with those he saves. He acts in identification and solidarity. He is in the midst of the people he saves.

The author of Hebrews says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death” (2:14). The God who delivers Israel is the same God we meet in the person of Jesus Christ — one who descends into the condition of those he would deliver.

The Old Testament in a Nutshell

I like how Chris Wright describes how the Old Testament sets forth a basic worldview by asking and answering four questions:

  1. Where are we? What is the nature of the universe and this planet on which we live? How does it come to be here and have a future?
  2. Who are we? What does it mean to be human and how, if at all, are we distinct from the rest of the living creatures we live among?
  3. What’s gone wrong? What is the cause of the way things are, which we instinctively feel is not the way they should be? Why are we in such a mess?
  4. What’s the solution? What, if anything, can be done to put things right? Is there hope for the future, and if so, hope in what or whom or by when?

These are all questions the Old Testament answers for us. They are also things which are expanded, elaborated upon, or assumed as background in the New Testament.

Wright says the Old Testament provides the following answers to these four questions:

  1. This world is part of the good creation of the one single living God, whom we know as the LORD. It wholly belongs to this God (no part belongs to other gods), and the Lord is sovereign over all that exists ‘in heaven above, on earth below and under the earth.’
  2. ‘We’ in the wider sense are human beings made in the image of the creator God, made for relationship with God and one another. ‘We’ in the narrower sense are an elect people in unique relationship with the Lord who is both our covenant God and the universal God of the nations, who through a great historical deliverance (exodus), through the covenant made at Sinai, and through the gift of the land constituted us as his own people.
  3. What has gone wrong is that we human beings have rebelled against the creator God, in moral and spiritual disobedience, and this has brought evil consequences into every aspect of human life, including the individual personality, our relationships with one another, with our physical environment, and with God.
  4. The solution lies with this same creator God who has addressed the problems of the nations of humanity by a historical project of redemption, beginning with the choice of Abraham (the father of our nation) and extending to include the blessing of all nations and a new creation.

Inhabit the Psalms

I just started reading N.T. Wright’s The Case for the Psalms. Wright is a leading New Testament scholar, and I suppose it is obligatory to say that no one can write as much as he does without saying things that are controversial (i.e. his views on justification). But who can disagree with this wonderful description of the psalms:

They are full of power and passion, horrendous misery and unrestrained jubilation, tender sensitivity and powerful hope. Anyone at all whose heart is open to new dimensions of human experience, anyone who loves good writing, anyone who wants a window into the bright lights and dark corners of the human soul— anyone open to the beautiful expression of a larger vision of reality should react to these poems like someone who hasn’t had a good meal for a week or two.

For Wright, using the psalms is not about pulling them into our world in an attempt to make them more relevant. Rather, the goal is for us to find our way into their world and begin to see things through their perspective:

The regular praying and singing of the Psalms is transformative. It changes the way we understand some of the deepest elements of who we are, or rather, who, where, when, and what we are: we are creatures of space, time, and matter, and though we take our normal understandings of these for granted, it is my suggestion that the Psalms will gently but firmly transform our understandings of all of them. They do this in order that we may be changed, transformed, so that we look at the world, one another, and ourselves in a radically different way, which we believe to be God’s way.

And for those who like their theology with a cheeky illustration here and there, it is hard not to enjoy Wright’s prose:

The Psalms offer us a way of joining in a chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures. Not to try to inhabit them, while continuing to invent nonpsalmic “worship” based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.

If, like me, you didn’t know anything about the view from Table Mountain in Cape Town, click here.

Life in the Shadows

God is often described as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” But of the three, Isaac seems to get the least attention. I read an article this morning about the role and function of Isaac in Genesis, the title of which highlights Isaac’s subordinate role among the patriarchs. It was called “Life in the Shadows.”

Maybe you know what “life in the shadows” feels like. As the middle patriarch, Isaac is kind of like a middle child who is constantly overshadowed by both his older and his younger siblings. Here are a couple of things I hadn’t really noticed before:

  • Abraham has 14 chapters exclusively devoted to him and Jacob has 9, Isaac only has one (Genesis 26).
  • Isaac is normally defined in terms of his relationship to the other patriarchs, either as the son of Abraham or as the father of Jacob.
  • In most stories, Isaac is largely passive. But even when he acts, he tends to “follow in the footsteps” of Abraham (lying about his wife, making covenant with Abimelech, etc.) or he is depicted as old and weak (as in the well-known story of the blessing of Jacob).

Isaac is hardly a larger than life figure. His significance is found not so much in what he does, but in that he receives the promises as a son of Abraham and passes them on to Jacob and to future generations. Here’s a snippet from the conclusion of the article:

Theologically, important statements are being made about the continuity of the promises through Isaac’s life. The promises were not inherited by merit, but were won for Isaac, and future generations, by Abraham. In turn, Isaac hands the blessing on to Jacob, the recipient of the promises, who was also a child chosen by God.

I think this ought to resonate for people who believe that by faith in Christ we are sons of Abraham (Gal 3:7,9,14, 29) and who believe that God’s covenant promises are still “for us and for our children (Acts 2:39). The promises of the covenant have been secured for us by God and we receive them through faith, despite our relative significance or insignificance in life. Moreover, real significance is found in becoming a link or bridge for passing on God’s covenant promises to a new generation. If this is “life in the shadows,” it is life lived in the shadow of the cross. 

Fearing God

This morning I read some interesting comments regarding the book of Job that impressed upon me once again that the Biblical phrase “fear of God” doesn’t mean “fearing what God might to do to me.”

Job loses all the things that we tend to think make life valuable: possessions, family, and health. He goes from the man who has it all to the man who has nothing. His wife suggests that he curse God and die, since after all what is the point of living for God if this is what it gets you.

But through Job we learn the following lesson:

It is no good being a fair-weather friend; true relationship is sustained through the hard times as well as the good times. Indeed, if one reflects on all that Job has been through, then it is appropriate to depict his relationship with God in time-honored and hallowed language: “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health.” These marriage vows both describe and constitute true relationship. Job’s integrity/fear of God has the dynamics of true love. It thereby becomes fully clear that the content of “fear of God” is far from being “afraid of God and the consequences he may exact”–for the worst that could happen to Job has happened, and he sustains his fear of God regardless.

The whole story of Job is built around the premise that Job’s relationship with God is not self-serving. He is not “in it” for what he might get “out of it.” He is in it no matter what he gets out of it, because Yahweh is his God. That’s the real significance of the phrase “the fear of God.”