Why I Don't Want to Read the Old Testament
The Bible and I have an on again, off again relationship. I enjoy thinking the two of us go through periods of getting along; that is, as long as I do well managing to ignore large sections of it (namely the Old Testament) in favor of the more palatable, relatable (Jesus) parts. We can all get behind Jesus reprimanding conservatives of his day for being too religious. We can feel comforted discovering a psalm that eerily acknowledges our breakup, divorce, diagnosis, bereavement, fill-in-the-blank pain. We are moved and humbled when we learn in the Emmaus story that Jesus reveals himself not in a lengthy sermon or lecture but around the dinner table. I - we - rightly gravitate toward these words because we need to hear them, to be reassured by them, to let them care for us.
I struggle to love the Bible as a whole, and I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are the obvious reasons, like the fact that most Old Testament stories read like a Game of Thrones episode, full to the brim with violence and sexual perversion. These stories trouble us because they seem too intimidating or complex to have any real impact on our lives here and now. It’s hard to see how they fit. We would rather discard them than figure out how to make sense of them. However, maybe our discomfort with the Old Testament is good. Maybe it means we are listening, and that we refuse to quietly smile and nod in agreement when internally we are disturbed. It is good because often when we hear these thorny, morally ambiguous stories lessened to cliches, something inside of us says “no.” We feel deep discomfort over these stories because they cannot be boiled down to a set of moralistic principles, fit neatly into a three point sermon, or fashioned into some sort of simple guidebook for right living. Those of us who feel disconnected and alienated from the church, or who feel out of place in Sunday morning worship, who have been told that our art is not agreeable or that our gifts are better-suited elsewhere, or that we cannot bring our whole selves into the sanctuary, we have little tolerance for pat answers. Having internalized the subtle message that our hesitations and doubts are unwelcome, we bristle when we hear these complicated texts reduced to platitudes. We don’t see life working out that way, and thus we grapple with the Old Testament because we suspect that it doesn’t believe life works that way either.
Take the story of Jonah for instance. Chances are if you grew up in church, you know it well. It conjures images of flannel graphs or cartoons or Sunday school teachers or youth group. “You cannot outrun God’s call on your life,” they might have said, followed by something-something-evangelism, fielding questions at the end about whether or not Jonah was really swallowed by a whale. These are not unimportant themes to pull out from the story. While they have their place, we have a tendency to remain stuck on these questions. If we stop there, what have we missed? What opportunities have we passed up? What have we used to distract ourselves from what may be hidden there if we just look hard and long enough? There is so much in the story of Jonah if we allow ourselves the space to see it. Of course, we are most familiar with the first half. Jonah flees his prophetic call to Nineveh, God reroutes him via the belly of a fish, Jonah repents of his disobedience and Nineveh is saved. If we don’t read further than the Sunday school version, we will not be unsettled by the fact that Jonah is so displeased with God for sparing the Nineveh that he says it is better for him to die than to live. It ends rather abruptly and without much resolution. We don’t find out if Jonah realizes the error in his thinking, and we don’t hear anything more about Nineveh. Maybe this story is not so much about the salvation of Nineveh - God didn’t really need Jonah for that anyway - but more so about laying bare Jonah’s contempt and prejudice for a foreign people that God loved and desired to save. The whole reason that Jonah was disobedient to God’s call was because he knew that God would be merciful. He simply could not imagine a world in which God pardons those that he despises.
Ultimately, Jonah holds up a mirror and forces us to look straight into the face of our own ugliness. We don’t have to look far in our world to see this story has something to say to us. This is a Word that we desperately need for today. The Word is that God loves the people we have single-handedly decided are unlovable. The Word is that when we are bent toward the destruction of all that is unlike us, God is slow to anger and abounding in love. This Word is challenge and exhortation. This Word is radical and offensive. It speaks, and we must listen. Yet even it does not completely resolve our doubts or frustrations. Contradictions still exist. There are still many opportunities to poke holes in the moral logic (if God loved Nineveh so much, why would God need to condemn it in the first place?) or raise questions about how we think of God (wait, if God sees into the future, why would God change God’s mind?) and thus the discomfort that we have temporarily silenced comes back to remind us about things we’d rather forget. For every one example of biblical violence that we formulate a theological response to, there are many others waiting to take its place. I understand the impulse to resort to easy answers in order to calm our fears and help us sleep better at night. It’s only natural. The alternative borders on chaos. However, I’m beginning to think that this unnerving process is exactly the point, for try as we might we cannot do away with the dissonance of these questions and these Words of discomfort. We must pay attention to the persistent warning in our souls that will not allow us to accept easy answers to complex questions, no matter how tempting. The Word comes to us in a voice that whispers “wait, there must be something else.”