Around the New Year, many of us jump in on a Bible reading plan. Reading through the Bible in one year is a great goal. It’s challenging, but not impossible. And it builds a positive habit, and gives you a deeper understanding of faith and church history.
But once the exciting days of Genesis and Exodus are behind you, you’ll find yourself moving into Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. “Oh man,” you might start thinking, “I don’t know if this was such a good idea.” As you thumb through passages detailing everything from animal sacrifices to genocide to prophets’ warning of doom and gloom, you might start to wonder if there’s any value in reading this content.
In his famous book The God Delusion, noted anti-theist Richard Dawkins says, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
The New Testament just feels so much different. In the ministry of Jesus, we see completely unmerited forgiveness for a woman caught in the act of adultery (and presumably the man who was not dragged before Jesus, as well). Jesus ministers to Romans and Samaritans, who were outsiders that should be destroyed according to the commands God gave Israel. Instead of destroying and killing, Jesus serves others and even sacrifices Himself.
When we read those parts of the Old Testament that we don’t tend to cover in Sunday school, we might start wondering how we got from the God who was demanding bloody animal sacrifices—to Jesus, who is all about love and hope and peace.
What Dawkins said seems harsh, but there are definitely parts of the Old Testament that make me cringe. In light of that, what are we supposed to do with the first two-thirds of the Bible? Do we have to read it? Do we have to like it? Are we supposed to follow the rules and regulations in it?
The writer of the book of Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.”
Based on this, it seems clear that we must pay attention to what the Old Testament says, for when we ignore it, we ignore the God whom we worship and call Father. But we also need to better understand the purpose of the Old Testament so we can allow it to be part of our faith, rather than treating it like a crazy uncle we try to ignore.
Here are some things to remember as you sort through it:
God Wants to Bless, Not Harm
When God chose Abraham to become the father of a great nation of people, God specifically says He’s doing it so that they entire world may benefit from it.
If Israel loses its identity, all of humanity would lose its pathway to God’s blessings.
God is severe about health practices and food regulations and civil requirements and even war on other people in order to protect this group of people tasked with being a bridge to God’s blessing for the whole earth. It’s like a doctor amputating a leg to save a life. It’s a terrible option, but better than the alternative.
Even when we read sections that no longer apply to our daily practice (don’t wear clothes made of two different materials, how to compensate people gored by an ox, etc), we can see in it the great care God puts into caring for His people through whom He will provide salvation, renewal and restoration to the entire world.
God’s Warnings Are a Reflection of His Mercy
I had a professor once who, on the very first day of class, announced when our final paper was due. He told us that any paper turned in after than date would receive a zero. He further said, “Some of you will come to me the day before it is due or the actual due date and tell me you need more time; that you need a grace period. Here’s the grace I’m giving you: by telling you 16 weeks before it is due that I will not accept it late.”
More than a few students thought the professor was a huge jerk. I loved him. I knew exactly what I had to do in order to pass the course.
God is constantly warning Israel through the prophets because He loves them. He warns them repeatedly and reminds them of their identity so they can make changes and avoid the consequences of terrible choices.
God doesn’t warn of consequences because He’s a jerk. He warns because He’s a loving father.
God Is Teaching His People to Love
In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith argues that our heart is not influenced by our head, but by our body. In other words, we believe and desire before we think.
Practically speaking, this explains why I know carrots are healthier than potato chips, yet when I’m at the store, the salty snacks are more likely to end up in my cart. I crave, I desire the chips, and unless I am intentional about my choice, I will follow my desires.
Only if I create and adhere to a healthy eating plan will I make healthier choices.
When God creates systems of worship for His people, He’s giving them a healthier plan than they would set for themselves based on what they crave. They desire a God who is physically represented, a God who can be understood formulaically (happy=rain, mad=drought), but God is so much bigger than that.
Although parts of it are difficult to swallow, the Old Testament is ultimately a love story of a Father and His children. It is a story of the Father teaching His children how to reciprocate so they can have the fulfilling relationship with their creator they were designed to have.
When we see these concepts coming alive out of the pages of the Old Testament, it’s easier to recognize the God we also encounter in the New Testament. This probably won’t make Numbers your new favorite book to read, but it can give you a sense of value to ascribe to the Scriptures that may have, in the past, caused you to feel confused or separated from God. You see, Genesis chapter 3 through Malachi chapter 4 is an essential part of the story of redemption and love that should make us want to orient our lives around the God who loves.