13 Questions Christians ask about the Old Testament: Part 2

Remember: God made the world a good place where we could know Him and He could bless us, but we rebelled and brought evil into the world. So God chose one person, Abraham, from whom He made a nation, Israel, so that through this one nation He would save all nations. The Old Testament is their story, the story of God preparing this people so that He could become a human being by being born to a woman of Israel. He did this in order to become the Savior and King of the whole human race, fulfilling His original intention for us to know Him and be blessed by Him.

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back

What if I Don’t Understand Something?

When you read, you will certainly come to portions that you don’t fully understand. That’s normal. Everyone who reads the Bible has the same experience, so this must be a part of God’s design for His Word. So you don’t need a solution to the problem of not understanding everything. What you need a solution to is the problem of worrying about not understanding everything.

Whenever you study the Bible, you must do it in conversation with God. God gave us the Bible so that we could and would know Him. What’s more, He is not like a boss who tosses the company handbook to a new employee as he leaves the room, saying, “Here’s the manual. Read it to understand what we do and what you’re supposed to do. When you’re done, get to work.” He wants us to know Him and will help us whenever we ask. So when you read, do it in conversation with God. If you don’t understand something, ask for help and keep reading and thinking about it. Perhaps ask a more mature brother or sister in Christ for help. If you still don’t understand, assume that this is something the Lord will teach you some day, but right now, it isn’t vital that you have a full understanding. Just trust Him and move on. It’s okay not to understand everything.

Didn’t Jesus Disagree with the Old Testament?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” and then He goes on to correct this teaching by saying, “but I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:38-39 NASB). Since “an eye for an eye” is from the Old Testament, this sounds like He is saying that the Old Testament was wrong. However, Jesus is not really talking about that verse from the Old Testament. He’s talking about what people said about that verse. “An eye for an eye” was a call for proportionate and reasonable responses to injury. It was given to be a limit on retaliation and to stop the spiraling cycles of revenge that are so common. Some teachers had turned this on its head, using the verse as a justification for taking revenge, even though the Old Testament specifically instructs people not to take revenge (Lev. 19:18). This is what Jesus is disagreeing with. He is also going beyond what is taught in this verse by describing how a person who really understands the real presence and nearness of God will naturally react to an insult (since the slap was more an insult than an assault).

When you read the whole sermon in Matthew 5-7, you see that Jesus says in His introduction that He has not come to abolish the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17). In Jesus’ day many Old Testament teachings were being misused by taking them ritualistically or legalistically. This kept the Law from having the good effect it was supposed to. This is what a lot of his “corrections” of the Old Testament really are. Jesus never says that the Old Testament was wrong, only that people have interpreted it wrongly.

Don’t Scholars say the Old Testament is Unreliable?

This is an issue that has disturbed many people, and a lot can be said about it. However, the final answer to it is very simple. Jesus treated the Old Testament as totally reliable. He quoted it and referred to it often and never cast any doubts upon its total trustworthiness. He treated it as the very words of God. He even said that the Scriptures are reliable: “…and the scripture cannot be broken” ( Jn. 10:35 KJV). You already know that the “scripture” Jesus is talking about is the Old Testament.

We have copies of the Old Testament from around Jesus’ day, and they are basically the same scriptures you read in your Bible. So no matter what ideas and insights scholars have about the Old Testament, one thing they can not do is show that you should not read it or rely on it. God wants you to read the Old Testament that you have available to you. It is His Word and it is one of the most important ways He wants you to come to know Him better. The Scriptures cannot be broken.

Did people have the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament?

For this question I have to give a very short answer. For some reason this question requires an answer that is either very short or pretty long. I’ve written a longer one and will post it later outside of this course for those who are interested.

The very short answer is that believers in the Old Testament did not have the Holy Spirit in the same way Christians do today, but they had access to God’s empowering when He chose them to do a particular job (for example, Ex. 31:1-5 ). However, the Spirit might also withdraw from this person. When Saul was made king, the Spirit came upon him (1 Sam. 10:6-9), but later, after Saul had turned from God, the Spirit left him (1 Sam. 16:14).

Old Testament believers also could have the Holy Spirit in some sense if they asked for Him. This is what Jesus taught (Luke 11:13). So it seems that the Holy Spirit was available to believers in the time of the Old Testament, but was only present to the degree that people sought connection with God. What kind of empowerment He gave them is also not clear, but it was not the same as He gives today.

Why are there Weird Laws in the Old Testament?

The Law of Moses has some very odd laws, such as not being allowed to yoke two different species of animal together to plow a field, or not being allowed to plant more than one kind of seed in a field, or not to make fabric out of different types of material (they couldn’t weave linen and wool together, for example). Then there are the food laws. They may eat fish as long as they have both scales and fins. They may not eat insects except for certain types of unwinged locusts and grasshoppers.

These laws and others seem very strange but there is an underlying concept which explain most of them. This is the concept of holiness.

Israel was a special people, separated out and dedicated to God. He had a particular plan to use them to bless the world, so it was important they kept themselves separate and different from the world. Many laws reflect this truth symbolically. One major explanation for “weird” laws is that some seem to have been aimed at keeping Israel from specific pagan religious practices, such as shaving the sides of the head (Lev. 19:27-28). This was a way that Israel’s pagan neighbors mourned for the dead. God’s people were not to imitate their practices, but were to be different.

Understanding holiness sheds light on more of the “weird” laws than any other. Look at what God says in Leviticus.

24 But I said to you, “You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations.

25 “‘You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground—those that I have set apart as unclean for you. 26 You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own. (Lev. 20:24-26 NIV)

To be “holy” means to be “set apart,” to be complete and whole. Perhaps we should say that to be holy means to be a complete, whole, unified thing and so to be set apart or separate because it isn’t mixed with other things. It does not always mean “morally clean.” Here the idea is that in order to be the tool God would use to save all nations, Israel had to be different from them. We would say that the most important way they should be different was morally, but God went much farther and called His people to be different in some cultural ways and also symbolically.

It is because Israel was to be separate and unmixed that the Law forbids mixing seeds in a field, fibers in a fabric and yoking different species together. It also explains many of the food laws. The children of Israel were to eat meat from animals that belonged entirely in one category, as the people of the time conceived them. A “proper” fish has scales, gills and fins. If an animal lives in the water, but doesn’t have one of these, then it crosses categories and is not a proper fish. A proper flying thing is a feathered bird that eats seeds and insects. Birds that hunt animals or eat dead animals are forbidden, as are bats and flying insects.

There are other factors to keep in mind as well. One factor is also symbolic. It has to do with where an animal gets its own food. Shellfish and scaleless fish such as catfish are bottom-feeders and live off trash and excrement and so are not permitted to be eaten. Predators that feed off of other animals are also forbidden, as are animals that feed off of dead things. None of these things are worthy of drawing sustenance from. The other factor is the mercy of God. It was not okay to eat an insect, with the exception of locusts and their relatives. At this time, locusts would sometimes swarm and devour large portions of the crops a family depended on to survive. God relaxed the prohibition on eating insects to allow people who were afflicted in this way to at least partially offset the loss by eating the locusts themselves (Lev. 11:20-23) This is a subtle illustration of human need being more important to God than ceremonial requirements.

Another common explanation for these laws is that they reflect God’s true “scientific” understanding of the world. Today we see that some of these laws “accidentally” required the Israelites to enforce good practices that relate to public and private health. The law requires quarantine in the case certain kinds of illness, public sanitation, clean food and the avoidance of contact with dead bodies. These things make sense to us today and so we don’t think of them as “weird” laws. However, we should remember that in Moses’ day, they were as unexplained as were the laws mentioned above. Israelites were supposed to bury their excrement, not because of bacteria or flies or to keep themselves healthy, but because God was among them and shouldn’t have to see something dirty like that (Deut. 23:13-14). This ceremonial law had the side effect of enforcing sanitation, but the stated reason for the law is not good public health practices. Another example is that Israelites understood that they were to avoid contact with dead things because they were dedicated to the God of Life. They didn’t know anything about bacteria.

It is easy to take the “accidental benefit” point too far. Some Bible readers assume that since we can see a scientific sense for some of the laws, that, therefore all of them have a hidden “scientific” basis. What ends up happening is that Christians then return to being under the Mosaic Law because it’s taken to be a scientific description of how we should live. This is not the point of the Mosaic Law.

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back

Questions for Discussion

  1. We see that teachers in Jesus’ day misused the Bible to justify bad behavior. Do people do this today? How?

  2. What way of reading the Old Testament led to justifying bad behavior? What attitude did those teachers have? Can we do this today?

  3. What are your thoughts about what scholars say about the Old Testament? Have you heard very much from them? How important are their ideas for us as we read? How What role should the ideas and insights of scholars have for ordinary readers of the Old Testament?

  4. How would you explain the concept of holiness? We see that God’s people are to be “holy” because God is “holy.” Is our holiness identical to God’s holiness? In what ways is the holiness we are called to like God’s holiness? Unlike?

Name

Famous stories and people

Foundations

Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood

Family

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph

Fulfillment and Failure

Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering

Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth

Kings

Saul, David, Solomon

Kingdoms

Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah

Kicked Out

Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace

Came Back

Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

Lesson Twelve

Important Final Matters