On Sunday night we returned to our exploration of the Old Testament. Last time we were there, we found ourselves confronting some of the more violent passages. We challenged some of the traditional readings and started to hint at some counter narratives, and it was those alternative voices that we went back to listen to.
Arguably the dominant theme of the Bible is covenant, the relationship between God and creation, and so that is what we took as our starting point. We began by looking at three distinct covenants of the Old Testament – the Noahic, the Abrahamic and the Mosaic.
The first is found in Genesis 9, and is between God and the whole of creation. The second is given in several forms in Genesis 12-17, and promises land and blessing to the faithful descendants of Abraham. The third is given on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-24, and sets the terms of the relationship between God and the people of Israel.
There seems to be a narrowing of the recipients of the promise, and an increasing conditionality to God’s blessing, a mirror image of the widening reach and expansive grace of the new convenant given in bread and wine. Put like that, it sounds like a steady diminuendo followed by a sudden crescendo, the Bible is far more dynamic than that.
To demonstrate this, Simon suggested five key words that describe the covenants of the Old Testament, as given in the passages above and as developed by subsequent generations, then gave us a selection of passages that stretch our understanding of them.
PEOPLE At first glance the covenant seems to be about defining a chosen people, and yet verses such as Isaiah 56:3-7 and Jeremiah 16:19-21 speak of God bringing in all the nations and embracing those who the law rejected.
LAND The promise of land as an eternal inheritance continues to hold significance for many, and yet Leviticus 25:23 rejects the idea of ownership, while Joshua 23:16 and Jeremiah 2:7 together suggest that the promise was conditional and the conditions have not been met.
RITUAL The sacrifices and festivals that formed the basis of religious life were seen as central to the maintaining of the covenant, and yet Amos 5:21-24 and Isaiah 1:11-20 have God rejecting these practices and asking instead for justice and reason.
KING The Davidic kingdom is often seen as the highpoint of Old Testament history, and yet 1 Samuel 8 makes clear the God never wanted to give Israel a king because kingship is by nature violent and exploitative.
TEMPLE The temple became the centre for all ritual worship, and yet 2 Samuel 7:1-13 sees God deny David’s attempt to build him a house, while in 1 Kings 8:27 Solomon questions whether the house he has built can really contain God.
Of course that brief summary doesn’t capture the richness of our discussion, but I hope it may at least jog a few memories or prompt a few investigations. At the very least it demonstrates how quickly the idea that we can ever say “the Bible says” collapses, an important thing to remember when we find what “the Bible says” troubling or confusing.
That’s not to say that we can simply dismiss the bits we don’t like without giving them a second thought, but it is to say that we can challenge them and look at them from different angles, because that is exactly what the biblical writers themselves were doing.
The dissonance of the Bible can be rather disconcerting, but it reminds us that the scriptures are a conversation we are invited to join, rather than a lecture we are commanded to listen to, and so it can also be incredibly liberating.