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3 Things We Should Stop Doing to the Old Testament

If you believe the Old Testament is inspired Scripture, you can’t just sing about building an arky arky out of gopher barky barky … you’re eventually going to need to work through the disturbing text that says God was so frustrated that he decided to kill … everyone (‘cept the arky crew of course).

3. Turning the Old Testament into simple moral lessons.

You experience this almost any time you hear an exposition on any Old Testament story in church. The text is reduced into simplistic equations and steps for living a godly, happy or fulfilled life. Even more tragic than that, we take stories about God’s behavior in a specific situation and normalize it. If you do this, God will always respond this way.

Daniel and the lion’s den is a story about how God protected his chosen ambassador in Babylon. Throughout the book we see God working on Daniel’s behalf to keep the young Israelite in a place where God can influence Babylon through him. This includes protecting Daniel from those who want to kill him in order to destroy this growing influence and popularity.

But when you hear sermons about Daniel, the listener becomes the focus. Daniel’s story becomes a prop to pull lessons out and apply them to the congregation’s life. This isn’t necessarily bad, except it often includes assuming that God has bound himself to responding in the exact same way in similar situations. This creates a lot of theological and interpretive problems.

Because the truth is:

  • Unlike Daniel, you can act with integrity and the lions might eat you.
  • Unlike David, you can act with faith and Goliath may kill you.
  • Unlike Joseph, you can act with purity and spend the rest of your life in prison.
  • Unlike Elijah, God may not silence your critics with miracles.

One of the things making the Old Testament so troublesome is that, instead of seeing it as the narrative of God’s creating and preparing a people for the incarnation, we tend to see it as a collection of self-help stories.

Don’t get me wrong, these Scriptures are definitely helpful for instruction and correction (2 Tim. 3:16), but that doesn’t mean that they’re to be used outside of the narrative intent—and it’s definitely dangerous to assume that God’s responses in these stories are always applicable to your situation.

On top of that, the allegorical jumps that make up some of these messages are just silly. Suddenly, David’s five smooth stones are five types of prayer to conquer your Goliath.

Like life, the Old Testament isn’t easily explained or reconciled, and it doesn’t always resolve nicely. We need to be OK with that.

Somewhere between ignoring or explaining away the OT’s most difficult passages and letting their darker elements work us into a constant state of frustration is a place where, like Jacob, we can wrestle with God until he blesses us.