The Embarrassment that is the Old Testament

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When does the Old Testament count and when doesn’t it? When does what it says matter and when doesn’t it?

The answer to both questions is when Christians say so. It counts when something from it can be used to underline how wicked the rest of us are and when they think it’s pointing to the coming of Jesus, many years in its future. It doesn’t, of course, foretell of Jesus as such, despite its predictions of a coming Messiah and/or Son of Man. Jesus doesn’t fit its descriptions of either of these figures. Rather, Jesus’ story is read back into the older texts, their characters and events forced to serve typological and prophetic purposes for which they were never designed. The entire endeavour, which began very early in the development of Christianity, is entirely back to front, with the gospel writers, Paul and other New Testament authors pillaging older Jewish texts and forcing them to fit Jesus retrospectively (and often laughably.)

Regarding ancient Jewish texts as an Old Testament – that is, as representing a previous agreement/covenant between God and his people that has since been superseded – is a political, interpretive manoeuvre of the later religion. (While it’s true Jesus is made to speak of a new covenant, it is debatable how authentic his words are; rewriting the past is not only confined to the New Testament’s treatment of the Old.) This kind of slippery manoeuvring was also endorsed by those who later compiled the Bible as we now know it,* when they relegated the writings that Jesus and all the New Testament writers would have regarded as sacred Scripture to nothing more than a forerunner of the real thing.

Believers want to hang on, naturally, to Genesis, because that’s where it tells them God created everything using nothing but magic and breath from his holy lungs. It relates too how everything went pear-shaped after some mythical people ate some fruit. Noah’s ark is there too, which is a jolly good fantasy, apart from that weird bit at the end where Ken Ham gets an eyeful of his old man’s old man (Genesis 9.20-27). Christians are less keen on those Old Testament stories where God instructs the Israelites to massacre other tribes (1 Samuel 15.2-3; Deuteronomy 2.34 etc) and rape their women (Isaiah 13.15; Zechariah 14.1-2 etc) but nonetheless they’ll defend these unpleasant, barbaric stories just because they’re in the Bible. The Psalms are nicer, what with their words of comfort and paranoia, but best of all are the Old Testament pronouncements that can be used for clobbering sinners. Leviticus 20.13 – ‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them’ – is a particular favourite, as is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah for much the same reason. But when it comes to other diktats, Christians are less interested; rules about not eating shellfish or wearing clothes of mixed fabrics, they are quick to point, are entirely negated by the new covenant; they don’t count any more, even though they’re in the same list of largely petty rules as the homophobic one (Leviticus 11.10 & 20.9.)

So how do Christians decide which Old Testament laws are applicable and which are now inessential? There is no shortage of know-alls Christian scholars who make it up as they go along and can tell them. It’s easy you see; the old ‘ceremonial’ rules of the old covenant are now redundant while the moral precepts still stand. Needless to say, the Bible itself suggests no such thing, with Jesus saying precisely the opposite in Matthew 5.17-18 and Luke 16.17; evidently another of his strange ideas that can safely be ignored.

So how do we know which of the Old Testament’s prescriptions are ceremonial and which moral? The same self-appointed experts can tell us this too, though it’s actually easy to work it out for oneself. As a general rule of thumb, verses that condemn other people are still applicable while those that Christians themselves don’t care for are not. So the shellfish and mixed fabrics directives can be disregarded, because obviously they’re ceremonial, while the anti-gay stuff isn’t – obviously. And there’ll be no public stoning of wayward teenagers (Deuteronomy 21.18-21) because that’s obviously ceremonial too – and don’t even think of having sex with the slaves, not even ceremonially. These days, thank God, it’s considered so uncivilised (even if, in Numbers 31.17-18, Yahweh says it’s okay. )

The Old Testament then; an embarrassment Christians are compelled to defend as part of their magic book but which they nevertheless feel free to use selectively, according to taste. Not unlike the New Testament really.

*There are, we should note, several variations of the Bible within Christendom; God can’t seem to decide which books are or are not part of his Holy Word.

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2 thoughts on “The Embarrassment that is the Old Testament

  1. I find it quite interesting to know that many early Christians such as the Marcionites and others rejected the OT for these very reasons;they found the Hebrew god to be evil,and not the good heavenly father they believed in. But of course they were all “heretics” and there’s more sophisticated ways to deal with the devil in the details.

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  2. So true. It’s interesting too how Christians tell you (they tell me anyway) that quoting bits of the Bible they don’t like means you don’t know the Bible at all. Only they do and only they are allowed to cherry-pick.
    I can feel another post coming on…

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