Why I Still Love the Old Testament
By Tyler Huckabee
June 27, 2012
Tyler is something else. He's a writer who loves blue jeans, camping, hamburgers and rock and roll. He's also the managing editor at RELEVANT. You can read all about his fascinating life over at The Unbearable Lightness of Huckabeing, or read every dumb thought that comes into his brain on Twitter.
A crusty old pastor friend of mine told me that 70 percent of evangelical sermons are drawn from the New Testament. Whether this is a proven fact, anecdotal or gut feeling, I never knew, but it doesn’t sound implausible. Particularly in recent years, where the Old Testament has come under such harsh scrutiny, it’s entirely understandable that pastors would lean toward the gentle hum of Paul’s letters and Christ’s teachings. The rest of us certainly do.
Conventional wisdom is that the Testaments make up the two halves of the Bible, but the Old Testament contains the lion’s share of the Bible, comprising 39 of its 66 books and well over 60 percent of its total heft. And, as anyone who’s tried to sort through the Old Testament can attest, these 39 books are real doozies. They run the gamut of ancient literature—from historical survey to erotica, from jaw-droppingly barbaric to head-noddingly dull—and they are, apparently, breathed from the mouth of God Himself.
There are, in essence, three major difficulties we have when we approach the Old Testament: the boring lists of names, the horrific violence and the confusing, judgmental picture of God presented in those pages.* And these three things provoke pretty much the same question in anyone who’s ever tried to plow through the Old Testament and found themselves tripped up about halfway through Exodus: “What are we to do with you?”
In recent years, however, I’ve found myself drawn to the Old Testament. In fact, if it’s not too presumptuous to play favorites with the Bible, I might say I prefer it. I like the stories—the robust characters with all their dramas and passions. I like the poetry and the cadence. While there’s no ignoring the importance of Paul’s doctrinal essays or James’ hard-nosed pragmatism, the brawling, lusty cadence of the Old Testament is a welcome balance to their cerebral discourses. And as for the three difficulties mentioned above—the long lists, the violence and the confusing God we see—well, like acquiring a taste for new food, what once seemed so imposing to me became intriguing, inviting and, eventually, invaluable.
The boring lists of names
Genealogies are the first major hurdle for anyone looking to get through the entire Bible. It’s easy to clip through the Genesis narrative with its adventures, but Leviticus is daunting. And even if you manage to get through the first batch of genealogies, the rest of the Old Testament is a minefield of them, popping up in the middle of a thrilling war and not letting up for pages. It’s a question many of us started wondering back early on in Sunday School and haven’t been able to stop wondering since: Why did God write down all these names?
And the short answer might be: “Wouldn’t you?”Truly. If you had called Abraham to a Promised Land and given him a guarantee of as many ancestors as there are stars in the sky, wouldn’t you write down your proof of making good on that promise? Especially when each name, each of those stars, was knit together by you, made in your image and guided through life by your hand? God puts long lists of names in His Word precisely because they aren’t just a long list of names. They’re lists of lives. And each one mattered deeply to Him and His plan.
It is astounding that we put the Bible into the hands of children and tell them to read it every day, given some of the truly horrific violent details found in the Old Testament. Nearly every page is fraught with battle, and some of the details will churn the steeliest of stomachs. Judges, in particular, makes for grueling reading.
It is unfortunate that the Bible is so often relegated to a series of cheering quips for greeting cards and calendars because its real comfort is in just this violence. It’s a blunt appraisal of the world its readers were living in—and continue to live in. Detractors accuse Christians of using the Bible as a crutch for real life, but the Bible makes for a terrible crutch. It’s too honest. It’s too real. It forces you to look straight ahead, and it holds your eyes open. It makes sure you know what you’re up against without a savior.
The mysterious God
Of all the reasons to shy away from the Old Testament, this is the most compelling. Without mincing words, the God of the wandering Hebrews and the fiery prophets is confusing. While both Testaments go on endlessly about God’s boundless love and patience, the Old Testament devotes a disconcerting amount of time to His more daunting qualities: His indiscernible actions, His unimaginable holiness and His judicial fury. We know, of course, that the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the New. Why, then, does the New Testament make Him seem so much more ... well, nice?
There’s no perfect answer, of course. But, when you think about it, isn’t the God of the Old Testament the one we’re more familiar with? Occasionally confusing, with unknowable motives and decisions that boggle our minds—this is the God you live with and love and worship every day. And as for the prophets’ dire pronouncements of bloody judgment, that’s a little comforting too. Books like Malachi, Jeremiah and Ezekiel make it clear that when Israel strayed into wickedness—when rape, injustice and wanton violence became commonplace—God’s fury was stoked to righteous extremes. When we read the uncomfortable verses of God’s promises to judge and slay and punish, we are reading an assurance that there will be a reckoning for every evil.
We often use the New Testament to collar God. We like to make Him into something more manageable and sweetly robotic. But we all know better, and the Old Testament makes it plain: God is wild—a holy force of grace and justice. He’s a God who writes long lists of His children down so generations will remember all He did through them. He’s a God who does not lie to us about the state of the world to make us feel better. And He’s a God who dwells in holy mystery. He’s exactly who the Bible depicts Him to be. So we might as well start reading the whole depiction.
*Of course, much of the modern distaste of the Old Testament comes from unsavory levitical laws about homosexual relations, slavery and women. There are other, better articles (on this very website, in fact) that deal with those issues. But even if you make peace with all that, the Old Testament remains imposing for other, broader reasons.