A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Why Read the OT (3): Big Ideas

Another reason to read the Old Testament: the power of its big ideas.

A theme that runs through the Pentateuch, the historical books, the prophets, and the book of Proverbs is personal responsibility.  The prophets are often caricatured as preaching that God will strike down sinners with lightning bolts, but another way to hear their message is as one of calling people to take responsibility for what they do–as individuals and as communities.  Human actions and human words matter.  Although I’m not advocating to a return to the sacrificial system, I do see in Leviticus a recognition that brokeness must be repaired and find hope in its affirmation that restoration is always possible.

This insistence that human action has significance carries over into some Old Testament depictions of God.  God in the OT gets caricatured as grumpy, vengeful, and rigid, but in portraying the deity’s intense emotions the texts offer a God who is intimately involved in and passionate about what humans do to one another.  Reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets convinced me that a God burning with pathos can be a positive image:  I’d rather have a God who indignant about human suffering than one who is static and emotionless.  The opposite of an angry God isn’t a loving God.  It’s an apathetic God.

But if Heschel and I don’t convince of the value in this image of God, then protest–please.  In the OT, God is also tough enough to withstand, even welcome, human complaints against divine actions.  Lamentations, Psalms, and Job not only suggest that it’s OK to question God:  it’s expected.


4 Responses to Why Read the OT (3): Big Ideas

  • I didn’t realize it until I read your blog . . . but what I love about the older testament is the depth of character in the God portrayed there. This is an ancient God with a vast and complex personality. The diverse images reveal that God is a multi-dimensional, real ‘person’ – not any less a person than Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, because there’s more to dislike about the God in the older testament, this God can seem more real.

    In all of my human relationships there are qualities to like and dislike in the people I know. A person with not much to dislike seems less real . . . sort-of flat . . . like they are hiding something. [Sometimes I feel this way about the portrayal of Jesus when I don’t find much to dislike about him in the Gospels. In my real ‘following’ of him, I often find him to be the most frustrating person I know.]

    The God of the older testament lets it all hang out. I like that . . . as long as I’m allowed to acknowledge that certain qualities, attributes and actions bother me. I’m not sure a 100% ‘nice’ God is what I want (or need).

  • You’ve said that very well. The OT God is complex and covers the range of human emotions.

    There’s an interesting article in JBL about the differences in the ways that Heschel, Walter Brueggemann, and Terrence Freitheim (another OT scholar) understand the pathos of God. I need to blog about that one.


  • What I love about the OT is God is about real as it gets…I can read and relate to a God who says…Give me your son…kill him and then changes his mind at the last minute..(the story of Abraham and Isaac)…I can read and relate to a God who still after everything David did, thought about doing, didn’t do is stil a man after God’s own heart…I can read and relate to a God who smites people…(I love the word smite)…I can read and relate to a God who doesn’t answer back…but pretty much tells you to figure it out on your own..plus I love the Witch of Endor…plus I love complex figures that are hard to figure out….a lot like me…plus I want to read about a God who says I want all of you and then some more….that seems real to me and I do real…after all I am a hospice nurse and I have to find answers for mother’s who four year old children die from cancer…and the best one I can come up with it comes from Reynolds Price’s version of God in Roxanna Slade…”It is a terrible awful thing to fall into the hands of the living God…but oh Roxanna can you imagine falling out?” I believe he quotes the writer of Hebrews there. Kathleen

  • Kathleen, you’ve poetically and powerfully described the “livingness” of the “living God.” I love your comment, “I do real.”

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