Befriending the Old Testament: Part 8

13 Oct 2019

Befriending the Old Testament: Part 8 Archdiocese of Wellington
Elizabeth Julian RSM.

So far we have seen that the Old Testament, describing God’s love affair with a particular group of people, follows a basic storyline involving many different characters, places and events, spread over 46 books. Inspired in its origins and inspiring in its effects it is true in the religious sense, that is, in what it reveals about God’s character and God’s dealings with humankind. While it describes some appalling violence and attributes much of it to God, we can never move from a description of violence to claiming that God prescribes or sanctions such violence. God is good!

We have now come to the final section of our Old Testament befriending journey. How is it relevant to our lives today? As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, the Old Testament can seem quite daunting to many people and it can be difficult to get excited by something so ancient. However, if we understand the historical and cultural context of the stories then we can make more sense of them and appreciate what a treasure trove the Old Testament is. The mere fact it has survived for so long testifies to its enduring significance. We can find many important principles in its pages relevant today.

First: We learn from Genesis about care for our common home – a theme dear to Pope Francis’ heart. The biblical creation account in Genesis tells us we are to till and keep the earth but, as one commentator points out, we have done too much tilling and not enough keeping.

Second: We learn we are made in God’s image and likeness. Therefore, each of us is worthy of the utmost dignity and respect. Interestingly, in the ancient world the word ‘image’ was used for a statue of a god who represented the god’s presence in the temple. In human society, the king was the ‘image’ of the god, meaning that the latter’s rule was really an extension of divine rule. In Genesis, ‘image’ is extended to include all humanity. Humans signify God’s presence on earth. Of course, with this remarkable privilege comes great responsibility – care for the earth. Because humans take on this task God’s work is completed, and God can rest on the seventh day.

Third: In Exodus and Deuteronomy we learn about caring for the most vulnerable in society – widows and orphans in biblical times – and how we are to treat the stranger among us. What could be more relevant today?

Fourth: We learn from the Prophets, especially Amos and Isaiah about issues of social justice. Isaiah turned a harsh, scathing eye towards the rich and their debauched lifestyle made possible by exploiting the poor. He was also appalled at the gross injustice in the real estate market and land-grabbing greed. Again, highly relevant.

By knowing the Old Testament we can enrich our understanding of Jesus and the New Testament.

Fifth: It’s fascinating that near the middle of Leviticus (the book many find extremely dull) we find the great teaching about loving our neighbour as ourselves. Now Leviticus is the middle book of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament known by Jews as the Torah. So this crucial teaching, deliberately positioned and with so many implications today, is a very clear statement about what it essentially means to be the people of God.

Sixth: The Old Testament is a wonderful resource for prayer, particularly the Psalms. Every emotion we can ever possibly experience is recorded there in breath-taking honesty. Who has not prayed or sung Psalm 23 ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’? As someone has pointed out, sing or pray it often enough and you won’t just get to know the song but, more importantly, the Shepherd.

Seventh: The Old Testament has had a tremendous influence on some of the great works of art, literature and music in the western world. The more you know about the Old Testament the richer will be your experience of these great treasures that have the power to feed our very soul. Furthermore, our English language is peppered with Old Testament sayings, for example, ‘to escape by the skin of one’s teeth’, ‘a drop in the bucket’, ‘to everything there is a season’, ‘the ends of the earth’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘bite the dust’, ‘how the mighty have fallen’ and ‘nothing but skin and bones’.

Eighth: The liturgy itself is full of biblical themes and most homilists try to preach on the readings of the day though many leave the Old Testament in the ‘too hard basket’. Many songs are biblically based – the well-known hymns ‘Come Back to Me’, ‘Though the Mountains May Fall’, ‘Like a Shepherd’, ‘Be not Afraid’ and ‘Micah’s Theme’ are evidence we can sing our way through the Old Testament prophets.

Finally, for Jesus, of course, the Old Testament wasn’t ‘old’ – it was what he knew, lived by and quoted from. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus mentions many Old Testament characters, for example, Elijah (4:25), David (6:3), Jacob (13:28) and Abraham (13:16) among others. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it (5:17). He uses the Old Testament to answer the question the rich young man asked him (19:16-19). Hence, by knowing the Old Testament we can enrich our understanding of Jesus and the New Testament.

Published in WelCom October 2019

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