R-Rated: Preaching Those Unsafe OT Texts
Don't dismiss the difficult passages of the Old Testament, preach them!
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The Bible is not a safe and sanitary book. One doesn't have to look far in its pages for bloody battles, brutal gang-rapes, cities destroyed by fire, and most of humanity wiped out in a flood—and that's just the beginning of Genesis. Christianity's critics often claim that the God of the Old Testament is a genocidal maniac, a wife-beater, slave-driver, and an oppressive tyrant we need to be rescued from. It's not uncommon to hear folks within the church pit Jesus against the God of the Old Testament.
So how do we deal honestly with these passages? As we preach through Scripture and come across such blood-splattered pages, how do we approach the blatant sex and violence, the greed and lust for power, the strange ceremonial laws and ritual sacrifices that seem so foreign to us today? How do we preach the R-rated passages of the Bible?
This series is designed to help you with precisely that question. Though these passages can be tough at first glance, I've found they hold a treasure for those willing to grapple with them. The Bible is not a cotton candy book; it deals with the hard and gritty realities of our world, the trauma and tragedies that plague our evening news. And the God it proclaims is wild and untamed, with a relentless, furious love that will stop at nothing to bring back his broken creation.
By way of introduction, I'd like to offer some overarching observations for this series that have helped me when shepherding people through the R-rated scenes of the biblical drama.
Crossing the chasm of history
Have you ever watched classic movies, like Alfred Hitchcock thrillers or It's A Wonderful Life, or period pieces, like Mad Men or Downton Abbey, and been struck by how different things were back then? People dressed different, talked different, and used phrases of speech we're less familiar with today. The technology was a far cry from our time, cities were structured in unique ways, and social norms in the home and office could be shockingly strange. We're separated from that era by the passage of time.
Now, take that chasm of history, and multiply it by 100. Literally. We're separated from the R-rated scenes in the biblical story by thousands of years. There is a chasm of history, of language, of culture. Approaching some of these passages can be like people in the year 5,000 A.D. discovering one of our Hitchcock films—and watching it in a different language.
So how do we cross the chasm of history? How do we understand these scenes now thousands of years later, in a foreign language? Here's three observations I've found helpful. First, beware of anachronism. Assume many things were not the same back then as they are now. For example, when God commands Joshua's armies to take out cities, we associate cities today with civilian population centers so many quickly assume God is commanding the indiscriminate slaughter of civilian populations.
But in the ancient world things were different. Cities were smaller military fortifications, defended by soldiers, protecting the civilians who lived in the surrounding countryside (my article in this issue explores this more deeply). Joshua's armies are knocking down the Great Wall of China, not demolishing Beijing; they're taking out the Pentagon, not New York City. So a good question to ask when something looks strange is: Could my understanding be anachronistic?
Second, when attempting to cross the chasm of history and we come across strange practices, it's helpful to ask: What purpose did this practice serve in its original context? Many of Israel's ceremonial laws, for example, set her apart as a distinct people. So regulations around things like circumcision and menstruation, which foods could be eaten and fibers be worn, and cultic purity in the sacrificial system, set Israel apart as a distinct political nation—and probably carried a meaning that would have been much more immediately understood within their ancient Middle Eastern context.
Passages like these are not timeless truths to be practiced anywhere and everywhere (please pastors, resist the urge to have your people slaughter goats in the church's sanctuary). Rather, they are specific to a particular time and place. We can help shepherd our people by drawing out the purpose and significance of these practices as best we can, moving from the what to their why in the bigger narrative.
Third, it's important to pay attention to genre in these R-rated scenes. For example, Israel is given drastic marching orders in Deuteronomy like "show no mercy" and "utterly destroy them." Though these directives look harsh at first glance, they were actually common to war rhetoric in the genre of military history in the ancient Middle East. As my article in this series will explore, the Old Testament itself makes clear this rhetoric was not intended to be understood with a strict literalism.
By paying attention to things like genre, rhetoric, and symbolism, we can shepherd our people by presenting a more nuanced picture that confronts popular caricatures and reclaims a healthier, more robust picture of the story of God.
Description is not approval
I've found there are two kinds of R-rated movies. Some deliberately delight in gratuitous vice to degradingly stimulate the viewer (think Fifty Shades of Grey). Others deal honestly with gritty realities to confront us with hard features of our fallen world (think Saving Private Ryan). I would suggest Scripture's "R-rated" nature is of this second sort: it confronts us with life east of Eden, not to tantalize us, but to confront us with the truth of our predicament, and the God who cares enough to seriously engage.
Here are three things to keep in mind when you encounter these difficult scenes. First, just because the Bible mentions something, doesn't mean it condones it. For example, in Judges 19-21 a Levite's concubine is gang-raped and left for dead, then cut into twelve pieces and sent to the twelve tribes of Israel. I once had someone ask, "How could I follow a God who commanded such a thing?" But nowhere in the passage does God command, commend, or even condone the action.
In fact, the logic of the passage moves in the opposite direction. It is situated in a narrative that describes how corrupt and evil the people have become, resulting in the fragmentation of the nation. The event becomes a brutal, graphic picture of the broader theme in this section. Israel's tribes are fractured with no king, her body politic is divided (like the woman's divided body) in a wicked era where "everyone did as they saw fit" (Judges 21:25). It is a signpost of Israel's rebellion against God and fractured state with one another.
While my friend was concerned that there was no explicit condemnation of the event, the original Hebrew audience had common sense. If something looks shocking and gruesome to us today, there's a good chance it did to them as well. They were more comfortable with teaching that was less didactic; the narrative did the work for them. So when we read of things like Lot sleeping with his daughters or Jephthah making a rash vow that costs his child's life, we can probably default to assuming these were seen by their original audience as nasty, unfortunate events. Just because something is described, does not mean it's condoned.
This leads to a second, related observation, sometimes the way things are described offers an implicit critique. For example, polygamy shows up frequently in the Old Testament, leading some to believe the Bible supports it. But as commentators regularly point out, the storyline always highlights the devastation that follows: Isaac and Ishmael's violently divided descendants, Jacob's twelve tribes in heated dissension, David's warring children fracturing the kingdom.
Polygamy was common in ancient culture for the wealthy who could afford it, so by highlighting its devastating effects the storyline of Scripture actually presents a subversive critique of the ancient practice. Just because polygamy shows up, doesn't mean it's recommended. The narrative can function more as a cautionary tale than an enthusiastic suggestion. Paying attention to the nuance of the broader storyline can help us when preparing to preach.
Finally, similar to what we see with polygamy, there is often a "redemptive movement" at work in Scripture, where God patiently sows seeds of cultural transformation that take time to grow to fruition. For example, slavery was a universal institution of the ancient world. Many today would prefer, from the vantage point of the 21st century west, that God had simply eradicated slavery in ancient Israel.
But God takes a different tact: he identifies himself with the enslaved (liberating Israel out from under Egypt), then he radically humanizes slavery in Israel's law (drastically raising the bar on the ancient world's treatment of slaves). This "redemptive movement" can be seen launching a trajectory towards the ideal eradication of slavery, while yet accommodated to the realistic possibilities and conditions of the day. God does not create an overnight idyllic utopia with no slaves (it's doubtful such a transition would have been feasible in this ancient context), but he instead catalyzes movement on a redemptive trajectory that finds its fulfillment in the end of slavery.
In a similar way, the Bible drastically raises the bar on the treatment of women, refugees, and other vulnerable populations of the ancient world. While some practices may seem archaic today, we can help shepherd our people by situating them in their historic context, and pointing out their redemptive movement towards the ideals of God's kingdom.
Pointing to Jesus
Our largest goal and end-game when tackling these R-rated passages is to point people to Jesus. When people ask me, "How do you reconcile Jesus with the God of the Old Testament?" my usual response is, "Jesus is the God of the Old Testament!"
Many today seem to pit Jesus as a happy hippie strolling through the flowers and telling everyone how wonderful they are, against the God of the Old Testament as a bloodthirsty warrior who woke up on the wrong side of the bed ready to trample down anyone in his way.
But the "God of the Old Testament" is the Father of Jesus Christ, acting through his Word and Spirit in Israel's history. This means Jesus is not only pointed to by Israel's history, but revealed in Israel's history. Jesus is the Word through whom Israel is spoken into existence, and in whom God reveals himself throughout the Old Testament.
So when we tackle these R-rated passages head-on, one of the greatest blessings I've found is that they can give us a more robust picture of who Jesus is. Looking at Jesus, through the lens of the Old Testament, can reclaim a greater sense of his authority, power, and confrontation of a world immersed in sin. And looking at the Old Testament, through the lens of Jesus, can embolden a deeper assurance of God's redemptive love, sacrificial goodness, and reconciling heartbeat driving the story from start to finish.
This means we should avoid cheap shortcuts when relating Jesus to the R-rated passages. For example, I've heard many people say things recently like, "Moses was all about 'eye for an eye' and 'tooth for a tooth' because the Old Testament is all about violence and vengeance, but Jesus came to set us straight and turn Moses on his head, revealing that the Old Testament was wrong, God doesn't want us to get retribution he wants us to forgive."
But this is a cheap understanding of the Mosaic Law. The intent was to restrain violence, not promote it. Everyone in ancient society knew violence had a way of quickly spiraling out-of-control. If you took someone's cow, they'd poison your well, so you'd burn down their barn, and they'd knock out your eye, so you'd take their life and the Hatfield / McCoys would descend into an all-out family feud for generations to come.
"Eye for an eye" was understood through church history as an Old Testament way of restraining violence, and Jesus doesn't contradict this impulse but deepens it. Jesus takes it further, all the way down into the heart, calling his followers to not only restrain vengeance, but to not take it at all—offering forgiveness instead.
Jesus takes the good trajectory of the Old Testament here a massive step further, rather than negating it altogether. We should grapple with the way Jesus relates to the R-rated passages, and avoid cheap shortcuts in the process. Doing so can help us gain a greater appreciation for, and understanding of, both the passages we are preaching on—and the Jesus we seek to proclaim.
So we hope you enjoy this series. Ultimately, it's an invitation to dive into the difficult scenes of the biblical drama as a way of diving into the presence of Jesus. Because when properly understood, he is the One the story speaks to in all its fullness.
Joshua Ryan Butler is the pastor of local and global outreach at Imago Dei Community in Portland, OR. He is also the author of The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War (Thomas Nelson, Oct 2014).