How Involved was God with the Old Testament Writers?

When I read from the Old Testament writers, I cannot escape the evidence that God was very important to them.  I believe the many people who wrote the Old Testament over a period of many hundreds of years identified with God and felt strongly about God. In fact, I believe they often wrote insights about God well beyond the concepts of their times.

Whoever wrote down the stories of Abraham was one of these. The writer’s Abraham found a more reasonable understanding of God than was presented in his Mesopotamian culture. Moses seems also to have conceived new ideas about God. And the Psalmists produced wonderful poetry about what they thought God was like.

Later, the prophets began to see that God was concerned for the poor and helpless and opposed their oppression by the rulers of the time, and social justice made a great leap forward over the earlier days of Israel.

Antonio Balestra - Abraham Visited by the Three Angels

Antonio Balestra – Abraham Visited by the Three Angels

The Old Testament Writers and God

These writers were not passive recipients of developing ideas about God. They were energized; they were creative; they were consumed with their insights. Perhaps God himself sometimes inspired their thoughts; but this does not in any way make their writings inerrant–or revealed knowledge. The Old Testament writers were only human, and they wrote under the limitations of their eras, their cultures, and their comprehension of God.

What these writers thought and wrote over those many centuries matters a lot. We benefit from their efforts and conclusions, and it would be a great loss if we did not have their insights and stories. But the words they wrote are not revealed knowledge. They are not the inerrant word of God. They do not constitute an authority that we must heed.

We must not read the human Old Testament writings as God’s authoritative words, but we must read the Old Testament properly with the understanding that while many of the writers are amazing they are still humans writing under the limitations of their eras, their cultures, and their comprehension of God.

The Old Testament as Literature

I have come to read the books of the Old Testament as I do any book. Some parts are interesting; some parts are not. Some parts ring true; some do not. Some parts inspire me; some certainly do not.

One part of the Old Testament that really speaks to me is the quest of Abraham; I can identify with his quest. Another is the writings of the prophets about oppression, and a third is the philosophical questions of the book of Job. These Old Testament writings have influenced my life tremendously, but other readers might have different reading experiences.

A number of writers have significantly influenced my life—C. S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Richard Adams. They inspire me, but I do not think they are inerrant; their writings are not the authoritative word of God. The same is true of the Old Testament.

In some cases, I believe the Old Testament writers were mistaken. This is not to their discredit; for the most part, their understandings of God were improvements over what had gone before—but what they wrote was incomplete and sometimes deficient. Some writers misunderstood God as a god of anger, violence, and war; and this seems contrary to what Jesus tells us of the Father.

The Old Testament in the Light of Jesus

I also read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus. This does not mean that I ‘look for Jesus’ in the Old Testament or count the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus fulfilled. Rather, Jesus is my standard in understanding God, and Jesus’ picture of God often conflicts with what I see in the Old Testament. This definitely makes a difference in how I evaluate what I read.

I read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus because were it not for Jesus I would likely have no particular interest in the Old Testament at all. It is the story of a people who are not my people. I am very interested in stories of other peoples, but without Jesus I would not be any more interested in the story of the Old Testament than I am in the story of the people of England, or the people of China, or the people of India. The fact that the Old Testament story is part of the story of Jesus makes it of more interest to me.

Believers should follow the teachings and example of Jesus. We must not accept the record of the developing concepts of a people, rooted in the experiences of the wandering bronze-age Mesopotamian named Abraham, as the authoritative and inerrant words of God.

Let me know what you think regarding the nature of the Old Testament. Next time, we will discuss the nature of the New Testament.

***

This entry was posted in authority, inerrancy, Jesus, Old Testament. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to How Involved was God with the Old Testament Writers?

  1. Pingback: The Nature of the New Testament | Jesus Without Baggage

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  3. Some interesting ideas but I must admit that I disagree with your conclusions. It is clear from the early Christian writers that, when they spoke of the “scriptures” they spoke exclusively of the Old Testament scriptures. In their writings they portray the scriptures as authoritative and as the foundation for their beliefs. I would recommend reading Turtullian’s book “Against Marcion” which is available in the Anti-Nicene Father’s volume 3 from the Ethereal Library (http://www.ccel.org/). He goes through great lengths to harmonize the God of the New Testament and the Old Testament showing that Marcion’s idea of a second God was wrong. I think you may find his writings interesting. David

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  4. Tim Chastain says:

    Hi David, I appreciate your comment and I agree with you about our disagreement. I doubt we will bridge our disagreement on this point.

    Let me say that I am certainly no follower of Macion. I do not deny that Jesus was deeply connected to the Judaism fo his day, and I am not particularly Pauline. However, I do have a similar concern with Marcion regarding the depiction of God in the Old Testament as angry and violent, but so do many thoughtful people, both Christian and non-Christian.

    Some of the actions of God described in the Old Testament include the mass killing of men, women, and children in the flood and the genocides of Joshua during the conquest. However, where Marcion posits two gods, one in the New Testament and some separate, lesser god in the Old Testament, I see the conflict between Jesus’ picture of the Father and the Old Testament descriptions differently–in the Old Testament we find the writers describing God as they imagined him to be: harsh, vindictive, and violent. I contend that they were mistaken and that Jesus provides us with a proper vew of the Father.

    Thanks again for your dialogue! I am very much interested in what other thoughts you might have.

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  5. Tim Chastain says:

    Hi David. I realized this morning that I did not respond regarding your point regarding the early Christian writers. You are correct of course; they did appeal to the Old Testament scriptures as authoritative, but in what way?

    While the New Testament writers often cite the Old Testament, when we check their citations we often find that the meanings derived by the New Testament writers do not reflect the original meanings of the passages. Basically, they played a bit fast and loose with the Old Testament; they were not at all literalists or inerrantists as we understand those terms today.

    Thanks again for participating in this discussion!

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    • fiddlrts says:

      You mention the way that Christ and the NT writers re-interpreted the OT. That was one of my “aha” moments a few years back. Christ in particular took things out of context, and made the meaning completely different – and strikingly so in many cases. At about the same time, I discovered the Jewish interpretive tradition and realized that Christ fits far better into that tradition than the Evangelical literalist interpretive tradition. (On a possibly related note, Christ fits well with the prophetic tradition – they too preached that observance of the law and cultic practices were worthless compared to the law of love for one’s fellow man.)

      What I have found personally is that once I started looking at the OT as both human and a part of the culture in which it was written, I found that my love for the OT has grown immensely. Rather than trying to solve the problems posed, I have a renewed appreciation for the insights that it offers.

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      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Fiddlrts, I agree with you that Jesus “took things out of context, and made the meaning completely different – and strikingly so in many cases”. This kind of thinking drives inerrantists mad. You are also right that Jesus was not unique in this; it was part of the Jewish tradition of his time. But these sorts of insights are lost to those who read the Bible in a flat, inerrant manner without references to context and culture.

        Like you, I also came to appreciate the OT more when I began to read it as human and cultural. The Bible is much better, more interesting and useful, without the inerrancy box.

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  6. Pingback: Is the Bible Inerrant? | Jesus Without Baggage

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  8. Brad Balllinger says:

    I would also add that much of the Old Testament is Jewish history, and God is portrayed and understood as one with little tolerance for injustice–particularly economic injustice, but one could argue broader social injustice. When the Jewish people would uprise against tyranny, it was often at the direction and intervention of God. That the writings of the Old Testament were written after these events makes it convenient to insert God into critical parts of the story. That does not necessarily mean God didn’t have a role at the time, however.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Brad, I agree that the themes of justice are found throughout the Old Testament even though it is sometimes drowned out by less worthy interests. And you re right that there was ample to insert God into historical events when the histories were written much later. How much of a role God played in Israel’s history I do not know.

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  9. Chas says:

    Tim, this item is relevant to the current item on tithing, via the idea of the people of Israel wanting to have a king (i.e. someone who would consume part of the produce of their country through the accumulation of riches) rather than a ‘judge’ whose only function was to be the Spiritual leader of the nation. The writer(s) seemed to be aware that having a king was not necessarily a good idea.

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  10. hoju1959 says:

    The Bible presents different ideas about God and His inclinations/preferences—reflecting the different cultures and circumstances in which the various biblical writers found themselves. Some of those depictions of God are worthy. Some aren’t.

    For example, Israel didn’t adopt a monotheistic view of the universe until after the Babylonian Exile. You see this reflected in the Torah. Before the Babylonian Exile, the Israelites viewed Yahweh as just one of the many gods in the near east.

    Take a second look at the first commandment. “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you forth from the land of Egypt, out from the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods in my presence” (Exod 20:2). Notice what it does not say: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you forth from the land of Egypt, out from the house of slavery; you shall not worship false gods, but only me, the one true God.”

    Again and again in the Torah, God makes big deal of how He is superior to the other gods. Think about it. Why would it be a big deal for Yahweh to be superior to false gods? Anybody can be better than nobody. Next to nobody, Bob Dylan is a great singer. No, the text is clearly saying Yahweh is just one of many valid deities the Israelites could choose from.

    There was a the pathology embedded in the ancient Israelites’ polytheism. In the ancient near east, each nation had its own patron God and each was pitted against the others. Each God fought for His or Her people in exchange for their unconditional allegiance. If your nation got its butt kicked by another nation, it was because their God kicked your God’s butt.

    It was a tribal view of the world—an us against them view of the world.

    You see this worldview clearly advocated in the first five books of the Bible. Of course God commanded the Israelites to slaughter every man, woman, and child in Canaan. They deserved it, filthy scum.

    That said, scriptures like this can still be of use to us. The portions of scripture that paint an unfitting portrait of God and His preferences need to be retained in our liturgies as cautionary examples. They need to be anathematized. (How’s that for a using as big word!)

    These texts remind us not to be too quick to assume we know God’s will—not to be so sure we’re God’s Chosen People. They remind us that we have room to grow. They remind us that we can learn from those we consider “other.” In fact, the essence of wisdom is to put ourselves into the other’s shoes.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hoju, you seem to be well versed in OT history; that is a big plus in trying to make sense of the OT. Many believers read the OT as a flat, unified document without any awareness of developments such as movement from a tribal god among gods to monotheistic God without competitors. Another thing to be aware of is that there is much national hero building in the OT.

      I really like your opening paragraph: “The Bible presents different ideas about God and His inclinations/preferences—reflecting the different cultures and circumstances in which the various biblical writers found themselves. Some of those depictions of God are worthy. Some aren’t.” I wish this were commonly understood among all believers–but it certainly is not.

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  11. newtonfinn says:

    I have always tried to view the Old or First Testament through Jesus’ eyes, as your republished and reworked blog article indicates you do as well. Jesus seems to have been rather selective when referring to the Hebrew scriptures and extremely reductionist toward them as a whole. One of the most powerful set of interlocking sayings uttered by Jesus is: 1) that ALL OF THE LAW AND ALL OF THE PROPHETS are contained in the two commandments to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and (like unto it) to love your brother (or sister) as yourself; and 2) that he has come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to complete (or fulfill) them.

    It struck me when putting together my own version of a synoptic gospel that these are indeed INTERLOCKING sayings. Why would one think that Jesus was trying to abolish the law and prophets? On the one hand, he was breaking some the strict Torah rules, but so were a lot of the more liberal Jews of his era. I think that the key to unlocking the “the abolishing charge,” which Jesus so directly and deftly preempted, was this reductionism toward the Hebrew scriptures, his teaching that the whole “kit and kaboodle” could be distilled down into two elemental and fundamental commandments. I was reminded of this when I later encountered Schweitzer’s further distillation of all ethics into “reverence for life.”

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Newton, I like your take on Jesus’ evaluation of the law and prophets. And it is very interesting that Jesus used OT passages selectively and for his own purposes rather than appealing to them as established ‘tradition’.

      I agree that Jesus did a great service to all of us by reducing the complex collection of stories and rules of the OT down to the two principles of loving God and loving others. Understanding this revolutionizes our approach to the OT.

      The OT is still valuable and should not be discarded, but it is eclipsed by the good news of Jesus and his insights into God.

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  12. Chris says:

    I used to believe that the bible was the inerrant word of God, but that was because I was taught that in the institutional church religious system. I just put a blind faith in what the system was teaching. Now that I have come to a point in my journey with God, that has taken me outside the walls of the institution, a whole new world of understanding has come to light within me. It is my experience that if man has his finger prints on something, despite his intentions or closeness with the Spirit of God, it will be flawed or skewed in some manner, and that would include written books of the bible. That being said, I do think as you do, that the bible has a story to tell and a purpose for getting to know Jesus, but the bible is certainly not, as many seem to treat it as the 4th person of God.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chris, I also believed the Bible was the inerrant word of God for the same reason you did–that is what I was taught. It took me more than thirty years to realize my mistake; but, like you, when I did a whole new world of understanding came to light within me!

      You say that some seem to feel that the Bible is the fourth person of God. I think to many believers the Bible trumps, and restricts, God in some ways.

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  13. Anthony Paul says:

    If I may digress here for a moment: I believe that as Westerners we are blessed to have been born into a basically Christian culture which has brought us to a knowledge of Jesus Christ as The Son of God and The One who will one day redeem all of creation. However, I believe that there is much to be gained by studying the ways of the Eastern mystics where God is sought in the inward parts of our own soul… as Paul writes, “Don’t you know that your bodies are temples of The Holy Spirit?” The Bible is fine as far as it goes, but I would suggest that we need to move beneath the surface of our conscious beings and learn to identify and heed that quiet God-voice that abides within each of us. This is not philosophy or theology, but it comes from my own personal experience as I have found more of God by searching deeply within than I ever have from just reading a book alone. As an example of what I am saying… many of our own Native American cultures , never having read The Bible, demonstrate an uncanny understanding of the workings of The Holy Spirit within their own religious traditions. And I believe that it all starts with a sense of conscious awakening; only then can we truly be born again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Anthony, I think there is a lot of merit in what you say. I am not very mystically inclined, but I have read the works and the stories of mystics and have a deep appreciation for them and their experience. Not all people approach spirituality in the same way, but I think mysticism is a valid approach.

      Thank you for bringing this up.

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  14. michaeleeast says:

    In his book “Doubts and Loves” Richard Holloway quotes John Hick about revelation – “the color of the water is that of its container” which is a saying of 14th century Sufi Al-Junayd.- His point being that each tradition is a product of a different mind. I found this very helpful in explaining the differences between the prophets and indeed the religions. I agree that the Old Testament writers were inspired by God but the differences are a matter of temperament and the concepts of the time. The image of God evolves as you go along culminating in Jesus’ revelation of God as a loving Father. It is 2000 years since Jesus’ revelation it is time to give up the primitive image of God as a harsh moral judge. I believe that God punishes no one so there can be no hell. God is wholly good and benevolent. He loves us like His children. Perhaps humankind is ready to conceive of God in this transcendent way – beyond dualism – there are some beginning to say this. What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Michael, you say: “Perhaps humankind is ready to conceive of God in this transcendent way – beyond dualism – there are some beginning to say this. What do you think?”

      I am not sure what you mean by this; can you clarify?

      Liked by 1 person

      • michaeleeast says:

        Tim, most people perceive things in a dualistic way – good and evil, rewards and punishments, heaven and hell etc.. What I am proposing is that God is beyond these categories – He is wholly good, light without shadow, love without hate, blessings without curses etc.. This is not easy for humans to conceive. Is this any clearer?

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Denise says:

    I have begun my own journey of understanding. I come from two very different, but equally powerful, “institutions” of religion (Holdeman Mennonite and Catholic). This background led me to abandon religion wholly for several years. Jesus has been my savior since I was a child, but I am only beginning to understand what that means for me now. What I am surprised at is how wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG I am when talking to my family about my thoughts and feelings about God and the Bible. I mentioned that I don’t believe in hell, and a collective gasp was heard from my two sisters as if I was going to be tossed in just by saying that; and I also said that I didn’t think the Bible was inerrant–wow, it’s a wonder I am still apart of the family! None of my family belongs to the two above churches any more (one sister is Anglican, the other Evangelical of some sort I think, the rest of us nondenominational–my dad, brother and I). The point I am trying to make is that it is so hard to talk with the people that cannot even listen as their past fears are so intertwined with their present ideas that all they can do is look at me in pity for my ineptness. Ugh, so frustrating. I have been hearing my whole life about how I was going to hell and how much of a Christian I was not. I just don’t understand how Christians can tell other Christians how wrong they are–it baffles me. I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish here–so I will tell you how much I enjoy your blog and the comments are really interesting, too. Peace!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Denise, I am sorry for your experience but, of course, it is quite common. Evangelicals often respond to people who no longer believe evangelical baggage doctrines by judging, condemning, and even rejecting them.

      I no longer even talk about baggage with them unless they express an interest on their own. They have to be ready in order to listen.

      I am very pleased that you enjoy the blog and the comments!

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  16. Pingback: New Testament Writers were Inspired by Jesus–But were they Inerrant? rb | Jesus Without Baggage

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