Missing the Old Testament

Scary PreacherI don’t write many posts about Bible stuff, or faith in general. As incoherent as my posts may be, I try to remain tethered to topics at least remotely related to public education.

Mostly, though, I’m simply not a good spokesman for Christianity – nor is that my intent here. It’s neither a sermon nor theology. It’s merely a layman’s reflection. 

The State of Oklahoma has recently been wrestling with a question that’s certainly not new, but which seems to carry renewed venom recently - to what extent should religion shape and influence secular government?

It’s not as easy of a question as some of us would like. We can say “not at all,” but that’s a bit like trying to remove the eggs from the cake after it’s baked. Faith of one sort or another is so ubiquitous that pretending it can be treated with absolute neutrality by a government of-the-by-the-for-the seems a bit… delusional. 

At the same time, the ‘slippery slope’ of legislating faith is well-established, both in U.S. history and around the world. As Justice Hugo Black wrote for the Supreme Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale (1962),

When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain. But the purposes underlying the Establishment Clause {of the First Amendment} go much further than that. 

Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion. The history of governmentally established religion, both in England and in this country, showed that whenever government had allied itself with one particular form of religion, the inevitable result had been that it had incurred the hatred, disrespect and even contempt of those who held contrary beliefs…

The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its "unhallowed perversion" by a civil magistrate. 

But I’d like to set aside for a moment even this larger issue of government-mandated morality, or the First Amendment difficulties manifested whenever government and faith become entangled. I’d like to focus instead on the nature of the religion the powers-that-be are so determined to enforce via secular law. 

Why the obsession with the Old Testament?

I’m not asking why they include the Old Testament in their belief system, nor am I challenging why the Old Testament is in the Bible to begin with. But why the legislative fixation on Old Testament principles and purposes almost exclusively? 

JesusIt’s an obsession which seems to directly counter the entire point of the New Testament. An obsession specifically condemned by the central figure of that more recent Covenant, and after whom their faith is generally named.  

I’d like to offer some insights from the formerly churched to the non-churched as to why I think this occurs. As is always the case, take my wit and wisdom for what it’s worth – which is plenty

1. Absolute Clarity About Right and Wrong

Eve and SerpentAccording to the book of Genesis, God started mankind out with much to enjoy and to do, and a single rule not to eat fruit from one particular tree. The very first temptation by the earliest manifestation of ‘Satan’ began by questioning this lone prohibition – “Did God REALLY Say…?”

You can read this as a challenge of their interpretation or as an expression of disbelief at such an unreasonable expectation. In either case, the trouble began when something that seemed so absolute lost its clarity – and thus its authority. 

The next dozen or so books of the Old Testament are largely the story of God’s people and an ever-expanding body of specific rules and rituals. Here’s what you can touch; here’s what you can’t. Here’s what you should eat; here’s what you shouldn’t. Go here, build this, kill them, honor that, etc. 

In some cases even the level of detail gets rather tedious. It also makes those ‘Through-the-Bible-in-a-Year’ schedules tricky, since there’s only so much comfort and inspiration you can glean from, say… Leviticus. By the time Jesus came along centuries later, He couldn’t heal a crippled kid without breaking a half-dozen rules. He was thus constantly in trouble. 

O.T. Rules

This may sound rather oppressive to our modern western minds, but consider the flip side of such a system. If you were at all interested in doing the right thing, in being successful or finding happiness or even going to their version of Heaven, the pathway was clearly marked. 

You didn’t need to creep along the metaphorical road after sundown, squinting at obscure landmarks, trying to figure out if this counts as the second left after the Kwik-E-Mart or the third; you had a GPS from God. Ethical dilemmas were few, and the moral high ground was clearly defined. 

Sure, you were supposed to mean it in your heart-of-hearts also – God emphasizes this point repeatedly – but it didn’t take much rationalization to consider rigorous adherence to the outward stuff as proof enough of your inward condition. Love for God or for one’s neighbor was the ideal, but as a practical matter it was mostly rules and customs – a sort of social symbiosis which benefits everyone involved but hardly requires heartfelt conviction. 

2. Rewards and Consequences Were Swift and Overt. 

Locusts

The legal system guiding the Old Testament Jews was harsh. Enemies were to be destroyed, down to every last woman and child. Women were kicked out of camp during their periods. People eating shrimp or wearing a cotton blend were in sin just as much as those who got a tattoo or wore their hair the wrong way. 

Punishments could be draconian. Steady the Ark of the Covenant when it starts to fall? Immediate death. Command water from a rock with the wrong attitude? Permanently barred from the Promised Land. Complain about the food? Widespread plague and death. Worship the wrong statue? Widespread plague and death. Sex outside of marriage? Widespread - 

Come to think of it, widespread plague and death were kind of standard for a number of different screw-ups. It was a very communal system. 

Experts will tell you that it’s generally better to have consistency in discipline – even if that discipline is harsh – than to have unpredictable consequences depending on factors beyond the perpetrator’s control. There’s security in structure, whatever the actual rules might be.  

Do what God says and you’ll be healthy, wealthy, and live a long life with many wives. Stray from the path, and everyone you love will become violently ill or die, and you’ll lose everything.

You rarely have to wonder how you’re doing. 

The gap between cause and effect was generally brief. Existential angst or wrestling with angels was rare – just grab the user’s guide and review the rules if something goes wrong. Kill a goat and you’re back on track – good as new.  

Cave EntranceThe New Testament and the arrival of Jesus Christ instead offered freedom – from the hierarchical structure of the Old Testament system, from rituals and sacrifices, and from the bondage of sin itself. The problem with freedom, though, is that you’re free. You have to figure things out and sort through options yourself. That’s great, in theory, but also terrifying and disorienting. 

Jesus promised the guidance of the “Holy Spirit,” but that’s only useful if you’re able to get past the ongoing and much louder screeching of a fallen world and our own deceptive flesh and stay focused on what’s best described of as a “still, small voice.” (I Kings 19 – and yes, I know that’s from the Old Testament but Elijah was a particular favorite of God’s and received a ‘members only’ preview of a number of things… hence the term “prophet”.)

Like being released from prison after a long sentence, sometimes we crave the security and structure of the old way – however oppressive. “At least in Egypt we had onions!”

Besides, no one’s going to donate to your campaign or pay you a legislator’s salary to meet one day a year and celebrate the Golden Rule. 

3. There Was Action and Bad Guys to Kill

Many of the best stories in the Old Testament involve the creative ways God killed the enemies of his chosen favorites. We can debate the theology of this some other time, but for now at least recognize how satisfying and cathartic this is. 

Elijah's BearsRemember the rush of shared victory you feel when your favorite team wins an important game, or the release of dopamine when you finally get past that nest of mercenaries on your X-box, and apply it to your eternity-shaping spiritual paradigm. 

We can’t openly celebrate the destruction of our enemies in most situations anymore, but we can linger pretty close to that flame by taking ideological solace in the downfall of those outside our chosen circle. 

“It’s a shame about all those black lives lost, but… *tsk tsk*… if only they’d been behaving more like we do. It’s unfortunate, all those poor families unable to move to a good school district, but… *tsk tsk*… there are consequences for their horrible choices. Too bad, though…”

The New Testament, in contrast, is seriously no fun at all. Jesus wouldn’t shut up about loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, or the rewards of being meek, humble, and poor. He insisted on hanging out with whores and cripples, seemingly just to piss off the church. 

Unlike in the Old Testament, the New Testament makes little-if-any promise about rewards in this life for good choices, and little threat regarding backlash for bad ones – at least, not until “after.” 

BeatitudesInstead we’re exhorted to “take up our cross” and follow Him – and as a bonus, if our hearts are truly pure, men will revile and persecute us and we’ll suffer a bunch, then die! We’re even specifically warned away from anyone who looks like things are going pretty well for them or who claims to have God’s will all figured out. 

Granted, the eternal payoff apparently makes up for this, but unless you’re able to daily set aside this mortal coil, that’s just not… motivating sometimes. 

So we keep looking to the old way, before Jesus ruined it all. 

Lest you think I’m just being a downer, Jesus called this out early in His earthly ministry. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, Jesus fed a huge crowd with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, and was suddenly quite popular. 

Rather than build on what must have seemed to his disciples like quite a public relations success, He scolds people for wanting Old Testament results from New Testament behavior. He explicitly disavows good times in this life in exchange for good performance. 

This isn’t where He says “take up your cross and follow me,” but the idea is absolutely the same. 

Many of his followers left. Just as Jesus was building up serious popularity – an audience for His Message, if nothing else – He intentionally yanks away clarity, temporal consequences, and tangible comfort in exchange for cooperation. If He were an earthly leader, He’d have been doing it entirely wrong. 

OT vs NTThe New Testament simply doesn’t lend itself to the sorts of things politics are good at, or that people naturally want to be a part of. The Old Testament is a much easier model to emulate, and a far more entertaining system in which to be on the “right side” - preferably wreaking havoc on the “wrong.”  

I think we miss it. We want to go back to it. Just like we miss the early America of our most patriotic imaginations. Clear hierarchies, limited world awareness, far less complicated social and government structures – surely those were better times?

Instead, we’re told in a New Testament paradigm to partake in the sufferings of Christ – to eat his body and drink his blood, metaphorically at least. Gentiles are allowed at the table, and sin is no longer punished primarily by secular authority. There are still consequences for some things, but forgiveness and redemption are expected to take precedence in most circumstances. 

We’re expected simply to serve, and to love, perpetually listening for that next holy whisper while we lay down our lives on behalf of those who’ll neither understand nor appreciate it. It’s a system in which the glory, if any, is deferred, and in which even the fruits of our labor may not reveal themselves until long after we’ve moved on. 

It’s what the Old Testament was pointing towards the entire time. From the Garden through the Temple to the Baby in that fabled Manger – and most people missed it. 

We’re still missing it today. 

Small Fire

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