Over the last several posts I've been showing how the Old Testament does not speak with one unified voice, but in fact presents us with a catalog of opposing views. It is a record of dispute that models for us that it is good and healthy to question.
We began with the example of how Job and the Psalmists question the Law
. Next we looked at the two opposing narratives in Ezra and Ruth
: One which sought to strictly follow the commands of the Law by telling men to divorce and deport their foreign wives and children, and another that tells the story from the opposite perspective, letting us see through the eyes of one of those foreign women.
We thus have in the Hebrew Bible a record of a people questioning, arguing, struggling to understand God and life around them; struggling to understand what faithfulness and holiness and love and justice look like. Because the Bible presents us with multiple conflicting views of what this means, we are forced to enter into that struggle, too. We are forced to choose which of these conflicting narratives we will embrace, and allow to shape us. To instead attempt to harmonize the Hebrew Bible into a single cohesive narrative is to deny what it in reality is.
The previous examples I have given have been examples of people challenging the declarations of God in the law. Job challenges God. The Psalmist questions the law of Moses. Ezra challenges it, too. In each of these we find examples of faithful humans essentially saying, as Moses said, "Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25). The motivation is to plead for justice. It is a continuing theme of theodicy.
This time I'd like to share an example where we find the voice of God directly challenging and contradicting the voice of God, where we find one "thus saith the Lord" statement confronting and reversing another. One prophet boldly declaring God's will, speaking in God's name directly, and another prophets declaring in God's name that the first prophet is completely wrong.
The first prophet is Moses who declares, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers” (Ex 20:5; Dt 5:9). This is then taken up by the prophet Samuel as a consequence for king David’s sins. Samuel prophesies to David, “Because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord the son born to you will die.” (2 Sam 12:14). The text continues to describe a father’s anguish, “David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground” (v. 16). But David’s prayers were not heard. We are told that “the Lord struck the child” (v. 15) with sickness, and he soon died.
In this account King David sins, and God kills his little boy. Despite his plea for mercy and his repentance, God directly strikes the child dead. “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers!” Thus saith the Lord.
Seems pretty cut and dry until we come to the prophet Ezekiel who declares, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord: You will no longer quote this proverb in Israel” (Ezek 18:3). What is he referring to? His prophesy continues, “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live … The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son” (v. 17, 19). The command of God, declared by Moses, is emphatically denied and rejected here by Ezekiel.
We find many examples of the prophets doing this, challenging and confronting past prophetic declarations. Isaiah challenges the temple sacrifices "The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats" (Isa 1:11-15). Jeremiah similarly challenges the religious commands of the past emphatically stating "I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing!” (Jer 32:35)
Each of these statements, both pro and con, are placed directly in the mouth of God. In one God is said to kill children for the sins of their parents. In the other God is said to emphatically deny this. If with the complaints of Job and the Psalmist we were tempted to say, "Well, I don't understand, but I have to trust that if God commands it it must be right." This option is no longer open to us here because we have two "thus saith the Lord" statements directly contradicting each other. We have a prophet declaring in God's name, "I never commanded that, and such a detestable thing never entered into my mind!"
That means that even when we have something stated as a direct absolute eternal declaration of God, according to the Bible itself, this is not beyond question. The Old Testament models for us how we can challenge and question such declarations. And what is the motivation for that questioning? Without exception it is always motivated by compassion, as a protest against violence and injustice.
Consider too that all of the examples we have been studying have been examples of scapegoating: Last time we heard the story of how women and children were singled out as the "dirty" and corrupting influence that needed to be purged. They were singled out as the "other", the enemy. This led them to turn on their own wives and children, who at the time in that patriarchal society were the most defenseless. They were the scapegoats. Here in the example of king David we have the most powerful man in all of Israel who has used his power as a king to rape Bathsheba (don't kid yourself, she had no say whatsoever) and then murder her husband. However, just as today where the powerful are "too big to fail" David does not pay for this. Instead his little boy does. Again a scapegoat -- all the blame is placed on a defenseless victim, and this "solves" the problem. Likewise, the complaints of Job and the Psalmists are the complaints of those who have been scapegoated, falsely accused and made to suffer.
When the prophets -- along with the Psalmists and other voices in Scripture like Ezra -- speak out against these divine commands they are speaking out against scapegoating. Why is it that, according to Isaiah, God rejects the people's prayers and offerings? "Your hands are full of blood!" Isaiah declares (Isa 1:15). He then goes on to define the kind of sacrifice that God really desires "Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow." (v 17). Again, the motivation behind all of these protests is always compassion.
Now of course we can see these same concerns for compassion and the plight of the least, the outsider, the unclean, and the enemy expressed in the life of Jesus. We see Jesus challenge the law, saying repeatedly "you have heard it said... but I say to you." In doing this he overturns the law of an "eye for an eye" and the way of enemy hatred that is woven throughout books like Joshua and proclaimed and commanded by Moses.
It is common to thus see Jesus and the New Testament as representing a break from the Old Testament. It is true that we do see a major turning point in the New Testament, however to truly appreciate that we need to first understand that what we are witnessing is the continuation of something that began back in the Old Testament itself. The Old Testament is a record of dispute, filled with examples of faithful protest. Jesus may have made that protest more articulate and focused with his shift to the way of enemy love, but he is continuing in the tradition of faithful Jewish questioning in the name of compassion that we see modeled throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
We need to learn to walk in that way of faithful questioning ourselves. Even when we find statements put directly in the mouth of God, we are invited to deliberate between these conflicting claims, rather than passively accept them unthinkingly. We must make a choice, and so the question is how to we deliberate between them? How do we choose?
We cannot choose based on authority because, as we have seen, we have two prophets each claiming the authority of God, who are making opposite claims. So if we cannot decide what is right based on "the Bible says so" or "God says so" or "the law says so" then how can we decide among conflicting claims which one is right?
The pattern of protest we have seen, modeled for us in Scripture itself, of which Jesus is a part, shows us that the key factor here is compassion
. Compassion, love of enemies, seeing from the perspective of the least, the victim -- that is how we can deliberate what God's will really looks like. Love is the summation of the law. As we do the work of learning the way of empathy we will be able to discern what justice really means.