Sunday, June 04, 2006

Reflections on the Old Testament

In many of the old westerns there is a hillbilly father with a gun-toting clan of sons and nephews behind him. This hillbilly father usually kills his hillbilly neighbors and anybody else whom he takes a dislike to without restraint or remorse, justifying his actions by quoting one of the saltier passages of the Old Testament. And indeed the Old Testament would have great appeal to a homicidal maniac. But if it is read by someone with a genuine desire to come closer to God, there is much that can be gleaned by a perusal of the Old Testament. I was somewhat surprised recently (which I know I should not have been) when I read through the Old Testament and found it to be fascinating and completely relevant. A number of issues interested me.

1) Lord, what Fools…
The story of the Israelite people seems to be just one long story of faithlessness. In my childhood, I thought the Israelites had to be the stupidest people who ever lived. How, having seen God intervene so convincingly in their behalf so many times, could they persist in returning to the idols again and again? Now I can see that it was as easy as sin. God spoke to the Israelites through His prophets. The average Israelite had to first trust that Moses or Joshua or Gideon or Samuel was a true prophet, and then he had to believe that God’s will was something that was good for him. In other words, he had to believe something far more difficult to believe in than God’s power; he had to believe God loved him. One can imagine the thought process: “Sure, He parted the Red Sea for us and saved us from the Egyptians but now He plans to let us starve out here in the desert.” And it is not every generation that gets to see a miracle as dramatic as the parting of the Red Sea. Is it that hard then to see how the traditional idols of all the Israelites’ neighbors were more appealing to them than the true God? And in many cases the Israelites did not totally reject God; they simply hedged their bets, worshipping the pagan idols and the God of Israel, much like we do today, attending some nominally Christian service on Sunday and worshipping Baal during the rest of the week. It is embarrassing to read the adventures of the ever-faithless Israelites because one gets the distinct impression that one is reading about oneself.

2) Segregation and Slavery
It isn’t hard to see why the liberals deny that the Bible is true history and declare it to be mostly tribal legends. If they took it seriously, they would have to abandon some of their most cherished beliefs. For instance, if one takes the Old Testament seriously, God does not appear to be a One-Worlder. He is less than delighted with the Tower of Babel, and throughout the Old Testament He insists that the Israelites segregate themselves from those with different views of God. And while not providing a divine sanction for every type of slavery, the Old Testament does indeed sanction the type of domestic slavery that protects the Israelites from contamination and checks the baser instincts of the servant race. It is a domestic slavery much like that of the old South of our country.

3) Prophets and Prophecies
Despite the fact that the age of prophecy was supposed to have ended with the coming of Christ, we constantly are told about new prophets and prophecies, most of which, in the Catholic Church at least, are linked to the Virgin Mary. The Old Testament prophecies are related by God to one individual, such as Moses or Elijah, but are generally meant for the entire Israelite tribe. In the Christian era, the alleged prophecies are generally related to an individual or a small group of individuals. Are they meant for the entire Christian tribe? I think one is better off disregarding them unless the revelations come to him personally.

Unlike the Kings of Israel (Samuel had warned the Israelites not to give up the old prophet / judge system) who were generally stinkers, the prophets (with a few exceptions) were the cream of the crop. My favorite prophets are Gideon, Elijah, and Jeremiah.

Gideon, a prophet judge before the Israelites had kings, I admire for his steadfast fidelity to the Lord and his Agincourt-type victory over the Midianites.

Elijah I admire for the sheer dramatic virtuosity of his entrances and exits. He pops up without warning to the wicked King Ahab and tells him that “There shall not fall upon the ground any dew or rain until I call for it.” Then he disappears as suddenly as he came. And when he departs the earth, he leaves in a chariot of fire. What an exit!

When I was growing up, the only Jeremiah we heard about was the bullfrog. But Jeremiah the prophet was one hell of a man. He is often called the “weeping prophet” because it was his unpleasant task to tell the people of Judah of the evils that were coming. One is never popular when bearing bad news, but Jeremiah spoke what the Lord told him to speak despite imprisonment, rack and rope.

4) God’s Providence
The average Israelite does not seem to have been granted extra years to his life or special individual blessings. But the kings and prophets who adhered to God’s word were. And the Israelite people were granted victory in battle when they collectively obeyed God’s word. When they returned to the idols of Baal, God allowed their enemies such as the Assyrians or the Philistines to defeat them. But does God’s providence work that way now? Was not the Israelites’ situation unique? God had a particular reason for wanting the tribe of Israel to survive and a particular reason for making sure that they did not succumb to a permanent state of idolatry. He intended to bring forth the Christ from their tribe. I know that one could make a case that the sons of Japheth (the Europeans), once the Christ was born, became, when they converted to Christianity, the new Israelites. But I don’t think that case should be made. I think the European miracle was a miracle of grace and free will while the Israelite miracle was one of God’s grace. Nor do I think, as such Christian warriors as Lee and Stonewall Jackson thought prior to the South’s defeat, that God awards victory in battle to those who are in the right. The historical record shows us too many instances of the triumph of evil over the good to believe that the Christian side will always prevail. Every nation always invokes its gods before going to war, but a Christian should, even without having read Shakespeare or Doystovesky, be able to understand that no nation, since the Christ Child was born, will ever have the same divine sanction as Israel did when going into battle.

5) Evil Women
Ahab was probably the worst King of Judea, and yet his wife Jezebel was ten times as evil. Haman was as evil as they come, and yet his wife was worse. The Bible is full of virtuous and pure women such as Ruth, but it also tells us something about women, something that coincides with what the Greek tragedians like Aeschylus and the Christian poets such as Tennyson and Shakespeare have told us: “The difference between a man and a man is the difference between heaven and earth, but the difference between a woman and a woman is the difference between heaven and hell.” The feminine principle, when separated from God, has the demonic power to engulf the earth in the flames of hell. There must be Christian patriarchal restraints placed on women lest we have an entire society based on the hellish instincts of Jezebel. And it doesn’t take a great prophet to see that Jezebelian instincts dominate our own anti-society.

6) Fairy Tale Mode
The Old Testament (and the New as well because there is no dichotomy between the two) strongly resembles the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. There are giants, evil stepmothers, good and evil wizards, talking animals and dramatic divine interventions. To many people, in fact to most, this means that the Old Testament (and the New) is false. But I think it proves the contrary. In the depths of our souls we think in the fairy tale mode, because we have a racial memory of a time when we were closer to God. We don’t go back and forth between Narnia and earth anymore because we are too degenerate. But our great poets who articulate what we have hidden in our souls give us a glimpse of a time when we used to see wonders and hear an echo of God’s voice. When we abandon the fairy tale mode of thought and replace it with theology or philosophy, we place even more layers of atheistic crust over our already over-laden souls.

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