I’ve mentioned that I’ve always loved the stories of the Bible. What I should probably confess is that I’ve had a long love of the particularly gory ones. Ehud killing the fat king of Moab (Judges 3), Jael putting a tent peg through Sisera’s temples (meaning his head, not a place of worship, Judges 4), Elijah’s epic confrontation with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18), I loved and love them all. And I know I’m not the only one, for I distinctly remember Blood and Honey, a children’s television programme that involved Tony Robinson giving particularly vivid retellings of the Old Testament stories on location. I loved that too (sadly it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD).
But I know some people don’t quite have the same appreciation for these stories that I do, which I think is sometimes a shame (particularly when that aversion leads them to sanitize such things for youth who might actually find, as I did, such stories appealing). Yet I believe these stories and others that may jar with people’s sensibilities have value beyond that of my own entertainment. I believe, in fact, that what they offer is so valuable that they are a strong reason to read the Old Testament. While each story carries its own lessons, I believe there are three broad points that should lead even those who are averse to such tales to take them seriously:
1) Such stories have a lot to teach about right and wrong. This might seem particularly jarring considering what I’ve just mentioned, and the rather long list of unpleasant acts that can and do occur in such stories. But just because something is described in the Old Testament doesn’t mean that it is being approved by the Old Testament. And Old Testament narrative in particular can often use quite subtle techniques, such as allusion and narrative repetition, to convey its moral viewpoint. Thus Jacob’s trickery of Isaac, where he disguises himself as his brother to gain his father’s blessing (Genesis 27), appears in rather a different light when Jacob just a few chapters later is similarly fooled by Laban into marrying the wrong sister (Genesis 29). Judah’s inappropriate relations with Tamar (Genesis 38) are condemned by their juxtaposition with the account of Joseph resisting temptation (Genesis 39). These stories provide paradigms of both right and wrong doing, and have much to teach anyone paying attention.
2) Such stories can teach us about the difference between our ways and the Lord’s ways. While the above point applies to many such stories in the Old Testament, it doesn’t apply to every story that may offend modern sensibilities. In some cases acts that we may consider wrong under normal circumstances are commanded by the Lord directly, or practices may be apparently endorsed that we are uneasy with. Such stories, however, may well teach us something similar to the account of Nephi killing Laban in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 4). The Lord’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), and he may on occasion command us to do things that go against our preconceived political, social and religious opinions. Indeed in many respects He seems to make a habit of it. The stories of the Old Testament can also offer a particular challenge to our social mores, those things we might consider the obviously natural and right way of doing things simply because they’re what we know and have grown up with. They may help us resist the myth of progress, and resist the temptation to consider our modern social arrangements part of the eternal Gospel – even such things, to take an aforementioned trivial example, as modern courtship rituals once we consider the stories of Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 24) or Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 3-4).
3) Such stories are honest. This honesty can be seen in two ways. The first is to compare it with what else was being written from that time period. The records of the Egyptian Pharaohs, for example, glorify their victories, selectively remove any mention of their defeats and even remove mention of particular rulers who their successors preferred to forget (such as Hatshepsut). In contrast consider the Old Testament’s treatment of Moses and David: the great lawgiver who spoke with the Lord face to face, and Israel’s greatest king and founder of a dynasty. While Moses is undoubtedly depicted as a figure to be emulated, we are not spared his mistakes and are informed that the Lord prevented him from entering into the promised land because of just such a mistake (Numbers 27:12-14). Meanwhile David’s adultery with Bath-Sheba and his murder of Uriah is not only depicted, but fiercely condemned by the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12:1-12).
But there is another aspect to the honesty of these stories too, and one which bears on their sometimes unsavoury nature. The “horrible” things described in these stories happen. They’re not just stories, and they’re not even just a reflection of conditions in the ancient world. They happen today. We are accustomed to being comfortable in the modern West, but when one looks around the world today there are places where these things happen. Nor is the West immune to such things: some horrific things happen in dark corners out of sight, while just seven decades ago Europe was wracked with war and atrocities that make a mockery of any claims to modern moral progress. They are part of our recent past, they are (across the world, and even hidden amongst us) parts of our present, and we cannot assume they will not form part of our future. Scripture, if it is to be a saving influence on human beings, must deal honestly with the human condition. It must be able to acknowledge the horrible things they do, the horrible things they can experience and the extreme responses such circumstances might call for, in order to provide divine guidance for such times. It is this understanding, I feel, that helps us understand why certain things happen (or are even commanded) in the Old Testament, and why the Old Testament talks about them. We may feel uneasy with them in our present ease, but the time may come – and undoubtedly the time will come for some – when the Old Testament’s account of extreme times is more relevant than ever.