Read correctly, the Hebrew Bible offers necessary understandings of God’s nature, God’s desires and humanity’s journey in God’s creation.
It doesn’t offer scientific knowledge. Genesis 1, for example, isn’t a science of creation. Nor does Genesis 2-3 tell us a historical story about the origins of humanity. Deriving such science and history from the Old Testament would mean reading it incorrectly. Fundamentalists do that, and they make much of it. But it’s still erroneous.
The first question we face, therefore, is whether to read the Old Testament correctly. Do we struggle with its language, narratives and overwhelming concern for topics such as menstrual blood, sexual relations, ownership of people, land and animals and religious rituals — all of which were important to ancient Israelites for practical reasons of their era, but of no apparent interest whatsoever to Jesus.
Or do we read it incorrectly and enjoy the fantasy world that such a reading offers? Literal days of creation, literal floods, literal narratives about ribs and serpents are endlessly satisfying. So are snippets, or proof-texts, that open the door to seeing homosexuality as an abomination, seeing men as fundamentally superior to women and nonbelievers as untouchable, and using deadly violence to punish even the smallest violations of tribal custom.
Modern biblical scholars use the term “myth” to describe Genesis. Myth doesn’t mean falsehood. It means a story that searches for the meaning of realities that are beyond view.
Genesis 2-3 seeks to address the problem of evil. Genesis 1, written centuries later at a time when Israel was battered by evil powers, asserts the sovereignty of God over creation, even the darkness.
The great flood answers the question of God’s wrath and God’s ultimate choice to be merciful. The covenant with Noah forms the basis for all of life.
The Hebrew Bible is the Scripture that formed Jesus. He was formed particularly by the prophets — and their anger at wealth and power, at those who preyed on the weak, at cheaters and bullies, at hypocrites who use religion to serve their own interests and at those who make war and not peace. Jesus was formed by his Scripture’s drive toward justice and faithfulness.
When Jesus told the wealthy man to give away wealth, that was someone steeped in the Old Testament speaking. When he said, “Love your enemy,” welcomed women and embraced outcasts, that was a deliberate rewriting of his Scripture. To Jesus, Isaiah and Amos mattered — the sexual code of Torah not so much.
Jesus used the language of Psalm 23 to describe himself as “shepherd.” He drew meaning and urgency from the apocalyptic literature, such as Daniel’s “Son of Man.”
Christian preachers would serve their people by preaching for an entire year on the Old Testament, especially its themes of justice and mercy, and then in the next year seeing Jesus as he saw himself, namely, not as a worker of magic and founder of a global institution, but as a humble servant who served a few and, through them, continued to serve humanity after his death.
The story of Jesus sounds different when informed in the prophets. That’s how Jesus
TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.