For Christians, discomfort with the Old Testament is nothing new. During the second century, Marcion shunned what he saw as the wrathful God of Israel, instead embracing the compassionate figure of Jesus of Nazareth. In Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, Prairie College Old Testament professor Carmen Joy Imes recovers the importance of God’s law for the church today, rejecting the popular heresy that we can dismiss the Old Testament in favor of the New. Writer Jen Pollock Michel spoke with Imes about the personal and communal dimensions of entering into the Sinai covenant through Jesus, the true Israelite.
As you envisioned this book, what level of Old Testament familiarity were you assuming on the part of your readers?
I was thinking of my students when I wrote it. Some of them know nothing about the Bible, while others have been in church all their lives. But even among the regular churchgoers, I find plenty of biblical illiteracy and some very simplistic ways of understanding Scripture. By and large, they read the Old Testament moralistically, looking for heroes, for people whose example they can follow. But it’s very frustrating and disappointing, because everyone they encounter is flawed.
When students arrive in my Torah class, I help them dig deeper into Scripture. There’s some excavating that needs to be done to help them read the Bible as it’s intended.
The temptation to unhitch ourselves from the Old Testament is quite old, but is there anything particularly new about the way that temptation expresses itself today?
There are the classic issues people have struggled with for centuries, but these may be more acute in our age. Nowadays, we encounter questions like: What about the fate of the Canaanites? What about sexual ethics? What about violence towards women, or just the lack of recognition of what women have to offer? When we go to the Old Testament and read these stories, there are things that bother us that maybe didn’t bother people a couple centuries ago, because culturally we’re in a different moment.
For some, the solution is obvious: Let’s just unhitch. If we want people to see Jesus, let’s leave behind all these problematic texts and take them straight to the Gospels. But we can’t understand Jesus without the Old Testament. My approach is about returning to the Old Testament and learning to read it well in context, so that we don’t get mistaken impressions about who God is.
Are you saying there are no real problematic texts in the Old Testament, just perceptions of problems?
Most of the problems result from reading our cultural sensibilities back into ancient time periods where a different worldview and different concerns prevailed. What helps me most as I’m trying to make sense of these problematic texts is trying to read them in their ancient context. I’m asking questions like: What are other cultures saying during this time period? What rhetoric do they normally use? How does the Bible speak into that context?
The Bible has redemptive things to say in an ancient context that still sound very offensive to modern ears, but that’s because we’re not the primary audience. I want to bridge the gap for readers, taking them back to the Old Testament world and helping them appreciate what the Bible is trying to do. If we’ve done that well, it’s easier to cross the bridge back to our own time and ask: What does this mean for me?
How can we see the presence of God’s grace within the Old Testament Law?
Normally, Christians think of Old Testament Law as this ball and chain that we’ve happily done away with in Christ. When I go back and read the Mount Sinai narratives, I am struck by how gracious God is to come down to human level, reveal himself to his people, and show them exactly what he expects. This is especially striking when we compare their situation to those of other ancient Near Eastern peoples, where there was constant anxiety about what the gods wanted.
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Source: Christianity Today