Discovering the ‘strange new world within the Bible’

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Why study the Bible? asks Christopher Holmes.

A highlight of the year for me has, so far, been teaching an adult Bible study group. Fortnightly during the school term, a group from Dunedin City Baptist Church gather to read and learn about the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

The Old Testament is, for Christians, God’s Word. The same is true for Jews. We seek to hear God speak through it. Remarkably, God does speak through Scripture, revealing his will and purposes. We come to know and love God through Scripture. That is why we study it.

My calling as a theologian is to encourage people to fall in love with God. Falling in love with God involves listening to God. We turn to Scripture in order to hear God address us.

Just last week, we contemplated some difficult passages from two neglected and quite difficult books, Joshua and Judges. Both books are extremely dark in places. They treat themes that are uncomfortable, to say the least. But we seek to read and listen in faith. And so we do.

Two things stood out. First, there is God. God is not to be manipulated. God is neither domesticated nor happy for us to make God over in our own image. This is the heart of the Old Testament’s condemnation of idolatry. Idols are ever present in the ancient world of the near East, as they are in our world. God continues to call his covenant people away from anything and everything that prevents them from loving and serving him as the one true God.

The second thing that stands out is the reality of good and evil. What the Book of Judges teaches is the propensity of the people of God to do what is evil in God’s eyes. It is a tragic book. The book paints a profoundly unflattering picture of a people who do not want the one true God to be their God.

The result of people doing evil in God’s eyes is that they do what is right in their own eyes. Shocking moral blindness and perversity

on an individual and societal level are the fruit of doing what is wrong in God’s eyes.

Consideration of what is right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood requires God. Without God, as the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky argues, everything is permissible. Without loving attention to God, and specifically God’s commandments, human beings subject themselves to a multitude of dehumanising forces.

As we considered the message of these neglected books, Joshua and Judges, we were surprised to see what are glimpses of hope amid the ruins of disobedience and death. We met Rahab, a Gentile (non-Jewish) woman who recognises that Israel’s God “is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below” (Joshua 2:11). Though a prostitute, a "nobody" in the eyes of many other people, lacking social standing, she nonetheless recognises the truth about God and acts courageously on behalf of her family.

Karl Barth, arguably the most important theologian of the modern era, wrote of the “strange new world within the Bible”. Together, the study group that I lead is discovering something of this strange world.

It is strange, yes, because it speaks of God. The Old Testament assumes (as I do) that God exists, God cares and God reigns supreme over all the lies, moral corruption and vain attempts of God’s people to have things their own way.

The Bible is also strange because it is full of gifts in the form of divine commandments. In giving people commandments, God honours their freedom. God makes it possible for them to restrain those desires, common to all of us, to turn from God and live as prisoners of our own whims.

Most strangely and remarkably, these difficult books are not defensive. They assume that God is faithful and that God’s people are (then as now) often not. God recognises the reality of evil without condoning it, giving his people commandments, leading them, patiently, to ways of holiness and life.

While the Old Testament (to say nothing of the New Testament) is not for the faint of heart, it is a great gift. It’s beating heart is God and God’s promises. As St Thomas Aquinas wrote nearly 800 years ago: “there is nothing better than God”.

Life with God involves attention to God’s Word, the Scriptures. When we listen to them, in faith, we discover God who is the truth, life, light and love.

 - Associate Prof Christopher Holmes is head of the theology programme at the University of Otago.

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