By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
It may be tempting to ignore the Old Testament, or spiritualize its more bloodthirsty or seemingly contradictory stories, but wrestling with them can lead to a deeper understanding of the Gospel and the nature of the Triune God, says Scripture scholar Edith Humphrey.
Whether it is the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice his only son Isaac, God’s genocidal ban placed on some of the peoples who already inhabited the Promised Land, or God portrayed as angry, jealous or vengeful, these difficulties have sometimes led to heresy and they continue to tempt Christians today to avoid the Old Testament.
“When God enters the world, he enters this world, with all its limitations, corruptions and conditions,” the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor told a plenary session at the Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies annual Study Days at Saint Paul University July 2. “That route is messy, and ultimately led to the cross and beyond the cross to Hades itself—whom our Lord conquered, not by waving a wand, nor by mere proclamation, but by entering those domains and destroying them from the inside.”
Humphrey said the Old Testament is a challenge by God to “use our minds, to think carefully, and to read problem passages in the light of God’s entire revelation.”
All of Scripture is “God-breathed,” including the Old Testament, she said, not only for morals but for “wisdom, for making us mature, for leading us to understand and to glimpse what we had not seen before, for bringing us into the very presence of the Triune God---those are the potent purposes of these written words, proclaimed as unbreakable by Jesus, the Apostles and the living Church.”
Early on, however, the Church faced a crisis created by the tension of defining herself against the Jews who did not did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, she said. That tension sometimes produced an overreaction.
The Epistle of Barnabas, a famous second-Century work, “all but rejects the natural reading of the Torah,” she said, noting this is not the same Barnabus who accompanied St. Paul. The author, in a passage about dietary laws, “insists that the allegorical reading alone is what God intended the Jews to understand, but they were blind, and so heard actual commands about food.”
While an allegorical reading of the Old Testament is part of Church tradition and is even referred to in the New Testament, that does not mean treating Sarah and Hagar as spiritual types means they never existed. St. Peter and St. Paul always spoke of continuity between the old and the new covenants, “a link that is effectively broken by the ‘Epistle of Barnabas,’ Humphrey said.
“The author instead cuts off the Christian community from its historical past in Israel and teaches that the only useful approach to the Old Testament is to ignore its connection to history, cleaving wholly to a spiritualized and moral interpretation,” she said, noting that while Origen approved of this book, but Eusebius called it “spurious” and not of apostolic origin.
“Eusebius’ judgment won the day, and this is, in my view, a very good thing: to enshrine this document might have led not only to the dismissal of history, but also to an authoritatively justified anti-Semitism,” she said.
The Gnostics of the second and third century went even further than Barnabas, by not only re-reading the Scriptures but re-writing them, and dismissing the God of the Old Testament as an “arrogant demigod who was in error because he claimed to be the one true God,” she said. Gnostics taught that one needed an enlightened mind “to see beyond the confusion of this world and of the Hebrew Bible.”
Another early theologian from that period, Marcion, rejected the Old Testament and parts of the New Testament. “Like the Gnostics, Marcion considered that the Old Testament God was not a worthy one,” she said.
“In the second century, there were those who read the Hebrew Bible and reacted against it—subverting its clear meaning by strange interpretations, rewriting or correcting it, or excising it and editing books that referred to it,” she said. “Due to these early errors, corrected when the Church eventually agreed to define the limits of its canonical writings, Christians today would not dream of making a formal statement against the Old Testament, or claiming that it was not revealed.”
“Still, we have our own ways of neutralizing, minimizing or avoiding its contents,” she said. “Some of this has come about by custom and accident, of course.”
Humphrey noted Jesus used the Old Testament to teach his disciples on the Road to Emmaus, and that the apostles used it alongside their own witness to proclaim the Gospel before the New Testament was collected.
“We cannot, then afford to ignore the Bible of Jesus and the Apostolic Church,” she said.
The story of Abraham and Isaac involves human sacrifice and monstrous testing, she said. She urged readers to “take a deep breath,” “dive in” and “abandon yourself to the drama of the story, to its power.”
The story about God’s command to Abraham to offer his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering is not exhorting us to “slavishly obey our religion,” she said. Instead the story takes us on “a journey on which we, with Abraham and Isaac, learn who God is, and who we are: it is about mystery, devotion, provision and promise.”
“It is about seeing the life-giving hand of God amidst testing and confusion,” she said. “It is about faith brought to birth and faith rewarded.”
When it comes to God’s command putting populations under the ban, Humphrey said the difficult questions these stories raise can be seen from a wider historical perspective.
“The young and vulnerable suffer if they live in the context of a decadent and immoral society; that society eventually implodes or is conquered by another; human beings are called upon to execute judgment on those who persist in evil-doing,” she said. “We are, in the final analysis, asking God the big question that always raises its head: why does he get involved with this messy, fallen, unethical world? Why not create something less risky?”