Tackling the Old Testament

August 31, 2008

I have avoided the Old Testament.  I am not sure why, but I really did not understand what all those books have for me.  At one time I began reading the different stories like that of Joseph, Moses and Jonah.  I read the Song of Solomon several times.  The Psalms are safe to read, but it always surprises me when I run into one of them that is a ranting rage.
But why is it so difficult to tackle the Old Testament?  For me one reason is that I do not see its pertinence.  Isn’t the fact that Jesus died so that we who believe in him will have eternal life?  Didn’t the New Covenant wipe out the need to know the old laws?  Why do I need to hear all the old stories as long as I have the New Testament?
With a little extra work, I think I have found the answers to these questions.  In one of my Companions in Christ studies, I came to realize that the Old Testament was what Jesus had studied.  He spent his young years studying the old scriptures, memorizing the Psalms, and hearing the words of the prophets.  The Old Testament books gave Jesus his foundation.
In today’s society, we study history.  We require it from schools.  Here in the 21st century we have all the written words, the scientific research, the languages of the world, and the mathematical theorems and postulates that are studied by our young people and analyzed over and over by researchers.  As 21st century people, we have a driving need to understand our universe.  Surely that cannot be any different than it was in Jesus’ time.  Therefore, that means I should tackle the Old Testament in order to fully comprehend the basis of the New Testament.  It helps me to understand the need for the genealogy, for the fulfillment of the prophecies, and for the challenges Jesus managed from the Pharisees.  Reading the Old Testament does have pertinence even today.
Another reason I have struggled reading the Old Testament is the challenge of scientific knowledge.  When reading about Noah’s flood, the parting of the Red Sea, or the multiple plagues that seemed to keep popping up in the Middle East, I find myself distracted.  I want to know how in the world those things happened.  In my lifetime of education, I have become a cynic of the Old Testament stories.  I need to simply accept the stories as they are written, but oh no, I look for cause and effect.
Consider the burning bush.  I think the visuals I get of a burning bush stops me from hearing the message in the full story.  This week, I started with the burning bush.  Look at those words in verses 2-3:
2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
Here was a man who began life in a palace.  The circumstances of Moses’ birth are odd enough, but as he grew up in the palace, his life was far from the mountainside shepherding.  When he was forced into slavery, he was accustomed to a different lifestyle and I suspect that his curiosity was encouraged as part of his education.  No wonder the burning bush caught his attention.
I know if I was walking along the pastures and saw a bush burning, I would stop, too.  My mental picture of this story has always been of something like a tumbleweed burning yet I know it would be a quick flash and gone in a second.  So I decided it was time to research the burning bush.  When “burning bush” is typed into the search box of Google, up pops a series of images most of a bright red-leafed shrub.  The pictures almost glowed as I scrolled through the images which were interrupted once and a while by artists’ renditions of Moses and the burning bush.
The search results were not what I expected, so this time I googled  burning bushes in Israel.  This time I found more what I had in my mind.  It is a leafless shrub and the pictures do not show any bright red, leafy shrub.  The contrast is pictured on the front of the bulletin, as I am sure you have noticed.  I was quickly reminded that the Old Testament tells the story of an entirely different geographic region and culture.
Interestingly enough, the information on the burning bush in the Mid East revealed a little secret:
It is due to an essential oil, which gives off an inflammable vapour in heat or in dry, cloudy weather, which also congeals as resinous wax, exuding from rusty-red glands in the flowers. This accounts for the fact that the atmosphere surrounding it will often take fire if approached by a lighted candle, without injuring the plant.
Okay, so maybe this information takes a little mystery out of the story, but I can assure you that it does not disqualify the story.  If I were out on the hillside, no lightening or rain, and I saw a burning bush for the first time, I would have stopped dead in my tracks, too.
Which brings me to a final major point why we should tackle the Old Testament:  learning to listen and know God when he is talking to us.  I certainly hope that a burning bush is not necessary to get my attention, but here I am in my 50s and I did not get it until now!  I guess I did need a burning bush, so to speak.  I may be in my 50s, but Moses was in his 80s and the burning bush finally got his attention.  I guess it is not too late, is it?
Of course I did not realize that was one of the purposes of this passage until I continued my studies this week.  One of the little preaching secrets is that you go on line for additional study materials.  I have stumbled, although I am sure it is on the list from licensing schools which I was given, into a website that provides many resources:  textweek.com.  Included in the offerings on this site is the entire listing of John Wesley’s notes.
I did not realize that Wesley had literally made individual notes on each and every verse in the Bible.  This is what I found when I read the notes about Moses and the Burning Bush:
1. Now Moses – The years of Moses’s life are remarkably divided into three forties; the first forty he spent as a prince in Pharaoh’s court, the second a shepherd in Midian, the third a king in Jeshurun. He had now finished his second forty when he received his commission to bring Israel out of Egypt. Sometimes it is long before God calls his servants out to that work which of old he designed them for. Moses was born to be Israel’s deliverer, and yet not a word is said of it to him till he is eighty years of age. Even to Horeb – Horeb and Sinai were two tops of the same mountain.

Think about that:  Moses was in his 80s before he heard God telling him to lead his people out of Egypt.  I have to tell you that would not be an easy directive to hear at that age.  I would have to agree with Moses when he said he could not do it alone:

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am . This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”

Still going to the Pharaoh and demanding to let all the Israelite slaves to leave Egypt was a huge task to do alone.  I would definitely agree with Moses, at the age of 80 or so, ask how in the world I was to do such a task.
Once again, my Life Application Bible provided better understanding of how God was there with Moses.  In the study helps for verse 10 when God says to Moses “So now, go.  I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”,  the help is explained:

Moses made excuses because he felt inadequate for the job God asked him to do.  It was natural for him to feel that way. . . . But God wasn’t asking Moses to work alone.  He offered other resources (God himself, Aaron, and the ability to do miracles). . .

Whew!  I certainly would not have wanted to go it alone.  Getting the Israelites out of Egypt was a huge task.  Moses was worried, even tried to get out of it by saying he could not speak well to the Pharoah,  God provided Aaron to do the talking for him.
Tackling the Old Testament seems like a huge issue to me, too.  Taking on the role of teacher was a huge issue for me.  Becoming a parent was a huge task for me.  Why simply moving from one house to another is a physical move that I hope I do not have to do again.  I cannot imagine moving an entire people from one country to another.  Reading about Moses and his own fears about taking on a task like that reassures me that even today, in the 21st century, we can hear God’s call and rest assured that we can in deed manage.
Continuing in the same note on verse 10 in my Bible, I hear the assurance from God I need:

God often calls us to tasks that seem too difficult, but he doesn’t ask us to do them alone.  God offers us his resources, just as he did to Moses.  We should not hide behind our inadequacies, as Moses did, but look beyond ourselves to the great resources available.  Then we can allow God to use our unique contributions.

Thank goodness.  When I was challenged to consider the ministry, I finally realized that God had been calling me for years.  What I did not believe is that I was equipped for the job.  I guess I am more like Moses than I ever thought and it took nearly 50 years to get me prepared.  Tackling the Old Testament does still have value.  I love the New Testament because it is filled with hope, with love, and with compassion for our fellow people.  Now I am unafraid to look more closely to the history, the foundations, of the Old Testament scriptures, too.  We do need to tackle them.  We do need to apply ourselves to intentional faith development as Bishop Schanese has challenged us.  If we do, and we do it together, we definitely will score a touchdown in heaven.

Dear God, the I AM,
Open our hearts and our minds as we read and study the holy scriptures of the Old Testament.  Help us find the pertinence of your peoples’ history.  Help us to find understanding.  Help us to listen with confidence that you will provide the means for answering your call.  Help us to be committed to our own intentional faith development so we are well equipped to tackle the challenges of our lives.         –Amen

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