Today I read the entire book of Genesis in one sitting. All fifty chapters. Creation, Adam and Eve, the fall, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph, and everything in between.
To be honest, it was deeply troubling. I never bite of giant chunks of scripture like that – I always take on little verse and try to “unpack” it by placing it in the context of all of the other one-at-a-time verses I know. But this epic of the Hebrews is wrought with sorrow, abomination and tragedy, with a God who is sometimes in the foreground and sometimes in the background, with long silences in the middle. Everyone knows this, but today I was deeply stuck by the great number of accounts of humans doing horrible things to one another, with God sometimes punishing and sometimes delivering a blessing regardless. I think this book is a little too potent to take too much at once – I am going to try to space out my readings a little better in the future. I feel like I just played a game of tackle football with no pads.
My Old Testament professor Carolyn Sharp (who is wonderful) does an excellent job of exposing us to all the different possible methodologies and readings of these texts while maintaining that she reads them all as a believing lover of God first. Interestingly none of the commentary I have read really troubles me – it’s the actual text itself that strikes me in the heart, and not in a good way. I hate to think that the people I know and love are capable of the horrid sins of the Israelites. I’ve been overcome with waves of deep anger by the way women are marginalized, and the totally illogical favoritism God shows toward people who are utterly undeserving. I’ve been grossed out by the sexual explicitness, puzzled by the dark and eerie sacrifices, and frustrated by the immoral acts of patriarchs I’ve lauded.
I’ve always subconsciously thought that biblical characters are meant to be role models for us, but now I don’t know why I’ve always seen them that way. With very, very rare exception, they all do horrible things all the time, and now that I think about it I don’t really want to behave like them at all.
While reading about the lying, murdering, deceitful, violent, sexually immoral, incestuous, disobedient folks in the Old Testament, I wanted to turn my back on them. I missed Jesus, and I missed reading the Bible to study a model for how I should strive to be.
However, this is not good. The Hebrew scriptures are just as precious a gift as the New Testament, and it's only a matter of figuring out how. Tonight I am left concluding that there is one thing of supreme importance that I must have in common with the Israelites: God loves me. Okay, there are two things I have in common with them: I commit the same sins day in and day out, AND God loves me. Watching the way God loves these people as their story develops is all we need to know about them, and, if God really wants us to learn from these scriptures (which I think he does), the lesson might be that their sins just don’t seem to matter in the way I think they should. The important thing about these stories is not the history of who moved where and who wronged who and which tribes hate which tribes (although there's much to learn in all of that, too). The important thing is that no matter what was going on and no matter who was involved, God loved his people. His actions are mysterious and often troubling, but this is, after all, the God who abounds so greatly in grace that he conceived of and gave us Jesus.
I am amazed to see God’s grace written so loud and clear into this primeval literature when I’ve always blindly imagined it started with harsh, unfeeling law. Pretty much everything I’ve come to conclude about God the Father I learned through reading about God the Son, and I’ve wrongly assumed that God before Christ was somehow lesser, or even mean. But the God of the Hebrews is exhibiting those same qualities way before Jesus was begotten. He is the author of our salvation. As I go through the Old Testament, I feel my heart racing toward the arrival of the Messiah. I am beginning to understand what it feels like to wait for him and long for him, to feel a deep need for him to reconcile us to our Father.
I know I’ll spend my whole life journeying through these scriptures, but this is a giant shift. I’m learning so much more about who I am worshiping and to whom I am praying. And the more I learn the more simple it seems to get: I belong to one who really loves me. End of story. And beginning of story.