1.Making Sense of the Old Testament (note: this series is drawn from Rev. Adam Hamilton, “Making Sense of the Bible”) What is this? It’s a Bible - there’s another one over here. We Methodists put a lot of store in the Bible; I am forever telling you to read it! But what is it really? Did you ever read parts that just touched you deep in your heart? Or parts that made you scratch your head and say, “What in the world?” Where did this book come from? Who wrote it? Why do we talk about it so much? Why does it sometimes contradict itself? There are a lot of questions about the Bible, and we are going to explore those questions for a few weeks in this new sermon series, “Making Sense of the Bible.” Today, we are going to talk about the Old Testament, but there are a few questions to answer first. Why is the Bible important to us? Because there are several ways God has chosen to show himself to us: God’s most perfect revelation of God’s self is in the person of Jesus Christ, his Son. But, God also reveals God’s self in the beauty of creation, in our relationship with him, and especially, in the pages of this book. It is important because it is one way in which we can come to know God better, come nearer to him; it is a means of grace. But the Bible is not a single book - it is a library. Look in your Bibles now - turn to the table of contents in the front. You will see there are 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the new. Hold your place there for a minute - These books were written over a period of at least 1400 years, some of the stories and traditions date back 4000 years from our time.
We call the Bible “God’s Word”, and it is that, but that does not mean that God wrote it - We believe that the books of the Bible were written over time by human authors who were inspired by God, and were writing God’s message to a particular people in a particular culture. Nor did God dictate word for word - that is just not how God works! God works through people, most of the time. God inspired the writers; they wrote in light of their own culture, skill, knowledge, and language. For example, when Jesus heals a boy with symptoms of epilepsy, God knows the real cause of that disease, but the gospel writer writes that Jesus cast a demon out of the boy. He must interpret the event in light of his own world view, his own knowledge. But, let’s emphasize - the writing of scripture is a two-part event, God’s inspiration and human activity.
And yet, even though we have a collection of books written over a span of thousands of years, there is a cohesive story here. It is the story of God’s seeking relationship with humanity, and of human beings repeatedly turning away; instead of seeking God’s will, we seek to be gods. Back to the table of contents - see those first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy? Those are the most sacred part of the Hebrew Bible, called the Torah, the Pentateuch, or the Books of Moses. Does that mean Moses wrote them? Well, there are places where scripture says that God gave Moses the law, and Moses wrote it down. Exodus is the only place the Bible says that God actually wrote any of it, when he inscribed the ten commandments on stone tablets. But, these books also describe Moses’ death, and in one place it says that Moses was the most humble man ever to walk the earth. Let’s hope he did not say that! But much of the story told here is about Moses, so they’re called the Books of Moses. Scholars believe that some of the Torah was written by Moses, some of the law added to over time by priests, and much of it passed down through centuries in streams of oral tradition that were eventually combined. Putting together stories from several sources is called “redaction”, and it means that these stories, laws, or poems had so much meaning to a group of people that they sought to put them together and write them down to keep them for their children. This explains why there are, for example, two different versions of the creation story in Genesis 1 and 2.
Turn to Genesis one. The story begins there, “In the beginning, God ---”. Now hold your place there and turn over to Genesis, Chapter 11. These first eleven chapters are the primeval stories, dating to before recorded history, before writing was invented - the creation stories, the fall, the flood -
But even these earliest stories are not just ancient history; they tell us something about ourselves, about the human condition, about the universal struggle with temptation. Sarah Groves sings, “I can taste the fruit of Eve. I’m aware of sickness, death, and disease. The results of her choices were vast. Eve was the first but she wasn’t the last. If I were honest with myself, had I been standing at that tree, my mouth and my hands would be covered with fruit. Things I shouldn’t know and thing’s I shouldn’t see.” The chorus of that song ends, “I can pass on a curse or a blessing to those I will never know.” That is a truth, about our human condition, our desire to be gods, rather than love God, a profound message that we glean from the story - instead of getting lost in doctrines about original sin, or arguing about creation, we see the core message. I know - if I were standing at the foot of that mango tree, the fruit would be dripping down my chin!
From Genesis 12 on, the Old Testament becomes the story of the Israelites and their special relationship with God. Sometime around 1900 BC, God called a man named Abram to leave his home in Ur and go to a land that God would show him. And so, Abram, whom God renamed Abraham, took his family and his flocks and traveled to a land called Canaan. And God made a covenant with Abraham, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and would be a great nation, and he would give them that land for their home.
In Genesis 14, there is a story of how Abram’s nephew Lot was captured, and Abram went in pursuit, with 318 of his servants, as far as the town of Dan. Archeologists have found the ancient city, and its gates, 3800 to 4000 years old; and we saw them. There is a picture on your bulletin. Are these the very gates that Abram entered? Very often, archeology supports the stories in the scriptures.
Let me say a word about numbers in the Old Testament. First of all, they did not use the same numeric system that we use; it was invented later. Secondly, no one actually stood around and counted the 318 men mentioned here, because it was not an exact number that was important. Numbers were symbolic. Here, Abram probably had a good size posse’ of his servants and friends who went after Lot. Abraham had a son named Isaac, and he had a son named Jacob (we’re leaving out a lot of detail and intrigue here!), and Jacob was renamed “Israel”, and his descendants are the Israelites, or the People of Israel. These men are remembered as the patriarchs, fathers of the nation of Israel. They were not always good - Abraham lied to save his own skin, they had multiple wives. They did stupid things, conniving things, cruel things - and yet, God held to his covenant with them. The Israelites find themselves slaves in Egypt, and God calls Moses to lead them out. But they are a whiny lot, complaining about the food, who wants to eat manna all the time? And complaining that they had just as well have died in Egypt. Still, God gives them the 10 Commandments, and the law, to order their society, to help them learn how to live in community as a free people, no longer slaves. And God says, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.” But even before Moses comes down from the mountain with the stone tablets they are worshipping idols. Moses is angry, but he then pleads with God, and God forgives them. Eventually, they come to the Promised Land. Moses dies, but Joshua leads them across the Jordan.
That brings us out of the pentateuch, into what the Hebrew Bible classifies as “the Writings”. These include the history of Israel, from Joshua and Judges down through the Kings and Nehemiah. The writings also include the story of Esther, the epic poem that is Job, the songs and prayers of Psalms, the wisdom literature of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and the romantic poetry of the Song of Solomon.
The histories tell of their conquering the Promised Land under Joshua. They settled into the land without a central rule, but drifted away from worshipping God, to the Canaanite idols. Then they were attacked, and repented, and God sent Judges to lead them in battle, and they prevailed, the judges went home; there was peace for a time, until they began to worship idols again, and so on and on. They thought if they had a king they would be better able to ward off attacks, and God gave them a king. We know the first three kings: Saul, David, and David’s son, Solomon. They weren’t perfect - Saul failed to obey God; David sinned, and was such a lousy father that his own sons fought against him; and Solomon started out wiser than all men, but became obsessed with wealth and his many wives, whom he encouraged to worship their foreign gods. But their descendants, who ruled Judah, and the kings of Israel were even worse. Over and over again, the kings led their people to sin by worshipping other gods. Scripture repeatedly says of them, “He did evil in the sight of the Lord.” God sent prophets to warn his people; he grieved for them and what they were doing to themselves and their communities. But they killed the prophets and failed to heed their warnings. The books from Isaiah to Malachi are called the prophets. Eventually, in 782, the nation of Israel was invaded by Assyria, and the people taken away in exile. One-hundred-thirty years later, in 587 BC, Judah and Jerusalem were destroyed, and her people taken away to Babylon. Still, God sent prophets to give them hope. And after fifty years a remnant returned.
The Old Testament is not only Israel’s story. It is the story of very human people; we see ourselves in them, in their failures and in their triumphs. It is the story of God, repeatedly reaching out, loving, forgiving, warning and encouraging, seeking always to build a relationship to his people. And finally, God made new promises - he would send a new king, from David’s line, but a new kind of king, and God would renew his relationship with humanity through him, and those who followed him - they would be his people, and he would be their God.
Would you pray with me:
Almighty God, Creator and Lord, forgive us when we worship the idols of our day - wealth and power, possessions and things. Help us to love you with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.
PRAYER 10-19-14 Most Gracious God, Creator of all this world -
of all the beauty around us,
we lift our voices today in praise,
and in gratitude. We are thankful for all of Creation -
for your love and your grace. We are thankful for scripture,
for your Word, given to people over the many years. We are thankful for your Son, Jesus, our Savior -
the concrete expression of your love. We are thankful for this community, in which we may grow and learn
as your people. And as your people, we lift up these who are a part of that community:
and we ask your wisdom and guidance as Joy seeks to find direction now. We ask healing for Sophie Levy, niece and cousin of the Regis family,
who is in ICU fighting for life and healing. We ask for help and strength for the people of Bermuda,
and especially for Edie’s family there. We ask that you will bring your healing to those in Africa,
for the eradication of ebola, and of malaria.
And we pray for those in this country who have acquired ebola in the course of their caring for others. And we pray today for those in the Middle East, in the path of war and extremists. Father, help us to live as your people - to care about and for our neighbors around the world, as we are one Kingdom, your Kingdom, even as we pray the prayer that you have taught us, “Our Father”.