The Bible can be very confusing. How to interpret it has been debated for thousands of years. How do we know what God is really like? How did Jesus understand his Bible? Contrary to popular opinion, the Old Testament is not a single book with one unified view of who God is and how life works. It is instead a collection of books from multiple authors who articulate a multitude of opposing perspectives. In the Hebrew Bible, we do not hear a single unified voice, rather we encounter multiple competing voices each claiming to be the authoritative, correct view.
Because of this, the life and teachings of Jesus become of paramount importance in how we read the rest of the Bible. Jesus often challenged the common interpretation of Old Testament Scripture and he demands that we do the same. This shouldn’t be a problem. It’s only a problem if we confuse following the Bible with Christianity. The Bible is not the full revelation of God, Jesus is.
Thankfully, Jesus came to clear up the confusion by teaching his disciples, and us, how to correctly read Scripture.
When God Is Like, The Worst Ever
God in the Old Testament often looks like a total jerk. Deuteronomy 28 declares that if the Israelites break the law, God will inflict them with a host of physical and mental illnesses, their children will be abducted as slaves, their fiancees will be raped before their eyes, they will be filled with tumors and festering sores, and God will even cause “the most gentle and sensitive men among you [to] have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children” and they will become cannibals and not share any of the flesh of their children that they will be eating (v54-55).
God is such a swell guy, huh?
All that is what will happen “if you refuse to obey all the words of instruction that are written in this book, and if you do not fear the glorious and awesome name of the Lord your God” (v58). In this narrative if someone is sick or the victim of violence, it was assumed that they must have sinned. If someone was rich or successful in battle, it was assumed they must be obeying God. This was the worldview in the ancient Near East during the time the Old Testament was written.
Similarly, we read in the Law the declaration that God punishes sons for their father’s sins: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers” (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:9). This is stated as a direct quote from God. We later read how such “inherited” punishment is said to have been carried out as a consequence for King David’s sins. Samuel prophesies to David, “Because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die” (2 Samuel 12:14). The text goes on to describe a father’s anguish: “David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and lay all night on the ground” (v16). But David’s prayers were not heard. Instead, we are told that “the Lord struck the child” (v15) with sickness, and he soon died. So in this account King David sins, and God kills his little boy. “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers!” Thus saith the Lord?
So Which Is It?
In contrast to the claims above, the prophet Ezekiel directly contradicts this principle, saying, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel” (Ezekiel 18:3). His prophecy continues, “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live … The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son” (v17, 19). Here we have a statement placed directly in the mouth of God, confronting and contradicting the previous declaration of the Lord in the Law. Each of these above contradictory statements claims to speak for God in no uncertain terms. In one, God is said to kill children for the sins of their parents. In the other, God is said to emphatically deny this. Is this an example of God’s character changing? It is doubtful that anyone would want to argue that. A much more obvious and likely conclusion is that we have here a record of dispute and disagreement between the Law and the prophets— each claiming to truly speak for God, each declaring “thus saith the Lord.”
For the law was given through Moses; but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
These are just a few of many instances that illustrate the fact that rather than finding a single narrative throughout the Old Testament, we instead repeatedly encounter these conflicting perspectives within the Hebrew canon. One narrative states that suffering and violence are just and deserved, the other protests and argues against that narrative, calling it unjust. So which is it?
When Jesus’ disciples saw a man who was born blind they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). The disciples clearly had a similar mindset to some of those in the Old Testament. But Jesus answered, “Neither this man or his parents sinned, but let the works of God be displayed.”1 Jesus is essentially saying to his disciples, “Wrong question. The only thing that matters is that God is glorified by ridding this man of his infirmity.” Then Jesus healed the man of his blindness.
In every instance where Jesus encounters people with afflictions, he (and/or the Gospel authors) claim they are the result of demonic activity. Hence Peter summarizes Jesus’ ministry by saying, “he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38). Not only this, but Jesus elsewhere rebukes people for suggesting that God was behind people’s suffering (Luke 13:1-5).
Jesus, while embracing the prophets’ priority of compassion over ritual, rejects their common tactic of blaming the victim, and instead acts to heal those who are sick, effectively undoing God’s supposed “judgment” on them. Jesus, contrary to the Old Testament, does not associate sickness with God’s judgment at all, but with the kingdom of Satan, and thus acts to liberate people from its bondage, rather than upholding it as right and calling for repentance as the prophets do. Jesus, therefore, rejects the prophets’ claim that such judgment (sickness, suffering, etc.) is God’s work, and instead frames his healing ministry in terms of the Kingdom of God advancing against Satan’s kingdom (Luke 11:17-20).
Fire and Brimstone
Because of the multi-vocal quality of the Old Testament, we see Jesus embracing certain narratives that speak of restoration and mercy, and rejecting other narratives found in those same Scriptures which instead, uphold committing or justifying violence in God’s name. Not only does Jesus reject these narratives, he attributes them to the way of the devil, rather than the way of God. Consider for example the story of Elijah calling down fire from heaven as proof that he was on God’s side. Elijah declares, “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” Then fire fell from heaven and consumed the captain and his men (2 Kings 1:9-16).
Hoping to follow Elijah’s example, James and John ask Jesus in response to the opposition they were experiencing, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Luke 9:51-56). Luke tells us that the response of Jesus was not to affirm this narrative, but to sternly rebuke his disciples. In this rebuke from Jesus is an implicit, yet clear rejection of the way of Elijah as well. Later manuscripts include the response of Jesus, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (Luke 9: 55-56 NKJV).2 In other words, Jesus is essentially saying that the way of Elijah is not of God, but instead belongs to the spirit of the one who seeks to destroy, that is, of the devil.
The [devil] comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I come that they may have life and have it abundantly.
While Elijah claimed that his actions proved he was a “man of God,” this passage in Luke’s Gospel makes the opposite claim: The true “man of God” incarnate had not come to obliterate life, but to save, heal, and restore it (Luke 19:10, John 3:17). Jesus rebukes James and John for not having come to this conclusion on their own. In other words, Jesus expects his disciples—expects all Christians—to discern which portraits of God in the Bible we are to embrace, and which ones we should reject.
Pick Something Up and Die
There is a story in the Old Testament of a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day (Numbers 15:32-36). This was a no-no because the Law said that everyone must rest on the seventh day each week and not work (Exodus 20:8-11). Some people saw the man picking up wood and brought him to Moses who asked God what they should do with him. God told Moses to take the man outside and stone him to death. Pretty harsh, but those were the rules, right?
In John’s Gospel account we can read a similar story where a man picks up his mat on the Sabbath, which was also punishable by death. The man had been disabled for 38 years but Jesus came up and healed him saying, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk!” (John 5:8-10). When the Jewish leaders find out that it was Jesus who was behind all this Sabbath breaking, they are prepared to kill Jesus, just like Moses did in the Old Testament.
So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
Moses says that God told him to kill people who break the Sabbath. Jesus says that he only does what he sees his Father doing, and that “the Father raises the dead and gives them life” (John 5:19-21). According to Jesus, his Father doesn’t kill, his Father gives life. In the Old Testament, a man is killed for picking up wood on the Sabbath. In the New Testament, Jesus heals a man and tells him to carry his bed on the Sabbath. The Jewish leaders, those who were most committed to following the Bible wanted to kill Jesus, just like Moses. Jesus is directly contradicting the alleged words of God. It is hard not to see the tension.
Questioning Scripture, a Faithful Tradition
The Gospels’ frequent accounts of Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees demonstrate that Jesus made a habit of questioning and rejecting how Scripture was read and applied whenever he saw that it was hurting people. Such acts of faithful questioning were how Jesus understood faithfulness to Scripture because Jesus understood that the aim of Scripture was to love. A reading that leads to harming people rather than loving people, is therefore a wrong reading.
Whenever we see Christianity supporting oppression, wealth, war, or violence, we know it is a wrong interpretation.
Because the Old Testament is a record of dispute, it calls us by its very nature to enter into that dispute ourselves as we read. In fact, because of its multiple conflicting narratives, we simply have no choice but to choose; we must take sides in the debate; we are forced to embrace some narratives while rejecting others. Jesus shows us the way.
Jesus’ School of Scripture
Paul, the man who wrote almost half of the New Testament, followed the Old Testament perfectly but he needed to attend Jesus School. Paul had read the Bible extensively and gotten God completely wrong (Philippians 3:4-11). It wasn’t until Paul was encountered by Jesus that he was able to go back and re-read Scripture in the light of Christ, consequently embracing a radically different narrative found in those exact same pages.
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you will not come to me that you may have life.
Reading the Bible as a flat text where the Old Testament depictions of God have the same authority as Jesus has led American Christians in the past to justify the institution of slavery. That may be hard to imagine now since slavery seems so self-evidently immoral to us, but it was much easier for those on the pro-slavery side to make a direct appeal to the “plain meaning” of Scripture. “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” Theirs was the stronger and more self-evident Biblical argument. Yet that very focus on “correct” interpretation, led them to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty and barbarity—all done in the name of submitting to the “authority of the Bible.”
Jesus > Bible
Wars of conquest, violent retribution, the institution of slavery, and women held as property— they are all “Biblical.” Christians should not model their character or lives after Moses, or Elijah, or Joshua, or David to “balance out” what Jesus teaches about peacemaking and enemy-love. Moses can stone sinners and Elijah can burn up enemies, but for a Christian that doesn’t matter. We follow Jesus.
It’s not “Biblical principles” that we seek, but the truth of Christ. It’s not “Biblical justice” that we pursue, but Christlike justice. It’s not “Biblical manhood” that men should aspire to, but Christlike manhood.
God has not changed, rather Jesus reveals to us who God has always been.
Paul makes a bold claim that anyone who loves has fulfilled the Law (Romans 13:8-10). Paul, therefore, has no problem with completely misrepresenting a Biblical author’s intent, and indeed deliberately reverses the meaning of certain passages in order to focus on Christ’s way of grace and enemy love. While we may not dare to cross out violent passages as Paul did, we make similar statements with what we choose to highlight and what we don’t. The key is understanding that the aim of Scripture is to lead us to love God, others, and ourselves. Nothing could be more central or more crucial to learning to read the Bible as Jesus did.
So if Moses instructs capital punishment and Elijah models violent retribution, remember the lessons of Jesus. Never read the Old Testament without him.
- In most translations, Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:1-3). This response is considered evidence that blindness is as much the result of God’s activity as is the healing from blindness. However, the words “he was born blind so that” are not in the original Greek. The Greek simply has hina (“that” or “let”) with the aorist subjunctive passive of phaneroō (“to manifest”), which often is intended as an imperative (“let x happen”) rather than a purposive clause (“so that x happens”) (e.g., Eph 5:33). (In Greek this is called a “hortatory subjective”).
- Even if this verse is a later addition representing a sort of biblical commentary by the early church, it certainly reflects the ethos of Jesus as well, who consistently rejected violent force as a vehicle of the Kingdom (see for example Matthew 26:52-54 and John 18:36).