I’m reading Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts and I must say that I am really enjoying it. I read Jesus Feminist and I liked it well enough, but it got a little repetitive for me. It was kind of like reading the same blog post over and over and even though it was a good blog post, you can only read lists of wordy synonyms for so long. But so far Out of Sorts is a little less flowery (which is a quality I really appreciate in Bessey’s writing but a whole book of it was a little much) and a little more… instructive? Anyway, yesterday I read the chapter about the Bible and nodded my head and “mmhmm”ed all the way through it. Sarah and I have learned some similar things about the Bible, especially in regards to the Old Testament. I’m sure millions of other Bible-readers have learned the same things, but the cool, awesome, supernatural thing about the Bible is that it is “living and active” which means you can read it and read it and read it and read it and still find new things to learn.
I believe Sarah Bessey and I were not alone in our struggle to reconcile the (at times seemingly) murderous God of the Old Testament with the (usually) gentle Jesus of the New Testament. In the Old Testament there are all these stories of God wiping out nations and flooding the earth and sending armies to slaughter women and children. In the New Testament we read all these Jesus speeches about loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek. And we’re all, “What gives, OT God? Why were you such a grump?!”
Which is totally how I was. I wanted to be more like the Jesus I thought I was reading about – softer, gentler, nicer, more patient – and I found myself terrified of the mean, vengeful, wrathful, violent God I thought I saw in the Old Testament.
Then I read Leviticus a couple of times and I kept reading the same phrase. “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Yahweh says it over and over in the book of Leviticus (and all over the Old Testament). Leviticus 26:12 says, “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people.”
Now if we read these verses in isolation it seems like this God is a controlling God. “I am going to be your God and there is nothing you can do about it!” But when we read the rest of the Bible, we read about a God who actively loves His people. He created Adam and Eve with every holy intention of loving relationships forever and ever.
My friend has an awesome story. As a high school student he suffered a great, big loss. As a high school student he smoked some weed and went to some parties. As a high school student he hung out with his youth pastor, who for some Bible-reading reason wanted to be his friend. As a high school student he just wanted to go to a party school. As a high school student he missed his scholarship meeting at the party school because he was in the hospital after a pretty serious car accident. As a high school student who could no longer afford to go to the party school of his dreams he took the suggestion of his Bible-reading youth pastor friend and went to Indiana Wesleyan. He is now a great, Bible-reading example of bold faith, silliness, patience, and the important work of truth seeking.
For a few weeks in the summer of 2012 I would sit on the floor in the basement of a church in Brooklyn and listen to my friend tell his story to a new group of high schoolers from all over the United States. One brave guy in particular came up to him afterwards and was like, “That’s me, man.” And every night I would sit on the uncomfortable floor in the basement of a church in Brooklyn and soak in the undeniable truth that God loves us so much. God loves us so much and all He wants is for us to know Him and be known by Him. God loves us so much that He will do whatever it takes to be in relationship with us. And because we are all punk high school students who have suffered great loss and just want to take the easy and surface level party-school route, He sometimes has to do big, scary, drastic things to get our attention.
He sent actual angels into the city of Sodom to get the people’s attention, for goodness sake, and the people tried to gang rape them. He sent a fish to swallow a person alive and whole to get whiny, racist, selfish Jonah‘s attention. He sent another car to smack into the car of my friend to get his attention. He sent prophet after prophet to get the attention of so many cities throughout the Old Testament and they were made fun of and ignored and beaten up.
It’s easy to look down on the citizens of Sodom and Jonah and my friend and the poor, wandering Israelites and scoff at the idiots, but we totally are those idiots. We are the perverted masses going thoughtlessly along with the flow of what everyone else is doing because it’s hard and painful and slow and sometimes incredibly lonely to do otherwise.
There’s an awesome book out there called Jesus Storybook Bible. I have a Spanish-English one in my classroom and I love it. It’s full of the same Bible stories that every other children’s Bible highlights (Garden of Eden, Noah, Red Sea, Jesus in the Manger, Calming of the Storm, etc.) but the Jesus Storybook Bible points specifically and intentionally and totally obviously to Jesus. And if we read our Bibles carefully, we’ll see that every story in the Bible – even the rapey, incesty, murdery ones – also specifically and intentionally point to Jesus. It actually says right there on the cover of Jesus Storybook Bible, “Every story whispers his name.” It was through reading the Jesus Storybook Bible and the book of Leviticus a couple of times that I realized what Sarah Bessey realized:
“Jesus reveals God, the true God… God isn’t a different God than He was in the Old Testament; it’s just that Jesus gave us a new perspective, the true perspective, on God.”
The God of the Old Testament (who is, in fact, the same God as the New Testament) is fleshed out (get it?) by Jesus in the New Testament. If we didn’t get it with all of the, “I will be your God”s and “you will be my people”s in the Old Testament, then maybe we’ll get the actual and completely innocent human man dying because we desperately need help.
Have you read the book of Hosea? The story of Hosea and his prostitute wife Gomer were also a huge factor in my evolving understanding of God and the Bible through which He communicates. God told Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer and he does. Eventually Gomer returns back to her prostituting ways. Before she got hitched Gomer had been living the high life of a temple prostitute. She had money and status and I suppose relative safety. But the wife and mother of three Gomer is not the same young, carefree Gomer that worked the temple. So when she leaves her family to return back to her life of money and status she finds there is no longer a place for her there. She finds herself desperate and alone.
When I think of this point in the story I have such a clear picture in my head of some seedy back alley full of gross men (broken just like me!) jeering and leering. I see Gomer, beaten down and beaten up, being offered up as an object for the best offer. I see Hosea, shoving his way through the crowd. I see Hosea looking up and seeing his unfaithful wife and loving her fiercely. I swear I can hear him shouting, “Fifteen sheckels of silver!” I can see everyone else turning to look at him, wondering if they heard him right. After all she’s a temple prostitute gone to seed. He can’t have said fifteen sheckels. Not that much, not for her. But Hosea shouts again, louder, and he raises his hands. “Fifteen sheckels! And a homer and a lethech of barley!” He lowers his hands and his eye meet his wife’s. “For her,” he says. “I want her.”
The God of the Old Testament who repeats again and again, 15 times in the book of Leviticus alone, “I will be your God and you will be my people” isn’t a controlling and demanding God. He is the desperate lover, pushing through the crowds, throwing up his hands and shouting, “I want her! I’ll give anything for her! Take my silver, take my barley, take my life! I want her.”