Enrolling in the Old Testament class at Southwood this summer has been good for me. Don’t get me wrong…the reading has been arduous and the material challenging, if not downright dull at times. But I’ve learned a lot, too. I think as a Lutheran (and maybe the same could be said for people in most Christian sects), I often view the Old Testament as the “other Bible,” the one the New Testament replaced, the one we really don’t have to pay much attention to anymore. Sometimes it seems like the Old Testament represents the “old God,” and the New Testament represents the “new God,” Jesus. And when I first began reading the Old Testament this summer, I could understand why that is. God is crabby in the Old Testament; he yells a lot, seethes with anger, smotes people.
Plus, there are an awful lot of rules; the Old Testament – especially Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy – is brimming with rules. Some of the rules make sense: the Ten Commandments for instance, and all the laws related to personal injury listed in Exodus 21. But many are just plain bizarre: “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:18). “You may not eat any animal that has a split hoof divided in two and that chews the cud” (Deuteronomy 14:6). “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4). What the heck is that all about?
While I was reading these endless lists of rules I began to feel badly for the Jews, the devout, Orthodox Jews who live daily by these stringent rules. I know this is not a very socially appropriate thing to think, but I just couldn’t imagine what that would be like, how constraining it would be to live by these rules nearly every second of every day. I viewed the laws as an immense burden, a yoke around their necks. “Pheew,” I thought self-righteously to myself as I paged through Deuteronomy. “I’m so glad Jesus came along so I don’t have to deal with all that!”
Two things happened, though, that changed how I view these laws.
One: in class we watched a lecture by theology professor Kathryn Schifferdecker, who spoke about the “law as gift.” She interpreted many of the laws in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy as the “language of love,” much like a parent who establishes household rules for the good of the child. That made sense to me. It made sense that God’s laws, even the ones I didn’t understand, were crafted out of love, to protect his chosen people from going astray again, so that they would be better able to love God with all their heart and soul.
Two: I read an interesting passage in the memoir Girl Meets God. Author Lauren Winner, who writes about her conversion from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity, says this about the laws and rituals that surround nearly every facet of Judaism:
This is the beauty of Judaism. Even when you doubt, even when it doesn’t feel like anything is happening, even when it seems like God is not around, you keep doing the mitzvot [the 613 commandments given in the Torah, plus the 7 rabbinic commandments instituted later for a total of 620 laws]. You keep saying the prayers, you keep rinsing your hands every morning, you keep decorating the sukkah with fruit and lightingthe Sabbath candles…the action will get you through the dry spells…That explanation works for me. The laws and rituals, even the prayers we recite from memory, keep us honest, focused. So even when we may not “feel like” behaving ourselves, the laws keep us on the straight and narrow. And as Winner notes, even when we lose sight of the big picture, even when we falter in our faith, the laws ground us, they help us place one foot in front of the other until we get back there again.
I have a new appreciation for the Old Testament now, and for the people who follow its teachings, right down to the letter of the law.