Earlier this year, my friend Julie tweeted about her decision to write her master's thesis on the woe oracles of Isaiah 5 & Matthew 23. As she made her way through seminary, she realized just how little she had been taught about God's passion for justice, particularly as it is displayed in the Old Testament.
She wrote, "This language, harsh as it is, has a critical role in Scripture: it reveals God's justice. It shows that he cares about the poor, the downtrodden, the vulnerable. He won't sit idly by while people exploit one another. And he doesn't expect his people to do so, either—to fellow evangelicals who have (un)intentionally avoided these passages: sit with these words. Let them make you uncomfortable. Let the Holy Spirit agitate you about the things that agitate God. And then start learning how you can partner with God to advocate for his justice."
When I asked Julie to expand on her tweets, and give us a glimpse into the inspiration behind her thesis and the ways it's shaped her, she kindly agreed. I can't help but wonder how different our current cultural moment might look if those who espouse "Biblical values" counted Yahweh's demands for just living among them. May we allow the Spirit to agitate us, and move us to action.
In May, I had the privilege of graduating with my MA in Old Testament and New Testament. (It’s unusual in biblical studies to do both, but I’m a nerd/glutton for punishment, so…) The day before my graduation, an article was posted online describing a sermon that famous pastor and preacher, Andy Stanley, had preached. Stanley had argued that because people do not understand the Old Testament, they’re turning away from the faith. Stanley’s solution, therefore, was to urge his audience that they needed to “unhitch” themselves from the Old Testament.
After all, he said, “Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well.” Even the New Covenant Jesus established “does not need propping up by the Jewish scriptures.” Moreover, to “unhitch” ourselves from the Old Testament is not just necessary, it’s “liberating for people who need and understand grace.”
My first reaction: *Insert white guy blinking gif here*
My second reaction: What New Testament is Stanley reading that he thinks the New Testament authors “unhitched” themselves from the Old Testament? Does he not realize how many Old Testament quotations, allusions, and echoes permeate the entirety of the New Testament? Is he not aware that the New Covenant was established at the Passover meal, and that the symbolism behind the elements rests on images found in the Old Testament?
My third reaction: What a tragically shallow understanding of the Old Testament, to think that it lacks grace.
On one level, I get it. After all, although I grew up in church all my life, I knew relatively little about the Old Testament by the time I left for college to be a Biblical and Theological Studies major. There just wasn’t as much of an emphasis on preaching the Old Testament. If the Old Testament was preached, it primarily stuck to the prominent characters of the historical narratives, the happier-sounding psalms, or the prophetic passages that dealt with messianic prophecies and/or promises of restoration. Everything else generally got neglected.
Then in college, even though I was a Bible major, I still didn’t learn much about the Old Testament. I gravitated toward New Testament electives, partially because of interest and partially because of the professors I came to know and like. However, during my last semester, I took a class on the Gospel of John, and the professor highlighted how much John depended on the Old Testament in order to fully portray who Jesus was.
I realized how anemic my education had been. My program had been a wonderful experience, but in order to understand Scripture – both Old and New Testament – I needed to study the Old Testament more fully.
So I found a masters program that would let me earn an MA in Old and New Testament together. I studied under brilliant Old Testament professors. I wrote my combined thesis in Old and New Testament and, while this may sound odd, I genuinely had fun writing it, despite the inevitable stresses involved. I studied Hebrew and found that I loved it. I took classes where I studied everything from Old Testament social ethics to the Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes.
And through it all, I realized I had been robbed.
Not only is the Old Testament beautiful to read and highly relevant for learning to live faithfully and ethically as God’s people, but it is necessary for fully understanding who God is, who we are in relation to him, and how we are to respond to the world around us. And by not studying it in its entirety, I had developed serious holes in my theology and hermeneutics, preventing me from seeing the entire, beautiful tapestry of Scripture.
Take, for example, the topic on which I wrote my thesis. I focused on the texts of Isaiah 5 and Matthew 23, which are both primarily occupied by a series of woe oracles against those who socially abuse (Isaiah 5) and spiritually abuse (Matthew 23) the people that they are supposed to care for. When I would share what my thesis topic was during my program, I would often be met with looks of confusion, as if to say, “Really? That’s what you went with?” One person even told me, “That sounds depressing.”
In reality, it was the exact opposite.
Both of these passages revealed to me God’s sense of justice, his concern for the vulnerable and oppressed. They are hard to read in a sense, but they contain a kind of terrible beauty with their use of poetic features, creative imagery, and powerful emotion. These passages are absolutely necessary to getting a full picture of God and a robust understanding of who we are supposed to be as his people.
What stands out about Matthew 23 in particular, in light of Stanley’s comments, is that Jesus’ series of woes is extremely similar to those found in the Old Testament. In fact, I spent two-thirds of the New Testament half of my thesis arguing that Matthew, drawing upon the images and texts of the Old Testament, presents Jesus as the Old Testament prophet par excellence. It is simply impossible to read Matthew well – or, I would argue, just about any New Testament book – without understanding its Old Testament background.
What stands out about Isaiah 5, in light of Stanley’s comments, is that Yahweh speaks out against his people in judgment because of their mistreatment of the vulnerable in society. He had laid out for them in the Torah the ways in which they should emulate his justice through their laws, and yet they had failed to do so; therefore, he would judge them. Is this not its own kind of grace, that God would defend the cause of the vulnerable against those abusing their power?
And how much more grace that, despite the people’s constant rejection of Yahweh and their continued social injustices, which resulted in their exile from the land, Yahweh still refused to abandon his covenant with his people. Instead, he promised to be with them through the exile and to bring them back out of it.
How is this not grace?
I won’t deny that there are elements of the Old Testament that feel particularly foreign, confusing, and/or challenging to us in light of our modern Western sensibilities. But to neglect or abandon the Old Testament is to develop an anemic faith, one that both misses out on the beauty of the Old Testament and misunderstands much (if not most) of the New Testament.
Understanding the Old Testament, especially its historical background, requires work, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. It is therefore the responsibility of those who have studied, or have the means to study it, to help those who don’t have the same opportunity to better understand the Old Testament, with all of its depth, intensity, and beauty.
My hope is that, as someone with an MA in Old and New Testament, I can help people develop a fuller understanding of the entirety of Scripture, Old Testament included. I hope others with the opportunity to educate others likewise will do the same.
In the meantime, let’s continue to study the entirety of God’s Word, Old and New Testament alike, and help each other to find the beauty in both.
Julie is a California native currently residing in Colorado. An aspiring biblical scholar, she recently graduated from Denver Seminary with her MA in Old Testament and New Testament, and she is hoping to apply for PhD programs this fall. In the meantime, she spends her time working at a local library and as a research assistant for Dr. Lynn Cohick at the seminary. Most of the rest of her free hours are currently dedicated to learning how to be a puppy parent to her new little girl, Leia.