Chapter 2: Reading the Old Testament


Chapter 2 starts with a quote from the prophet Amos:
For the Lord God does nothing
    without revealing his secret
    to his servants the prophets. (3:7)

Of course, even in the times of the Old Testament, having a prophet wasn’t always a hedge against disaster. The problem, which was almost immediately apparent, is that there could be false prophets. People could claim to speak to God while in fact they were furthering their own interests. The book of Deuteronomy even contains instructions for how to identify false prophets. Wright states that, even today, many prophets end up saying “what they were wanting to say anyway.”

But Deuteronomy gives us an interesting context to approach prophecy. The book details the Covenant that God made with the nation of Israel. The covenant is clear in laying out the rules that Israel is to adhere to. In very general terms, these can be broken down into two rules: (1) Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength and (2) love your neighbor as yourself. Along with the rules there was also a list of blessings for compliance and punishments for disobedience. But as Wright points out, this was a covenant on a national level. It makes sense to interpret the Babylonian exile considering this. It was a national punishment for a national infraction. The Prophets were the ones that were dispatched to report when the contract was being violated.

But what about when tragedy happens on a personal scale? Is this always because of our transgressions? As Wright explains, despite evidence to the contrary, “the rumour persists that ill fortune and ill behavior are always linked in a straightforward causal chain.” But you and I both know plenty of people that are suffering right now for things they didn’t do or had no control over. Many people are struggling and dying of sickness (especially Covid-19). People have lost their jobs and can’t make ends meet. People can’t afford medicine and are living in fear of losing their homes. People are isolated and depressed. Is this all because every single one of them is being punished for bad choices? Goodness, no! Blaming the victim might be easy and popular, but as Wright shows us, there’s a lot more going on in the scriptures.

Wright starts in the Psalms, showing us that there has always been the struggle to understand why bad things happen to people that didn’t deserve it. He lists many Psalms, but the truth is about half the Psalms are laments – people calling out in surprise or sorrow to God. Wright tells us that, “Whenever anyone tells you that the coronavirus means that God is calling his people – perhaps you! – to repent, tell them to read Job. The whole point is that is not the point!

Wright points out that alongside the covenantal history of Israel is another story about a good creation and “the dark power that from the beginning has tried to destroy God’s good handiwork.” Things like disease, famine, natural disasters are part of the reason that the covenant with Israel even had to exist.  It was a rescue plan. The world is mired in sin, which is so much more than a list of our own personal transgressions. Wright tells us that when we encounter this sin, “we are to lament, we are to complain, we are to state our case, and leave it with God.” It’s not enough to chalk it up to a fallen world. We must engage God with how we feel at what it’s like to live in this world.

Wright leaves us with the tantalizing preview that this is exactly the example that Christ gives us. In the next chapter the story of Jesus will be examined more closely, but I wanted to stop here and reflect on the chapter for a moment. How do you relate to God when bad things happen that you can’t explain? Do you find yourself looking for an easy answer or do you bring your confusion and pain and sorrow to God? Has God ever showed up in your suffering? Finally, do you feel like you’ve been allowed to approach God with your full and honest feelings in those times?

Comments

  1. Whenever bad happens, I admit my first thought is to wonder whether God actually is punishing me . . . again with the church I grew up in. It takes a lot to tamp that down. And even the Daily Office's morning prayers often starts the prays for the current pandemic reminding us of God sending plagues as punishment.

    The good news is I've got a few (yeah - a few) years behind me with many events that I can look back on and remember how God brought me through them, despite being so unworthy! Poor God . . . most of y'all know I'm not one to spare anyone my opinion and God gets spared least of all! So yes, Luke, I do approach God with my full and honest feelings and spend half the time I'm doing that apologizing for them.

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