Monday, December 4, 2017
Is any part of the Old Testament relevant today? by Bishop Spong
"The Old Testament is a library that contains 39 unique and different books. These books were written over a period of perhaps a thousand years. They represent a wide variety of types of literature. Some are descriptions of tribal history. Some are filled with liturgical and ethical injunctions; some are interpreters of history; some are wisdom literature; some are poetry; some are the writings of prophets; some are protest literature. There is no doubt that parts of this body of sacred literature are eternal and therefore relevant to us today. Other parts are so clearly time bound as to be totally irrelevant to our world today. The issue is how does one separate the wheat from the chaff.
The first step is not to impose a literal agenda on this literature that comes from a nation of storytellers. The second is to recognize the time span between the event being described and the description. For example, if Abraham actually was a person of history, he lived about 1850 B.C.E. but the stories about Abraham were not written for at least 800 years. Moses lived around 1250 B.C.E. but everything we know about Moses was written some 300 years later. Third, one should expect the attitudes and knowledge of the past to be reflected in ancient records. So it is that in the Bible women are inferior; women are the property of men; homosexuals are to be executed; slavery is morally possible; sickness is caused by sin; the earth is the center of the universe; God lives above the sky, etc. etc. None of these assumptions do most of us today find either relevant or edifying.
But when Moses escaped his tribal identity and began to see God as a universal presence; when Hosea discovered that he loved his wife even when she had become a prostitute and recognized in that experience the love of God for his wayward nation; when Amos saw justice as the other side of worship and worship as the other side of justice, that book is profound and relevant. The Bible in this way leads us through its very human words to glimpse the reality behind all that is. Those are the moments when we hear the "word of God" in the biblical tradition.
I treasure the Old Testament. I do not read it literally nor should you. I reject much of it as no longer having relevance for my life. But I read it seriously and ask what does this mean? Why was it preserved? Where does this touch life? That is how its insights emerge."
~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published March 10, 2004