INSIGHT FROM “THE EPIC OF EDEN A CHRISTIAN ENTRY TO THE OLD TESTAMENT”
It is very common among Christians to read the Old Testament as the story of the Jewish people. We only make reference to it when we are discussing the Gospel – we often interpret a given OT text as a cultural heritage of the Jews alone which has no connection with our contemporary world. The OT may have a spiritual connection to our present situation but we don’t take it as our own story.
This semester, I read through a book titled: “The epic of Eden a Christian Entry to the Old Testament” under the course: “The Mission of God in the Old Testament” I wish to share this insight so that you will start to read the story of the OT as your own story and also teach it to your congregation. Below is her introduction:
I’ve come to believe that the issues that keep the average New Testament believer from their Old Testament can be categorized under three headings. The first, and to me the most heartbreaking, is that most Christians have not been taught that the story of the Old Testament is their story. Rather, they have been encouraged to think that knowledge of the Old Testament is unnecessary to New Testament faith. Worse, many have been taught that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from the God of the New; that unlike Christ, Yahweh is a God of judgment and wrath. So these folks stick with the part of redemption’s story that seems to include them—the New Testament. The second set of issues that make the Old Testament less than accessible is what I have come to call the “great barrier.” As the narrative of the Old Testament happened long, long ago and far, far away, it can be very challenging to get past the historical, linguistic, cultural and even geographical barriers that separate us from our ancestors in the faith. As a result, to the typical twenty-first-century Christian, the God of Israel seems foreign, his people strange. The third category, and perhaps the most challenging, is the one that has driven me to write this book. This is what I have coined “the dysfunctional closet syndrome.” (Richter, p. 9 pdf)
Even though some may not see the evidence in her first assertion that; “most Christians have been encouraged to think that knowledge of the Old Testament is unnecessary to New Testament faith,” it is practically true because most of our sermons and Sunday readings are from the Gospels and Epistles. We tend to focus more on the gospel story and always adopt it as our own but see the OT as a history of a people centuries away from us. Let’s take Richter’s explanation of her three headings.
The Old Testament as Your Story
Two-thirds of the story of redemption is known to Christians as the Old Testament. Yet in the decades that I have been teaching the Bible, I have found that most Christians, if allowed to answer honestly, might be tempted to dub this section of the Bible the “unfortunate preface” to the part of the Bible that really matters. But the reality is that the Old Testament is the bulk of redemptive history. And the church’s lack of knowledge of their own heritage renders much of the wealth of the New Testament inaccessible to them. One of my dear friends and colleagues, Mary Fisher, refers to this widespread condition as a sort of Christian Alzheimer’s disease. I realize that this is a painful metaphor for many of us, but it is, unfortunately, appropriate. The great tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease is that it robs a person of themselves by robbing them of their memory of their experiences and relationships. Hence, an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s can watch her own children walk through the door and need to ask their names. (As a mother, I cannot imagine the agony of such a state.) The church has a similar condition. Just as the Alzheimer’s patient must ask the name of her own children, the church watches her ancestors walk through the door with a similar response. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are unknown and unnamed. The end result? The church does not know who she is, because she doesn’t know who she was.
The Great Barrier
If our goal is to know our own story, then we first have to come to understand the characters who populate the Old Testament: who they were, where they lived, what was important to them. Ultimately my goal as regards the great barrier is to bring the heroes of the Old Testament into focus, such that you can see them as real people who lived in real places and struggled with real faith, just as you do. We are “Abraham’s offspring” (Gal 3:29), and his story is our story. I will know that we have successfully navigated the great barrier when you can see your own rebellion in Adam’s choice, recognize your own frailty in Abraham’s doubting and hear the hope of your own salvation in Moses’ cry: “Let my people go!”
The Dysfunctional Closet Syndrome
It has been my experience that the average Christian’s knowledge of the Old Testament is much the same. Dozens of stories, characters, dates and place names. Years of diligent acquisition. Yet these acquisitions all lie in a jumble on the metaphorical floor. A great deal of information is in there, but as none of it goes together, the reader doesn’t know how to use any of it. Rather, just like the dysfunctional closet, the dates, names and narratives lie in an inaccessible heap. Thus the information is too difficult, or too confusing, to use. So the typical student of the Old Testament closes the door and says, “Maybe next summer I’ll sort that out.”
Let me offer a personal example—my closet in college. And let me begin by confessing that I have not always been the completely together person I am today. Rather, the clothes that belonged in my closet abandoned their hangers and hooks early on in my college career, such that my room was essentially a heap. So bad was my college dorm room that in desperation my resident assistant finally took pictures and posted them on the lounge bulletin board hoping to humiliate me into reform. A valiant effort, but not an effective one. The result of my dysfunctional closet? Not only did I often look less than “fresh” when I ventured forth onto campus, but even when I made every attempt to plan ahead, I honestly could not find the pieces that went together to form a respectable outfit. And as my college had a dress code (and a 7:45 a.m. chapel!) this situation often resulted in crisis. The crisis? Either I would be forced to give up on the outfit I was attempting to wear, or I had to invest an outrageous amount of time finding the pieces that went together. As I was not exactly a morning person, the typical outcome was that I would re-wear whatever clothes I found on the top of the pile. Did I mention that I often looked less than fresh?
Why do I tell you this less-than-flattering story? In my experience this is how most laypeople (and many preachers) handle the Old Testament. Their closet is a mess, and even with a significant time commitment, they cannot put the pieces together. Thus they wind up either spending an outrageous amount of time putting together an Old Testament study (or sermon), or they wind up with one or two texts or stories with which they feel comfortable and ignore the rest (i.e., the clothes on the top of the pile). The end result is that most decide that the Old Testament is just too hard and give their attention to the New Testament where there is some hope of memorizing the characters, places and dates. And all this is in spite of the fact that most Christians are hungry to understand their Old Testament heritage.
From the time I read this book I began to clean up my closet and make some reasonable arrangements. This is just some cuts from Richter’s book; I encourage you to lay your hands on it so that you can get the whole riches embedded in the book. I start to read the Old Testament as my own story, I will also want you to do the same. Lets be part of the entire Holy word of God (Old and New Testament.
Martin H. Kamaidan
Saved by Grace