[This Article Is Part Of The Old Testament God Series]
“When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was out of joint as he wrestled with him.” – Genesis 32:25
Jacob faced an extraordinary encounter that night at the foot of the place that would come to be named Peniel. Facing off with an unknown man, they fought, wrestling and churning, until day broke over them both. For those of you who have ever trained in some form of grappling, you can almost feel the exhaustion come daybreak. Stricken and weary, Jacob clung to this man he had come to recognize as God, even after the joint of his hip was displaced. There was pain there, and I’d imagine confusion as well, yet Jacob was persistent. In the end his fortitude paid off; Jacob became Israel, patriarch of the nation of messianic promise. The blessing was real. So was the pain in his hip.
I wonder how many of us face a similar struggle when we walk into the wilderness of the Hebrew Scriptures. The undergrowth of the Old Testament is unfamiliar to us and, inevitably, we stumble across this man. There, like Jacob, we stand face to face with a God we are forced to wrestle with in the midst of encroaching darkness. Stubbornly, we cling to the image of a loving God despite the exhaustion slowly overtaking us, desperately trying to reconcile the violence within the pages of this ancient text with the heart of a God we believe truly wants what is best for us. For many of us, we find ways to shuffle these difficult passages to the side, disjoining them like Jacob’s hip. The dawn may break, but we will forever walk with a limp.
I also wonder, however, if there is not another way. It is true, the words penned by the ancient authors read as foreign to us, and they rub like sandpaper when we bring a modern mindset to bear upon them. Perhaps that is our challenge. Perhaps, rather than reading these stories as modern treatises in the midst of contemporary culture, we should view them as they are: as the workings of God in the midst of an ancient culture, in a foreign time, and addressing very different issues from a wildly different perspective. I contend that there are certain principles that we can bring to bear in our reading which can serve as guideposts to help navigate the wilderness, breathe life into our weary wrestling, and (hopefully) allow us to walk away without crippling our integrity.
- Evil is real. N. T. Wright makes the very interesting argument that the Old Testament is really about the incursion of evil and what God is doing in response. To this end, we find within the pages of Scripture a chronicle of human wickedness. Much of this is historical; it is not made to justify human behavior or vindicate it, but rather to record it so that the picture of sin’s reality is clear. Perhaps the clearest example of this is found in Genesis 4-11. These seven chapters are initiated by the story’s of humanity’s fall, and then paint a vivid picture of sin’s progression from fratricide to, to global wickedness, to societal corruption. This is a critical element of the Biblical narrative: without evil, there is no need of redemption.
- Redemption is progressive. As individuals, we recognize that the concept of sanctification is a progressive movement whereby we are slowly being set free from the inner workings of sin in our life. This lies at the heart of what it means to be Christian, that we are being transformed. It is no wonder, then, that God also calls us to be agents of transformation within culture. It is no wonder, and it is not new. Throughout the pages of the Old Testament we see two movements taking place in parallel progressions: we see the ‘big picture’ concept of holiness displayed in images such as the Ten Commandments. This big picture serves the double role of revealing what holiness looks like, and also revealing the contrast with our own state. Concurrently, we also see a progressive holiness, a series of ‘stepping stones’ which (slowly) lead Israel from who they are into who God wants for them to be. A perfect example of this development is the role of sacrifice in Scripture. To this end, there exist laws which were for a particular people at a particular time, leading them from where they were to the next step in their journey. Many of these look horribly primitive when viewed from our modern lens, yet they were extraordinarily progressive when set against the backdrop of their own ancient culture.
- Scripture is cultural. This is, arguably, the greatest obstacle to our journey through the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. The culture of the Ancient Near East bore startlingly little resemblance to our own, and it is difficult (if not impossible) not to read out own culture into the ancient world. Examining the barbarism of arranged marriages, for example, fails to account for the fact that marriage for love is a luxury of the modern world. In the ancient world of the Israelites, such an arrangement was a matter of survival, and acquiring a husband for one’s daughter was a necessary act to secure her future livelihood. Furthermore, the “bride price” was a form of security deposit, a sizable sum of money designed to help protect and provide for the bride should something happen to her husband. Despite the very counter-cultural elevation of women in the Hebrew scriptures (from sharing equally in God’s image in Genesis to a female serving as judge over all Israel in the Book of Judges), they still lived in a patriarchal culture, and a very culturally-specific means of protecting the bride was a necessity.
- Judgment comes with redemption. At times, the reality of human wickedness reaches a threshold where judgment becomes necessary to prevent its further spread. We see this in the flood narrative, where the given reason for a global flood is the consummate spread of human evil. Yet, what we also see in every example of judgment is a concurrent opportunity for redemption. Even in the very troubling Canaanite genocide as recorded in Joshua, we see a preceding period of 400 years whereby the Canaanites were afforded every opportunity to repent, we see God going before the Israelites and driving out most of the Canaanite population before the armies of Israel ever arrived, and we see instances of mercy and redemption among repentant citizens of Canaan – one of which (Rahab) even finds her way into the genealogy of Jesus. It was only against the residual group which neglected every opportunity that judgment came against. Admittedly, this does not solve the issue this passage creates, but it certainly widens the scope.
- The Story is bigger. Lastly, it is important to remember that it is never the exception which proves the rule. What we see within the pages of Scripture – both Old Testament and New – is a sweeping movement towards redemption by a God who established a good creation and desperately wants to see it restored. This is the central story, that while moments of judgment and wrath are present, the overarching picture is that of restoration by transformation rather than damnation. It is fair to say that we will inevitably encounter passages that we simply do not understand. It is equally fair to admit our lack of understanding openly. Yet, when we encounter these, we would do well to remember that these prove the exception in the midst of a grand narrative of redemption. It is in this redemption, after all, that our glorious hope finds its root.
How have you dealt with difficult passages in Scripture?
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