One of the big questions surrounding Christianity is how we understand the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, there are various rules for life in the ancient nation of Israel. Those rules range from taxation to morality to dietary laws. In fact, one of the biggest criticisms of Christianity comes from an expectation that Christians would like to impose all of those laws on modern society.
And worse still is the danger we do to ourselves when preachers attempt to foist those laws on modern society, as happens far too often. Better explanations and views can be cited regarding morality and the Bible without going to suggesting we start executing people based on Old Testament laws.
How do we really reconcile the differences we see in the Old Testament and the New Testament? After all, one core belief of most Christians is that the whole of the Bible is God’s Word, so there is some value, right? And how do we know that we are not picking and choosing only the parts we like as if we’re scoping out the local buffet restaurant? You know, a little bit of the General Tso’s Chicken, an egg roll, but no Moo Goo Gai Pan?
As a Christian, I start on this from the New Testament and work backwards. And one of the better places to start is in Mark 7 (link). Why Mark 7?
Within this chapter, Jesus teaches the Pharisees and the scribes some important truths about how they handled God’s commandments. These two groups were convinced of the importance of following every last commandment, but they had become somewhat myopic on several issues. It is quite likely that they intended the best as is often the case, but the intention and the performance were quite different.
Within this chapter, Jesus addresses a few areas where the religious leaders had gotten wrong in the implementation of following God’s Word. He starts off in response to the criticism that His disciples were not washing their hands enough. On the one hand, there is some merit to washing up before dinner, this much is certain. On the other side, though, missing that every now and then is not likely to be fatal. It is certainly not as fatal to one’s relationship with God as the Pharisees make it.
So, Jesus reaches back to something He had said through Isaiah years before:
This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. (That’s in Isaiah 29)
He then highlights the tradition His critics held that a person could declare their intention to give their excess income to the Temple or to other godly things. This declaration, called “Corban,” then was used as an out to avoid caring for their parents or other family members in times of need. What it really did was kept the finances in a person’s own control.
And it really violated the intention of the commandment to honor one’s parents. It would be like refusing to provide for your aging parents by selling an unnecessary piece of land by claiming you were going to use it for charity. In the meantime, you use it for golf, but maybe someday you will use it for charity or give it to a church.
Jesus clearly condemns this. He then goes further: the Old Testament dietary laws are among the most famous of the Old Testament rules (though the commands regarding sexuality get a lot of play these days, too). Yet he abrogates those rules in Mark 7:14-15. Here He points out plainly that uncleanness has to do with the inside of a person, a person’s heart, attitudes, behaviors. Whether or not one eats bacon is not a sign of holiness. Whether one gives in to theft, murder, adultery, slander, foolishness---that shows whether or not one is a righteous person.
The heart of the matter is the heart—is the heart of a person, their deepest will and desires, focused on the things of God? Not the things that please them the most but on the character of the Creator?
When we look back into the Old Testament Law, this place is a good start. We look at the Law as the tool used to show where the heart of humanity drifts to apart from God.
Now, why, specifically, are some foods ok back then and some not? That discussion could take ages, and will. It’s probably a combination of creating a society that functioned differently than the surrounding cultures, health issues, and some additional practical reasons.
The chapter ends with a pair of healings. One has bothered me for a while, because Jesus seems a bit rude to the Syrophoenician woman. That’s another spot that needs a long explain, whether it was a test of faith for her or a point to the apostles, or what. I know this, that Jesus would not have gone to Tyre and expected not to run into the occasional Syrophoenician. It was their city.
Perhaps what happens here is that Jesus echoes what the apostles were thinking: look, lady, once He’s done with the important people, He can deal with you.
Except He does not wait until the “important” people are done. One of the glories of the life and ministry of Jesus that reflects the reality of God is this: all people are important. Now, when Mitt Romney or Barack Obama say “all people are important” you know they’re full of it. They really mean that all the people who give to their campaigns, all the people that will help them win swing states are important.
(For the record, Arkansas, neither one of them really give a hoot about this state. The first President that had some care for Arkansas was Clinton, and he’ll probably be the last. Our 6 electoral votes just are not enough to help or hinder them. And it would be worse if we throw in with the notion of using a nation-wide popular vote for President. New York City alone would cancel out every vote in this state.)
Yet with God it is the truth: there are no insignificant lives to God. Since Jesus is God, no one is insignificant to Him, either. Not this “foreign” woman, not you—after all, unless you’re of Jewish ethnic descent, you’re a foreigner, too.
Today’s Nerd Note: If you looked up Isaiah 29, you might have noticed that there is a difference in what I quoted above (and what Jesus quotes in Mark 7) and what your Bible has in Isaiah.
The reason for that is this: most of the Old Testament citations in the New Testament are drawn from the Septuagint, the translation into Greek of the Scriptures made by Jewish rabbis in about the 2nd Century BC. The translation choices they made are sometimes different from the ones made by modern English translators of the Old Testament.
When a word is translated from one language to another, it almost never lines up perfectly in the dictionaries for those languages. Think of a word like “run” in English. Is your refrigerator running? You had better go catch it…
To take run into another language, you might have to use different words depending on what you think the meaning is in that instance. So, translating from Hebrew to Greek is different than translating Hebrew to English. Add in the 2200 year difference in time, and there’s a lot of variances that come into play.
I have yet to see a variance that truly disrupts the meaning of a text. The closest is the height of Goliath, but we’ll get there.