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Hand grenades, barbecue & frontier law

Both believers and non-believers are capable of hurling what the Scripture says like hand grenades at the expense of failing to pursue the deeper, more primary issue of what the Scripture means by what it says. This predictably produces more heat than light and in turn results in more factionalizing than uniting.

Interestingly, the Scripture zeroes in on this very dichotomy on several occasions. One instance is Luke 4:9ff where Satan is tempting Jesus. He quotes from Psalm 91 concerning God’s protection of His people to Christ and urges Him to throw Himself from the top of the temple in order that His trust in God might be displayed in a flamboyant, reality-TV-type-of-way and win over the same kind of people who were enjoying the spectacles of the Colosseum. Jesus’ reply shows that while the Scripture promises God’s protection—it is not to be understood as applying to presumptive, self-promoting ways as Satan is suggesting. After all, Jesus came to be Lord and Savior—not a celebrity and entertainer. We learn from this that quoting Scripture independent of its context and meaning is nothing new, it requires no special skill (anyone can do it), and to do it with malicious intent puts a person in the worst company possible. Knowing what the Scripture says is the starting point—not the finishing line.

It’s become quite fashionable to dismiss certain truths of Scripture by citing texts from the Old Testament and then concluding that since these are ridiculous and absurd (from our 21st century point of view), the whole Bible is to be thrown out.  It’s the equivalent of dismissing something truthful that a person says because we are certain something they have previously said is not. We’ve all done this kind of thing, but in our calmer, more lucid moments we recognize that this approach is inconsistent at best. (After all, we don’t allow the fact that we’ve been wrong about something in the past to mean we can’t be right about something in the present). Yet, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people dismiss God, Jesus, and Scripture because there are some Old Testament texts that are meaningless to them. A writer on AL.com recently employed this tactic in one his articles in order to dismiss a certain truth of Scripture that he finds offensive.

In looking about the Old Covenant (which generally refers to the legal and ethical elements found within the Old Testament), it’s helpful to think of it along the lines of frontier law in America. The laws of the frontier were about establishing the rule of law as opposed to anarchy. They were primitive because the situation and people were. Over time, they would be replaced as the territories became states, enacted constitutions and laws that reflected societal change and progress.

The Old Covenant was given to Israel when they were in the desert. While core elements were based on God’s character and are therefore transcendent of culture and time (i.e., the Ten Commandments less the Sabbath), other portions were obviously temporary and/or responsive to their desert circumstance and later the culture in Canaan.  Either way, this covenant was given only to Israel (Amos 3:1-2), and was never intended to be permanent legislation for all people everywhere. Indeed, the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah spoke of it being replaced by a superior covenant (Jeremiah 31:31ff). Therefore, it’s not difficult to find verses about pigs or punishments that sound wildly out of place today as they were written only to Israel and intended for a limited time and in response to special circumstances. In frontier times, stealing a man’s horse or cattle was often a hanging offense. Different times called for different measures.

Due to space limitations I’ve dealt with a substantial subject in somewhat of a surface manner. But I hope I’ve said enough though to help us see that quoting Scripture is no substitute for understanding it and evaluating the old covenant by 21st century standards, while understandable, is comparing apples and oranges. The next time someone rips a text out of the Old Testament and says that Christians are inconsistent because they’re all for following command X but play football and eat barbecue in violation of Leviticus 11:7-8, hopefully you will have some helpful things to say in response.

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