For Christians, discomfort with the Old Testament is nothing new. During the second century, Marcion shunned what he saw as the wrathful God of Israel, instead embracing the compassionate figure of Jesus of Nazareth. In Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, Prairie College Old Testament professor Carmen Joy Imes recovers the importance of God’s law for the church today, rejecting the popular heresy that we can dismiss the Old Testament in favor of the New. Writer Jen Pollock Michel spoke with Imes about the personal and communal dimensions of entering into the Sinai covenant through Jesus, the true Israelite.
As you envisioned this book, what level of Old Testament familiarity were you assuming on the part of your readers?
I was thinking of my students when I wrote it. Some of them know nothing about the Bible, while others have been in church all their lives. But even among the regular churchgoers, I find plenty of biblical illiteracy and some very simplistic ways of understanding Scripture. By and large, they read the Old Testament moralistically, looking for heroes, for people whose example they can follow. But it’s very frustrating and disappointing, because everyone they encounter is flawed.
When students arrive in my Torah class, I help them dig deeper into Scripture. There’s some excavating that needs to be done to help them read the Bible as it’s intended.
The temptation to unhitch ourselves from the Old Testament is quite old, but is there anything particularly new about the way that temptation expresses itself today?
There are the classic issues people have struggled with for centuries, but these may be more acute in our age. Nowadays, we encounter questions like: What about the fate of the Canaanites? What about sexual ethics? What about violence towards women, or just the lack of recognition of what women have to offer? When we go to the Old Testament and read these stories, there are things that bother us that maybe didn’t bother people a couple centuries ago, because culturally we’re in a different moment.
For some, the solution is obvious: Let’s just unhitch. If we want people to see Jesus, let’s leave behind all these problematic texts and take them straight to the Gospels. But we can’t understand Jesus without the Old Testament. My approach is about returning to the Old Testament and learning to read it well in context, so that we don’t get mistaken impressions about who God is.
Are you saying there are no real problematic texts in the Old Testament, just perceptions of problems?
Most of the problems result from reading our cultural sensibilities back into ancient time periods where a different worldview and different concerns prevailed. What helps me most as I’m trying to make sense of these problematic texts is trying to read them in their ancient context. I’m asking questions like: What are other cultures saying during this time period? What rhetoric do they normally use? How does the Bible speak into that context?
The Bible has redemptive things to say in an ancient context that still sound very offensive to modern ears, but that’s because we’re not the primary audience. I want to bridge the gap for readers, taking them back to the Old Testament world and helping them appreciate what the Bible is trying to do. If we’ve done that well, it’s easier to cross the bridge back to our own time and ask: What does this mean for me?
How can we see the presence of God’s grace within the Old Testament Law?
Normally, Christians think of Old Testament Law as this ball and chain that we’ve happily done away with in Christ. When I go back and read the Mount Sinai narratives, I am struck by how gracious God is to come down to human level, reveal himself to his people, and show them exactly what he expects. This is especially striking when we compare their situation to those of other ancient Near Eastern peoples, where there was constant anxiety about what the gods wanted.
Another reason to see God’s grace at work is that the laws at Sinai are given after he has already rescued the Israelites from oppression. God is not giving them laws so they can be saved; he has already set them free. A final reason is that obedience to God’s laws makes it possible for him to continue dwelling among his people. The Law is a means to experiencing God’s presence.
How does a proper understanding of Sinai correct the easy-believism and hyper-individuality of American faith?
Many Christians today have a truncated view of what it means to be a Christian. If we begin with this—that being a Christian is asking Jesus into my heart so I can go to heaven when I die—then it’s primarily about after I die rather than here and now. If, however, we take Sinai seriously, we can see that God rescuing his people from Egypt is not just about securing their afterlife. It has to do with them being his people in real time, as they interact with each other and with their neighbors, the surrounding nations. They are his representatives to the nations.
If we can capture a glimpse of that, if we can see that being a Christian is entering that story and becoming God’s representative, then suddenly it matters how we live. My choices are not just between me and God. They’re not just about me having a sense of internal well-being or an assurance of knowing where I’m going after I die. It’s more public than that. I’m on display, and that’s the way that God designed it.
But the thing about Sinai is that it’s not just a story about individuals; it’s the whole community being called God’s treasured possession, a kingdom of priests. They are together supposed to live out this mandate to be God’s representatives and to bear God’s name among the nations. No one person can do the whole job individually. This reminds me that I am not all of who God intends for me to be without being a part of a church community. We are corporately accomplishing something, embodying something we can’t do by ourselves.
Given that many outside of the church are tempted to associate evangelical with bigotry, how can we rehabilitate our reputation and rightly bear God’s name in the world?
It’s important for us to notice that God does not give the Law at Sinai to all the nations. He gives it to his own people, the ones he’s redeemed from slavery. It’s not about legislating morality. It’s about setting up conditions for an intimate, ongoing relationship with God. We haven’t done a service to God’s name by being known as people who are trying to get everyone else to live by our rules.
Jesus was right to summarize all the Sinai laws with “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30–31). This unites the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the Sinai covenant. The whole point is to be a shining light to the nations, and so we need to be actively looking for ways to be a blessing, whether that involves environmental stewardship, working to improve education and health care, or making sure our justice system is operating the way it should. All those things honor God. The principles we see expressed in the Old Testament laws can shape our priorities as we consider how to help our world become a place for human flourishing.
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