Most Christians with a high view of Scripture would tell you that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable…” but if you really dig down you’ll see that, to paraphrase Animal Farm, all Scripture is inspired but some Scripture is more inspired than others. The recent data on BibleGateway was a great example of this. They were able to sift through the millions of verse searches and find the top 100 verses in the Bible, 84 of the 100 were from the New Testament. And it could be argued that a large percentage of the remaining verses were specifically Christological.
What do we do with Balaam’s donkey, and Lot’s daughters, and the Canaanite genocide also known as the conquest of the promised land? Two primary methods are used. First, we spiritualize the Old Testament stories without specifically calling them allegories. We can learn spiritual truths from God’s historical dealings with his covenant people and imbue them with Christian meaning. Sometimes you really have to stretch as anyone who’s ever done a sermon series on the book of Judges can tell you! Romans says the Old Testament proves humanity’s unrighteousness and the law is set aside for Christ. Hebrews sees Christ in the rock. Galatians has an allegorical reading of Sarah and Hagar. 1 Corinthians 10 sees the Old Testament as a lesson book for those of us living in the fulfillment of the ages. So there’s a pretty strong precedent for allegorical reading of the Old Testament.
Another method is to specifically set aside the Old Testament as a special category of the canon. Essentially, the Old Testament becomes backstory to the main plot which is the incarnation and redemption of Christ. This solves a lot of problems. We’re not compelled to read the whole Bible equally but concentrate on “the good stuff.” Most of us do it anyway. I read New Testament more than Old Testament and I read the Gospel of Matthew more than the book of Jude. There’s an unspoken canon within the canon that we don’t draw attention to because it seems to be a complicit admission that some books of the Bible are “more inspired than others.” As I argued in a recent post on my blog, “the gospel is more important than the Bible.” I’m not in any way suggesting that the Old Testament is unnecessary. Far from it. Without the Old Testament as background much of the New Testament is incomprehensible.
A third option is possible. We can try to take the Old Testament literally and binding for our current situation. AJ Jacobs in his book The Year of Living Biblically showed people who try to do just that. And his own sorta-serious attempt to follow every commandment of the Bible brings out in high relief the incompatibility of the Old Testament with New Testament or modern thought. I teach my Bible students to differentiate between civic, ceremonial and moral commands in the Old Testament. Civic laws are supposed to be specific to that ancient culture and thus not applicable to us directly. Ceremonial laws have been replaced by Jesus’ redemption and command to fulfill the royal law of love. And moral laws are just as true today as they were back then. It seems like a good way to split things up but splitting it up is nearly impossible. How do you draw the line between civic, ceremonial and moral laws even in a terse statement like the Ten Commandments? There is no cohesive strategy for reading the Old Testament as anything other than either a historical document akin to the Epic of Gilgamesh on one hand, or as an allegorical collection of moral dramas on the other hand. Jesus seemed to favor the latter option. Without questioning the veracity of the stories, he dismissed them, fulfilled them, or used them as allegorical examples of New Covenant concepts. So though most of us would scoff at a literal application of the Old Testament we in practice patch together highly eclectic mixes of literalism and symbolism in our interpretation of the Old Testament.
Thomas Jefferson is famous for having cut out all the parts of the Bible he didn’t like and creating his personal Bible. I wonder if we don’t do the same thing just without the scissors. Are all Scriptures equally inspired? And if so, what do we do with the tough stuff in the Old Testament?