Why is the Old Testament So Strange?

This week in worship, as we continue part two of our Bible series “Learning from History so We Don’t Repeat It,” Greg Scalise will be sharing from the Book of Judges and looking at why God shared some strange stories in the Old Testament and what it means for our life today.

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If you’ve been following along in our series through the books of the Bible and reading through the first few books of the Old Testament, you’ve encountered a lot of strange things by now: a talking snake, a talking donkey, people living to be eight hundred years old, floods, plagues, disasters of all kinds.

And not just unusual or miraculous things, like God parting the Red Sea, but things that just seem unimportant or boring: long, detailed building plans for constructing a portable temple for God, lists of dietary rules, and if you went through Joshua last week, there was chapter after chapter just listing places, dividing land between the various Israelite tribes. And besides the strange things and the boring things, there are terrible things: wars, whole nations being cursed with plagues or put to the sword, violence of all kinds done by both the Israelites and their neighbors.

And you may be wondering, why is this in the Bible? What does this have to do with my life?

If God wanted to give us a message about what the world is like, about how to live, and about how to be saved, why did He give us a book that includes building codes, real estate contracts, talking animals, dieting advice, and gratuitous violence?

Wouldn’t it make more sense, wouldn’t it be more straightforward and easier if God were to just tell us directly what He’s like, how He wants us to live, and how we can know Him? And why can’t the miracles be ones of healing and life rather than all the curses and death we see in the Old Testament? And if we go to the start of the New Testament, to the gospel of Matthew, we’ll find exactly what we want.

Matthew opens with very pleasant miracles of Mary conceiving by the Holy Spirit, an angel convincing Joseph not to divorce Mary, and an angel saving the baby Jesus from King Herod. Then we have very direct, easy to understand teaching about how we should live in the Sermon on the Mount. And after that Jesus goes around healing the sick, casting out demons, giving sight to the blind, and even raising a girl from the dead. This is what we want in the Bible.

But, how do people respond to it, how do people respond to Jesus’s teaching and ministry. Some people follow. Some become His disciples, but many reject him and doubt him. Some are scared and ask Him to leave their town. Others accuse Him of hanging around the wrong sort of people, of breaking religious rules by healing on the Sabbath, of offering forgiveness for sins, which only God can do. When Jesus casts out demons, they say he did it by the power of the devil. And then after he casts out the demons, they demand a sign, as if He hadn’t just given them one by casting out the demons.

Which brings us to Matthew thirteen, the scripture we heard earlier, when the disciples asked Jesus why he used parables. Now many of us I think, if we were asked why Jesus uses parables, why he tells stories about shepherds and farmers rather than speaking directly, we would answer to make it more clear, to help us understand what Jesus is saying by giving us a practical, real world example. But Jesus says something quite different:

He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.

Jesus doesn’t say He’s doing this to make things easier, He doesn’t say that the parables will make things easier to understand. In fact, He sort of says the opposite. Because some people don’t understand, because they hear without really hearing it, He’s going to make it even harder to understand. “Whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”

Jesus had tried being straightforward and easy to understand, but it didn’t work for everyone. He tried showing signs, but some still wouldn’t believe. So He has to do something else, anything to get these people’s attention so that maybe something will happen and they’ll stop being so blind to what’s right in front of them. But how do people usually respond to parables, to riddles, to confusion, to something strange? For that, let’s listen to the story of Samson from Judges chapter fourteen:

And Samson went down to Timnath, and saw a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines. And he came up, and told his father and his mother, and said, I have seen a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines: now therefore get her for me to wife.

Then his father and his mother said unto him, Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren, or among all my people, that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines? And Samson said unto his father, Get her for me; for she pleaseth me well. But his father and his mother knew not that it was of the Lord, that he sought an occasion against the Philistines: for at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.

Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him. And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done. And he went down, and talked with the woman; and she pleased Samson well.

And after a time he returned to take her, and he turned aside to see the carcase of the lion: and, behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcase of the lion. And he took thereof in his hands, and went on eating, and came to his father and mother, and he gave them, and they did eat: but he told not them that he had taken the honey out of the carcase of the lion.

So his father went down unto the woman: and Samson made there a feast; for so used the young men to do. And it came to pass, when they saw him, that they brought thirty companions to be with him. And Samson said unto them, I will now put forth a riddle unto you: if ye can certainly declare it me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty sheets and thirty change of garments: But if ye cannot declare it me, then shall ye give me thirty sheets and thirty change of garments. And they said unto him, Put forth thy riddle, that we may hear it.

And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not in three days expound the riddle.

And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they said unto Samson’s wife, Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father’s house with fire: have ye called us to take that we have? is it not so?

And Samson’s wife wept before him, and said, Thou dost but hate me, and lovest me not: thou hast put forth a riddle unto the children of my people, and hast not told it me. And he said unto her, Behold, I have not told it my father nor my mother, and shall I tell it thee? And she wept before him the seven days, while their feast lasted: and it came to pass on the seventh day, that he told her, because she lay sore upon him: and she told the riddle to the children of her people.

And the men of the city said unto him on the seventh day before the sun went down, What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion? and he said unto them, If ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle.

And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil, and gave change of garments unto them which expounded the riddle. And his anger was kindled, and he went up to his father’s house. But Samson’s wife was given to his companion, whom he had used as his friend.

This is one of those strange Old Testament stories so it needs some context. The book we looked at last week, Joshua, was about when the nation of Israel, who had been wandering around the desert ever since they left Egypt in Exodus, finally arrived in the Promised Land and conquered it for themselves. Now after being led by Moses and then Joshua, the people are ruled by judges as they battle with the Philistines for control of the Promised Land.

And the basic lesson, the basic pattern of the book is that Israel messes up, Israel calls out to God for help, and God saves Israel by raising up a judge to lead them, but then Israel forgets the whole thing, the judge makes some big mistake, and things get even worse.

Samson is one of these judges and in this story God works through Samson to create conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines so that Samson will fight against them and free Israel. After all, the Philistines were evil, they did things like practice child sacrifice; there was a reason God didn’t want the Israelites living alongside them.

But at the start of this story. Samson isn’t too bothered by that. Samson’s not the sort of person to quibble over whether someone is part of a culture that practices child sacrifice, no, he’s very tolerant, very open, he sees a pretty girl and he wants to marry her. A true romantic. Then in his travels, he fights a lion, rips it in half, and later finds bees have built a hive in the lions’ body, which leads to the riddle he challenges the Philistines with at his wedding:

Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not in three days expound the riddle.

And when they can’t solve the riddle, the Philistines become enraged, they threaten Samson’s wife, they threaten to burn down her and her father’s home. They demand an answer. They need to know. Confusion, uncertainty, doubt, these things make us miserable, they make us act out and do something, they make us angry. The riddle got under their skin and created a conflict.

And in the same way, Jesus used parables to create conflict, to confuse the people who had rejected Him. And as the gospel story continues Jesus’s teaching in parables, the tricky questions and clever answers that He gives to the scribes, they make the conflict worse and worse until the high priests decide to have Jesus killed.

But why would Jesus want conflict? Why would the person who said “Blessed are the peacemakers” be picking a fight? Though it’s not how we often think of Him, Jesus was a divisive figure; He said “I came not to send peace but a sword.” He drives the money changers out of the Temple with a whip. He publicly attacks the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites.

But all these things only happen after the Pharisees have rejected Jesus. At the beginning, Jesus starts off exactly as we would expect, He’s kind, He does wonderful miracles, and He has a clear message for us from God about how to live. It’s only after the broken people in the story mess up that things change.

The Pharisees were supposed to be experts in the scriptures, which predicted Jesus, but they didn’t recognize Him. Jesus went around healing the sick and the Pharisees accused him of working for the devil. If the Pharisees had done their duty as religious leaders they would have told everyone that Jesus was the Messiah, they would have praised Him for His miracles and His teachings.

But they fail, so Jesus punishes them by changing from a clear teaching to a confusing one. As He says “but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” The Pharisees already didn’t get it, and now it was going to get even more confusing as a punishment.

But we punish people in order to correct them. Punishment is supposed to teach people and help them learn from their mistakes. The Pharisees just didn’t get it when Jesus healed people and was direct, so if He was ever going to convert them, He had to try something else.

A confused reaction is better than no reaction at all. Before God can give us an answer or guidance, He needs to get our attention. And if we won’t listen when God gives us a clear sign, like Jesus walking around performing miracles, He’ll try something else, something confusing and strange and wonderful to get our attention. 

We see this throughout the Bible; there’s a phrase we hear “signs and wonders.” God does signs and wonders in Egypt and the apostles spread the gospel while performing “signs and wonders.” The phrase shows up twenty-nine times.

And these are two ways that God speaks to us.

Sometimes He’ll give you a sign, as clear and straightforward as a sign that you see on the road that says stop. The spirit will move us to a decision or we’ll read the Bible and know what we have to do.

But sometimes God speaks through wonders, through things that aren’t clear, through something strange and confusing to get our attention. Things will happen in our lives that we can’t understand or can’t explain. We don’t know what it means, but we know something is happening.

We see this in the story of Exodus. First God gives Pharaoh a sign, a clear message. He sends Moses to Pharaoh who tells him exactly what God wants, let my people go. And it’s only after Pharaoh refuses the clear sign that God sends wonders, then the river turns to blood and the plagues of frogs come and the flies and the locusts and all that good Old Testament stuff.

God wants to be in a relationship with us. He wants us to know Him. And he gives us clear signs. There are plenty of passages all over the Bible where God is clear that He loves us and wants to help us. And the Bible says that the Heavens declare the glory of God, that nature, everything around us, every good created thing should point us back to the good Creator that made them. The Bible and the world are full of signs.

But it says “they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” We still don’t get it. And when we don’t get it, we don’t hear, we don’t see, God doesn’t give up on us; He sends wonders, He sends strange and confusing things to get our attention and lead us back to Him. Both in the Bible and in our lives.

And every part of the Old Testament that so confuses us today is like that. It’s shocking and strange and divisive, but some of the Bible is supposed to be wonderful, to confuse us, because through that confusion we look deeper and we grow closer to God.

We can’t really learn anything without first getting a bit confused.

It takes time.

We have to wrestle with the subject.

We have to think things through.

The Old Testament is strange so that we draw nearer to God in our confusion, just like the disciples drew near to Jesus, asking questions, when He taught in parables.

I see this as a teacher all the time, the students who are really learning, the students who do well, they ask questions, they get confused, they make me repeat things. And the students who do poorly, they sit there nodding and staring and doing nothing. Seeing, but not seeing. Hearing, but not hearing.

And for every strange story in the Old Testament, for every talking animal and cubit measurement of the curtains in the tabernacle, there’s a reason for it. You and I may not see it on the first read or the second read or the hundreth read, but people far smarter than us have been studying the Bible for far longer than any of us have been alive. And whatever we may find that seems baffling or contradictory or wrong in the Bible, someone else has studied thoroughly and can explain.

Still, we shouldn’t just be confused by the strange parts of scripture and here are three things we can keep in mind to help us when reading the Old Testament. First, as Christians we believe in a fallen world. We believe that the world is broken and that we human beings are sinful. The evidence is everywhere. So when we read the Bible, we shouldn’t be surprised to see lots of evil and wicked and stupid things happening. Our story about Samson today is violent, but that’s because it’s part of a larger messed up world where Israel is being violently oppressed by the Philistines who need to be forcibly overthrown.

But in the Old Testament we often see people who have been chosen and blessed by God doing bad things. So second, we need to remember that God works through broken, sinful people, and it’s a good thing He does because that’s the only kind of people out there. And since God chooses to work through us, God’s work reflects our flaws. Samson is an angry, impulsive, violent man, but God still uses Him with all those flaws.

And third, we need to connect these strange stories to the larger symbols, themes, and messages of the whole Bible. Let’s look at the lion and the bees. Lions in the Bible are often a symbol of one of the tribes of Israel, the tribe of Judah, which is the tribe that King David was from. Judah is also Jesus’s tribe; remember in the Christmas story it says that Joseph was of the house and lineage of David. This is why Jesus is called the Son of David which is a royal title.

So when we see a lion which means Judah and David and Jesus, when we see a lion being torn and killed, that’s a foreshadowing of the crucifixion.

And when honey shows up in the Bible, in the Promised Land which is flowing with milk and honey or in the Psalms where the judgements of the Lord are sweeter than honey, honey is connected with the goodness and the promises of God. And so the honey from the dead lion corresponds with how Jesus’s death and resurrection fulfilled the promises of God and brought us all kinds of good, sweet things. And just as Samson ate the honey from the lion, Jesus calls us to eat His body. As Jesus says in John “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

The whole seemingly random, bizarre lion attack and beehive story is prefiguring the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And we could keep going, why can’t they answer the riddle for three days, what’s special about three days? Or why does it matter that Samson is going to a wedding? Why does it matter that the prize for the riddle is clothing?

But the point here isn’t just the connections of this particular story, but that the whole Old Testament is like this, that we should expect to see strange, confusing stories, but that God uses them to tell us things we aren’t ready to hear directly and to make us draw near to Him in our confusion.

We don’t want to be like the Philistines, who are enraged when there is something confusing, who threaten to burn down your house when they get confused. And we don’t want to be like Samson’s wife, who thinks that just because Samson won’t explain himself that he hates her. If we’re confused, if we don’t understand what God is doing, we shouldn’t get angry and we shouldn’t assume God hates us. When we’re confused, we should seek God.

And this goes for both understanding the Bible and our own lives. While there are things in our lives that are signs from God, where God has given us a clear message or delivered us from something, where God has taught us a lesson, there are also parts of life that are strange, that we can’t make sense of, that make us wonder, why is this part of my life, just like we wonder why God put these stories in the Old Testament.

And just as the Old Testament only fully makes sense in the light of the New Testament, just as the Old Testament was incomplete without Jesus and His resurrection, our lives on earth will not fully make sense until after we die and are resurrected to new life in Christ. Until we see the new heavens and the new earth, we can’t fully understand why our fallen earth has to be this way. Even though Jesus has promised us eternal life if we just believe in Him, Jesus did not promise us that our time on this earth would be pleasant or painless or even that it would make sense. Jesus has promised us eternal life if we believe, but His life on earth, the life we seek to imitate, was hard and confusing and it didn’t make sense while He was alive; it only became clear after his death and resurrection, and the same goes for us.

As Paul says in First Corinthians:  For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

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