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Time To Go Old Testament?
Amid the chaos, multiple votes, sudden shifts in candidate momentum, and intraparty turmoil of the quest by U.S. House Republicans last month to agree on a new speaker, the debate sometimes got religious. For instance, after House Majority Whip Tom Emmer briefly became the chosen GOP candidate, fellow Republican Rep. Rick Allen berated Emmer in a meeting of GOP lawmakers. Allen attacked Emmer for a vote last year codifying federal protections for same-sex couples, adding, “You don’t need to get right with me, you need to get right with Jesus.” Emmer quickly dropped out not because of Jesus but since he remained unable to get right with Allen and other far-right lawmakers. After the caucus then chose Rep. Mike Johnson, the eventual speaker led them all in a time of public prayer.
But one comment during the more-than-three-week process particularly stood out. After Rep. Jim Jordan lost multiple floor votes and saw his GOP colleagues rescind his nomination, Rep. Clay Higgins was upset. He posted a photo on social media of himself with some of his allies (including Johnson). Higgins added his complaint about Jordan not becoming speaker: “Well, the swamp won this round. I’m feeling very Old Testament.”
Wishing to describe his anger, Higgins compared himself to the Old Testament. And he’s not the only one to refer to the first part of the Bible with such connotations. A novel in the popular Ring of Fire series notes that a character “had a favored expression, when he wanted to describe someone in a really dark fury. ‘He’s feeling Old Testament,’ he’d say.”
Similar ways of invoking the Old Testament also pop up in public discourse. For instance, Republican Rep. Tim Burchett last month gleefully said after Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel that in Gaza “there’s gonna be Old Testament justice pretty quick” (and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been invoking various biblical texts to justify the deadly war).
In a much different context, Clemson University head football coach Dabo Swinney bragged about how he responded on a radio program to a person questioning his large salary despite a poor record this season: “I had some idiot go Old Testament on me, and he got an Old Testament response.” Interestingly, the caller had actually quoted an Old Testament verse (about pride going before a fall), but Swinney didn’t quote the Bible. Instead, he defined his rant filled with cursing and personal attacks as his “Old Testament response.”
Such references to the Old Testament aren’t new. In 2018, The Big Bang Theory creator Chuck Lorre put up a prayer on the screen at the end of an episode asking God to help the Mueller investigation against Trump and “remind those who collaborate with the darkness that thou art the light, and the light is not above whipping out a little Old Testament wrath.” A writer reflecting on all the movies where Liam Neesen takes revenge on people — which is enough to be its own Netflix category — admitted sometimes also wanting “to go all ‘Old Testament’ on someone.”
Similarly, an advisor to U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner during the Obama presidency defended Geithner from attacks by some liberals that he was too easy on Wall Street: “Sometimes progressives misinterpreted his unwillingness to call for more Old Testament justice as him being conservative on policy, when it was really just his Eliot Ness, straight-arrow side that shied away from doing anything that seemed primarily motivated by political messaging.”
Though dealing with different contexts of politics, war, sports, entertainment, and corruption, each of these comments utilized the same metaphor to describe a response as aggressive, angry, and violent (sometimes more literal than others). But such comments implying the Old and New Testaments are pitted against each other echo an ancient heresy. And they show little appreciation of what’s actually in the older books of the Bible. So this issue of A Public Witness will go Old Testament on people saying they want some Old Testament justice.
In the Beginning
Barely a century after the death of Jesus, a Christian theologian in Rome preached that Jesus was the true God and different from the creator figure described in the Hebrew Scriptures. Marcion thus created what may have been the first canon of Christian books that included a shorter version of Luke and 10 Pauline epistles. Not only did he not include some of the books that later made into what we call the New Testament, but he completely rejected all of what we now label the Old Testament.
Marcion and his followers cast the version of God in the Old Testament as one characterized by anger, unmercifulness, and stern justice. Marcionites rejected such texts as inherently incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. Thus, Jesus was not a Jewish messiah but a spiritual being sent by a God who had not previously interacted with people, and who came to help save the people from the trap of the vengeful vision of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.
One consequence of Marcionism is that it can feed antisemitism by suggesting the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a false god, and a deviant one at that. For different reasons than Marcion, some Nazis sought to purge the Old Testament from Christianity and strip away the Jewishness of Jesus. The result was a canon that bore a lot of similarity with that of the ancient writer from 17 centuries earlier.
Early Christian writers like Tertullian, Ortigen, and Polycarp criticized Marcion and his teachings. Labeled a heretic, he was excommunicated from the church in Rome. When the biblical canon started coming together formally in the fourth century, Marcionite teachings clearly lost as Christians decided to keep the Hebrew Scriptures. But despite being rejected as a heretic and his writings being lost (or destroyed), the ghost of Marcion lives. He may have been the first to pit our Old and New Testaments against each other, but he wasn’t the last.
“One of Marcion’s key errors was that he saw only wrath and never mercy in the Old Testament portrayal of God,” theologian Stephen Moroney wrote in God of Love and God of Judgment. “Few in the church these days want to exclude the Old Testament from the Bible, as Marcion did, let alone teach that Jesus reveals a different God than the Creator described in the Hebrew Scriptures. Many, however, hold to Marcion’s contrast between God’s wrath and judgment in the Old Testament and God’s love and mercy in the New Testament.”
Today’s politicians, coaches, and others who desire to mete out Old Testament wrath on people they don’t like aren’t quite Marcionites. But they seem to get awfully close as they suggest the ethic of Jesus is different from the ethic of the “Old Testament God.” Ironically, with this reading of the Bible, these Christians wanting to “go Old Testament” on people actually advance a hermeneutic similar to leading atheist writers today.
“The God of the Old Testament,” wrote Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, “is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
To that, Christians wanting to some “Old Testament justice” say “amen.” They see a different depiction of God in the Old Testament than how they perceive Jesus — and they want to emulate that Jesus-less god toward those they don’t like. Like Marcion and Dawkins, Rep. Higgins and Coach Swinney see God as an angry, vindictive deity. But unlike the Marcionites and atheists, they embrace that hateful god. But while it makes sense that evangelists for atheism create this caricature of the Old Testament, it’s a more troubling teaching from people who claim to adhere to the text.
When a Christian politician or celebrity decides to “go Old Testament,” they’re saying they find the ethics of Jesus inconvenient. Instead of acting like they think Jesus would, they instead want a different kind of moral standard. So they conjure up a god that looks little like Jesus. Somehow, they think that’s the “Old Testament God.” But what if, as pastor Gregory Boyd put it, “Jesus is what God looks like when there are no clouds in the way”?
Since, as John taught us in his Gospel, Jesus is the Word of God, Christians cannot separate the Father and Son as if they are two different Gods. That should impact the way we read the Bible, including the Old Testament.
“If we want a proof text to confirm that God is vengeful toward his enemies, we can find those texts if we know where to look. But is this how Jesus read the Old Testament?” pastor Brian Zahnd wrote in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. “I love the Old Testament. I’m a million miles from the second-century heresy of Marcion. … But I don’t regard the Old Testament as the perfect revelation of God, and I never read the Old Testament without Jesus.”
Christians don’t have the option of discarding Jesus when he’s inconvenient. He’s not like a coat we put on only on cold days to make us feel better. The quest to create an “Old Testament justice” is an attempt to prooftext Jesus out of the conversation because we don’t like what he’s saying.
Beyond the issue of ignoring Jesus, those wanting to call down some “Old Testament wrath” also ignore quite a bit of the Old Testament.
“If we look at the intricate tapestry of the books of the Old Testament, we will also see that a rich picture of God’s character emerges across different texts, and that God is far from monochrome,” argued Katharine Dell, an Old Testament literature professor, in her book Who Needs the Old Testament? “It is simply not true that the God of love appears for the first time in the New Testament, whatever Marcion would have us believe.”
Perhaps Rep. Higgins and Coach Swinney found Jesus to be in the way because they didn’t like his talk about how we should “love thy neighbor.” But that’s actually part of what it means to follow the Old Testament!
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart,” we find in Leviticus 19. “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
Many other passages dot the Old Testament to teach about the love and mercy of God and that God’s followers should act similarly. Consider just a few:
“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:8-12)
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” (1 Chronicles 16:34)
“The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.” (Psalm 145:9)
“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” (Zechariah 7:9-10)
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
“Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared.” (Proverbs 22:24-25)
I could go on. So while there are Old Testament passages showing God as angry and wrathful — or at least showing that the ancient people thought God was that way — there are multiple other passages describing God in the exact opposite manner. The call to love others and show compassion like we’ve received from God doesn’t just show up magically with Jesus as Marcion argued and those wanting “Old Testament justice” seem to believe. To create a caricature of the Old Testament as just a text of vengeance is to gerrymander love and mercy out of the story.
So the next time someone really ticks you off, consider going Old Testament by acting with compassion.
As a public witness,