The way we read and tell the story of the Old Testament plays a large role in the view that many people have of Christianity. To many outside the church the story can be framed as ancient myth, the story of an autocratic tribal god, a founding myth for ethnic identity. Within the church other misunderstandings often prevail. Iain Provan, in his new book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters looks in depth at the story the Old Testament portrays and digs into the message getting past many of the caricatures active in the secular world, and even in the church. In chapter 7 he explores the answer to the question How am I to relate to God?. There are several aspects to the answer Provan finds in Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament.
Worship God alone. There is one God, distinct from the cosmos he has created. He alone is worthy of worship. God is cloaked in mystery and cannot be captured in any tamed and domesticated form. When a prophet sees God, as Ezekiel did, no words can adequately capture what has been seen. Only analogies are possible. Humans are not gods and should not seek to take the place of God. The so-called gods of the other nations are not gods at all. Household idols, common in the day and age (even Rachel took the household “gods” from her father Laban), are nothing but inanimate objects formed by man from created matter. Idols are forbidden because they are not and cannot contain God. The call to forsake the false gods and idols permeate the Old Testament – and the failure to do so leads to a multitude of troubles. Idolatry is not merely forbidden, it is inherently destructive.
It is not only that the worship of the creation rather than the Creator is offensive to God, and a perversion of the true nature of things (although it is both of these). It is also that in worshipping idols rather than God human beings do damage to themselves, to each other, and to the world in which they live. To turn from God to “gods” is to embrace a lie about reality. (p. 167)
The book of Daniel provides a powerful lesson in this regard. It is a central message of the book.
The book of Daniel works this out in a thoroughgoing way, picturing a world in which the worship of the one true God has all but disappeared. It is a world, Daniel tells us, that is governed by “beasts”—the beastly empires described in Daniel 2 and 7. It is a world, therefore, that has been turned upside down. The world created by God is one in which human beings should govern the animals (Genesis 1:26-30), but in Daniel, the “animals” govern the human beings. Here the idolatry of the self has been transposed into the idolatry of the state, and upon human beings who refuse such idolatry suffering falls, whether in fiery furnaces or in lions’ dens or in some other way. This is what happens when the emperor, in particular, comes to think that he is a god (Daniel 3). The book of Daniel illustrates well the general biblical point: that worshipping as a god anything that is not in fact God must ultimately have drastic consequences for human beings and also for the creation they are supposed to govern and care for on behalf of the Creator. (p. 168)
Idolatry is not so much the infraction of a divine commandment as the committing of an act of cosmic insanity.
Trust in the goodness of God. Faith, Provan suggests, “is trusting oneself to the goodness of God.” (p. 176) Lament can go along with trust as many of the Psalms illustrate, but there is a fundamental trust that, however dark things may seem at the moment we can trust in the Lord because of his unfailing love. “A deep-seated trust that God is good is fundamental to biblical faith.” (p. 178)
Love the Lord your God. This is no divided affection common to the polytheism of the surrounding cultures. God is one – not many. Not only that, he is the only one. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Dt 6:4-5) The command to love God is a demand for single-minded and wholehearted devotion with one’s whole being. Heart and soul includes the mind. This is only possible in an attitude of trust.
It is only out of this trust in the goodness of God—this fundamental conviction that God is for us—that there can arise the love for God that biblical faith also places at the heart of a right relationship with God. (p. 178)
Obey God. The Old Testament teaches an attitude of obedience, but obedience is intimately connected to trust and love.
[I]t stands to reason that those who trust in and love a God who is good are bound to view his commandments as being good for his creatures. The righteous person obeys these commandments, then, not out of fear of reprisals (as a slave might obey a master), nor out of a grudging sense of duty (as a self-centered child might obey a parent he cannot yet escape), but with a sense of gladness. (p. 181)
Although Provan doesn’t bring this up here, I think we do well to consider this in light of the response Jesus gave when asked “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” To this question he replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:36-40). This isn’t something new, a New testament or Christian innovation. Jesus is summarizing the commands and teaching of the Old Testament. To obey God is to love him and to treat others with genuine love as well.
God himself makes it possible. The Old Testament portrays a God who stands alongside his people, who makes it possible for them to travel with God and follow his commands. Provan sees a powerful example in the story of Jacob (the cheater) who fails in so many ways, yet is renamed and becomes Israel, God’s chosen one.
The story of Jacob that is built around these two names is a story of redemption. It is a story of God’s grace in rescuing Jacob—grace that is explicitly signaled in Genesis 28:10-22. Here, in a dream, Jacob sees a ziggurat stairway (often unhelpfully referred to as a “ladder”) connecting earth and heaven. He observes God’s servants (“angels”) coming and going on this stairway to heaven, occupying themselves with the business of God. The main interpretive question in this story is where God is to be found. … [T]he particular combination of the Hebrew verb and preposition here (nitsav plus ‘al) usually means in the Old Testament “to stand beside.” It never means specifically “to stand above.” Most likely, then, God is standing not above the ladder but “beside him” (Jacob, as the NIV footnote allows). The story, then, is not about the majesty of a God who sits in the heavens but about the love of a God who descends the stairway to be with Jacob where he is—about a God who looks for friendship with Jacob in the midst of his current circumstances. Before Jacob turns away from wrongdoing in his life and before he has even the faintest notion that his whole life journey lies in the hands of God, God is found with Jacob, where he is. And God gives Jacob a remarkable promise—a promise of land, of descendants, and of God’s presence protecting Jacob and ultimately returning him tothe land of Canaan (28:13-15). (p. 184-185)
Throughout the Old Testament we have the story of a God who stands beside his people. This isn’t an imperial command from above. It is the story of God himself in the business of mending what is broken.
The Israelites are called to be a holy people—a people who have given up on divinity, who trust in God’s goodness, and who love and obey their God. In the meantime, however, there is a need for atonement. God does not just require holiness and does not just walk alongside people encouraging it. God also takes steps to deal with its absence. That is a central feature of Israel’s sacrificial system. In the same way, God reaches out to the entire world through the suffering of the righteous “servant” of God in Isaiah 40–55. (p. 185-186).
Not like other religions. According to Provan the relationship between God and humankind, and the way we are called to relate to God is fundamentally unlike other religions. The Old Testament portrays a relationship with a transcendent, personal God. Such a personal God is not found in polytheistic religions, or in the various Eastern religions and philosophies (Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, …). But Provan sees another significant difference as well. Other religions and philosophies, including Islam, have an optimistic view of human capacity for self-transformation. The Old Testament portrays a God who calls people to follow Him and is actively in the business of mending human failings and weaknesses.
Does Provan capture the Old Testament vision for relationship with God?
Is there something missing from this summary, some other factor involved in relationship with God?
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