In my last post, I talked about how I have been working my way through the Old Testament, and how doing so has been reorienting not just my understanding of what the Old Testament holds, but also my perception of myself and my knowledge of God. It’s not that I never studied the Old Testament before, but for whatever reason, it’s been completely different this time. I find myself wanting to know everything about all the stories in it. I think I’m finally understanding a little bit of what David wrote in Psalm 1:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither--
whatever they do prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3. Emphasis added.)
I want to be like that tree, constantly watered. I want to meditate on these things day and night.
The thing is, the more time I spend in these books, the more I have been convinced that the way I view myself is radically flawed. Which, having grown up in the church, is something I have intellectually known my entire life. I know it’s not about me--I know I am a creature and God is God. But I don’t live like I know these things, so clearly I haven’t truly internalized them.
Over the summer I listened to a couple podcasts that gave me the opportunity to think about the way culture, and I myself, view God, and I’ve come away with the conclusion that to me and to many others, God is often treated as if he’s very small. I know I’m not the first to say this, but as I continue to study the Old Testament, the main thing that I keep coming back to, over and over, is my perception of how big God is.
A few years ago I read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton for the first time, and it was life-changing. I felt like I was being given permission to feel the way about God I’d always wanted to feel about him, with a deep sense of his mystery. I’ve always felt in my soul that if God is who he says he is--a God infinite and all-knowing--I shouldn’t be able to understand everything about him. Rather than lacking faith because I have unanswered questions, my doubts have tended to come because of things like unbearable monotony or cheap plastic light switches; how could these things be found in a world made by a majestic God?
But that’s a whole other post. My tendency, along with Chesterton, is to have my faith strengthened by knowing that there are some things I just cannot understand about God because of who he is. He would not be God if I could justify everything he did or explain his comprehensive plan. In my study of the Old Testament, I am feeling that again, along with a renewed sense of gratefulness that he has given his people as much of an understanding as he has. He did not have to meet us personally, or give us his word. But he did.
In addition, I am seeing a new rest come into my heart from this shifted perspective. When God is big, and I am a creature, there is abounding peace. It’s not on me to try to explain the reason behind everything, or to justify the wicked or the good. I can find my place in doing the work before me, and allow the Lord to give me rest. I can be sheltered under his wings, as Psalm 91 so eloquently reminds me.
All that is the rosy side of these discoveries, and it’s not lost on me that there are some things that go against the grain along with them. It’s these things that many of the people I listened to this summer are reacting against--things that, to us, in our culture and time, seem problematic or inconceivable. “I’m not the only one who feels that the story of Abraham obeying God’s call to kill his son Isaac is problematic,” one podcaster said.* (The story is found in Genesis 22. Spoiler: he doesn’t actually have to kill him.)
I am the last person to say that we should a) not think deeply about the commands of the Bible and examine our beliefs or b) not spend our time working to uncover injustice and build the kingdom through our hands and our words. But I think there is a fundamental shift between the person who says “God must be good on my terms, and if he is not, I cannot believe in him,” and the person who says “There is a God who revealed himself to the world, and I want to learn what he has revealed, whether I like it or not.”
To me, this seems clear. The starting place is deciding whether you believe the Bible is the word of God, and if the answer is yes, things have to fall in line not behind what we want to be true about God, but what he has actually revealed. The work of the Christian is not spilling ink over reconciling how God and the Bible can fit in with our cultural narrative, but in studying who God is and how he has designed us to live and function. In talking about this recently with my brother Joshua, he said: “Culture will always affect our interpretation of scripture and the lens we bring to thinking about God, but it shouldn’t dictate the starting place. God defines truth, and we figure out how to understand and live into it, not vice versa.” Sometimes, this will go against both what the world says is good, and what we ourselves want.
A friend recently asked why God lays out so many strict ways of doing things, particularly in the Old Testament. It can sometimes seem that God has set up these standards just so we can fail in trying to live by them. But the answer that came to my mind after living alongside the Old Testament men and women for a season is not simply that Christ makes a way for us to live according to the standards inherent in God’s character by taking on our punishment himself, but that God’s way is the best way to live. That is what I truly believe. Hannah wrote a beautiful little post recently about a book she and her daughter read together that highlights the way God designed each of the animals to exist in perfect harmony with how he made them. It’s the same for humans; he created us with a specific purpose in mind, and the laws in the Bible are all designed to reorient us to this original purpose.
I can speak for me, and no one else, but the only time I have found true peace on this earth was not by pursuing what’s right by my own or by the world’s ever-changing standards, but by coming to the knowledge of my place as a creature--something that so many of the people whose stories are recorded in the Old Testament also had to learn. With this knowledge I can laugh at the days to come, like the woman in Proverbs 31, I can rightfully weep at the destruction and evil of the world as the author of Lamentations did, and I can be like that tree David wrote of, planted by streams of water. More than anything, I want to be like that tree: still, strong, fulfilling my purpose, and continually renewed by the goodness of my maker.
*I’m keeping the names of these podcasts/podcasters private for this post, because I’m not here to condemn or stir up controversy, but if you’d like to know who they are you can send me a message.
Like most people, this summer completely overwhelmed me. It felt (and honestly still feels) like the world was tipping sideways, sliding toward a precipice of anger and confusion waiting to swallow us. The news is always bad; people are grieved and shocked and dying and selfish.
In June, my friend RachelAnn told me about a podcast by a woman named Jen Wilkin, which is a recording of a study she led on the biblical books of Joshua and Judges. At the time, I was sold because RachelAnn mentioned that Wilkin spoke on the character of Rahab in a way that was different than any teaching she’d heard before. I, like a lot of women in the church, tend to think of the Old Testament as a bit of a barren wasteland for women--a place where the true heroes are the men, and the stories about women are mostly just those illustrating abuse or suffering.
I couldn’t anticipate, at the time, how deeply this study would affect me. I didn’t know how it would not only completely upend my perspective on the amount of time and attention given to women in the Old Testament, but also transform my anxiety about the world. The one thing--the only thing, I think--that could reach me in a place of true grief over the state of the world and the state of my own heart was a careful study of wickedness, and the God who moved the authors of Joshua and Judges to record it.
I began with Joshua, and true to RachelAnn’s words, I was struck by the story of Rahab and her courage and faith. It’s been years since I read this book, and I felt as if I was reading it with new eyes. This post is partly an encouragement to listen to Jen Wilkin’s study, because it’s extremely thorough in scholarship and timely in its nature, but it’s also just a reminder that all of scripture is precious. I admit that I spend the bulk of my time in the epistles and the gospels, but after living in Joshua for eleven episodes, I am hungry now for the words of the Old Testament. The care God took with the Israelites as he brought them into the promised land, the way the stories are recorded, and the steadfastness of God’s promises are life in a time when we are all feeling uncertain and, to be honest, a little abandoned. Patience is probably my least present virtue, and to read about the many times God had his people wait, and wait, and wait was both crushing and freeing to me.
But really, the book of Joshua felt like a warm up to the book of Judges. It was important in content and context, but when I began the episodes on Judges I felt the true surgery begin. This book is both beautiful and horrible. It tells of a people who are constantly doing “what is right in their own eyes,” with no true leadership and no desire for the good of others. For large chunks of the book God is silent, allowing events to unfold. I felt my heart resonate with the squandered land, the injustices, the exploitation. It all seemed so familiar.
In her lectures, Wilkin kept saying, “If you want to know how the Israelites are doing, look at the women. How are the vulnerable being treated?” She guided us through the beginning of the book, where women have the status to negotiate for what they want (the story of Aksah), places of leadership (Deborah, who also presents qualities of God in such a way that she points to the character of Christ) and the ability to fight for those less capable (Jael). But by the end of the story we are seeing a people who have begun to abuse the vulnerable (as in the truly horrible story of the Levite’s concubine) and care so little about the value or interests of women that they give their blessing to the abduction and rape of hundreds (the wives of Benjamin.)
I knew these stories; I had read them before. But they always seemed disjointed. Now, with the background from the study of Joshua, and Wilkin’s careful contextual analysis, they were transformative. I went to see Rachael Denhollander (the first accuser of convicted sexual offender Larry Nassar) speak last Spring, and her talk was all about how important it was when she came to truly believe that justice and forgiveness are inextricable, and that it was through her study of the Old Testament that she found healing in the fact that God is a God of justice. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I think I can understand a piece of that now, even though I have not gone through what she has gone through. There is a simmering anger I feel, and I think a lot of us feel, at the continual abuse of women, and of people of color, and of the marginalized, and the only way I know to find peace from the anger is by seeing that God cares even more about it than I do.
There were a million personal applications along the way that made the Joshua and Judges study especially helpful for me, but the overarching message is this: God is not overwhelmed by evil, even though we are. And through the many stories about women that are found in Judges (and now I recognize, are found in the entire Old Testament) he is showing us that he sees. When I cry out in my spirit about the endlessness of pain and the triumph of evil, the book of Judges is saying, “He sees.” He does not always help in this world, which is hard for me to understand, but he always sees, and it always matters. And he will always have the last word.
Wilkin ended her study by referencing the book of Ruth, which ironically, although Ruth is my namesake, has always sort of mystified me. It seemed like such an odd little book to be placed right between the chaos of Judges and 1 Samuel. But when I read it with fresh eyes full of context, I just cried. It’s so clear to me now why it’s there--right there, immediately following some of the worst evil found in the scriptures. Because in it, as Wilkin reminds her listeners, we see a picture of sacrificial love from both Ruth and Boaz, a story of courage and tenderness and selflessness, that is so deeply in contrast to the stories we just read. Ruth, like Boaz, points to the character of Christ, and through their descendents God brought about the birth of the savior that is the true triumph over the chaos we still feel.
Most remarkably, Wilkin points out that the story of Ruth runs concurrent to the rest of the book of Judges--not after it, but at the same time. While all this chaos is happening, while women and the vulnerable are being abused, while people are taking what they can and rejoicing in the suffering of their enemies, God is faithfully, quietly at work. That is a true hope to cling to, and one that has radically altered my feelings about the world I live in right now. We do not control the hearts of our fellow people, and most of the time we can’t even do much to fix the horrible things that have been done. But we have the courage to continue to live and to work because God has never abandoned his people, and he never will.
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria