Time for some Old Testament wisdom, and a drop of Friedrich Nietzsche

I have been freed from the shackles that oppressed me when the Southern Baptist Convention employed, and therefore controlled me. Now I do not have to feel bad about quoting taboo writers anymore. For instance, let’s take Friedrich Nietzsche. When you work in an evangelical college, whenever the topic turns to literature or philosophy, you can count on this: Within minutes someone will mention C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. If the staff isn’t entirely anti-Catholic, you may get a mention of Chesterton. But you can’t begin a lecture or essay with a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche, or some bored guttersnipe on Twitter will find amusement in trying to get you fired.

Ahh, the fresh air outside. It does the mind good. We need fresh air on two accounts. Dr. Fauci (either Mazarin or Rasputin, if you may) has convinced Americans to stay locked in their homes. The coronavirus crisis has worsened our already dangerous overload of mainstream propaganda. So let’s consider one passage from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. Despite the author’s perilous status in modern Christianity, the book nonetheless opens us up to certain worthwhile insights about where we are in 2020.

In the Third Essay, Section 22, Nietzsche says, “I do not like the ‘New Testament,’ that should be plain; I find it almost disturbing that my taste in regard to this most highly esteemed and overestimated work should be so singular (I have the taste of two millennia against me): but there it is! ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise’ — I have the courage of my bad taste. The Old Testament–that is something else again: all honor to the old Testament! I find in it great human beings, a heroic landscape, and something of the very rarest quality in the world, the incomparable naïveté of the strong heart; what is more, I find a people. In the New one, on the other hand, I find nothing but petty sectarianism, mere rococo of the soul…How can one make such a fuss about one’s little lapses as these pious little men do! Who gives a damn? Certainly not God.” (Translated by Walter Kaufman; Vintage Books, 1967).

These are harsh and heretical words, indeed. Nonetheless let us entertain the possibility that Nietzsche was reacting to a misguided form of Christianity promoted by contemporaries who poorly represented both testaments. Nietzsche’s supposedly towering intellect might have deceived him. In the passage above, he rejects not the New Testament, but what Christian churches have made of the New Testament.

Bear with me for a thought experiment. Let us suppose you complained to me that many churches propagate a false Christianity based on passive-aggressive resentment and glorified weakness instead of boldness and courage. I could not dismiss your complaint. I note how many churches embraced the suspension of the First Amendment during the COVID crisis, rather than standing strong in the face of irreligious state repression. I would have to concede that many Christians do snivel and fritter the way Nietzsche accused them of doing.

Nietzsche’s indictment against Christian passivity might be grounded even as his understanding of the Bible was ungrounded. This famous passage from Genealogy of Morals still holds relevance if we take from it the important insight that the Old Testament, too often dismissed as the stepchild testament of the Bible, holds precious wisdom that Christian societies too often dismiss.

The best-case Christian scenario for this pandemic is that churchgoers will become Bible-readers and will reconnect with the Old Testament. In the Old Testament countless passages explain and clarify the tough choices facing Christians during COVID-19. For instance, in Genesis 6 and Genesis 19, we are reminded that the Lord expresses wrath through severe trials forced upon whole societies. Though God is loving, his way of expressing love is not like our human ways of expressing love. We might look at the antediluvian society of Noah or Sodom at its worst and imagine that some good people might suffer in a total judgment. That we think this way does not mean that God thinks that way. His ways are not our ways.

Where does the rejection of the Old Testament come from?

Jesus knew that that some people would mistake his message as a license to throw away the Old Testament. For this very reason Christ makes a point to say he came not to overturn but to fulfill the Old Testament. He also said that not even a tittle of the Old Testament would fall away.

As Old Testament prophet Jeremiah tells us, the heart is full of wickedness beyond measure. Because our default state is self-delusion and selfish depravity, we carry countless motives to scrap the Old Testament and instead cling to a stilted and false perception of the New Testament. We want to believe that the blood, gore, fire, brimstone, power struggles, evil kings, and Asherah poles of the Old Testament are safely contained in the past, and we can live forever based on the idea of loving everyone, taking care of the poor, and not judging anybody. The latter is not what Jesus Christ brought to mankind but rather reflects our misguided fantasies used to justify our own shortcomings.

Jesus Christ tells us not to put new wine in old wineskins, so some may get enthusiastic about writing off the whole Old Testament. The Old Testament contains not only strict laws that people find burdensome, but also, visceral wars, cruelty, and then an enormous range of prophecies that cannot help but bewilder us because they sound lawless and even nihilistic to our naïve ears, even as the prophets rail against Israel for violating laws and failing in their faithfulness.

These seeming contradictions are not contradictions within the Old Testament. Rather they are complements in a complex reality created by God, whose vastness far exceeds our limited ability to comprehend. The priests, kings, and prophets all play their roles and balance one another.

Take, for example, Leviticus. Without a firm grasp of the sacrificial rituals laid out by Moses, people cannot truly understand the significance of Jesus as a blood sacrifice, an atonement akin to the animal sacrifices laid out in the lengthy passages of the Bible’s third book. Nor can people truly say they understand the significance of Jesus Christ’s saying, “love thy neighbor as thyself” without acknowledging that Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19:18. The “love” he invokes incorporates strict rules about familial and sexual relations that appear directly before and directly after the famous “love thy neighbor as thyself” scripture. Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 both condemn homosexuality in the strongest language possible, yet the command to love one’s neighbor falls directly between these two condemnations without a contradiction in the original law. “Love” was defined as a way of interaction which excluded things that defiled or degraded others. Those who support homosexuality often play Leviticus 19:18 as a trump card, but they fail to understand that “love thy neighbor as thyself” does not work if one thinks that defiling a neighbor with sin counts as love.

Unless you take the time to read the Old Testament thoroughly and carefully, you will miss the significance of Leviticus. It would be too easy to overlook the fact that Jesus came to mankind, lived his life, and died in specific ways to fulfill important verses of Leviticus. Sin is so serious that many chapters of the Pentateuch deal with rules about how to punish, atone for, and contain sin in the community. The extensive instructions about how to sacrifice goats, grains, or specific animals, right down to rubbing drops of blood on the earlobe, etc., all point to the fact that mankind’s fallen and sinful state is grievous and nothing to be minimized. When Moses first encounters God in Exodus 3, the first thing the burning bush commands him is, “remove your sandals, for where you stand is holy.” This order frames the entire drama of Moses’s bringing of the law to the Hebrews; for in telling Moses to remove his sandals, Yahweh makes clear that God’s realm is necessarily apart from the depravity and pollution of the human realm tainted by the fall. The laws from Exodus to Deuteronomy matter because they involve to some degree containing the vileness and contamination of the world from the places and times that are set aside for God. If we lose sight of how enormous this matter of holy separation is, we might find it an utterly alien concept to hear that invisible microbes lurk all around us and we can only stay alive through vigilance.

Only by understanding the full extent of God’s feeling about sin in the Old Testament can a person comprehend why Jesus Christ had to come and die a brutal death in order to atone for humanity’s sins.

I pray that the coronavirus will cause many people to reconsider the Old Testament in light of some important facts. While we keep calling the coronavirus “novel,” there is nothing new under the sun (thank you, Solomon). The ancient Hebrew laws offer great insights into how we can deal with a pandemic, if only people would show respect to the Old Testament. The law gave clear instructions about how to deal with outbreaks of disease. Instructions indicate that the sick must be removed until they are well. The law of Moses also includes a verse forbidding people from eating bats and other animals that we now know carry microbes dangerous to humans. This was important information to cite when people debated about the proper Christian response to vast lockdown orders from civil government. No Biblical ground exists for quarantining everyone in a community, even forcing them to do no work for weeks on end.

Russell Moore and many other religious authorities have cited Romans 13 to pressure Christians into all government-imposed isolation and social-distancing, even if it means not attending church. Paul admonishes Christians to show respect to the legal procedures that existed in Rome during his time. As a Roman citizen who invoked his citizenship in order to maximize his opportunities to share the gospel, Paul would naturally wish to warn Christians about becoming sloppy and lawless. By the 50s and 60s AD, Rome had a stable and largely beneficial legal tradition in place, which functioned on the basic ideas of due process. It would be better to hail the legal tradition of a stable and powerful state than to undermine one’s project by violating lots of laws that we find personally troublesome to ourselves.

In Romans 13 Paul states that the authorities were placed there by God. An inferior reading of this text would be that Christians must never challenge the orders or pronouncements of anyone in power anywhere because God chose who would have power and who would not. A better reading would be that authentic authorities exist if they come from God, which we can discern according to whether the authorities conduct themselves in a way that reflects God’s design for civil society. And where can we turn to see God’s design for civil society?

The Old Testament.

Think of Exodus. The Bible begins with an explanation. At the end of Genesis, seventy of Jacob’s clan migrated from the holy land to Egypt, where they were saved from famine. Things looked promising at the end of Genesis. Then Exodus begins, and Jacob’s descendants have all become slaves living at the whims of a Pharaoh who treats them with contempt. How to explain such a massive reversal in fortune? There came a ruler who did not know Joseph. While Joseph’s cunning, charm, and prophetic gifts caused one pharaoh to feel great goodwill toward him, that bond had no lasting basis other than the pharaoh’s mood. Jacob’s family had no constitution, no guaranteed rights, no legal claim, no jurisprudence–nothing to shield them from a change of heart in the government.

Thus appears one of the first lessons about civil society in the Old Testament. God wants his chosen people to have legal protections. God expects his chosen people to be treated fairly and with dignity. They cannot do that if they live in a society that observes no common law in regards to their treatment. That is why Exodus is not only about escaping oppression, but also about receiving the laws from God through Moses. The first thing Jacob’s people must have once they escape slavery is a law to bind them within the limits set by God. “Freedom” is not the absence of restraint; much to the contrary, to escape slavery they need laws to be stricter and clearer than the pell-mell rules applied to them by Pharaoh.

Nobody can accuse God’s law of being vague. Four books of the Bible all devote numerous chapters to the rules about almost any scenario, from what to do about mildew to whether one can eat shellfish to how long a fugitive can remain in a sanctuary city. From God’s laws in the Torah we can draw some specific conclusions about God’s nature and therefore the authentic authorities that reveal God’s hand. God does not like unequal weights or measures being applied to people. God demands compassionate treatment between humans, which explains why, for instance, a creditor cannot take a cloak as collateral and then disallow the debtor from having it to keep warm at night.

It becomes clear in Exodus that God expects civil government to look like his laws, not just any law. Certainly God’s character does not give us reason to believe that God delights in having laws merely for the sake of legal order. And the Old Testament, as Nietzsche pointed out, tells us the story of kings and warriors. The stories reveal to us clues about how we are to interact with civil government. Take Moses’s first petition to Pharaoh. Moses does not march into Pharaoh’s palace to tell the ruler that the Hebrews are immediately leaving Egypt. He follows a basic fair process. Moses asks Pharaoh to give the Hebrews three days off for a sacred holiday. It is Pharaoh’s overreaction to Moses’s simple request that escalates the standoff and prompts the Hebrews to leave altogether.

What would have happened if Pharaoh had simply said, “okay, take your three days”? The Bible tells us that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart explicitly to prevent such an underwhelming outcome. If Pharaoh had responded to a simple petition from Moses charitably and generously, then the Hebrews would have probably never grown enough will to flee slavery and get out of Egypt.

Pharaoh is a bad ruler. By responding with such wild disproportion to Moses’s request, doubling the number of bricks the slave must make and denying them straw to make them, Pharaoh publicly vindicates the exodus from Egypt. If Hebrews had any reason to hold out on Moses and try their luck at long-term slavery in Egypt, Pharaoh’s cruelty settled the debate for them. To stay in Egypt was intolerable, and Pharaoh’s government was absolutely depraved.

Consider that in the Transfiguration, found in Luke 9:29-32, Jesus Christ is seen speaking with Moses and Elijah, centuries after both men died. Moses and Elijah have elements that are Christlike. Moses stood up to Pharaoh. Elijah stood up to Ahab and Jezebel.

Romans 13 cannot be glossed as a command to present-day Christians to go along with any order from the American government, not matter how outrageous. To believe that, one would have to believe that God’s will for his people’s relationship to civil government changed completely from Exodus to Romans. God is eternal. He does not change. Romans 13 refers to the existing authorities, which would make sense because we see from Moses’s interactions with God that God likes laws, and he likes them to contain fair procedures, equal treatment, and responsible application. From what we can see of the Old and New Testaments, God would likely be pleased with the basics of the US Constitution, which seeks to provide a standard and fair basis for citizens to have legal protections and reasonable duties.

Individual rulers (like King Bera of Sodom) or particular councils (like the Sanhedrin) are a different story. If God wanted his people to go along with bad leaders who pervert their own society’s legal principles, then neither Moses nor Elijah would hold such exalted places in the Bible. Exodus begins with an account of how Hebrew midwives refused the Pharaoh’s command to kill them. It seems clear that God does not like cowardice or reluctance, but favors the bold and energetically faithful, which explains why the Joshua 1:9 line of “be courageous and strong” repeats in so many places. He who would go along with an evil law knowing it is evil would fail to meet the Joshua 1:9 standard. If you resist the government, you may go to jail, get executed, or be financially ruined. But courage demands you meet those challenges, if a government demands you go along with evil. And Solomon gives us plentiful proverbs to prepare our discernment so we can see when a command is evil.