Around the New Year, many of us probably jump in on a Bible reading plan. Reading through the Bible in one year is a great goal. Challenging, but not impossible, builds a positive habit, and seems like it will have some good results associate with it. But once the exciting days of Genesis and Exodus are behind you, you find yourself moving into Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy and oh man I don't know if this was such a good idea.
From animal sacrifices to genocide to prophets warning of doom and gloom, you start to wonder if there's any value in reading this content.
Noted anti-theist Richard Dawkins said, "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all 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." (The God Delusion)
The New Testament feels so much different.
In the ministry of Jesus, we see completely unmerited forgiveness for a woman caught in the act of adultery (and presumably the man who was not dragged before Jesus as well).
Instead of destroying and killing, Jesus serves and sacrifices himself.
Without being disrespectful, I have to ask: what the heck happened between the God who was demanding bloody animal sacrifices and going to war and sending plagues and rendering judgements left and right - to the New Testament version who is all about love and hope and peace?
What Dawkins said seems harsh, but there are definitely parts of the First Testament which make me cringe.
In light of that, what am I supposed to do with the first 2/3rds of the Bible? Do I have to read it? Do I have to like it? Am I supposed to follow the rules and regulations in it?
The writer of the book of Hebrews says that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever".
Based on this, it seems clear that we must pay attention to what the First Testament says, for when we ignore it, we ignore the God whom we worship and call Father - but we also need to understand the purpose of the First Testament in some important ways to that we can incorporate it into our daily lives of faith, and allow it to be part of our faith rather than a crazy uncle we try to ignore.
1. God wants to bless, not harm.
When God chose Abraham to become a great nation of people who have been set aside, God specifically says he's doing it so that they entire world may benefit from it.
If Israel forgets loses its identity, all of humanity would lose its pathway to God's blessings.
God is severe about health practices and food regulations and civil requirements and even war on other people in order to protect this group of people tasked with being a bridge to God's blessing for the whole earth.
It's like a doctor amputating a leg to save a life. It's a terrible option, but better than the alternative.
Even when we read sections that no longer apply to our daily practice (don't wear clothes made of two different materials, how to compensate people gored by an ox, etc), we can see in it the great care God puts into caring for his people through whom he will provide salvation, renewal and restoration to the entire world including humanity.
2. God's warnings are a reflection of his mercy.
I had a professor once who told the class on the first day of class when our final paper was due.
He told us that any paper turned in after than date would receive a zero. He further said, "Some of you will come to be the day before it is due or the actual due date and tell me you need more time; that you need a grace period. Here's the grace I'm giving you: by telling you 16 weeks before it is due that I will not accept it late."
More than a few students thought the professor was a huge jerk. I loved him. I knew exactly what I had to do in order to pass the course.
God is constantly warning Israel through the prophets because he loves them. He warns them repeatedly and reminds them of their identity so that they can make changes and avoid the consequences of terrible choices.
God doesn't warn of consequences because he's a jerk. He warns because he's a loving father.
3. God is teaching his people to love.
In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith argues that our heart is not influenced by our head, but by our body.
In other words, we believe and desire before we think.
Practically speaking, this explains why I know carrots are healthier than potato chips, yet when I'm at the store, the salty snacks are more likely to end up in my cart. I crave, I desire the chips, and unless I am intentional about my choice, I will follow my desires.
Only if I create and adhere to a healthy eating plan will I make healthier choices.
When God creates systems of worship for his people, he's giving them a healthier eating plan than they would set for themselves based on what they crave - a God who is physically represented, a God who can be understood formulaically (happy=rain, mad=drought).
Just as the First Testament is a love story of a Father and his children, it is a story of the Father teaching his children how to reciprocate so that they can have the fulfilling relationship with their creator which they were designed to have.
When we see these concepts coming alive out of the pages of the First Testament, it's easy to recognize the God we also encounter in the New Testament. I'm not going to lie and pretend this will make Numbers your new favorite book to read, but I hope it will give you a sense of value which you can ascribe to the scriptures which may have, in the past, caused you to feel confused or separated from God and instead to see that from Genesis chapter 3 through Malachi chapter 4 is part of the story of redemption and love which made you want to orient your life around the God who loves.
(A version of this article originally appeared at relevantmagazine.com)