The Bible in Twenty Passages (OT)
Sometimes the sheer volume of the writings of the Bible, and especially of the Old Testament, can be intimidating. How many people have determined to read through the entire Bible, only to get bogged down in the genealogies of Genesis or Chronicles, or to get lost in the details of religious observance in Leviticus, or give up trying to follow the line of reasoning in Hebrews? While it is certainly true that "all scripture . . . is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16), some passages focus more directly on aspects that are more central to the Faith.
What if we had to summarize the basic elements of biblical Faith in ten passages from the Old Testament and ten from the New Testament? What would those ten passages be and what would they address? Here is a suggestion of ten passages from the OT that encapsulate the most important teachings of the Old Testament and Old Testament Faith. (The New Testament passages will be available later.) Of course there are others that could be suggested as well. And the number ten is arbitrary and not intended to be inclusive. But these ten passages cover some of the most important aspects of Old Testament perspectives on God, on humanity, and on our relationship with God.
1. Genesis 3, The Eden story: Sin and Grace. This is the primary biblical definition of sin, but also the basic biblical definition of grace. Within this story is a microcosm of the entire relationship between God and humanity. We have placed far too much baggage on this story in trying to move it into metaphysical categories of the "Fall" (see The "Fall" - A Second Look: A Literary Analysis of Genesis 2:4-3:24). It is more the story of what human beings do in God’s world, and how he responds to those who have violated his instructions and brought upon themselves death. The focus of the story is God’s provision of clothes for the couple, a clear connection with God’s grace celebrated in the OT sacrificial system.
2. Genesis 12-22, The Faith Journey of Abraham: God's Faithfulness. This story so readily works on all three levels of biblical narrative: the level of Abraham used to tell the story of Israel’s journey to faith that becomes a paradigm for humanity’s struggle to faith. Seen against the background of Genesis 11, this story emphasizes hope and promise that can only come from God yet that must be apprehended by the one called. Abraham is not the hero here, but struggles and often fails to grasp the promise, yet continues on the journey with God patiently guiding him in spite of his repeated failures (see Abraham’s Faith Journey: The Macrostructure of the Abraham Story).
3. Exodus 3:1-4:17, 14:30-31, the Call of Moses and the Exodus: God's Self-Revelation. There are several key biblical themes in this narrative: the care of God as he hears the cries of oppressed slaves and responds; the doubt of Moses and God’s reassurance of his presence in the promise “I will be with you,” a major biblical theme that works out all the way into the New Testament (Immanuel!); the self-revelation of God in human history in both the plagues and the exodus itself that differentiates him from the other gods of the land; and the faith response of the people based on God’s historical revelation.
4. Exodus 20, Sinai, Covenant, and the Ten Words: Response and Responsibility. This one is often overlooked, but is crucial. It cannot be taken as legal and therefore seen as "law," but needs to be seen as torah, instruction, the human response to divine grace. It is expressed throughout the OT in the formula "I will be your God (grace, exodus) and you shall be my people (response, torah)." The covenant concept expresses the relationship between God and his people in terms of how they live out in day to day life the relationship with God that he established by grace. This is the theological foundation of Christian responsibility, which John Wesley called holiness!
5. Deuteronomy 6:4-25 (-8:20), The Shema: Motivated by Love. The emphasis on identity as God’s people is heavy in these chapters, all grounded in the confession of God as the one true God. Again, it is more than just tribal identity here. It is an identity that must be taught not just in words, although that is stressed here as well. It is taught in a lifestyle of love of God worked out in the covenant relationship in which the people have obligated themselves to reflect in life the kind of God that had brought them out of Egypt.
6. Psalms 105-106, Forgetting and Remembering: Human Failure These paired salvation history psalms are really profound theological reflections on Israel’s history, which also serves as commentary on tendencies common to all humanity. Psalm 105 is about God’s grace that resulted in his self-revelation in history. That became the basis for the call to remember God. And yet Psalm 106 tracks the short memory of the people as they forgot their God, and turned to their own ways. And yet in the midst of their forgetting, God remembered them, which provides a basis for repentance and restoration.
7. Jonah 1-4, Pride and Prejudice: Human Nature. The story of Jonah is the best biblical example of the danger of assuming that God’s grace is only for the elect or the special chosen people. It is a clear warning of the dangers of seeing the world through the eyes of our own prejudices and selfish sense of justice instead of the larger purposes of God to reconcile all humanity to himself. It is really a story about the mission of God’s people in the world, and the danger of forgetting it for selfish pride.
8. Micah 6:1-8, God’s Requirements: Faithfulness, Justice, and Compassion (There are several passages that could do this as well, for example, Isaiah 1:10-20, Amos 5:21-24, etc). This passage clearly defines obedience to God, not in terms of keeping a code of laws, but of living a certain way in the world that demonstrates righteousness (relationship with God, love God) and justice (relationship with others, love neighbor). Being God’s people is not a matter of rules or of religious rituals, but is defined by how one lives in the world as his people, both in relationship to God and others (see Commentary on Micah 6:1-8).
9. Psalm 66, Praise and Thanksgiving: Community and Worship (There are several psalms that could do this as well, for example, 95, 100, 147, etc.). This is a Psalm of praise offered by the community to God as God and Deliverer of his people. While we in the Western world tend to view relationship with God as individual, in Scripture, both Testaments, it is a communal experience. That is best seen as the community of faith gathers to worship. More than just a social or religious occasion, it is a genuine means of grace as the community gathers in the presence of God to offer prayers, songs, testimony, and praise. This element of communal worship is a crucial piece of being the people of God.
10. Nehemiah 13, the Boundaries of Community: Maintaining Identity This chapter needs to be placed carefully in its historical context of the post-exilic period of restoration. As such, it is a powerful example of the need to preserve a community from internal erosion of the things that define what the community stands for as God’s people (see The Third Generation: Nehemiah and The Question of Identity). While the things mentioned can be seen as legalistic and insignificant, they were actually symptoms of the larger problem of indifference and apathy that was destroying the community. If there is nothing that sets a community of faith apart from any other community, there is no reason for that community of faith to survive; it will have lost its purpose, a temptation all too real in the modern world.