A couple of weeks ago I led a Bible Study forum at Redeemer that focussed on the story of Joseph, his brothers, and the famine in Egypt. Sometimes I have had difficulty with getting discussion going in these forums, but that night people seemed engaged by the topics and eager to discuss them. Something that really pleased me was that participants had noticed one of the same features that I had in the story: the extent to which the story is a tale of reconciliation among the brothers.
It seems especially important to me that the last major event before the Israelites go down into Egypt and, in the end, into the darkness of slavery and loss is this act of reconciliation among brothers. Too often we hear discussions of the ministry of reconciliation in the New Testament framed as though the very concept of reconciliation – whether with God or with our neighbours – is unique to the New Testament and not visible in the First Testament.
This is part of an oversimplification, almost caricature, of the Bible that depicts the First Testament as legalistic, presided over by a God of wrath and judgement, and the New Testament as teaching about love, presided over by a God of mercy and compassion. On the contrary, it’s very easy to find moving examples of love and mercy in the First Testament and quite frightening texts about judgement and wrath in the New Testament. It’s not just the story of Joseph and his brothers. The Hebrew Bible also contains Ps 23 or prophetic texts such as the final chapter of Hosea (in which YHWH lovingly assures YHWH’s covenant people of forgiveness) or Isaiah 40 (which begins with the beautiful “Comfort, O comfort you, my people”), both full of tenderness and compassion. Looking at the Gospels alone, we can easily find texts such as the wrath and judgement of the Little Apocalypse in Mark 13 (and in the Matthew and Luke parallels as well). As well, in such texts as Matthew 5.17-20 (where Jesus disavows that he has come to abolish the Law and the Prophets), and Luke 16.19-31 (the story of the rich man and Lazarus, in which the law and the prophets are seen to be the teachers of compassion), we can see that in the New Testament itself, the Hebrew Bible is presented in a very positive light, as exactly the source of the love and compassion that is characteristic of Jesus and his Father.
The proper conclusion to draw would seem to be that both Testaments teach us about love and compassion, about wrath and judgement. But as we read and study the Bible ever more deeply we learn that in the heart of God love and compassion are always stronger than wrath and judgement. Hence Jesus’ comparison between earthly parents and his heavenly Father: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7.9-11).
Why has this become such a wide-spread oversimplification when it is so easy to refute? Partly, I think, because it is an easy fall-back. In sermons and Bible studies we seize on to this oversimplification because it seems to present the difference between the First Testament and the New Testament in a nutshell. But instead it perpetuates a false way of thinking about the Bible and the Old and New Covenants and suggests thereby that one (the New) is superior to the other. It is a short step from teaching the superiority of one covenant to the other to teaching that the inferior one has been or should be replaced.
That is a very serious misunderstanding of the teaching of the New Testament. Jesus himself taught in the passage from the Sermon on the Mount to which I referred before (Matthew 5.17-20) that not one letter or diacritical mark would disappear from the Law until all was accomplished. Rather, he said that someone who broke one of the commandments or taught others to do the same would be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Now, we know there are some conflicts in the tradition about observance of the dietary laws and the sabbath in particular, but even taking that into account, Jesus clearly speaks of the Law with the greatest respect. The new covenant that he established was a fulfilment of the prophecy of Jer 31.31-4, so it derived its power and validity by its links with the Mosaic covenant and Israel’s covenant God.
All has not yet been accomplished: living in a time of suspense between the Resurrection and Ascension and the Second Coming, we wait in the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of which the New Testament writers are so conscious. What will happen when the fulfilment of which Jesus spoke has taken place we don’t now know, but in this in-between time we can be sure from Jesus’ words and actions that both the Old and New Covenants are valid. So we should be careful not to speak or act in ways that belittle either of God’s covenants or God’s covenant peoples.