Old Testament Shape Revisited

A day off, chillin’ contentedly in a clothing store as my wife tries on some clothes, with One Direction “Drag me Down” on the radio (great song) and my mind turns to the Old Testament…like it does so often these days…

One of my particular interests is to consider the original arrangement of the Old Testament and tease out any implications of that arrangement when it comes to “putting your Bible together” as they say. The standard order of books in basically every Christian Bible starts with the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and then moves into the Histories from Joshua to Esther with books like Ruth and Chronicles spliced in chronologically.

However, there is really good evidence, actually overwhelming evidence, that the Old Testament the early church inherited was arranged like this:

  1. Pentateuch
  2. (Former Prophets) Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings and then (Latter Peophets) Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve minor prophets.
  3. Then the collection finished with the Writings, which was something of a catch-all: Psalms, Proverbs, Ruth, Somg of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Job, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1-2 Chronicles.

The Hebrew collection (also called the Tanakh) was threefold – Law, Prophets, and Writings – and it was arranged with less of a strict chronology compared to our English order, which follows an order found in Septuagintal codices (compilations of Greek manuscripts). For example, in the Hebrew Bible, Ruth was lumped in with Psalms and Proverbs likely due to its connection to David (Boaz was David’s great grandpa) rather than after the Judges, even though it recounts events in the time period of the Judges. 

The books that made up the Writings probably were written on individual scrolls housed in a chest and so it’s best not to make too much of their specific arrangement within the third section. That said, these books do seem, by and large, to be organized thematically around King David and his son Solomon.

So what?

The first thing to say is that the books themselves are inspired, not their order in the collection. So any considerations of order and arrangement are questions of secondary importance. These matters have some consequence for how we put our Bibles together and how we do biblical theology, but they do not affect significant doctrines of the faith.

With that caveat, the significance of the threefold structure of the collection is that the Pentateuch is the primary foundation of the entire Bible – it is God’s foundational disclosure of himself and his will; the Prophets are an extended commentary on the Law, meant to drive home the implications of that Law in the society and the governance of the nation; finally, the third section – the Writings aka “Hagiographa” – are all an extended meditation about the Messiah and “the good life” – the life of wisdom lived under the Law. This third collection is meant to show us what it means to have a heart that is governed by the good and gracious rule of God.

That is why this arrangement is such a beautiful thing. Sometimes a chronological preoccupation can obscure a rich thematic arrangement. The Law is primary and then it gets driven into politics and then driven into the heart.

Your thoughts? Comment below.

“Nobody nobody – with your love nobody’s gonna drag me down.”

Assisted Suicide and Boiling Goats

I recently read an article by CNN that said approximately 13 medically-assisted deaths are happening in Ontario every week. The same article said that Canada is one of the few countries, along with Switzerland and Germany, that have a legal provision for assisted suicide or physician-assisted dying.

This is a big topic and when it comes to ethics I follow an old approach, oft-mocked in academic circles: divine command theory. What does God have to say about such matters? If men and women are merely clumps of evolved goo devoid of any intrinsic value or significance then the ethics of assisted suicide are significantly altered. But I have come to believe that men and women are made with a value and significance that comes from the Living God – we are all stamped with the imago dei. 

I also believe that God revealed himself in the Scriptures – his words. Really the foundational, written aspect of that self-revelation is the Torah, or what Christians refer to as the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In that Torah we find a very fascinating, but hard-to-understand verse which, I believe, has great relevance for this discussion today – there is a divine command here to recon with.

The verse comes up in Exodus 23:19 and then again in Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21 and in each case the wording is the same: “you shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

The obscure reference has been variously understood, as J.I. Durham writes: “The prohibition of cooking a kid in the milk of its own mother has been variously explained on magical grounds…or as a reaction against Dionysian…or Canaanite…religious practices” (Exodus – Vol 3, p.334, Word Biblical Commentary, 1998). In some Jewish writing they have used this passage to argue that you should not eat meat at the same time as you drink milk.

That might be true. But I don’t see any explicit warrant to understand the verse this way emerging from the text in question. I think there is a more straightforward interpretation:

Don’t use what is meant for life as an instrument of death. 

Milk is meant for the nourishment of the young goat. That is the goat’s primary source of life and growth. To boil that goat in the very nutrients meant to give it life is sick and twisted. So the Old Testament people of God were not to violate the natural order in this way – it’s cruel and unusual.

A parallel in modern times would be something like this:

  • In Somalia, for instance, don’t confiscate the humanitarian food drop intended for the starving people to gain leverage for your tribal war.
  • Or similarly, don’t use your foster-parent income to pay for your cocaine addiction.

Don’t use what is intended for life, as an instrument of death.

We need to consider this principle afresh today, especially in the ongoing cultural discussion regarding assisted suicide. Some of my readers might object and say “but that is the Old Testament and we are not obligated to follow that anymore!” No – the Old Testament is God’s wisdom and God’s revelation and even though, as I believe, the Christian is no longer bound underneath this covenant, or this package of laws, there is still much good to be gained here – for all Scripture is exhaled from God, including this obscure little verse (2 Tim 3:16).

In Canada, assisted suicide, also known as physician-assisted dying, or medically-assisted suicide, is becoming increasingly popular socially and also, by extension, legally.

What we need to recognize, based on this verse, is that medicine is intended for life. Medicine ought never to be used as a means of death. That is twisting its natural use.

Likewise, physicians are meant to encourage life. Don’t use physicians as instruments of death – that is not why they exist.

Moreover, a publicly-funded medical system is for the welfare of its citizens – don’t use this public welfare as an instrument to remove Canadian citizens.

In all of this the standard God wants us to acknowledge is that He has created the world in an ordered and structured fashion. Milk is for life. Medicine is for health. We do a great injustice, not only to one another, but even to God’s natural order established in creation, when we subvert that structure and use what is intended for life as a means of death.

And, by the way, the glory of the cross of Jesus, the Son of God, is that He used a means of death as an instrument of life. He defeated death on a bloody Roman gibbet and rose to life after three days. That is what we celebrate on Easter, or Resurrection, Sunday and it is the heartbeat of Christianity (and reality). That is the better path – and repentance means following his path to life, and everlasting life, personally, socially, and legally.