In several recent posts, especially dealing with issues of harsh passages in Hebrew scriptures (or the Old Testament), I have referred to a book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? by Dr. Alden Thompson. This book was critical as I developed my own view of scripture and especially as I dealt with some of the difficult passages. I generally find that Alden’s views are a bit more conservative than mine, and also that he is usually a bit more gentle in presenting them, which is not a bad thing.
I was Alden’s student at Walla Walla College in the years before he first published the book, but we dealt with a number of the same issues in his classes. The book is now in its 4th edition, and I’m now the publisher as the sole owner of the publishing company that now offers this little book. There have been few changes through the editions, except for some adjustments of style and language. I find that new readers find it as relevant today as its first readers did in the early 1980s. Christians have struggled with these types of issues for a long time, and many have either been told not to question or have been given pat answers. Sometimes these answers are given as “offers you can’t refuse.” The attitude is “who are you to question God?” and thus if you don’t accept the explanation your faith is weak, or you may even be an infidel.
Alden takes these issues head on, and finds grace in the Old Testament where others find anger. He doesn’t tell you that you shouldn’t ask such impious questions.
He starts by suggesting that we need to see the Old Testament for itself (Don’t let your New Testament get in the way of your Old Testament), then puts the entire discussion in a Biblical context through discussion of creation and the fall. This is a fairly traditional chapter, and evangelical Christians should find themselves quite comfortable with this outline. He points to the “very good” of Genesis 1 and the “totally evil” of Genesis 6 showing the deterioration of humanity, and then asking how God is to deal with this state of rebellion. He uses the “great controversy” or “cosmic conflict” theme as a background. Some will want to get right to chapter 3, “Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?” and here there is a unique view of the role of Satan in scripture.
Then he gets down to the meat of the problem, successively dealing with the apparently strange laws (Strange people need strange laws), relationships between Israel and the Canaanites (Could you invite a Canaanite home to lunch?), and then the worst story in the Old Testament, Judges 19-21. I’m not sure this is the worst story, but it is certainly an excellent example. Alden applies his approach to questions of why such a story is included in the Bible, why God would allow such things to take place among His people, and what it is that we are to learn from the story. If you haven’t read it, do so now, possibly even starting with Judges 17 (Micah’s Images). If you find it difficult to see God’s grace in action in those chapters, you might find it valuable to read Alden’s discussion–it might transform your view of Old Testament history.
From there Alden turns to “The best story in the Old Testament: The Messiah.” Here he discusses the Messianic prophecies and their application to the ministry of Jesus. Both conservatives and liberals will find some things to question here, because he neither affirms every Old Testament prophecy in the way that many conservative Christians would prefer, nor does he discard the notion of fulfilled prophecy. This chapter in itself is a worthwhile study for anyone who plans to discuss these Old Testament prophecies and their application.
Finally, he deals with the prayers in the Psalms. We tend to read the Psalms a bit selectively, sticking with thoroughly comforting passages. But what about Psalm 137:8-9? How comforting is that? Is such vengefulness Christian? He titles the chapter, “What kind of prayers would you publish if you were God?”
A common theme throughout the book, though it is not addressed head-on, is Biblical inspiration. Why are there things that are this difficult in the Bible if God is trying to communicate with us? How can we be sure of getting truth from the Bible. Alden doesn’t address Biblical inerrancy by that title, but he does look at the process of inspiration and how it works, and helps us find an anchor in the two laws (love God, love neighbor) as presented by Jesus to help us work our way through passages that are difficult to interpret.
I have thoroughly appreciated this book from the time I first read it. I have taught a number of classes using it. I have found that it consistenly is a faith building book. At the same time it is honest, and allows the reader to question and feel confident in doing so. I would especially recommend this to Christians who have never been able to enjoy reading the Hebrew scriptures. It will help you get comfortable reading those passages and letting them speak for themselves.
(Note: In case you missed it at the start, I own Energion Publications, which now publishes this book, so I have a commercial interest in it. As publisher, however, I’m pleased to have it in our line.)