The problems (and solutions) presented in Nehemiah 13 invite a more global perspective on the contrasts between the Old and New Testaments. In short, the Old Testament narratives throb with violence. By contrast, the story of Jesus, particularly as told in the four Gospels, is gentle and peaceful. To borrow a line from Reynolds Price, when Jesus cleansed the temple, he attacked the furniture, not the people. Jesus killed no one, struck no one. One should note, however, that in some of Jesus’ stories and parables, violence makes a powerful comeback. That’s not a topic we can address here, but it does raise the intriguing question: In the quest to shape human behavior, can strong rhetoric be an effective substitute for actual violence?
But now for the global survey, starting in the Garden. There we see a gentle deity: God simply goes for a walk in the Garden looking for his straying children. Only the slightest hint of rebuke lurks in his simple question, “Where are you?” a hint suggested by the context, not by the words themselves. By Adam’s own admission they hid themselves because they were “afraid.” And from that point, the gulf between the human and the divine grows deeper and wider. The human imagination conjured up ever more violent images of the divine, culminating in Abraham’s instant willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22).
In the narrative over the fate of Sodom in Genesis 18, Abraham reveals a horror-driven but conscience-stricken confrontation with the divine. “You’re the Judge of all the earth,” he exclaimed. “You can’t destroy the wicked and the innocent together!” Without the slightest hesitation, we would join Abraham with a hearty Amen! It simply is not right that the innocent and the guilty should suffer the same fate.
But just four chapters later, God commands Abraham to sacrifice the “innocent” Isaac and without hesitation Abraham obeys. What has gone wrong with his head? In our world, if the pastor of our University Church were to announce that he would be heading to Mt. Hope Cemetery to sacrifice his child, we would call 911 immediately.
Could we say that the problem is not just with Abraham’s head, but with what the surrounding culture has done to his head? A sociologist of knowledge would apply the same measure to Abraham as to us: “Much of what we consider reasonable is largely the consensus of the people around us.” Abraham’s instant reaction indicates that the culture in general had come to see child sacrifice as the highest gift to hounding and hungry gods. The evidence is scattered throughout the Old Testament, in both legal narrative contexts. And Micah’s famous ladder of supposed divine commands climaxes with the question: “Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Mic. 6:7, NRSV).
The Genesis narrative is revealing, for just as Abraham is ready to take the life of Isaac, the Lord intervenes with a clear pointer toward what would happen on Golgotha, saying, in effect, “You can’t sacrifice your son, I will provide the sacrifice for you. There is it is behind you.”
It is worth noting that the laws and narratives illustrating the concern for child sacrifice have all vanished by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. And why are there no commands against child sacrifice in the New Testament? Why doesn’t Jesus say anything about it? Because it simply was not an issue. Why doesn’t the Old Testament give us speed limit and parking laws? The answer is obvious.
For our purposes here, however, we need to address the question of how God moves his people from a violent world to a gentle one. And here a line from Ellen White says it nicely: “We must go no faster that we can take those with us whose consciences and intellects are convinced of the truths we advocate” (Testimonies 3:20 ).
Yet “meeting the people where they are” requires an ability to accept both change and diversity, two ideas that devout conservatives typically find most difficult to accept. In recent months some lines of thinking have come together for me in ways that have made it easier to explain the differences between the Testaments. At root is the concept of a movement from fear and external motivation in the Old Testament to joy and internal motivation in the New Testament. A closer focus on that contrast provides a solid biblical foundation for understanding the biblical perspectives on growth and change.
In short, I see three dramatic contrasts between the God of the OT and the incarnation of God in the NT:
1. Separation. The idea of separation is evident at Sinai where God warns the people to keep their distance: “You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch them, but they shall be stoned or shot with arrows; whether animal or human being, they shall not live.’” (Exod. 19:12-13). This is reinforced by the structure of the sanctuary itself. One goes from court to holy place to most holy place. The whole structure reinforces the idea that people must keep their distance from the holy.
By contrast, the Jesus of the Gospels takes the little children in his arms and 1 John 1:1-2 records John’s exclamation that in Jesus we have both seen and touched God: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.”
In the Old Testament, when the people actually saw God they were amazed that they lived to tell the tale. Jacob’s awe-struck statement after he realized that he had been wrestling with God, vividly makes the point. “I saw God face to face, yet my life was spared!” (Gen. 32:30). Yet for practical purposes the ideal as seen in Jesus doesn’t always prevail even in the New Testament. The story of Ananias and Sapphira, for example, is very much in the NT. And Paul bluntly offers a choice between the gentle ideal and the stick: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21). Significantly, the choice between “stick” and the “spirit of gentleness” is not directly related to law/grace issues, but to practical issues of motivation.
2. Indirect Communication. In the Old Testament, the people were terrified by the voice of God: “If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die” (Deut. 5:25). One of the more subtle illustrations of that point comes in connection with the Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6:22-27. Note the three levels of separation in the process of communication: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, “The Lord bless you and keep you . . . .” Again, that is a sharp contrast with the Jesus of the Gospels who talks directly with the people all the time.
3. Fear. Christians are sometimes reluctant to admit that God uses fear. But Deuteronomy 5 is clear on that point. The people pled with Moses to be their mediator between them and God; even if they just heard his voice again, they were afraid they would die. Moses reported back to them the divine reaction to their fear, once again using indirect communication! Note God’s affirmation of their fear: “The Lord heard your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me: ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they are right in all that they have spoken. If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever!’” (Deut. 5:28-29).
All three of those points became necessary as a result of sin. It is sin that drives the wedge between God and his creatures. God’s purpose was and is to bring us back to him so that the gulf between us simply vanishes. But it must be a very gradual process. In the end, it is the vision of Jeremiah’s new covenant: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).
Thus, we return to the heavenly ideal where we aren’t even aware of law because it has been fully internalized. Seeing law in this perspective, namely, as a practical guide in this present earthly life, effectively eliminates the idea of law as a system of works that could qualify a person for eternal life. Eternal salvation is always a gift of grace. The many practical rules that God has sometimes instituted are designed to help his people live in this present world.
But now let us turn to the five backsliding issues noted in Nehemiah 13 and explore how Nehemiah’s methods contrast with those of Jesus:
1. Allowing Ammonites and Moabites to be part of the “assembly of God (13:1-3).
2. Allowing Tobiah (an Ammonite, according to Nehemiah 2:10), an enemy of the people, to set up housekeeping in the temple precincts (13:4-9).
3. Leaving the Levites without financial support (13:10-14).
4. Allowing buying and selling on Sabbath in Jerusalem itself (13:15-22).
5. Allowing mixed marriages (13:23-31).
Let’s consider each of these in terms of seriousness. And let’s compare Nehemiah’s solutions with those of Jesus and the New Testament. The list above describes each item as an example of backsliding. Below, we will focus on Nehemiah’s strong-arm “solutions.”
1. Excluding the Moabites and Ammonites. The most striking OT/NT difference is the handling of the Moabite-Ammonite dilemma. And I use the word “dilemma” carefully, for even in the OT, the picture is mixed. The royal Davidic line, for example, includes both Ruth the Moabite (Ruth 4:18-22) and Naamah the Ammonite (1 Kings 14:21), the only one of Solomon’s 700 wives and 300 concubines mentioned by name in Scripture. Matthew reinforces the idea of greater openness by including Ruth in his genealogy of Jesus.
Remarkably, both the book of Ruth and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are included in the “Writings,” the third and final section of the Hebrew Bible. Thus, the tussle over foreigners, indeed over foreign wives, not only haunts the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, but also has left its mark in the list of books which are part of our Bible.
When we turn to the teachings and practice of Jesus, we find that Jesus seemed to go out of his way to welcome foreigners, especially foreign women. The healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter at Tyre and Sidon (Matt.15:21-28) and Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4) are two of the better-known examples.
One could argue that the threats against the Jewish nation at the time of Ezra/Nehemiah justified the more rigorous separation from the “world.” At Elephantine Island in the Nile River, for example, at this very time, a Jewish temple featured the worship of Yahweh and Yahweh’s female consort, an echo of Canaanite practice, for Baal also had a female consort. Clearly, Judaism was in great danger of losing its identity. But by the time of Jesus, the issues had been radically redrawn.
2. Evicting Tobiah the Ammonite from the temple. Jesus’ cleansed the temple in his day. Could the cleansing of the temple by Nehemiah be seen as an appropriate parallel? Here I suspect that Jesus might side with Nehemiah’s decision, while avoiding his strong-arm methods.
3. Financially supporting the Levites. Would Jesus support Nehemiah’s efforts to restore financial support for the Levites? Most likely.
4. No buying or selling on the Sabbath. Jesus got into trouble for healing on the Sabbath. But it is hard to imagine he would become involved in ordinary buying and selling on the Sabbath. Nothing in the New Testament record suggests that he would.
5. Sending the foreign wives away with their children. Here Nehemiah’s treatment of the mixed marriage issue contrasts sharply with the methods of Jesus and the apostles. In at least two respects we would heartily object: first, Nehemiah did not offer the choice of conversion; he simply commanded that the foreign wives be sent away with their children. Second, he was physically violent: “I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves” (Neh. 13.25).
A direct comparison with Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 highlights the differences:
To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.
12 To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. 16 Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.
Can we see these differing approaches as being part of the same Bible?
My own approach to this and similar differences within the Bible is most accurately described as “accommodationist.” Thus, I see Jesus as the clearest revelation of God with all other “revelations” being “accommodations” to sinful human circumstances. Two chapters in my book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? show how I develop and apply this approach: Chapter 2, “Behold it was very good, and then it all turned sour,” and Chapter 6, “The worst story in the Old Testament.”
The idea that God accommodates or condescends to work within tragic and violent human situations has a long but fragile history within Christianity. It is not universally acclaimed in evangelical circles. Indeed, it is often emphatically rejected. The late David Wright, the left-of-center evangelical church historian at the University of Edinburgh who was instrumental in getting the first edition of Who’s Afraid? published by Paternoster Press in Britain, told me that InterVarsity Press UK would never touch the book because the emphasis on accommodation in it is far too strong. The problem for devout conservatives is that “accommodation” destroys the idea of universal applicability.
I have kept my eye open for traces of an accommodationist approach in Ellen White’s writings, especially in connection with violent passages. She says nothing about the worst ones: the story of the dismembered concubine in Judges 19-21 and the story of bloodguilt for Saul in 2 Samuel 21, But she does tackle the custom of blood vengeance that lies behind the appointment of the cities of refuge, described most fully in Numbers 35. To my knowledge, however, this is the only narrative where Ellen White explicitly adopts an accommodationist interpretation. Here we see it in two steps: first in an 1881 periodical article and then in 1890 in Patriarchs and Prophets.
A comparison of the two passages reveals her struggles with the story. Her concern that murder be properly punished, prominent in 1881, disappears in 1890. The importance of protecting the innocent is affirmed in both. In 1890 she focuses exclusively on safety for the accused and refers to the appointment of these cities as a “merciful provision” “rendered necessary by the ancient custom of private vengeance.” Her conclusion: “The Lord did not see fit to abolish this custom at that time.”
But neither account is a clean accommodation. In 1881 the avenger may act “in extreme cases”; in 1890, “where guilt was clearly evident.” But Scripture offers no such qualifications. If the accused could not outrun his pursuer, the avenger was free to kill him without penalty.
The crucial point is, however, that Ellen White has adopted the position that God was not directly responsible for the ancient custom but chose to work within the framework of what was considered to be just at that time.
Now after all this analysis of divine accommodation, let’s look a step higher to a broad view of the divine ideal. In a perfect world, all death, all animal sacrifice has vanished. In fact, even the animals are vegetarian (Isa. 11:6-9). How do we get there?
In the first instance, Jesus’ death brought all sacrifice to an end. So how did the early Christians relate to the temple and its rituals? The Gospels record that the great veil in the temple was rent when Jesus died on the cross, suggesting that the temple services had been brought to an end. Yet Paul took steps to affirm his loyalty to the Jewish system. Acts 21:17-26 affirms how Paul supported the vows of four men, even going into the temple with them (vs. 26). We can thus surmise that the temple and its services was a kind of half-way house for Christians until the temple itself was destroyed in 70 CE.
At that point, the Jews turned away from literal sacrifices to the reverence of law. And Christians would have severed their connections to any sacrificial services. Interestingly enough, the tiny Samaritan community in Palestine still celebrates the Passover on Mt. Gerizim. In 2019 they sacrificed some 60 sheep amidst the ruins of their formal temple there.
In short, in a restored and perfect world, a whole host of “accommodations” to sin will simply vanish from sight, and in many cases from memory. The final lines of Isaiah’s description of God’s vegetarian kingdom will then be realized: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9).
. The legal texts: Lev. 18:21; 20:3; Deut. 12:30-31;18; the narrative passages:2 Kings 3:27 (king of Moab); 2 Kings 21:6 (Manasseh); Ps. 106:37 (a narrative psalm condemning all Israel)
. Unless otherwise indicated, biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
. The Signs of the Times, Jan. 20, 1881 and PP 515 (1890).
Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.
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