The Tension Between Holiness and Grace in Both Testaments

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We are studying Judges on Sunday morning. What a train wreck. The people are worshipping idols. They have turned from God…until life gets tough and then they repent…but only until life gets good and then they turn from God again. What makes matters even more tricky is that their deliverers are also often less than morally stellar. Samson does some crazy stuff as does Ehud and Jael and Jepthah…and pretty much all the rest of them. If these are the heroes of the story then maybe any of the rest of us have hero potential too! Here is how Wenham explained it in his book “Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament narrative ethically” p. 4

It is hard to figure out the path between God’s expectation of holiness and obedience to Torah and the behavior of the people God uses for his divine purposes. This reconstruction of the ethical world-view of some Old Testament writers provides the background for a rereading of some problematic stories of Genesis and Judges, such as the Rape of Dinah (Gen 34), and the Gideon cycle (Judg 6–9). It will become apparent that the biblical writers do not merely assess these characters against the requirements of the law codes but against the ideals we have sketched in the preceding chapter (Chapter 5).

Obviously the behaviour of the chief actors in many instances falls miserably short of the ideal, and they often suffer in some way for their mistakes. Yet it is clear too that they are not deserted by God despite their sinfulness. So there is a paradox in Old Testament narrative ethics: on the one hand God is terribly demanding, he looks for nothing less than godlike perfect behaviour, yet on the other, despite human failings, he does not forget his covenant loyalty to his people, and ultimately brings them through the suffering that their sin has brought about. Old Testament ethics are therefore as much about grace as about law: they declare that God, the all-holy, is also God, the all-merciful.

Thus in many ways the fundamental principles of Old Testament ethics are much closer to the New Testament than is often perceived. Both look for divine attributes to be replicated in humanity, but both realize that this rarely occurs and that the overwhelming need for the human race is divine mercy. In this way the incarnation fulfills the goals of the Old Testament system of ethics.

God is patient and gracious and is intimately concerned with and involved in humanity…so much so that he was willing to become one of us and place himself on the receiving end of violent, unmerciful people. God knows how to be merciful because he is God and he made us but also because he has walked a mile in our shoes and has the kind of knowledge that comes by experience.

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