As some of you may know, I absolutely love the Old Testament. One day I aspire to be an Old Testament scholar where I do work in Genesis 1-11. However, until then I plod away on blog posts sharing my divine insights into God’s Word with all ya’ll. Recently, I picked up this tasty treat “Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters” by Carmen Joy Imes. I’ve gotta say right off the batt, I loved it. The stress Imes places on the importance of the Old Testament, the love of God’s law and its role in the Christian life, and how she digs deep into the meaning of “taking the Lord’s name in vain” (Ex 20:7) excites me to no end. In my opinion, there can not be enough good Old Testament scholarship in the academy (but maybe I’m a little bit biased).
I don’t know about you, but when I was first started reading the Bible, I was taught that the Old Testament was mostly about two or three things: The age of the earth, the story of Israel for some reason, and a bunch of good morally therapeutic stories we can become better people from. Be faithful like Abraham, or as bold as Moses, or as mighty as David, but never like Jonah (but God will use you anyway). The law is used to sort of place rules around humanity; a list of dos and don’ts. Don’t murder, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain by swearing, don’t steal or cheat and definitely don’t worship other gods (as if they existed anyway right?). I was taught when Jesus and the New Testament happened, the Old Testament became mostly irrelevant, replaced and kinda done away with. The Old Testament became a sort of novelty that none of us really knew what to do with. Personally, the Old Testament was way more interesting because it read more like The Lord of the Rings with battles, love lost, and deceit and the New Testament became a boring monologue from one person (Paul) to an invisible audience (the Church).
It took me a long time to realise this couldn’t be further from the truth. While the Old Testament is full of these things to be sure, it is so much more than all of that. Let me be clear, without the Old Testament, there would be no New Testament, and there would be no Jesus Christ. To this day I’m still discovering the implications and importance of the Old Testament and absolutely loving it. That journey began at Bible College where I started to realise that the Bible was one unified story about God, humanity and our salvation leading to Jesus. I often found myself asking the question “why is none of this taught in our churches?” However, Bible College only gave me the tools to do the digging. It was through years of personal study, resources like The Bible Project and other scholars like Carmen Imes that I fell head over heels in love with the Old Testament. I’m yet to learn Hebrew but it’s on the to-do list.
Personally, Imes has sharpened my thoughts around three main ideas:
- God’s law (the ten commandments) was given as a gift in response to Israel’s liberation and salvation, not to achieve it.
- That the law is about Israel living out their vocation so that people may know Yahweh.
- That Jesus and in turn, the Church united to Christ are the ones who take up this vocation and bear God’s name.
Traditionally, God’s law has been seen as something the Israelites must obey to be saved, to be God’s people. This isn’t entirely wrong. Imes does point out in her book that the law was a fence given to Israel so that life could flourish (pg 35). God does require obedience, however, the law was given and the obedience required comes after salvation, not before it. Imes argues that the law was a gift. She says:
Remember – the Israelites had already been resuced from Egypt when they were given the law. God did not say to them, “Do all these things and I will save you from slavery.” He saved them first, and then gave them the gift that goes with salvation, instructions on how to live as free men and women.
What a freeing truth. God’s law was given to His people as a gift to help them flourish, to help them carry His name, not to achieve salvation. There were no requirements, God simply saw His people in anguish and brokenness and said “I will save them,” and He did. This has some profound implications around my thinking of salvation as a New Testament Christian. God sees humanity and wants to rescue them out of the slavery of this world into His own Kingdom without any prerequisites. It’s only after we’ve been liberated from sin, forgiven, washed clean and united to God in Christ are we then given God’s law (i.e. to love God and others as ourselves) to flourish and carry His name. Which leads me to the next great idea.
Imes argues that the law was given to Israel to help them to live out their vocation. Israel wasn’t giving God’s law as a list of rules to obey otherwise God’s wrath and anger would just come down on them without a second chance. It was given as a gift so that His people could living out their calling, their vocation as the representatives of God on earth. As Imes breaks down the ten commandments in chapter three she argues that the command to not take the Lord’s name in vain should better be translated to not carry the name of Yahweh in a way that would dishonour Him (pg 49). Imes argues that all of Israel was supposed to carry Yahweh’s name in the same way that the high priest was (pg 50-52). Israel was to be a treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation carrying Yahweh’s name before the nations. As Imes says:
As His treasured possession, Israels vocation – the thing they were born to do – is to represent their God to the rest of humanity. They function in priestly ways, mediating between Yahweh and everyone else. They are set apart for his service.
The problem? Israel failed woefully at this. They constantly fell into idolatry and sin as they misrepresented Yahweh to the nations. Which brings us to the final thought I loved in this book.
Imes beautifully and biblically argues that Jesus is the true Israel. She carefully traces this idea through the Gospel of Matthew where she compares the obvious imagery in Jesus’ story to that of Israel. Here are some examples (among many others) that she mentions:
She goes on to argue that because Jesus is the perfect image of God, that because He is in covenant relationship with the Father, Jesus ultimately fulfils all that Israel failed at. Therefore, our election is about representation, taking God’s name and carrying it to the ends of the earth (pg 164-166). The law is given to the Church as a gift for human flourishing as we’re united to God in Christ.
This was a very brief overview of Imes’ book. All in all, it was a really great read and I recommend that people read it to gain a healthier understanding of the relationship between the law and the Christian. 10/10.