The Old Testament is important for Christians because it is a positive resource for peacemaking. This point may be difficult to accept at first glance—there is so much blood and violence and war in the Old Testament. It could be, though, that the Old Testament actually has a special contribution to make to our peace concerns.
For one thing, we need to remember that “peace” is a positive concept. “Peace” is not simply the absence of violence. “Peace” is not simply saying No! to warfare. The word for “peace” in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word “shalom”. The word “shalom” is used in the Old Testament to refer to many positive things—wholeness, reconciliation, justice, creativity, compassion, love, empowerment, freedom. The Old Testament and its notion of “shalom” can help Christians broaden our understanding of “peace,” and have a positive focus.
Another reason the Old Testament might have a special contribution to make to our peace concerns is that our avoidance of violence can be a problem. To be peacemakers, we must, with honesty, face the lack of peace, the reality of violence. I am uncomfortable with much of the violence of the Old Testament. There are stories that make me cringe. But I also believe that if we look head-on at the Old Testament, refuse to avoid those hard stories, and wrestle with them in the context of the whole Old Testament—we might also be better suited to face the challenge of real life in our world today. We might respond more constructively to the needs for peacemaking around us and to our own potential for violence, instead of simply denying and avoiding and repressing things.
The basic insight of the Old Testament when read in light of the universalism of the creation story at the beginning and in light of God’s sustenance of the promise for healing that survives the failures of the Israelite nation-state is that God is not only concerned with just one nation, just one people. God is not only concerned with Israel. Or, we might need to realize, God is not only concerned with Christians. God is not only concerned with Americans. God is concerned with the entire world.
What God wants is for people of faith to trust in God’s love and mercy alone and not to trust in some nationalistic self-interest maintained with weapons of war. What God wants is for people of faith to be God’s agents of healing and peacemaking for all nations. This is the ultimate message of the Old Testament. This is the foundation for Jesus’ message.
The great prophets gained their clarity about God’s concern for all people and about God wanting steadfast mercy and justice more than the following of religious forms through their trauma. Their nation-state failed and suffered horrendous consequences due to the people’s unfaithfulness. The people got what they deserved, according to the story. However, even so, God did not desert them.
The prophets remain aware of God’s presence with them in their suffering. God’s continuing mercy even following their disobedience led to a theological revolution. They realized that God is not ultimately concerned with retribution. God is concerned with mercy. They realized that God had not called the Jews for their own sake, but for the sake of being agents for peace for all the nations.
I believe that what happened with ancient Israel is similar with what can happen with all people of faith. We cruise along in life, meeting with success and also with failure. But God always remains there, speaking to us through all of our experiences—when we win and when we lose. As we listen—and that is hard to do much of the time— we may learn ever more about God and God’s will for human beings.
The problem ancient Israel had was a tendency not to listen—and a tendency to forget. We certainly have that problem too. Much of what we look at in the Old Testament will reflect this tendency to forget. Part of what they forgot—part of what was clear about God and God’s will from the beginning—had to do with God’s creating all things good. These are truths of which the prophets reminded Israel—and they are truths of which Jesus reminded his listeners. They are truths of which we still need to be reminded.
The very beginning of the Bible, the first part of Genesis, provides some basic truths to which the rest of the Bible witnesses and which the rest of the Bible develops more fully. The rest of the Bible—and life since then—also tell of the consequences of forgetting these truths.
The first chapter in the Bible, Genesis one, tells us that God is the Creator. All that is, comes from God. Life comes from God. Human life comes from God. Just as God is good, so too God’s creation is good.
Creation is good. Creation is characterized by abundance, not scarcity. Genesis one tells us that God is the creator. God has made what is, and it is good. Creation is abundant in what matters. This goes counter to a view that sees scarcity and conflict at the heart of things. The heart of things is God’s goodness and love. That is the foundation of life itself—God’s goodness and love.
We are tempted to think of the basic stuff of life—from food and shelter to a sense of competence and of being loved—as scarce. We are tempted to think of the basic stuff of life as something we have to fight for, to grasp for, to hoard, to protect at all costs.
Herein lies the root of human violence. If my sense of identity and meaning is based on a scarcity model of life I might well be fearful and insecure. Fearfulness and insecurity led to ancient Israel building standing armies and the strong people oppressing the weak. Most of the violence in our world follows a similar dynamic—stemming from our fearfulness and insecurity.
As people of faith we must ask: Can we trust in God’s provision for our needs? Can we be generous and peaceable, holding onto our things loosely and with an attitude of sharing? Basically, this is a question of what is more true to life—peaceableness or conflict, caring or grasping, generosity or fearfulness? In a universe of scarcity, only people who know the arts of competing, even of making war, will be able to survive. But in a universe of abundance, acts of generosity and community become not only possible but fruitful as well.
Genesis one witnesses to a universe of abundance. Genesis one witnesses to life as peaceable at its heart. Creation is formed without conflict or opposition to God. This differs from other creation stories from the ancient Near East, which usually had conflict right at the heart. Creation, according to the Bible is not formed with violence. So the ideal of peaceful living, the refusal to give in to the spiral of violence, stems from the nature of God, and from the nature of God’s good creation.
God brought forth life—And God saw it was good, Genesis one, verse 10 says; And God saw it was good, verse 12 says; And God saw it was good, verse 18 says; And God saw it was good, verse 21 says, And God saw it was good, verse 25 says; “and God saw everything that he had made, and behold, It was very good,” verse 31 says. The confession is that what is comes from God, what is reflects who God is—and it is very good. When God speaks creation, the result is goodness.
God is good, what God touches is very good. We can see God’s goodness around us, if we but have eyes to do so.
Of course, the book of Genesis goes on in chapter three to picture the coming of brokenness, evil and sin, in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. We know all too well that brokenness, evil and sin, also are part of life. However, the Adam and Eve story tells us that evil and brokenness and sin are not intrinsically part of God’s good creation, nor are they part of God. God is good. Creation is good. Brokenness, sin and evil, come later. Brokenness, sin and evil are not part of the essence of life. Brokenness, sin and evil can be resisted. Some day, we are promised, brokenness, sin and evil, will be no more. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. The light overcomes the darkness (John 1:5).
The story the Old Testament tells is a sad story in many ways—a story of loss, of grief, of failure. As such, it is true to life. We, too, must all come to terms with loss, with grief, with failure. We lose loved ones. At least some of our dreams never work out. Sometimes we simply mess up—and some of our messes can never fully be cleaned up.
However, the beginning and the end of the Bible provide crucial perspectives for us in facing the sadness of life. God is the loving creator—and God will never abandon his creation. What God has created is good. The book of Revelation promises that this good creation, scarred by sin and evil though it may be will be healed.
What that means is that those who live in light of the abundance of God’s love can count on being in tune with God’s creating and healing activity. Those who live in light of God’s love are living the way they were created to live.
This is, I believe, what is meant by the statement that we human beings are created in God’s image. Being created in God’s “image” has to do with human beings exercising creative power—like God does. Being created in God’s image has to do with human beings cultivating and managing, not exploiting and dominating. We are bestowed with a certain kind of power, the power to be creative, the power to love, the power—in harmony with God—to mold peace out of chaos.
This is, of course, quite a powerful and hopeful affirmation. We all too easily despair—in large part because we doubt our capabilities, because we see ourselves as helpless in the face of brokenness, because we see ourselves as flotsam tossed about by the waves of chaos. Genesis one challenges those doubts. We, in our very nature, take after the creator of the universe. We, in our very nature, share in God’s power to shape meaning out of non-meaning.
Genesis one calls forth faith—faith in God, certainly, but also faith in our God-created capabilities as human beings to be powerful, to know love, and to give love. The challenge is, don’t let brokenness and violence make you despair. Don’t let them eat you up. Don’t let them cause you to forget that God’s love is the basic reality of creation.
As beings created in God’s image, we do have power. We have the power to allow our lives to be shaped by God’s love that makes peace. We have the power to allow our lives to be shaped by God’s love that brings harmony out of chaos. We have the power to share in God’s work of healing creation.
So, the story begins with a portrayal of God’s creative, life-giving power. God’s brings goodness, shalom, wholeness out of the void of chaos. The “miracle” of creation in Genesis one is not God creating matter out of nothing nearly so much as God creating wholeness out of chaos. Genesis one, then, establishes this world we live in as founded on peace, not violence. Peace is our “default position.”
God fashions human beings as creatures in God’s image. The most central element of that image, it would appear, may be seen in our sharing in God’s creative power. Human beings, like God, have the power to fashion wholeness out of chaos, peace out of alienation, harmony out of disharmony. And we are created in order to use this power as stewards of God’s good creation.
The story, of course, continues on to portray ways in which this awesome power God has given human beings may be – and is, time after time – misused. We will see that at the very heart of the divine/human relationship, at the very heart of the drama of human life on earth, lies this issue of power. We can’t run from the power by which we have been created and with which we have been endowed; we have no choice but to seek to be responsible with it (think of “responsible” first of all in terms of being responsive to God).
Crucially, though, this beginning story must always remain in our consciousness. Regardless of the destructive turn human beings take in misunderstanding and misusing our inborn power – using it in a quest for autonomy from God rather that service to God – this power is part of our good creation. We possess power as a reflection of being created in the image of God.
So, Genesis one provides an absolutely essential sense of perspective – and calling. Power is good; God created us powerful. However, to remain good power must be used as expression of our vocation as God’s stewards – power that brings healing out of brokenness, peace out of chaos. In exercising such power in such ways, we imitate the one who made us.