“The Old Testament is mostly symbolism….it didn’t (couldn’t) actually happen”
Have you ever heard that statement before? I have heard it several times but hadn’t given it much thought.
I recently heard that statement again. I was reading a Christian book and I started to speak with a family member about the Old Testament. Eventually, I mentioned Adam being over 900 years old (Genesis 5:5) and about Genesis 6:3 :
They then made the argument that it was impossible for the human body to last that long; it was probably symbolism. They made the statement: “A lot of stuff in the Old Testament couldn’t actually happen, it’s mostly symbolism.”
Now we could have a lot of discussions about how the years were measured back then. When Moses wrote about Adam dying at 930 years—did he measure a year to have 365 days? It is a very interesting topic, and a lot of theologians have different views on the matter. However, would it be impossible for God to have granted humans a much longer lifespan?
I was at a family event so I couldn’t really expand on that thought. However, their words ate at me. I brought up the statement again a week later; I was trying to figure out why they believe that. The conversation went nowhere, and they just repeated their previous statement: “We can’t believe everything in the Old Testament” — “It’s very old and was written a long time ago” — “A lot of the stuff is just symbolic.”
They concluded by saying that it didn’t really matter because the “Old Testament is not that important; the New Testament is important.” Another broad statement that I have heard before, but that deserves its own post.
In 10 minutes, the Old Testament seems to have become a Jewish myth book with a lot of good symbolism. Now, I am not an expert in the Old Testament, I don’t have a Ph.D. in theology, nor have I read the Old Testament enough times to tell what is what. However, when we flat out decide that events in the Bible didn’t actually happen, we are in danger of being wrong.
If we decide that certain things didn’t happen because they are impossible, we are hurting the writer’s credibility and/or limiting God’s ability (which is worse).
In the Old Testament, the writers are telling the story as events that happened.
Moses truly believed in Noah’s ark (Genesis 7), and that Abraham dined with God (Genesis 18). He writes that he was there when God punished Egypt with plagues (Exodus 7-11). Samuel wrote about Elijah calling fire from the heavens as an event that took place (1 Kings 18) and so forth.
Now, there are certain passages that are visions and have a lot of symbolism. For example, Daniel goes up to heaven (Daniel 7); however, even Daniel starts by saying “In my vision…” Ezekiel had a vision about bones coming back to life (Ezekiel 37), but it specifies that it was a vision (and it is very symbolic).
Furthermore, Jesus had access to the books of the Old Testament and He treated them as historical truth. Jesus is God; he was there at the beginning (In the beginning was the Word –John 1:1), he was there when Abraham ate with God, he was there for the entire Old Testament. Furthermore, his disciples and the early church (who themselves witnessed many miracles and were strongly connected with the Holy Spirit) treated the Old Testament as historical truth—there are over 600 references of the Old Testament in the New Testament.
God is the God of impossible things: the plagues and splitting the Red Sea (Moses), calling fire from the sky (Elijah), delivering believers from the fire (Daniel), etc. While these miracles are grand in scale, they are not any greater than the miracles in the New Testament. Is it harder to provide manna from the sky to feed the hungry Israelites (Exodus 16) or to multiply 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed another group of hungry Israelites (John 16)? Split the Jordan river in two (2 Kings 2)? How about bringing a rotting corpse back to life after 4 days (Lazarus in John 11)? The death of the firstborn (Exodus 11)? How about the death and resurrection of the only begotten Son (Gospels)?
It’s okay to have doubts. Frederic Buechner, a Pastor and author, said this about doubt:
“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving”
However, there is a difference between doubt and rejection of the impossible. God is the God of impossible things. It much better to have faith in the impossible than to limit God from doing the impossible.