Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Love for Enemies in the OT - Matt Lynch

It has become increasingly commonplace in popular theological works to draw a sharp contrast between Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and, well … the whole Old Testament. The most prominent verses cited as evidence are Jesus’ ‘you have heard it said … but I tell you’ statements, especially His statements about enemies. The assumption is that Jesus contrasts the ethics of the Old Testament with His ethics. Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matt 5:43)
The proposed idea is that Jesus turns the vengeance-consumed Old Testament on its head.
As an Old Testament scholar, the proposed contrast is like nails on a chalkboard. In addition to the obvious point that the OT nowhere states that one ought to hate their enemy, and the fact that Jesus describes His teachings as law-fulfilling (Matt 5:17), there are serious problems with this view. I’ll focus on one in this first post, and offer it in the form of a positive thesis. Jesus gets His teaching on loving enemies from the Old Testament. Jesus’ teachings were in deep continuity with the Old Testament. As with other Jewish teachers of His day, Jesus validated it through reuse and reappropriation. And he did so along the grain of its core ethical teachings.
So what about those enemies in the Old Testament? Weren’t they all to be stoned or run through with swords? We read in Proverbs 25:21:
If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.
That sounds like something out of the New Testament, no? Paul quotes this proverb in Romans 12:20, most likely as a specific instantiation of Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount.
And in a world where donkeys and oxen were means of personal livelihood, it is no small thing that the law commands God’s people to love their enemy by rescuing and returning their animals:
When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free. (Exod 23:4-5)
Love for one’s enemy even extended to his animal.
It may come as a surprise that some specific teachings on showing love toward enemies appear only in the Old Testament. The Wisdom books warn hearers not to rejoice when enemies face disaster (e.g., Prov 24:17; Job 31:29; cf. Oba 1:12). Proverbs—and we have to remember that these were ‘popular sayings’—even states that those who rejoice over another’s misfortune ‘will not go unpunished’ (17:15).
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