Finding Relevance In The Old Testament

By Rev. Michael Gladish

Our theme this morning is the relevance of the laws of the Old Testament to our lives now. It is not a question of whether they are relevant or not, but how they are relevant. And there are two reasons why I believe this is an important topic for us to consider: first, as I hope to show, the misunderstanding or misuse of passages from this part of the Word can get us into a lot of trouble–and not only us but others, too, as far as the credibility and power of the Word itself is concerned. Just the same, if we can understand and use the passages correctly we may get real opportunities to help people overcome negative attitudes about the Word–and religion in general–so that we can all grow in love and faith.

Second, seeing the relevance of the Old Testament laws in our own lives we may not only enjoy a more lively sense of respect for the Word in general but we may actually learn things that are vital for our spiritual health or salvation. Furthermore, when we see this principle at work in the Old Testament it may also give us food for thought about the New Testament and even the Writings for the New Church, as these also can be seen and used in more or less helpful ways.

For instance–and this is just an analogy–suppose you have a list of items with no particular distinction between one or another as to their importance, and someone tells you to get all these items for a wilderness survival hike. Included on the list are water, matches, a knife, a blanket, food, clothing and a cribbage board game. You could be forgiven for wondering why in the world a cribbage game was included on the list. In fact, unless you really liked cribbage or were a very strict literalist you could be forgiven for thinking you didn’t really need it. And in the end you probably wouldn’t take it on the hike. Worst of all, though, if when you saw “cribbage board” on the list you began to doubt the value of the entire list or even to think that the whole thing was just a joke, you might not get any of the items on the list and so begin your walk totally unprepared.

There is a sense in which the Word itself appears this way to people setting out on the path of life. They look at a list such as we read for our second lesson and they see rules like not profaning God’s name, not defrauding your neighbor, not hating your brother in your heart and not taking vengeance, which all seem pretty important, and then they see something like this: “You shall not shave around the sides of your head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard” (Lev. 19:27). Or this: “You shall not sow your field with mixed seed. Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you” (Lev. 19:19). And then they wonder.

First of all they wonder about the relevance of these peculiar items in the list, then they begin to realize that many of the laws that worked or even were necessary for the simple, nomadic tribes of Israel 3 or 4 thousand years ago just won’t work today, and even if they did work they wouldn’t seem to have much meaning. So finally they begin to pick and choose according to their own culture and intelligence what they should obey from the Word and what they should ignore. Some end up treating the whole Word with contempt because it makes no sense to them. And worst of all in the case of the Word, there are those who pick and choose in the deliberate, conscious effort to justify some evil. This is extremely dangerous, not only for those who are misled by it but even more for those who do it, since it causes truth and evil to be linked in the mind, corrupting the soul.

Here is another example: in the same series of statutes and judgments that we read today, in the preceding chapter, there are a number of teachings condemning illicit sex and especially homosexuality, which is called “an abomination.” But since there is no distinction between the importance of this law and the importance of the law about shaving around the head or beard, or wearing linen mixed with wool, many claim that the laws against homosexuality are simply frivolous and, like a lot of Old Testament laws, irrelevant today. I’ve heard this argument and I know: it’s a tough one to beat unless you know something about the spiritual sense of the Word. And even then, it’s important to realize that the sanctions against homosexuality in the literal sense may have nothing to do with our sexual life when they are understood in the spiritual sense. Most likely we will have to look elsewhere for instruction on that issue.

So the first point that I hope you will take from this lesson is that we all need to be very careful how we use the teachings of the Word and how we understand them. They are not always what they seem to be. And in a list of things that seem incongruous together or inconsistent in their level of importance it may be especially necessary to look deeper–into the spiritual sense–to get any real feeling for what these things may mean. In fact, if we are alert we might take these odd looking teachings as keys or clues to lead us into the spiritual meaning of all the passages in the series, including the ones that seem to be perfectly reasonable in the literal sense. Then we can enjoy the blessing of a more profound enlightenment overall, including helpful insights into the progress of our own regeneration.

But now let’s look specifically at that passage about shaving the head and beard. What does that have to do with anything moral or spiritual, or of any lasting importance? Why is it included in a list of teachings that, on the whole, seem much more weighty and significant? Well, in the spiritual sense the hair of the head represents what is natural or external. Only if you look carefully at the passage you will see that the first phrase doesn’t actually mention hair, it just says that the Jews were not to shave around the sides (or corners!) of the head. Only in the second phrase do we see specific reference to the edges (or again, corners) of the hair itself in the beard.

We should have no trouble recognizing the head as a symbol of the most important things or, in spiritual matters, the more interior things within the mind. All the parts of the body from the head to the toes represent aspects of the mind, and so the head is that of the highest priority. Generally in the Word this means the good that is of the will or affection because this takes priority over anything else in defining the quality of a person’s spiritual life. The hair that is implied, and certainly the “corners” of the head that are actually mentioned represent the last or least or outermost reaches of that will or affection, namely the will to do, the determination to act according to what seems good. And it is this external will, this determination to do what is good that must not be lost or given up, for all the wonderful affections that flow into our minds from the Lord ultimately rest on this foundation–as we may well know simply by reflecting on those times in our own lives when we just didn’t care about anything, didn’t feel motivated to do anything..

But then there is the beard. Just as the corners of the head were not to be shaved, so the corners of the beard were not to be trimmed. Here again the external aspects of the mind are represented, but now by means of the hair around the mouth, jaws and chin. Of course these parts of the face are not specifically mentioned in the verse, but meaning in the Word always comes in its context, and the use of these parts has to do with eating, especially chewing, and with speech. These actions clearly relate within the mind to understanding and thought about the truth. (You know how you learn something or you get an idea and then you “chew on it” for awhile before you “swallow” it and make it your own..) So the hair of the jaw and chin represents the most natural, external outgrowth of thought, which is planning and figuring out how or what to do.

Next to the will itself taking form in some specific wish, this determination of thought into real plans is the most important human quality we can imagine. Without it (operating together with the love) there would be no focus, no freedom, no sense of ownership, no real sense of identity or personal responsibility. In fact the Writings tell us this ability to make plans is so important that it can give us more delight than the doing itself, as we read in DP 178:

“Mankind is not granted a knowledge of future events … for the reason that he may be able to act from freedom according to reason. For it is well known that a person desires to have in effect whatever he loves, and he leads himself to this end by his reason. It is also known that everything a person contemplates in his reason arises from the love of bringing it into effect by means of his thought. Therefore if he knew the effect or result from Divine prediction his reason would come to rest, and with it his love; for love with reason comes to an end in the effect, and from that point it begins anew. It is the very delight of reason to see from love the effect in thought–not the effect in its attainment, but before it, that is, not in the present but in the future. Hence man has what is called hope, which increases and decreases in the reason as he sees or looks forward to the event.”

So now we find that a simple, curious, even odd statement in the midst of a long series of spiritual, moral and ethical teachings–and also, incidentally, teachings about diet, cleanliness and animal sacrifices–actually has meaning that cuts to the heart of what it means to be human and to enjoy the blessings of eternal life. Now also we see how it applies to women (who don’t have beards) as well as men! And we understand that–in this verse at least, in the internal sense–the Lord has no particular concerns about haircuts at all.

And it’s the same with the teaching about not mixing linen with wool. In literal fact, who cares? They might actually make a nice combination. But when we understand the spiritual sense we see the problem, and the reason for this rule: without going into all the details, let’s just observe that wool generally comes from sheep, which represent innocence, the good of the will. As a material for clothing, wool represents truth, but the truth that comes from the good of love, in effect a sort of inward perception of the truth from a celestial state. Linen comes from flax, and is a totally different kind of fibre representing the truth of faith in a spiritual state, that is, the truth that comes from reasoning and understanding (AC 9470:4-6). These two ways of coming at the truth are so totally different that they simply cannot function together ordinarily in one mind at the same time.

Of course we can go through a radical change of state, growing through the spiritual way of life into the celestial. Then we might be seen as angels changing our clothing from linen to wool. But we would not be seen wearing mixed garments. Either we are spiritual or we are celestial in our grasp of the truth: when we are spiritual the celestial way is totally foreign to us, and when we are celestial it is beneath us.

But let’s not become too concerned about this or that specific rule. The purpose of this exposition mainly is to show how and where we find the true and lasting relevance of the Old Testament with all its peculiar statutes, judgments and ordinances.

It’s not always a simple matter to see exactly what is meant by an obscure teaching of the Word, whether it is in the Old Testament, the New Testament or even the Writings. In some cases it may not even matter much whether we really understand it or not–as long as we recognize that there is relevance there, and not only relevance but the most profound holiness and power from the Lord through the angels who, if we read with a sense of real reverence, are actually present with us through their recognition of the spiritual sense as we read. Of course the more we understand the better, since the more we understand the better we are able to co-operate with the Lord in the work of our regeneration. It is NOT true as some people think that the angels get more out of our reading when we don’t understand it than when we do, although there is a teaching (AC 1776) to the effect that they get more out of it when children read with innocence than when adults read in a state of faith separated from charity.

Many other examples could be given from the New Testament AND from the Writings to illustrate this point. It is, perhaps, not too hard to see the spiritual meaning of the lessons in Matthew about the internal quality of murder and revenge (as in the children’s talk). But what about the literal aspects of the teachings, such as “turning the other cheek,” or giving away anything that someone might ask of us? What about the teaching in the same context that if the right hand or eye offends we ought to pluck it out or cut it off and cast it from us? Does the Lord really teach pacifism or ask us to mutilate our bodies? Of course not! Yet the appearance may be so strong if we don’t know the spiritual meaning of these words that we might get in a lot of trouble–and not only we but those who depend on us for help and support–if we try to follow them only with the heart.

In fact, as we read in the third lesson, there are many teachings in the Word that we do NOT have to obey in the literal sense. “Some of them have been abrogated in respect to present use where the church is, which is an internal church. Some of them however are of such a nature that they may serve a use if one so pleases; and some of them are to be altogether observed and done (AC 9349:3).”

So how do we know which are which? Simple: the Lord has told us. Although much of the Old Testament concerns the laws of animal sacrifice, even in the Old Testament itself–in the Prophets–the Lord made it very clear that animal sacrifices were not the real issue, but rather the sacrifices of the heart. It’s just that the people then were too simple, stubborn and materialistic to get this point, and so they had to be compelled just to obey representative rules. Again, in the New Testament the Lord brings out the spiritual sense of many difficult passages. And finally in the Writings He discloses even more details about what is really required for spiritual life. The reading for the third lesson goes on, for example, to list the specific verses of the passages in Exodus 21 through 23 that must be obeyed, those that may be obeyed, and those that don’t really matter anymore. “And yet,” we read, “those which have been abrogated in respect to use where the church is, and those which may serve a use if one so pleases, and also those which are to be altogether observed and done, are equally holy in their internal; for in its bosom the whole Word is Divine. This holy internal is that which the internal sense teaches..”

And now a final question–just something to think about as we go home: How does all this apply to the Writings themselves? Do the Writings have an internal sense? Generally speaking we would say “No, not in the way that the Old and New Testaments do.” But on the other hand anything that comes from the Lord is bound to be far more profound and meaningful than we may realize in one or two readings–or even in a lifetime of study! For instance, what is this business about people on other planets? What are these “memorable relations?” How can we understand the teachings about the Jews, the Dutch, the English, the Germans, Catholics, Protestants, and many other groups or even individuals who are said to be in heaven or in hell?

What does it all mean? How can we discover the relevance and application of these things in our lives today? Fundamentally the Lord tells us that there is only one way, and it is the same for all revelation, namely, to approach the Lord Himself in humility and prayer, to read His Word with thoughtful reverence–not blindly but with an open, affirmative mind, and to live according to our understanding of what we read there. We may not get it right the first time, indeed the Lord knows we won’t get it right. But He also knows and patiently reminds us that it is in the process of trying that we gain enlightenment and wisdom–gradually, step by step–from Him. If we don’t use it we will lose it. But if we do the best we can the Lord will reward our efforts. Just remember, this “best” includes our best effort to understand. If we put our doctrinal lives on automatic pilot, or try to cruise through life on the fuel of simple knowledge that we may have acquired as children, sooner or later we are going to find ourselves coming into a wilderness, running on empty. We won’t know what to think when we face the tough questions, we won’t know what to do, and worst of all we’ll probably begin to feel bitter, disappointed and resentful about what the Lord has given or taken away from us.

On the other hand, if we can appreciate, even in some small measure, that His Word is full of life and love and wisdom for whatever journey we may take, and if we can be content to search this Word as we would search a field full of buried treasure–eagerly, confidently, and with a love for the useful things that we may do with it, why then, every challenge can become an opportunity, and every opportunity a blessing.