Faith seeking understanding

Save thousands on your travel – visit the OT

Want a life-changing experience in a strange and exotic country? You need go no further than the Old Testament, argues Andrew Judd, so long as you learn how to be a good traveller.

By Andrew Judd

November 14 2018 

Australians love to travel. More than half of us own a passport, and by world standards we are amongst the most intrepid of travellers – rivalled only by Saudi Arabia and China in dollars spent per capita and time spent abroad. Millennials are our leading transoceanic excursionists, generally outspending their parents and grandparents. Our young antipodeans save fastidiously for months to finance their trips, and often go without meals while abroad.

We live on one of the most extraordinary continents on God’s green earth. Yet the drive to explore foreign worlds is as strong as ever. Amongst our favourite destinations are countries historically quite different from our own: Indonesia, Iceland, Lebanon, and Japan. Experiencing different cultures seems to be a key motivating factor behind much of our travel. Challenged by different ways of doing life – strange customs, unfamiliar food, and foreign languages – we learn more about our own way of life, and grow in our appreciation for the breadth of human accomplishment.

These experiences come at a cost, of course. $4914, to be precise. That’s the median cost of your next trip, according to VISA (who, even before a debit is on their chips, knows your spending habits completely).

But if it’s a life-changing trip to a far country you’re after, you can save thousands – simply by opening the pages of your Old Testament.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the Old Testament is a wild place to visit. Strange and potentially lethal fruits (Genesis 2:17), odd-looking clothes (Exodus 28:4), unsettling marriage customs (Deuteronomy 22:14), and as many foreign languages as you can throw a Ziggurat at (Genesis 11:9). If it’s rich and challenging culture you’re after, look no further than the ancient Near East.

Of course, like any overseas travel, you need to pick your travel companions carefully. Never travel with friends who are bad tourists. You know the type: no sooner are they off the plane than they are complaining about things. This language is stupid. Everyone drives on the wrong side of the road. Where can I find a McDonalds?

A good explorer knows to sit with a foreign culture before making hasty Eurocentric judgments about a people and place they do not yet understand.

So it is when we come to the Old Testament. Some of my friends are tiresome travellers there too. Some insist on visiting only the well-worn, comfortable tourist spots: Genesis 1, Jeremiah 29:11, Psalm 23, Proverbs 3:5-6.

Others are tiresome for a different reason. They travel more widely, only to make knee-jerk judgments on what they see. They scoff at verses which sound silly or offensive to modern ears. They write off the Bible as the superstitions of “Bronze Age goat herders” (mostly from the Iron Age and later, actually… and I don’t understand what they have against small agri-business!).

I heard one tedious traveller reflect on his experience reading Proverbs. “Look!” he said, “the thing is full of blatant contradictions.” Proverbs 26:4 says never to correct a fool, but Proverbs 26:5 says you should always correct a fool. “See – the Old Testament is stupid!”

A good traveller, however, is drawn in by the puzzle. Obviously the writer knows that these two verses contradict – they are right next to each other! So what are we missing? What kind of literature is this? The good traveller discovers that Proverbs is part of a particular ancient genre, one which has no interest in absolute propositions of statistically defined accuracy.

The good traveller keeps reading, and begins to suspect that there are no simple rules for wisdom; life doesn’t work like that. The wise person can see the world in all its complexity: sometimes you should correct a fool, but sometimes that will be counterproductive.

Part of wisdom is knowing what we don’t know. And so, faced with our human limitations, the good traveller remembers back to Proverbs chapters 1 – 9, and the call to seek, not axioms or “life-hacks”, but the path to true wisdom, which begins and ends with the knowledge that God is God, and we are not (Proverbs 1:7).

As Anglicans we are committed to being good travellers to the strange far country of the Old Testament. Article VII recognises that there will be discontinuity with regards to the civil and ceremonial laws. It’s called the Old Testament for a reason. But there will also be continuity when it comes to the moral fabric of the world we inhabit (the Israelites received specific commands against adultery, because adultery is a travesty of how God designed marriage for all humanity). Crucially, there is continuity because the Old Testament is about Jesus: the Article insists that in both Old and New Testaments, “everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ”.

As Anglicans, we are committed to being regular travellers as well. Daily, the Book of Common Prayer places the Psalms on our lips. As often as we share the Eucharistic meal, the service of Holy Communion service reminds us of our failure to keep the law, either in the Ten Commandments or the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Morning and evening, the lectionary ensures that the congregation will be exposed to the full narrative arc of God’s dealings with Israel, with two daily lessons from the Old Testament.

Anglicans are thus spared the spiritual malnutrition which can result from a lifetime of listening to the same sermon preached on the vicar’s seven favourite purple passages. At Evening Prayer on the 9th day of January, for example, when we hear the apostles are arrested in Acts 5 for preaching that the “God of our fathers raised Jesus”, we are taken as if via a hyperlink back to Genesis 12: reminding us that the incredible news they are preaching is part of the ongoing fulfilment of a covenantal promise made long ago to their father, Abraham.

Modern Anglican lectionaries have changed the selection and balance of passages, but have preserved this precious principle. Our traditions force us to be widely travelled. And in doing so, they shape us to be good travellers. Where are you off to this month?


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