The Old Testament
“In the beginning, God…” So begins the greatest story ever told, where God begins to reveal Himself to humanity. As followers of Jesus, we believe that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), yet so many of us struggle to understand a massive portion of it.
The Old Testament contains 39 books written by at least 30 different authors over a period of about 1000 years. It tells the story of Israel, God’s chosen people, and records their origins, wanderings in the desert, rise to empire, and fall into wickedness and exile.
However, many Christians don’t know where to start when reading the Old Testament. Strange stories, supernatural beings, foreign cultural customs, and portions of intense violence often confuse us, and it can be hard to even know what the point of reading the Old Testament is.
But we know that it’s important, if for no other reason than the fact that Jesus and the authors of the New Testament quote these 39 books over and over again. Apparently, there is something to learn from the Old Testament.
So, why should we read the Old Testament?
As modern-day Christians, there are several reasons to read the Old Testament. First, it comprises about 75% of the entire Bible. That’s a massive chunk of Scripture to just leave out. All of God’s word is “a lamp to our feet and a light for our path (Psalm 119:105). In fact, that psalm is written specifically about the Law God reveals in the Old Testament.
Second, the same God we see in the Old Testament is the God we see represented by Jesus in the New Testament. That is, God hasn’t changed since then. Often, we hear that the God of the Old Testament is nothing but cruel, and maybe we’ve had that thought when we’re reading of wars and punishments. But as we dive into these books, we find that there is a lot more grace in them than we see at first. That isn’t to say there aren’t challenging sections of Scripture, there certainly are. But our response should be to ask why these sections are present and seek to understand them, not dismiss them outright.
The last is one we’ve already stated, that Jesus himself read and valued the Old Testament. He saw it as a set of texts talking about Himself. The Bible is really just one unified story that points to Jesus. This is what makes the Bible unlike any other book in the world. All of it is interconnected and it all points to the same thing: the promise of a savior who would rescue humanity and set things right. Jesus saw himself as fulfilling the story of the Old Testament (Luke 4:16-21). Therefore, if we want to understand what Jesus was doing, we need to understand the Old Testament.
What is the Old Testament about?
The word ‘testament’ means ‘covenant’ or ‘promise.’ The Old and New testaments are two promises between God and His people. In the Old Testament, the covenant primarily included the nation of Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus fulfilled the old covenant (or agreement) between God and man and offered a new covenant based on His sacrifice on the cross. The story of the Old Testament is about God’s relationship with his creation, with specific focus on Israel. The books can be divided into several different groups, each with a specific purpose.
A simple way to understand the Old Testament follows this outline:
- God created the world and everything in it, including people, who He made to bear his image (Genesis 1:27), to display his glory and character to the world as they took care of creation and helped it flourish. God made two humans, Adam and Eve, and placed them in a perfect garden called Eden.
- However, the humans turned away from God even though He freely gave them life and a perfect world, along with a relationship with Him. An evil being represented by a serpent tempted Adam and Eve, and they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil so that they could define good and evil for themselves.
- Because they disobeyed, God banished Adam and Eve from the garden. Now, instead of living in harmony with God, one another, and the environment, their relationships would be marked by pain, toil, and chaos. However, God promised that one day, a descendant of Eve’s would come and defeat the snake (evil) once and for all, even though he would be wounded in the process (Genesis 3:24).
- God continued to reveal himself to people even though they were broken, evil, and sinful. He called a man named Abraham and promised that He would bless all of the nations through Abraham’s descendants.
- The rest of the Old Testament follows the story of God making a people group (Israel, Abraham’s descendants) through whom He could bless the world. However, even though God is continually faithful to Israel, the people kept disobeying God.
- God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt and gave them land to call their own. He gave the Law through Moses, which set up a way for the people to be able to have a relationship with God in spite of their sin.
- God made Israel a great nation, but they continued to disobey his commands and worshipped other gods. God punished them by sending them into exile, but not before He sent people called prophets to warn them. After He punished them, He made a way to bring them back to their land.
- The Old Testament ends with the story unfinished. The savior, the descendant of Eve who would defeat the serpent, hadn’t yet come. Yet the prophets continued to declare that this person would someday come.
What am I supposed to do with the Old Testament?
Many passages in the Old Testament are difficult to understand, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible! Here are some strategies for interpreting the Old Testament.
First, do your best to read passages in context. Pulling verses out and directly applying them to our lives is rarely the point. Instead, good interpretation of the text makes time for learning about the context. When we say context, we mean trying to understand all we can about what’s going on around the passage. For example, it’s often helpful to know where in the story we are (ex. What period of Israel’s history are we in), when it was written, who’s writing and to whom, the cultural context, the type of literature (a letter, a poem, a story, etc.) and more!
Reading in context helps us interpret passages well. Every piece of Scripture has one interpretation intended for a specific audience at a specific time. In other words, the Bible is written for you, but it’s not written to you. A passage can’t mean something to you that it could never mean to its original readers or hearers.
For example, take Leviticus 19:18, “do not seek revenge or bear grudges against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” Pretty straightforward part of the Law, right? In context, God is setting up Israel’s civic and religious laws and commands them to love and forgive one another. Unfortunately, this passage has sometimes been taken out of context in extreme ways. White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan have used this passage to justify oppressing people who have a different skin color. Their logic is that anyone who isn’t white isn’t among their people, so hating other ethnicities is justified. This verse would never have meant that it’s okay to oppress African Americans to the ancient Israelites. First off, the Israelites had never even heard of America. Second, there are other verses in Leviticus about loving foreigners and people who are different because the Israelites, of all people, ought to know how hard it is to be a foreigner, given their experiences in Egypt (Leviticus 19:33-34).
This brings up another important principle. We ought to let Scripture interpret Scripture. That is, when we encounter a confusing passage or symbol, we should look to other Scriptures that use the same idea. The authors of the Old Testament, while they may not have known one another, had a shared cultural identity and were contributing to the same story. The authors of the New Testament pick up many of the same ideas as well.
Lastly, not everything that’s in the Bible is supported by the Bible. Many of the characters are not intended as role models, but rather, portraits of broken humans who aren’t so different from us. They go back and forth from making great decisions and doing good, to giving themselves over to selfishness and cruelty. King David is perhaps the best example of this. He’s simultaneously a heroic king who loves God passionately and a murderer and an adulterer. We’re not supposed to emulate everything we see in Scripture. Instead, we should recognize that often, we’re supposed to learn from these characters’ mistakes and failures.
Some texts are specific commands Christians should follow, while others are intended to shape our identity as followers of Jesus, or teach us something about the God we serve. The best pieces of advices we can give about reading the Old Testament is to read it consistently and read it in community. Make reading the Old Testament a regular part of your devotional life, and don’t go it alone! Read it with friends, ask a mentor for their opinion and guidance, read what Christians who have gone before have to say about your questions. The Old Testament is full of portraits of God’s character, lessons to learn, and principles about how to live. May your love of Jesus grow as you wrestle with the Scriptures that testify about Him!