Fear Not the Old Testament
We must embrace and teach the first two-thirds of the Bible
The Bible I’ve owned since college is coffee-spill-stained, underlined in a rainbow of colors, re-bound with packing tape. Margin notes sit like altars erected along the journey, commemorating encounters with God.
A curious phenomenon: pages of the last third of this book are worn, dog-eared, dingy, graffiti’d with yellow highlighter and pencil. The first two-thirds, not so much. I’m much more comfortable navigating the New Testament than the Old. But in recent years, that’s been changing, slowly but surely, as I discover the hidden treasures of the text Philip Yancey called, “The Bible Jesus Read.”
If we claim to be “Bible-believing Christians,” we cannot ignore the first two-thirds of that book, or only dabble in Psalms and Proverbs. As leaders, if we are to teach a Bible study or preach a sermon, do we always default to the Gospels or Epistles? What if we were brave enough to excavate the gems of the Old Testament?
Let’s be honest: the Old Testament has some troubling passages. It seems to advocate genocide (Joshua 6:20-21, and in fact most of the book of Joshua). It has stories of incest and drunkenness (for one example initiated by Lot’s daughters, see Genesis 19:30-38). It offers some extreme (not to mention currently illegal) parenting strategies see Deuteronomy 21:18-21.
How do we address the elephant in the room—that many people simply do not read the Old Testament, or misinterpret it? (Perhaps it’s not an elephant in the room but a talking donkey (see Numbers 22) or a lion carcass filled with honey (see Judges 14).)
How do we overcome the Old Testament’s reputation for violence and misogyny? What can we learn from details about rituals we no longer participate in, a culture so far removed from our own? Most important, how can we get those we lead to read and understand, and even love, the Old Testament?
If we are leading people toward fuller devotion to God, we need to embrace the Old Testament. Countless techniques exist; here are a few that work for me as I write and teach about the Old Testament: inferring meaning from stories, doing word studies, and finding the threads in the larger story.
If we see the Bible solely as an “answer book,” what are we to do with the poetry, history, story, symbolism, prophecy, living metaphors (see Hosea)? The word “testament” means “covenant,” and that is key: the Old Testament is the story of God’s covenantal relationship with a people he has chosen as his own.
While some portions of the Old Testament contain clear directives (“thou shalt not kill,” for example), other portions follow the rule of good literature: “Show, don’t tell.” So, for example, the last chapter of Judges describes the Israelites committing genocide, then sexually trafficking women from Jabesh Gilead. The only value judgment is in the final verse, a somewhat obtuse commentary: “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” In other words, it was a time of anarchy. The book of Judges does not “contradict” the Ten Commandments; it shows us what tragedy and terror result when God’s people disobey those commandments.
Old Testament prophets and rabbis taught by answering a question with another question (Jesus followed this style). Just as Jesus told parables, God tells us stories (true ones) in the Old Testament. We must infer meaning and interpret their significance.
Those you lead need to see that there is more to the story than the words convey. Your leadership and example can inspire them to dig deeper. Ask questions, not just to get answers in response, but also to teach them how to ask their own questions.
After looking at the big picture, we can focus in on key words. By diving in deep into one word, we shed light on the context and on the story as a whole.
For example, the word “tabernacle” in the Old Testament is a rich word in Hebrew: mishkan. It means a dwelling place. It is the noun form of shakan, which means to dwell. God uses it to speak of himself and his desire to dwell among his people. If you look up all the verses that use this word, you see not only a promise from God, but a longing—he aches to be in a loving relationship with his people. That ache eventually becomes the Incarnation. The words point us back to the bigger story.
The word skekhina derives from this word, and refers to God’s glory or presence. It includes both his transcendence and his omniscience. It’s also closely related to the Hebrew word for neighbor (those who dwell nearby), shaken.*
Teach the technique of word study, but then challenge those you lead to let those words “dwell richly within” them. God’s word, and all of his words, are transformational, and as a leader you have the opportunity to facilitate that growth and transformation.
Because it was the Bible they read, Jesus and the New Testament writers often quoted the Old Testament. A seemingly ordinary passage can come alive when we understand their method.
This morning I read Matthew 4:13-14, “He went first to Nazareth, then left there and moved to Capernaum, beside the Sea of Galilee, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This fulfilled what God said through the prophet Isaiah…” Following these verses, Matthew quotes a short passage from Isaiah 9.
Quoting one little bit of a Scripture was a first-century Jew’s way of referring to its context. Matthew’s quote is a shorthand reference for all of Isaiah 9, a famous prophesy that includes, in verse 6, “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us.”
Matthew was not just telling us where Jesus decided to live. First, he was hinting at a unique mission: Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, moved into a Gentile neighborhood. Second, Matthew was making the case that Jesus is the Messiah, simply by saying he “moved to Capernaum.”
Encourage those you lead to look for threads in the big story. This can begin with the simple exercise of noticing the footnotes that refer to the Old Testament verses quoted within the New Testament. Direct those you lead to actually look up those references and study them.
Faith in Action
These techniques can help us teach and interpret. But the Bible itself calls us to more than just intellectual understanding.
One of the big ideas of the Old Testament is that God can use imperfect people to accomplish his purposes. Noah was considered righteous, but after nearly a year on the ark, he came home and got drunk. David was called a man after God’s own heart, but he committed murder and adultery. Jeremiah was charged with calling God’s people to repentance, failed to accomplish that mission, but did not fail to be obedient. Jonah ran away from God, then accomplished his mission but got angry and pouty about his own success.
The Old Testament judges people’s faith not by what they assent to intellectually, but by the way they live out their faith—however imperfectly. Do they do what God asks? Do they trust him? Their activist faith offers us a model for putting our faith into action (see Hebrews 11).
Today the church is beginning to embrace a “whole gospel” in which we both preach the good news and work for the justice it demands. Although this may feel new from our limited perspective, this is an Old Testament type of faith. As Jesus said, quoting the Old Testament, “I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices” (Matthew 9:13, and Hosea 6:6).
As a leader, your goal is not just to increase the knowledge of those you lead, but to help them grow in wisdom and understanding. By instructing and inspiring them to dig deeper into Scripture, you can help them access its power to change their hearts and lives.
*These ideas are unpacked in more detail in my book Deeper into the Word: Reflections on 100 Old Testament Words. (Bethany House, 2011).
Keri Wyatt Kent writes and speaks about connecting faith and real life. Her books and teaching focus on helping people slow down in order to listen to God. Her newest book, Deeper into the Word, explores 100 words from the Old Testament. More at www.keriwyattkent.com.