How to Read the Old Testament

This is the second in a series of three posts on what I thing the Church needs to know about the Old Testament. My last post touched on how Christ and the early disciples attributed great significance to the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, considering them to be divinely inspired Scripture. I touched on how the Apostles interpreted the Old Testament Christologically, allowing its claims of its historicity to take a supporting role in projecting the meaning of its imagery through Christ. We saw that this was a valid approach because much of the New Testament follows a literary style where the authors presume the readers share the same cultural background and historical knowledge.

This presumption is helpful in defining who the original target audience was, but it also poses significant challenges to readers from different cultural-historical backgrounds. Because historical knowledge is presumed, it naturally prompts everyone who is a non-first century Jew to delve into the world of the Old Testament for themselves. And so, the second thing the church needs to learn is how to read the Old Testament. Only by doing so the reader will extract a fuller understanding of the New.

Delving into the world of the Old Testament is a must for any Christian in order to understand it. Therefore, the Church ought to understand the major historical milestones and developments registered in Israel’s story in the Old Testament that serve as a background for the New. But along with the historical background, the Church should also understand the geography of ancient Israel and main points of reference that play a part in important veterotestamentarian narratives. In doing so, the Church is able to place the biblical narrative within a geographical context, thus better understanding what those events meant for the Israelites in that particular time in history. Additionally, by having such background information, a reader can also better understand the theological and epistemological framework of the neotestamentarian writers and the message they intended to communicate. This creates a hermeneutic cycle that complements both Testaments. The New Testament writers understood Christ in light of the Old Testament, but they also proceeded to understand the Old Testament in light of Christ. This approach gives an equilibrium to biblical narrative where both the historical background and the new revelation are valued.

Along with understanding Israel’s geo-historical context, learning to identify the different literary styles present in the Old Testament can also help the Church to read it effectively. The Old Testament is not a single uniform volume. It is a compilation of books and narratives written over a period of about a thousand years. They were written and compiled using different languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, and a variety of literary styles hailing from the ancient Middle East. Whereas the Hebrew Bible has only three major parts (the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings), the Protestant English Old Testament is compiled in four major parts with a total of thirty-nine books. They are the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy), the Historical Books (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther), the Poetic Books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs), and finally the Prophetic Books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi).

All of these parts have different literary styles that are used to convey the divine message. For example, the Pentateuch in Genesis offers a redefinition of the origin of the world that differs from other ancient narratives and contemporary theories. It presents God as the sovereign Creator who transcends the created reality, but is nonetheless involved in its existence and sustainability. Genesis also offers a glimpse into a covenantal paradigm of relationships through the election of Abraham and his family, a concept further expounded in this paper. The Pentateuch also includes the Torah, commonly referred to as the Law. The Torah is not “law” per se, but divine “instructions” on how to live within the boundaries of God’s covenant.

Therefore, the Old Testament is not “law/judgment” where the New Testament is “grace/salvation.” Both point out instructions on how to walk in the way of the Lord complementing each other. The English Bible also has Historical Books. These are narratives whose main purpose is to reveal how God is involved in the everyday life of Israel through historical events which serve to bring about God’s purpose. These historical narratives set the context for God’s story, all the while revealing the person and mission of God. In them we find how Israel came to possess the land of Canaan (Joshua and Judges), how it developed into a monarchy (Samuel and Kings), and how the land was lost to the Babylonian Empire (Kings and Chronicles).

Additionally, the Poetic Books offer a stark look into the human condition through a wide range of poetry and wisdom writings. For example, the Psalms offer a creatively and reflective look into a relationship with God through worship and prayers of various kinds. Devotion in the Psalms is expressed communally and individually, showing how God is involved in the larger context but also in the individual level. Finally, the Prophetic Books serve to relay God’s message to God’s people. Prophets in the Old Testament do not only predict the future, but they act as intermediaries between God and humanity. The prophets serve as God’s mouthpiece to confront, comfort and coerce the people of God into a life of righteousness. They issue warning and judgment, but also declare God’s will, promises and covenant to the people of Israel.

By learning to delve into the world of the Old Testament and by doing so learning to identify its different literary styles, the Church can better understand its message and meaning. The New Testament writers do not concern themselves with providing the modern-day reader with this information. It should be the exercise of the Church, as interpretative communities, to engage with the Old Testament in depth, in a way that shapes the Christian faith and the New Testament understanding.