How To Read the Old Testament

Posted on July 3, 2014

BibleOften, people who are new to the Bible come to me and look exasperated. They have been reading the Old Testament of the Bible and they struggle with two things. First, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to them. Second, it seems to teach things about God that contrast with what the New Testament teaches.

I then go into a simple outline of how to read the Old Testament. Here are the six things I suggest for all of us as we read this inspired Scripture section.

  1. Many of the promises God makes in the Old Testament are for the nation of Israel. Not many of them are for today’s Christ-follower. The ones that are for today are either reiterated in the New Testament or they refer to promises fulfilled by the life of Christ. Resist the temptation to apply an Old Testament promise to your life unless there is good New Testament reason for doing so. (Note: I admit when I first wrote this, I suspected it would not sit well with most people. We all have those verses that Holy Spirit has used to shape us from the Old Testament. The problem is, if we go back and study many of them in context, they don’t mean to us what we hoped they meant. No matter: Holy Spirit can take a verse and apply it to an individual in a way that would not work if applied to other people. That’s why we have more than just a Bible, we have God’s Spirit in us and with us).

Example: In Joel 2:25, it says that God will repay Israel for the years the locusts have eaten. Many people interpret that to mean that when bad things happen to us, when others take advantage of us and hurt us, when we have lost our prosperity and health due to the actions of others, we can claim that God will restore all of those things to us. This is not true. Many fine believers have suffered greatly and never received in this life a just recompense for what they have given up.

  1. Narrative Portions of the Old Testament are intended to be examples of how humans try to relate to God, sin and others. They are not meant to be instructive teaching portions. Much of the Old Testament is narrative. A narrative is the telling of a story. The following books are almost completely narrative:

Genesis,  Joshua,  Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 

1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, 

Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Jonah, and Haggai

The following books are mostly narrative with a few teaching and poetic passages thrown in:

Exodus, Numbers, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Job

Why is this important? Simply because some people use the stories in the narrative portions to justify how we are to act today. They read how God’s people entered into the Promised Land and killed as many of the inhabitants as they could. Then they use this as vindication for violence and xenophobic actions.

Here is where the real dilemma in interpretation occurs. Can something be accurate and still wrong? Of course it can. Aaron lifted up the idol in the desert and said “This is Elohim who brought you out of Egypt”. The quotation is accurate, but the sentiment is false. King Saul may truly have believed that God told him to wipe out an entire nation–and he chose to wipe out those people he didn’t have any use for–this may be accurate as to what happened and how he understood thing, but still not be right. Jesus reveals a God who loves all people. There is no way to adequately reconcile that with a God who counsels his people to commit genocide. But this does not diminish the accuracy of the Bible account. It simply calls into question the accuracy and rightness of the people in the narrative.

There is an exception to this. (Thanks to two friends who pointed this out to me). When God brought judgment on the world through the Flood and on Sodom and Gomorrah, he was righteous to judge the wicked. He never had man do that. God is the God who said “You shall not kill”. But He is also the God who says “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay”. That last verse is an Old Testament verse but repeated in the New Testament to show its timeless nature.

God is the God who did not validate Moses killing the Egyptian. But God did send Moses to declare God’s wrath in the plagues. I believe the best New Testament lens to look at the Old Testament is to separate what God does unilaterally from what man does. God and the angels are righteous judges. Mankind is never a righteous judge.

I understand this is hard to interpret. It seems to suggest that some of the viewpoints we have about God in the Old Testament are wrong. But remember, God was just beginning to reveal Himself to the world. Like a parent disciplines a toddler physically, so God used physical means to do so. But in Christ, the Holy Spirit comes to live inside the believers. Followers of Christ are now those who bring God’s word to the world. We are quite literally his Body on earth. Jesus represented God to us. We now share that Truth with the world. It is not appropriate any longer for Christ-followers to emulate the Jews whose understanding of God was very elementary.

3. The Names given to certain Old Testament books aren’t necessarily who wrote those books: For several hundred years, there have been debates over who wrote which book of the Old Testament and when they wrote it. Entire colleges were formed to support one theory over another. For the most part, this is both a waste of time and energy. It doesn’t matter who wrote which book. The point is what we learn about God and man through the stories. The Old Testament is the story of mankind before God became a human being. Mankind was in a lot of trouble without a Savior.  It also doesn’t matter if the Traditional author was indeed the author. Since we believe that God inspired the writers of Scripture, it matters little who they were and when they wrote the books.

Example: The first five books of the Old Testament are believed to have been written by Moses. We know there are parts of the book he didn’t write because it speaks of events that happened after he died. Also, there are three completely different literary styles in the five books, suggesting that this was either a document composed by one person and then edited by two others or a document created by a community of people. Either way, the Old Testament gives us a good picture of how God began to work with the human race after we had strayed away from Him.

Job is almost certainly an epic poem about a man who lived hundreds of years before the book was actually written. Joshua is so close in form to 1 Samuel and Ruth that it is likely Samuel (or another prophet) wrote all these books. There is a good chance that Isaiah was written by three different people and they compiled it into one book.

Jeremiah however probably wrote the entire book that was his. If you’ve read it you realize no one but the poor guy who went through all of that could have written his story.

4. The Old Testament (and the Bible as a whole) was never meant to be a science textbook: This is not to say that the Bible is inaccurate, but there may be scientific details it leaves out completely. There are some people who believe that the earth was created in six days because that is what the book of Genesis says. But perhaps the word “day” is a descriptive word rather than a scientifically accurate word. I am not saying you should decide one way or another on that, but it would be helpful if you didn’t get hung up on whether the Bible is scientifically detailed enough to satisfy modern scrutiny. I believe it is, but it doesn’t matter. The Bible is dealing with spiritual themes of sin, righteousness, God, evil, human nature and redemption. None of these things can be verified through Science anyway.

5. Many portions of the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and Proverbs use Poetic language which is not meant to be a foundation for doctrine.  In seven of the Psalms the Psalm-writer says that he wishes God would take the children of his enemies and dash their heads against a rock. We are not supposed to understand from this that God’s will is that children should be punished for their parents. In Ezekiel we are explicitly told that the fathers will not be held liable for the sins of the children, nor the children for the sins of the fathers. No, these poetical books are there to show the emotions and heart-longings of every person; especially of those who seek to follow after God. When we read in Psalm 42 that the writer’s heart pants for the living God, we can identify. When in Psalm 73, we hear the psalmist say it is useless to serve God because the wicked prosper, we can identify with that as well. We read that if we train up a child in the way they should go and when they’re old they won’t depart from it, we need to see that as a generality and not a promise. Generally, children raised with good moral foundations will return to those foundations later in life. But not every one of them will. Be careful with the poetical books. They are emotional, dramatic and often use hyperbole to state something. But occasionally, they do shed a powerful light on the human condition. And occasionally, they make reference to Jesus in prophetic form (see Psalm 22).

6. Finally, the most powerful images found in the Old Testament are those which prophesy about the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. Almost every book in the Bible has a prediction about the Savior. These ones are worth studying. Many reference books and online resources can help you find these. They remind us that the story of mankind from beginning to end is the story of the second member of the Trinity, the Son of God/Son of Man who came to set us free from the yoke of slavery we were held in by our sin and by the Devil. Marvel at how men and women 1000 years before the Messiah anticipated his coming. It will bring you to a new sense of wonder at the God who planned for your redemption even before the first person sinned.