I can’t think of any written work that is shrouded in more mystery and confusion than the Old Testament. That has received more contempt and criticism. That has been more vigorously studied for the sole purpose of refutation and mockery of its content and concepts. A written work that scholars scoff at as being immutably illusory, yet at the same time slave a lifetime over its words trying to invade the intricacies of its history in the hope to eradicate it of its legitimacy. The Old Testament seems to be widely ignored by Christians, yet critically studied by atheists. As strange as this seems, it makes sense. The Old Testament is hard and challenging and daunting in ways the New Testament isn’t. To an unreflective and uncritical mind, it paints a vastly different God than what we see in the New Testament. It is easier to just stay away from those things in our religion which may offend us and give reason for angst, than to face them head on and work through them. I want to use this post as suggesting some principles and concepts that must be considered when approaching objections, we may have to the Old Testament, and how these principles and concepts can lead us in the right direction in working through some concerns we may have. I don’t have the space to get too detailed or to address specific biblical verses, and so will need to be more general when commenting on those issues.
I do want to start off though by responding to very common grievances and reservations about the OT. Most common is the pervasiveness of violence, and the level and type of violence we see. The most grotesque and most appalling forms of violence is the genocide of the Canaanites. Honestly, the large amount of violence I see in the OT troubles me and frequently has me wondering if there wasn’t a better and more loving way to handle the situation. But, this lead us to possibly the most important concepts we need to understand when reading the OT. One is, we currently don’t have an adequate appreciation for the horrific and destructive nature of sin. The next is how much God loathes sin and why it must be eradicated at extreme costs and comes attached with such harsh repercussions. Also, we live in the fortunate situation of being after the cross. This is direly important because before the cross, God dealt with sin in a radically different way, mainly because of the concepts already stated, than He does now. I think if we truly saw sin for what it was, we would have such a deep and profound revelation into the true character of God and why He acted the way He did in the OT. I think we would see why He seems to have a zero-tolerance policy for sin and is so vicious in His punishments of sin. A sober and right-minded view of sin would show us the grace God had on the Canaanites for not exterminating them sooner and letting them exist for 400 years, and then when he did order the slaughter of the people, we would understand how much they deserved it and brought it upon themselves. That’s very rigid and quite untampered, but I think at its core, the logic that the recognition of the true face of sin would shine new light on how God deals with sin is very clear and we most likely would begin to agree with The Lord’s decisions in most cases. But we have been sheltered from the full force of sin since we have been protected by the blood of Christ. The cross was a turning point for how God decided to deal with sin. No longer was it necessary that each person reap the spoiled fruits of sowing sin, since our Lord Christ has taken those repercussions for us. This doesn’t mean that we are immune to the effects of sin or that God doesn’t still discipline us for sin, but to me it means that we are no longer punished for sin, since, for lack of better words, God got all His punishment out on the cross. Before the cross people had to bear the burden of all their sins, but God’s grace probably never allowed anyone to bear all the burden of all their sins. Now after the cross, with the help of Jesus, we aren’t obliged to bear that burden in the same way. There are more important distinctions that need to be made but I must move on. I just want to leave you with the reality that the wages of sin is death, and God is very serious about that reality. There are reasons for this but as I said I must move on.
The next bewilderment of the OT comes from what I will just label as the Levitical Laws. In here, there are laws that seem to be strange, obscure, cruel, outdated, and culturally defined. Many people wonder why Christians don’t follow these laws anymore. Without too much detail I just want to introduce the concept of the three separate types of laws. There are civil laws, laws that were primarily directed toward how the Jewish people would conduct their lives in a way that would separate themselves from the people around them. Next there are ceremonial laws, laws that governed how they would conduct themselves with issues regarding the temple and people’s interaction with it. Lastly, there are moral laws, these are the laws that are meant to give direction on what things are morally prohibited, permissible, and obligatory. Understanding this structure of different types of laws, it gives more credibility to the justification for not following all the Levitical laws, and how we can say somethings were cultural and other things were meant to be eternal. The ceremonial and civil laws are more generally thought to be cultural in some way, while moral laws are thought to transcend time and culture.
Next, I want to address the attacks that are mounted at the patriarchs and the array of sinful behavior. The objection essentially goes by showing all the sinful things the patriarchs did, whether it was polygamy or lying or betrayal or any other sin, and question the integrity of a god who would allow His fathers of a faith to act in such a way. I think this, like all the others is a legitimate concern, and needs to be deeply responded to, but here I will only offer one sort of way to look at. I think it’s important to first note that the patriarchs didn’t have the Holy Spirit living inside them like we do now. So, the standard for how a leader should conduct themselves wasn’t as stringent since they didn’t have God living inside them at all times convicting them of sin. Next, it’s extremely important to take a look at the stories recorded around their lives and see how things turn out for them when they sin and when they obey God. These narratives can be used as examples to show that when you live a life not in accordance with God’s design, you will suffer the consequences of living in sin. Also, when you live an obedient life, you will reap the rewards of putting God first. It is also a beautiful example of how God is able to use broken and sinful people, to bring about His will and display His glory. It is a reminder to all of us that we are never too far gone for God to use us, or that we don’t need to be perfect for God to use us as His examples to the world.
Lastly, I want to address a less known observation, but a curious one. If you were to read the OT without any prejudices, it’s very possible you would come to think that the afterlife or resurrection was an invention, a myth, or at most a highly speculative idea that has slim backing to it. How can this be? The Christian faith seems to be constantly talking about a future life in Heaven. If Christianity came out of Judaism and is meant to just be a fuller revelation and continuance of Judaism as I believe, how could they have such a deep sense of an afterlife and resurrection that seems to be scarcely mentioned in the OT? I have a few different thoughts on this. They aren’t very well supported and may not even work, but they are just ideas that bring me some solace. One reason is that maybe the resurrection is one of those things that just didn’t get revealed until later in the history of Israel and so that’s why it’s not frequently talked about. Maybe it isn’t mentioned much because maybe there wasn’t a hope of a resurrection and afterlife until Christ came. Maybe when people died, they went to some holding place or something, and that there was literally no afterlife for them to inhabit until after Christ came and conquered death. So, before Christ, there was no need to talk about a resurrection because it wasn’t relevant yet. I’m not sure either of these are good thoughts, but are interesting ideas I think and may at least spur on better thoughts.
I now just want to give suggestions for dealing with generic confusion or disagreement with the OT text. It is important to be honest whenever reading the bible, so if something offends you or you disagree with it, it’s fine to bring that forward and be honest that you have an issue. But what needs to happen next is maybe even more so important. We must be always trying to find the truth a passage is trying to convey. It would be a shame for you to disagree with a verse and discard it as bunk, only to find out that you totally misunderstood the verse and condemned a verse for saying something it was never really saying. Now, if after honest searching and studying you come to a clear conclusion about what this offensive verse is truly saying, then you are really left with one decision. Are you going to be the one who tells God He is wrong and that He should yield to your wisdom? Or will you be the one to admit you must be in error somewhere and work to yield to His wisdom? This is possibly one of the most difficult things for us to do, especially if we have a clear and honest interpretation of a verse but fervently disagree with the teaching. This gets to a deeper issue of how you view the bible, but that’s a topic for a different post. I want to now turn my attention to the rest of ways we need to be aware of in order to clearly and effectively interpret and understand the OT.
When reading historical documents like the OT, it’s paramount you understand the context of the writing. If not, you will never understand the meaning of the writing. Understanding the context means understanding the culture. You need to know the way the people at the time thought. You need to know the things they assumed their readers would understand and take for granted. You need to know what sort of things were valued and sought after. What kind of lifestyle and character traits were desired and sought after. Understanding the culture around a piece of writing is absolutely necessary in the journey of comprehending the writing. There’s more though, you need to have a grasp of the writer’s intent when they were writing the piece. You need to know who the audience was, what the meaning of the writing is supposed to be. What sort of message were they trying to convey, what did they want the audience to take from the writing, what sort of writing style and genre were they using. You need to know whether it’s a narrative, poem, epic, prophesy, drama, biography, prose, etc. All these different genres have different aims and purposes, and if you misconstrue the genre, you will misconstrue the message. It’s also important to understand that ancient genres were different than ours, so we need to understand how they viewed those genres if we want to understand the purpose and the messages of each genre. When reading the OT specifically, here are a couple more tips that can help to clarify confusing issues. The OT is an account of God progressively revealing Himself to mankind. He doesn’t just come out and show us His face in one full sweep. He slowly shows us more and more of Himself and His nature as time progresses. Also, the whole OT is meant to point us towards His son, Jesus. All the prophesies and predictions culminate in Jesus and are fulfilled in Christ as the Messiah. I can’t possibly go into all the ways these two suggestions would be helpful practically when reading the OT, but know these are key hermeneutics when interpreting the OT and reconciling things with who we know God to be. I also want to take a little time to expound a bit further on this concept of the OT pointing towards Jesus. One way we can look at the OT, is as humanity fighting as hard as they can to reach God. Throughout the thousands of years, we see how Israel constantly screwed things up and turned away from God. Time and time again, He has mercy on them and stays committed to the covenant He made with them. He keeps telling them how to stay in right relationship with Him and how to stay near to Him, but they always fail to stay in that relationship and walk away numerous times. Only once Jesus comes and dies for us, are we saved from ourselves and our sin. I think the OT is in a large way God showing us how incapable we are at reaching Him on our own. How impossible it would be for us to meet the standards He demands; how unattainable it would be for us to uphold our part of the covenant on our own. Put simply, we can’t save ourselves and the OT is the account of how miserably we have failed at that for thousands of years. It’s God’s proof to us how helpless we are in our sin and how desperately we need a savior. How desperately we need Him to come and save us from ourselves and our sin.
There’s one last distinction I want to make about the OT. We need to understand that the OT was a covenant, and that the New Testament is a new covenant. The OT and the NT can be hard to reconcile for so many reasons, but I think one big reason is our misunderstanding of the concept of two different covenants. In the OT, they had a specific covenant that God made and held to faithfully. When Jesus comes, there is a new covenant. This means we are no longer bound and under the agreements of the old covenant. So, for a short answer that’s why we don’t have to follow all the OT laws because that was a part of a different covenant that we now are not a part of. There is much more work that needs to be done here in explaining further, but it’s just a reference point right now. This isn’t a perfect explanation or analogy, but I think it does provide some insight and give us a different way to look at how the new covenant is different from the old covenant and doesn’t ignore or reject or deny it, but rather fully acknowledges and accepts it as it fulfills and transcends it. Think of your relationship with your parents. When you were younger, you had really strict and rigid rules. A lot of times you didn’t understand them and your parents hardly explained them (because you wouldn’t be able to understand), but you just had to follow them at their say so. I think it’s also critical to see that part of their rules system hardly allows for freedom for the child. There are extra rules in play that really are there just to prevent the child from even getting close to doing something bad because the parent doesn’t trust the child’s judgement or capability to be in certain situations without it ending up harmful. So, the parent puts in extra rules, that in themselves, don’t prevent us from doing harm, but keep us at a safe distance from harm’s way. But just because those rules aren’t directly preventing us from something harmful and wrong, it would be ignorant and illogical to think we can break those rules without bringing about wrong or harm. Because our parents are the authority and we are under that and must respect it. However, when we get older, our parents trust us more and allow us more freedom and wiggle room. It’s not from in the sense of deciding what’s right or wrong, but in deciding how close can we get to right or wrong, or good or bad, without succumbing to harm or evil. The baseline of the right and wrong stays the same in principle, as in concept or thought, and in rule. However, now that we have improved and have trustworthy judgement and thinking, we are allowed more autonomy in deciding what preventative rules are still necessary and useful for us, and those which are not. Depending on how close we think we can stand next to the harm or wrong without being hurt or committing wrong. I think this is a fair way of looking at the old and new covenant in some respect. The old is when you’re young and the new is when you’re older. Before the cross we were without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We lacked the wisdom and power the Holy Spirit brings in order to navigate the grey areas of life, so while we were in spiritual infancy, God kept us in the black and white. Now that we have access to the Spirit and it acts in our lives daily, we no longer need those extra barriers to keep us at a safe distance from sin, for we can trust in the Spirit to lead us where we can be.
I would need to write a book, multiple books at that, to adequately do justice to the pressing and urgent concerns people have with the OT. I do hope that I have at least given some sort of advice and wisdom that will help you better interact and engage with the OT. Our God has been and always will be the same, we need the OT and NT to give us the fullest picture of who God is and who He has revealed Himself to be.