Editor’s Note: The Old Testament is full of much which is confusing, violent, and ambiguous. We asked Ryan O’Dowd, lecturer at Cornell University and author of Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction, to introduce and curate a series of articles on how and why we should read the Old Testament for public life today.
Jesus said, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). Matthew places this profound image at the end of seven equally allusive kingdom parables. A scribe with this kingdom treasure (perhaps Matthew himself) is able to go into the old (Torah) and find the new (Jesus) concealed.
My sense is that while most of us see Jesus as a treasure, few think so highly of the Old Testament. We feel like it is a flat, bland, weighty encumbrance to our faith, only useful for supporting doctrine and morality. Contrast that with Jesus’ metaphor, which imagines the Hebrew Scriptures as a multi-layered, vibrant, life-giving bounty out of which come this king and his kingdom.
Matthew is not a historian, per se, so he is less concerned with telling us what happened to the disciples than with involving us in their experience—to wear the sandals of men who, while not yet understanding the necessity of the cross, have nevertheless experienced miracles of feeding mass crowds and of healing of diseases. Like us, they are caught between two eras of time, the already and the not yet, in search of their place in the grand scheme of the world. Like the master of a house who searches through his treasure for the new and the old, we inherit an interpretive task of filtering through piles in search of the finest riches. We are heirs, in other words, of great treasure just waiting to be explored, studied, and, above all, encountered. The heart of the kingdom, after all, is not a concept or set of ideas, but a person.
The rewards here are indeed grand—but so is the challenge. To read the Old Testament in its fullness, most of us are going to need motivation and retraining. Here are a few places we can start.
A Famine Of Scripture
This metaphor from Amos targets the heart of our problem: we simply fail to read these books apart from a few favourite passages. We prefer Genesis to Leviticus, and we read Isaiah 9 and 11 at Christmas and 40-55 at Easter, with not much in between. Jeremiah and the Minor Prophets only come to mind when we pass by them on our way to Isaiah. And what about Lamentations?
I agree with N.T. Wright’s excellent advice that Christians read the stories of Jesus above all else in the Bible. But as Wright would surely concede, reading the gospels without knowing the OT is like reading a book in a language you don’t know. The problem is that most of us are basically resigned to the idea that the OT is the classic work of a lost religion, rather than those writings which, in all of their ordering, storytelling, singing, and suffering, point to and are fulfilled in Jesus. And by fulfilled, I mean opening up and giving full expression to, not ending and doing away with never to be read again. These are not two drafts of a story (old and new), but more like the first and a second movements of a musical masterpiece.
Famine also describes our being undernourished by what we do manage to read. A book like Proverbs, for example, is largely read for basic moral guidance in parenting, spending money, or being nicer in the way we speak. Job is similarly used mostly to reinforce the doctrine of divine sovereignty. But we fail to appreciate them as works of poetry. They have moral and theological content, yes, but their power is in their aesthetic and their ability to involve us, bouncing us back and forth between our right brain and left brain and shaping us well beyond mere intellectual ideas. The mere fact that the poetry in the OT greatly exceeds all the writings of the NT reveals a great deal about our human condition and our human need. The OT can provide doctrinal insight (and many other things), but we must first read and indwell it as a collection of stories, poems, and rituals that unite us with our predecessors in this world.
Moralism And Sentimentalism
Jacob, Joseph, Gideon, Joshua, David, Esther, and countless other figures are often reduced to channels of moral instruction. Many preachers think that makes for good preaching, but most of us, troubled by far most complex issues in our lives, are rightly bored by such predictable sermons. If, as one seminary professor used to say, we imagine for a minute that the biblical authors are at least as smart as us, then we can begin to appreciate the exquisite, deep, and often elusive (and allusive) nature of these ancient humans. The characters in the Bible are multidimensional people who speak to us out of obedience and faith just as much as boredom, weakness, cowardice, deceit, confusion, loneliness, and shame. There is something to be said for allowing the stories to be stories and mirror our own humanity without being reduced to “three ways to be a better person.” This is theological literature, after all.
Sentimentalism overlaps with our habits of over-moralizing, but there is particular use of the OT that has been mastered by Christian bookstores and popular bestsellers. Bruce Wilkinson’s bestseller The Prayer of Jabez in 2000 is a popular example, though his honest call for prayer and faith in God’s promises is often overlooked. Unfortunately, the crime that Christians charge against Wilkinson is one that we often commit when we read Joseph, Jonah, Esther, and Ruth in too narrow a light. Consider for a moment: Are Jonah and Esther really heroic? And do we really need the Esther fashion doll? Her willingness to sleep with king Ahasuerus invites many difficult moral questions. And I personally don’t sense that Jonah is much of a model for children’s books; he remains petulant with God until the end. We need to be careful reducing any of the characters to heroes for flannel-graphs.
Our predisposition to moralize the OT in this way inevitably leads to a flattening of the law. In fact, the law simply confuses most people. Sometimes we denigrate “the law” as the enemy of justification by faith, which is misleading, for it is the attitude behind the “works of the law” that Paul opposes to justification. At the same time, we rejoice that we are not “under the law,” though few have heard a clear explanation of what that means, since we lean on the law to reinforce our views of controversial political issues like just war, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
The law is not simple (!) and I think we all would benefit greatly from reading Christopher Wright’s indispensable work, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (IVP Academic, 2004). Wright shows that beyond Paul’s selective perspectives on the law to make specific theological points, the law as a whole reflects everything, from value systems, basic principles of economics and political ideals to guidance for worship, wisdom for family and community, and a vision of social generosity. As another OT scholar has said, the law has a way of imagining the ideal world, one of compassion, rich ceremony, deep repentance, divine forgiveness, uniting cultural memory, and moral order. While we may not be bound by the law like Israel was, that does not mean that we cannot still see such wisdom in it that we say with the psalmist “Oh how I love your law . . . ” (119:97), or with Paul, “The law is holy and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12).
Reading The Old Testament As History
In the last two centuries, the Bible, and especially the OT, has become the subject of intensive historical investigation. Many in the church insist on tying the truth or inspiration of the Bible to our ability to prove the events as we see them happening in the past. But the biblical authors did not write with modern historiographical perspectives, and our reconstructions of ancient history have often turned out to be overly subjective and mistaken. So we face a serious challenge of knowing what had to happen behind the stories and poetry of the Bible, and when it does not matter. The church will have to wrestle intensely with this in decades to come. The controversial text of Genesis 1 (and recent events at Calvin College, where this controversy recently came to a head) is only the beginning, and I’ll steer well clear of that. But I will point to two other historically related issues that help to draw out challenges of reading the OT as brute history of the biblical texts.
Take our compulsive desire to find the historical situation in David’s life behind each of the psalms. Modern scholars know well that “A Psalm of David” does not mean that David wrote the psalm—he could have commissioned it, or it could have been written for him. But our keenness for David compels us to find some place in his life where he could have written it.
David is indeed central to Psalms, but not merely because he wrote some of them; he is long since dead when all 150 psalms are finally compiled. Instead, as we find so clearly in the NT, the David of history gives way to David as a sign or symbol of the Royal Son of God through whom God will fulfill his covenant. The name recalls God’s commitment to send a human king to bring deliverance, not just to Israel, but to the all the ends of the earth. So the Davidic Promise is central to the Psalms, but less so David the man.
A similar situation exists with the books of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, which are clearly tied to Solomon but probably not written by him. It has been strangely common to make belief in Solomon’s authorship of these books a litmus test for a high view of Scripture. Like the example with David above, the impulse arises from a narrow view of Scripture. None of the books in question (nor Job, Jonah, and many others) is written in a way that their references to history are tied to their authority as the Word of God. Clearly there are texts that are so tied to history—but probably fewer than we suppose. A broader perspective on what Scripture is allows us to affirm the certain history of God’s work in the past and the authors’ unique literary and rhetorical ways of capturing or re-presenting those events for us.
Unifying Theological Themes
One of the greatest challenges in reading the 39 books of the Old Testament is trying to find theological unity. We often do this with themes like God’s redemptive history, covenant, kingdom, canon, gospel, or story. Recognizing themes is kind of like mapping the terrain of the OT, especially when searching for the mountains and valleys on the horizon. But sometimes our attempts at finding unity through a theological theme can distort the image of the map because not all themes are equally valid all of the time.
We err when we force the Bible to fit a grid of one or two themes like covenant. The emphasis on covenant in Genesis is different than in Deuteronomy or in Isaiah or Amos. Most of the books of poetry make no mention of the covenant and efforts to find it there often greatly distort their content. We don’t want to put mountains on the map when the OT is showing a plain. Here, other unifying themes are needed to keep our sense of the whole. In our efforts to organize and understand, we must also allow for there to be loose ends and surprises and paths that don’t obey our constructs.
Making The Old Testament Relevant
We read Scripture, above all, so that it will come to life in the mundane events of each day. But that can be a challenge in the world of the modern West, where the mundane includes economics, neuroscience, politics, engineering, the arts, and agriculture, not to mention the unique complexities of marriage, parenting, and education today. While we probably blame a lack of time for our failure to read the Bible, the deeper cause is more likely our lack of faith in Scripture’s ability to speak meaningfully to the minutiae of the world we inhabit. But it is the very breadth of stories and poetry in OT that makes it so good at addressing the whole of the human life.
Thinking of this, I’m struck by a memory of economist Bob Goudzwaard addressing my social justice class a few years ago. Using the parable of the wise steward in Luke’s Gospel, he pointed to several remarkable and highly relevant economic principles. These were not microeconomic formulas, but nor were they the kind of exegesis common in biblical commentaries. They were reflections that bridged the gap between Scripture and life in the modern world. Goudzwaard’s case is telling, partly because his discipline is so technically sophisticated, but mostly because that hasn’t stopped him from making a life-long habit of feasting on Scripture with the expectation of fresh encounters with the Creator that illumine his work.
Goudzwaard encourages us to resist the cultural powers of progress and technology that can make the Bible seem distant and irrelevant. The Bible, as Karl Barth rightly said, is not simply a book, but a living way to encounter God in Christ. And a text that puts us in the presence of the Creator and Redeemer of our world can only promise to provide fresh and relevant wisdom for our lives here.
Indeed, if the telos of Scripture is the triune God in Christ, then we should feed upon every part of it, as often as we can, with eyes and ears open to discover more of God, of his world, and of ourselves.