- 1 Why Read the Old Testament?
- 2 Is the God of the Old Testament Harsher than the God of the New?
- 3 Getting Started
- 4 Overview with Geography
- 5 Big Points
- 6 What Kind of Material am I Reading?
- 7 How to Understand the Stories
- 8 What Exactly is a Covenant?
- 9 Questions Christians Ask about the Old Testament
- Important Final Matters
Since I was a boy I have loved the Old Testament. At first this was because it had the most interesting stories. I thought that stories about armies, battles and kings were more interesting than stories about preaching and healing. I got to know these stories very well, but apart from Proverbs, which my father would sometimes quote to me and show me how its wisdom applied in real-life situations, these stories were all the Old Testament was to me. The Psalms and prophets were incomprehensible, mysterious wastelands to be avoided. This changed when I was a young teenager. I read Psalms and some of them touched my emotions. I read Jeremiah and partially understood it. I then read Ezekiel with more interest than comprehension, both of them fading as I got farther into the book. In the years that followed, the Old Testament became precious to me. Through it I came to understand my God, His motivations, and what He is like in a way I did not get from the New Testament. This shouldn’t be surprising, since the writers of the New Testament were very familiar with the Old and assumed their readers would want to be as well. It never crossed their minds that anyone would think that their writings had replaced the Scriptures they had grown up with.
When I was twenty two there was a time I knew that something was not right in how I was relating to God. My conscience was bothering me about very small failures and shortcomings in my life and I was becoming more fearful of God. He felt more disapproving and far away. It was when I picked up Isaiah to read that I realized the problem. For a combination of reasons I had been reading and studying the New Testament exclusively for several months. When I read Isaiah it was like a gentle rain on a dry garden. I devoured it and felt my soul become full. I saw in it the magnificence of God, what He’s really like. This took away the false ideas I had developed due to my imbalanced spiritual diet of only reading the New Testament.
I don’t want you to suffer from this same imbalanced diet. I want you to read the Bible that Jesus read and taught from, the Bible Paul told Timothy to read publicly, which he said gives the reader the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. When NT authors refer to Scripture, “Inspired by God and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that God’s servants may be well-prepared for every kind of good work” they are talking primarily about the Old Testament. Early Christians didn’t call the books they read at every worship service “the Old Testament” until several centuries after Christ. They just called them, “the Scriptures.” I want you to understand the book that the New Testament writers expected followers of Jesus to hear, comprehend, obey, and love.
I am saddened that most Christians today have very little knowledge of the Old Testament, even though it is more than ¾ of the Bible and is a major part of God’s plan to renew us, repair us and make us perfect, like He is. He wants all His children, step-by-step, to become whole and complete like Himself. But you need to know that the Bible, including the Old Testament, is a powerful thing. It can transform your life, as it has that of countless millions, by bringing you in contact with the life of your Creator. It has also ruined the lives of countless millions who don’t use it to come to know God. They use it as a rulebook that tells them the bad things they must not do and good things they must do so that they can be one of the good people that God accepts. These are the religious people. They may do things which are outwardly good, but they think they’re better than others and inside they are shriveling up because they have no connection to the life of God, which is what the Bible is really given to us for.
What God is Doing
Our Creator promises that everyone who trusts in Jesus is his child. If you trust in Jesus, you are a child of God and God will treat you like His child. He will provide for you, teach you and also discipline you. He wants you to learn from Him and know Him because He knows you perfectly, inside and out. He sees the cracks in your soul, the pain you’ve suffered, the desires you feel. He knows the deepest parts of you, even those parts you don’t understand yourself, and He wants to heal you. His goal is for you one day to be perfect, though He doesn’t expect this now. He isn’t disappointed by your imperfection.
To understand God’s work in your life imagine that your father makes furniture and you are a small child, sitting on a stool, watching him. Some things he does will make sense right away but for a long time, what he is doing seems random and impossible to understand. Sometimes it seems contradictory. Why did he rub this piece of wood with that scratchy paper, but didn’t rub that other piece? Why did he use three different colors of scratchy paper on the one before that? A lot of the time he cuts wood up into smaller pieces, but other times he sticks them together which makes a bigger piece with a funny shape. Sometimes he sticks wood together with little pieces of metal that he hits really hard with a heavy tool and sometimes he uses a spinning tool to make tiny, careful holes and then presses little pieces of wood into them. Some of the tools he uses are noisy and scare you. As I said, at first this makes no sense, but over time you will come to understand much of what he is doing. You are especially helped because he actually explains a lot of it, if you care to listen.
Just like the carpenter father, what God wants is for you not only to understand Him and what He is doing, but to become a coworker with Him in this world which is His shop. To do this He doesn’t just have to give you knowledge, but also to make you the kind of person who can do the job by healing your thoughts, emotions, desires and everything about you.
To put this in more literal terms, God wants you to live more realistically and truly than you do now. He wants you to really understand yourself and the nature of the world around you and to live in it well. He wants you to live the way that is best for you and those around you, like He does. Since God is love and perfectly understands the way the world really is, He is doing what is best for you and the world. He invites you to do the same. In order to live realistically in the world you must come to God as a willing student so that He can both teach you and heal you. How do we do this?
How Do we Know God?
The main way that you can come to know God is by reading the Bible. After all, this is why we have the Bible. It isn’t a secret source of material for theologians to argue about. It’s the most concrete way you can come to know your Creator. It contains what He wants you to understand so that you can become more and more the person you are made to be. Many people who want to love God and be His followers are missing the knowledge of God that comes through His Word, and many aren’t aware of what they’re missing. Lots of people go to church and enjoy the emotions they get during the singing. For many, that’s why they go. But if this describes you, you will have to admit that on Monday you feel and think the same way you did on the Saturday before. This is because you are not being changed by the music. Music has a purpose, but it isn’t transformation. To be transformed you must fill your mind and allow it to be renewed by God’s revelation, which is the Bible, most of which is the Old Testament.
When Jesus was growing up, He came to know His Heavenly Father through reading the Bible. When He preached about the Kingdom of God, He validated that what He said about God was true by referring to the Bible. When His followers went out and proclaimed the message of Jesus, people recognized that it was true because it agreed with the message of the Bible (Acts 17:10-11). People recognized the mark of what was and was not from God by meeting Him in the Bible. So the first and most obvious way to know God more is by studying the Bible. We should never forget that the Bible Jesus used and the apostles preached from and that validated Jesus’ message is what we call the Old Testament.
The Old Testament: A Nice Day Spa
Even though three quarters of the Bible is the Old Testament and the New Testament stands on the shoulders of the Old, most people have very little idea what it says, and even fewer ever read it. Some Christians read the Psalms and a maybe a few other places, but this is like someone using a five-thousand room mansion as a day spa. They use a side entrance which leads to this wonderful spa which they visit when they’re aching. They get a nice massage and take a refreshing dip in the pool. They haven’t even looked at the rest of the house and assume that most of it is filled with dust and cobwebs and probably lacks central heating and running water. They don’t think they need this huge old house because they live most of the time in a nice modern house called the New Testament, or What I Hear in Church. It’s very comfortable. This is where almost all their knowledge of the faith comes from.
This is not a good situation. After Jesus rose from the dead, the only time he said anything negative to his followers was when he criticized some of them for not understanding the Old Testament. “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27 NIV)” “Moses and the Prophets” means the Old Testament. Not understanding the Old Testament meant His followers didn’t fully understand Jesus. This isn’t surprising, since most of what we know about God is contained in the 77% of the Bible that is the Old Testament.
New Testament Incomplete without the Old
Reading the New Testament without knowing the Old is like walking into a movie at the climax and expecting to understand it. Let’s say the movie was long and had a great plot. It was filled with ups and downs, the characters were really great and the conclusion was brilliant. It was the best movie you’ve ever seen. You were really excited to see that the ending leaves room for a sequel and you can’t wait for the next one to come out. What would you think of your friend who only saw the last twenty minutes of the movie, agreed that it was great and wanted to see the next one, but refused to watch the film from the beginning, because he knows how it ends up? Wouldn’t you think he was fooling himself that he really understands the movie?
Since the New Testament was never meant to be read without the Old, there a many subjects that the New Testament barely touches because it doesn’t need to. It’s sad when Christians scramble around the New Testament for guidance on some subject, trying to draw a conclusion from the few hints they find here and there when the Old Testament has a lot to say about it.
The Old Testament contains most of what God has to say about daily life, the enjoyment of everyday things, romance, sex, money, society, poverty, international relations, the environment, war, slavery, and the emotions of life. It is where God teaches us how to pray and how to worship. It contains a songbook and has most of what God says about music. It has room for arguing with God, expressing our negative thoughts and feelings to Him. It also has more room for uncertainty than most Christians are comfortable with. A Christian who studies the Old Testament should be less likely to give simplistic answers to difficult questions than one who does not, though the Old Testament is not a cure for this unfortunate human tendency. The Old Testament makes some Christians uncomfortable because it challenges the simplistic half-truths they hold with a more complex picture. Some people are happy with a simple half-truth and don’t want to lose it.
However, the Old Testament is not all complex. If you read it there are some things that will come through to you with great force, such as the absolute, rock-steady faithfulness of God. In fact, the biggest reason I read the Old Testament, the thing that drives me to read it more than all the other reasons combined, is that in it I see the beauty of God.
You might be surprised by one way the Old and New Testaments are different. When you’re suffering, whether emotionally or physically, you will tend to find more comfort in the Old Testament than the New. As you get to know the Old Testament better you will see why I made this bold statement, but part of the reason has to do with the way each Testament uses the idea of promise. Both Old and New are about God’s promises, but from different angles. Promise in the New Testament tends to be oriented on the future. Jesus died, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. So we His followers are waiting for His promised return, the final fulfillment of all things. Because of this, Christians tend to think of God’s promises as something like contracts awaiting future fulfillment, even if they are partially fulfilled now (we have the Holy Spirit as a downpayment, for example Eph. 1:14). The Old Testament idea of promise is much more like a wedding vow. God promises to be near His people, to care for us, to be present with us. Of course there is a future element to this, because it means that whatever happens tomorrow, God will be present there, too, but overall promise in the Old Testament tends to be about the now. When you are hurting, the assurance of God’s presence now is usually more comforting that the assurance that one day the suffering will be over. The New Testament’s emphasis on a future resurrection is added to the promise of God’s faithful presence now which we already have in the Old Testament.
Someone might object that the New Testament also assures us that God is present with us. This is certainly true, but on the whole, the Old Testament is more oriented on the present life than the future. In fact, one of the most often-quoted verses of assurance in the New Testament, Hebrews 13:5b “I will never leave you, nor forsake you,” is a quotation from the Old (Deut. 31:5).
Some of you may not want to read the Old because you are content with what you know of God from the New. The “mean” God you think you see in the Old is scary and you’d rather not know him. Are you afraid to meet the God of the Old Testament? He is the same God as the God of the New. How could He not be? Is it possible that this refusal means that the God you love is really an idol you’ve created? You have to ask yourself if you really believe that God is good. Are you willing to learn more about what His goodness looks like? Or do you already know exactly what goodness looks like and demand that God fit your idea? As you learn from the Old Testament you will see that it is not bad news you have to brace yourself for, but good news you hadn’t heard, even if at first glance it doesn’t seem that way.
If you do object to the picture of God the Old Testament presents, I don’t want you to think I’m saying that you have no reason to question some of God’s actions or inaction in the Old Testament. There are things that happened that should bother you. Some things are much harder to understand than others. What I’m asking you to do is to give God the same respect you would give a friend who knocked down a little boy. When you see the boy, bruised, hurting and scared, you could get mad at your friend and refuse to speak to her, or you could ask why she did it and find out that she had knocked the boy out of the path of a car, and been hurt herself as a result. I’m asking you to remember that what God is doing is ridding the world of evil with its suffering and restoring the human race to paradise. This is more important than any human improvement project, rescue effort, or life-saving procedure. Maybe the Surgeon is cutting more than you think He should and in many more places than you expect, because the cancer He’s fighting is far more pervasive than you know. You need to see the whole picture and see that it is good news you have not heard. You can’t know God as He wants you to know Him without interacting with the Old Testament.
A Christian who has not interacted with the Old Testament is like someone with a vitamin deficiency. People live with vitamin deficiencies, but their health isn’t the best. If you don’t read the Old Testament, your spiritual health is negatively impacted in ways you don’t know. I’m not saying that you are a lower-tier Christian, or that God is angry or disappointed with you. I am saying that you are missing out on something wonderful He is offering you, and something which is a normal part of Christian development.
If some of what you have just read doesn’t make much sense to you because you don’t read the Bible at all, or not much, or you have just started, it’s still true that if you absorb what the Old Testament says, your life will improve. You will understand the world and the people around you better than you ever could otherwise. You are not in a bad place to learn to understand and appreciate the Old Testament. One of the major barriers to understanding is that people have to break habits of thinking they have gotten from misguided teaching at church and from reading the New Testament alone. Usually, what they know from church isn’t wrong, but oversimplified. This leads to reading the Bible with questions about a narrow range of topics, like thinking that Christianity is only or mostly about being forgiven for our sin. This causes us to miss most of the point. These habits can be hard to break, so if you are starting fresh you have that advantage.
Let me say now that you are able to read and understand the Old Testament. It may seem impossible or at least very difficult, but if you can understand what I’m saying now, you can certainly understand the Old Testament. You need just a small amount of teaching and you can make a good beginning. With some practice and a little more information, you can be a competent reader of the Old Testament. The major barrier is just taking the time.
Fortunately, the Old Testament is very diverse. It contains stories, songs, prophecies, proverbs, laws and other types of material. Instead of looking at the whole thing and thinking you could never understand all of it, you should realize you don’t have to know everything in order to begin. You never have to learn a subject all at once. You start out as a beginner and slowly add to your understanding. This is how you have learned everything in your life. The Old Testament is no different.
Because it’s so diverse, some sections are much easier than others. If you begin with the beginner books, they will build your knowledge base, enabling you to understand the harder ones. You shouldn’t try to tackle prophetic books until you are familiar with the historical books. Even within a category of book, such as prophecy, some are easier than others. Jeremiah, for example, is much easier to understand than Ezekiel and I recommend you read it first. If you do, you will find Ezekiel easier to follow.
Perhaps you have already read the Old Testament and, when you do, you get something out of it, but would like to learn more. I hope what you find here will also be helpful for you, although much of what you read you will already know, since we begin at a basic level. It is short enough that you won’t spend too much time reading things you already know and it will almost certainly sharpen your insight by putting more tools in your interpreter’s toolbox – the set of skills that we unconsciously use when we read anything.
This is the first in a series of lessons to help people begin to read and understand the Old Testament for themselves. My goal is that by the end you will feel confident that you can begin to read and comprehend the foundational books of the Bible, and that you will want to read it. It will not make you an expert or even prepare you to master the harder sections, such as the prophets. However, soon, I will add another series of lessons to help you move from being beginning readers to solid, intermediate readers. When you become an intermediate reader you can read almost any passage in the Old Testament and generally understand it, and what you don’t understand you will recognize why you don’t understand it yet. But for now, this is a series of ten lessons of about twenty minutes each which will help you begin to read this foundational portion of God’s Word.