- 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
Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure
King – Kingdoms
Kicked Out – Came Back
We have now gone over the story of the Old Testament three times. I hope that you are generally familiar with it. When you read, knowing the overall story will help you make sense of the particular section you are in. Now we are going to look at some particularly important points in the story and I will tell you how each of these should influence how you understand the world in general and particularly how you understand the Old Testament.
The Starting Point
In order to understand something, it is usually best to start at the beginning. This is where the Bible starts and at this starting point we learn something very important. The first verse of the Bible reads, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The verses that follow describes God’s act of creation. This introduces us to the most basic fact about reality: there are two types of real things. On the one hand, there is God, and on the other is everything else. God is totally and fundamentally different from everything else that exists. Everything else includes the whole physical universe, you, me, and every other person, and all spiritual beings such as angels, demons and Satan. Everything else derives its existence from God. None of it would exist if God had not chosen to make it exist, and it only continues to exist because God chooses to keep it in existence. In Job it says: “If God were to take back his spirit and withdraw his breath, all life would cease, and humanity would turn again to dust” (Job 34:14-15 NLT).
God, on the other hand, exists in and of Himself. He doesn’t need anyone or anything else. His decision to create something else was totally free. He didn’t have to do it. He could have existed eternally enjoying the intimate fellowship of the three persons that make up the one God. He didn’t create the world because He was lonely. What’s more, He will never need anything else or be dependent on something other than himself. This is what I mean when I say that there are two types of real things. There are dependent real things, which are everything you can see, and there is the independent Source, God the Creator.
The fact that God is the totally independent source of everything should effect the way we think about everything in life, though it may not be obvious at first. All things naturally derive from God and belong to God. The universe is designed by God. Everything takes it meaning from God. This is not the way most people see reality. Most see reality as basically one thing. They view God or their gods as part of the universe in some sense, a being (or beings) that is really powerful, but not different in the sense I described above. They think of their god as needing something from them. They conceive of God as owing us certain things. They think that they have rights that God should respect, as if there is some source of rights other than God himself. Someone who doesn’t understand this will misunderstand the whole Old Testament because they are working from a wrong idea of the nature of our relationship with God.
We also see in Genesis 1 that everything God created was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The world was made a good place. When the universe is running in harmony with how God wants it to be, then it’s good. Because everything else comes from God, we can only define what’s good based on God, His nature and His design, just as water can’t rise higher than its source.
Goodness can only come from God. When Adam and Eve decided that they, and not God, would choose what is good and evil for themselves, it was incredibly stupid; but we can repeat this same mistake every day. God isn’t just the only source of goodness, He’s also the only source of power and life. It’s impossible that there be another source. This is why God writes,
“Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth;
For I am God, and there is no other.
“I have sworn by Myself,
The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness
And will not turn back,
That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.
“They will say of Me, ‘Only in the Lord are righteousness and strength.’ (Is. 45:22-24 NASV)
Why must people turn to God for deliverance and salvation? Because He’s the only source of righteousness and strength, or we could say “goodness and power,” and so He’s the only one who can actually save. It’s a good thing that saving is exactly what He wants to do.
I want to give you a caution here. Knowing that God is the perfect, ultimate being can also be a source of confusion. We each have our own ideas of what a perfect being should be like and make assumptions about what God must be like based on them. Because we get most of these ideas from our culture, we share them with the people around us. Therefore it can be very hard to see that they are just our ideas and not necessarily what God is like. When He became a man and was born as Jesus the Messiah, the Jewish people had developed ideas about what the Messiah must be like and what he must do; these caused most of them not to recognize Jesus for who He was. The idea that the Savior would be killed by those he came to save is scandalous and shocking, but beautiful when you come to grips with it. We face a similar danger now. In Europe and the English-speaking world, people have the incorrect idea that the highest virtue is acceptance of others and that love means only kindness. This leads many to assume that God must be completely accepting, at least of me. If you are from somewhere else, maybe you are blessed not to have this false idea, but you certainly have your own. Christians have their own set of ideas about what God “must” be like, how he must reveal Himself, how He must deal with us. We must ask the Lord to help us put these ideas aside so that we can clearly see who He really is as we read the Old Testament which He has given us precisely so that we can know Him. Seeing the real God is far more glorious than any of our idols and illusions.
So when you read the Old Testament remember that God is the source of everything, that no move away from Him and no ideas that are out of harmony with His can ever have good consequences. God is the boss, the driving force, and you are about to read the book in which He tells us about Himself. He gave it so that you could know Him and relate to Him in the way He created you to.
Human Creation and Rebellion
The next point also begins in Genesis chapter 1, but stretches to chapter 3. God made humanity, men and women, “in His own image” (Gen. 1:26-30). This means that we are like Him in many ways. It also means that we are His representatives on earth, meant to ensure His will was done here, to ensure that everything operates as it should. It also means that God’s intention is to relate to us. When I said above that God doesn’t need us and we don’t have any natural rights as far as God is concerned, this wasn’t bad news. It’s good news. It means that God relates to us and cares for us because He wants to. God doesn’t offer us a codependent relationship, but one based on true, selfless love.
Since we are in God’s image, the idea of His relating to us isn’t absurd. The question, “Why would God become a man to save humanity? That’s like a man becoming an ant to save antkind,” forgets the fact that God made us like Himself and made us so that we could relate to Him. God doesn’t need us, as I said above, but He does want us. We matter very much to Him. We matter so much to God that each of us will have a personal interview with our Creator in which we review the events and choices of our lives. Many people reject the idea that God will judge us because they don’t see it as the honor that it is. They don’t see how it demonstrates your value. What’s more, He has done the work that takes the sting out of our sins and failures. Rom. 8:1; John 5:24; Eph. 1:7; Heb. 2:14-15.
Here we also find that God has an enemy, described here as the Serpent and later identified as the Devil or Satan. He deceived Adam and Eve by influencing them to doubt God’s good intentions toward them. Despite the fact that God had placed this first couple in a perfect garden and told them that they could freely eat from any tree except one, the Serpent said that God was keeping something good from them. They had been warned by God that if they were to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would die, but the Serpent said that this was not true. If they ate they would be like God, knowing good and evil. They believed Satan and ate.
When the Serpent said that Adam and Eve would “know good and evil,” the Bible is not saying that they would learn right from wrong, for they knew that they should not eat of the tree; they knew it was wrong. It also doesn’t mean that they would have an experiential knowledge of good and evil (that they would experience good and evil) because it says that if they know good and evil they will be like God. God cannot do evil, and does not have an experiential knowledge of evil. The idea is that they will know for themselves what is good and what is bad. This means that they will rely on their own understanding. They will make their own way and carve their own path. This is the choice they made and the choice all of us have made. We see the disastrous results in human history.
Understanding the nature of the Fall or Rebellion of humanity should also shed some light on the salvation we are offered today. Adam and Eve turned away from trusting God and chose to trust the Devil and their own judgment. We have all done the same thing. What is required for us is to have a relationship with God, to begin to know God and to have the forgiveness He extends to all who come to Him. This is the reverse of that decision which was made in the Garden. We have to return our trust to God, to take our allegiance from the Devil and give it back to God.
These two stories, of Creation and the Rebellion (or Fall) of Humanity, answer one of the most basic questions of life: what is evil? If God is only good and is all-powerful, then why does evil exist? We see that evil is not a thing, just as a shadow is not a thing. A shadow is an absence of light that happens when something gets between a light source and something else. Evil was not created, but is the natural result when one of the creatures God created chooses to reject God and do what it desires instead of what He desires. So evil is a matter of orientation. Is an action oriented toward God and His will, or away from it? This is also why there are degrees of evil. When a man and woman, who are not married, have sex out of affection for each other, it isn’t God’s will and so it’s evil. But if this happens because one has promised the other a job promotion in return, then this is more evil. At least in the first case, the couple is motivated by affection. This is a good thing connected to the original purpose for sex, even if it falls short of the lifelong commitment which God says must be present if sex is to be good. I don’t mean that commitment is necessary for sex to feel good, but it is necessary for it to be in harmony with the nature of life as God made it, for it to have the place in our lives it should have so that it can produce good ultimate results. Both of these cases will certainly have negative consequences, but the second will be worse for the hearts of those involved because it uses sex as a commodity for exchange, something it was never designed to be.
Evil comes from making choices that are out of step with reality as God made it. He made the earth to function in a harmonious way so that it’s a good place to live. When a factory dumps chemicals in a river and kills all the fish, this is evil. God makes each human being equally in his image as an independent person to be loved and respected. When we look at others with contempt, we forget that they are made in God’s image. When we feed a sexual desire for someone without regard to their desires, we treat them as an object and not a person. Sex was designed to be a union between two committed people. A human being is not something to be had like a nice meal, or used like a tool. All this behavior is evil because it is out of step with reality as God made it.
In fact, much of God’s judgment is just allowing people to experience the consequences of their decisions, giving them the freedom they desire. He says,
“Your own wickedness will correct you,
and your apostasies will reprove you;
Know therefore and see that it is evil and bitter
for you to forsake the LORD your God
and the dread of me is not in you. (Jer. 2:19 NASB)”
This is also why God says that there is no rest (or peace) for the wicked. After offering peace and healing to those far and near, God says:
“No rest for the wicked” is a phrase you might hear sometimes. This is where it comes from. Do you see that God is not cursing the wicked here, but describing what happens when someone insists on finding his own way? He will never find peace because what he is doing doesn’t fit with the nature of the world as God made it. He insists on pursuing his own desires and since we all have conflicting desires within ourselves, we can never be satisfied when we make them our goal. The wicked have left the oasis to find another source of water where they can be king, but there is no other source. Unless they return, they will wander, forever thirsty. God “leads out the prisoners into prosperity, Only the rebellious dwell in a parched land. (Ps. 68:6 NASB)”
The other very important point we see here at the beginning of the Bible is that human choices have real consequences and so are very important. When God created Adam and Eve with the power to chose, he wasn’t bluffing. They made a disastrous choice and the Lord allowed them to do it. The situation has not changed. Your choices have real consequences and are important.
God Gets the Ball Rolling
After the first eleven chapters of Genesis, it appears that this “Creation” idea was a failure, but God doesn’t see it this way. The next point in the story we need to take a deeper look at is when God called Abraham. Abraham’s story is found in Genesis 12-25. There we read that God chose Abraham to be the founder of a nation which He would use to undo human rebellion and redeem the world. He told Abraham to leave his family and people so that he could become a nation, and Abraham obeyed. In these stories we see themes that will be important through the rest of the Bible: faith in God, righteousness, relationship with God, intercession, and substitution. Abraham acted in faith in God’s promises, doing things that only make sense if God is really going to act and intervene in real life. We see that God wanted Abraham to understand justice and righteousness so that the nation that comes from him would be an example to the other nations. Speaking to himself about Abraham, God says
“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him. (Gen. 18:17-19 ESV)”
God was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because they were so wicked. Abraham’s response was to intercede for these people. He respectfully argues with God, saying
“Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Gen. 18:23-25 NIV)”
Do you see that when God chose Abraham, He chose someone whose was concerned for the rest of the world, not just himself and his family? This is because his heart was like God’s heart. God does not take any pleasure in destroying the wicked. He would much rather that they turn from their evil ways so He can bless them (Ez. 18:23; 33:11). Abraham was also someone who spoke with God, interacted with God, and wanted to relate to God. This is what the Lord desires from all of us. Later, after waiting for decades, Abraham and his wife Sarah finally had the son they were promised, but then God told Abraham that the promised son was to be sacrificed. Abraham went to obey, but God stopped him and gave a ram to offer as a substitute. In this episode we see a foreshadowing of Jesus, the ultimate promised Son, who was sacrificed. We see that God did not spare his Son, as he did for Abraham and Sarah, but offered Him as the ultimate substitute for the sin of the world.
During the life of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob (also named Israel), God directed the family to move to Egypt, where they lived for several centuries, isolated from contact with other nations. In Egypt, the Israelites grew in numbers until they were no longer just a large family, but a nation. When it came time for the Lord to resume His work with them and bring them to their land, they were slaves to the Egyptians. The Egyptian’s king, the Pharaoh, refused to let them go. The Lord viewed Israel as His firstborn son (Ex. 4:22-23). A firstborn son had certain responsibilities in that time as they still do in much of the world today. A firstborn is expected to share in and continue the father’s work, to take on the responsibility to care for the rest of the family. When it came time for Israel to begin the duty of blessing all the nations of the world by bringing them back to a right relationship with God, Pharaoh would not let them go. This resulted in a contest of power between Egypt’s gods and Israel’s God. At the end of the most one-sided fight in history, God’s firstborn was free to leave, while Egypt suffered the loss of all her firstborns.
God’s deliverance of Israel from servitude in Egypt was one of the central events of her history. However, the point is not that God brought Israel out of Egypt to free them from slavery, but He brought them out of serving the world into a life of serving Him. He had a job for them. They were to participate in His work by being a light to the other nations. He made an agreement with them which we call the Mosaic Covenant, but I must skip this because I will write about it later.
After several centuries, the Lord chose David to be king of Israel based on what He saw in David’s heart. When David said that he wanted to build a house for God, God responded by saying, “You will not build a house for me. Instead I will build a house for you.” (2 Sam. 7:4-16) Meaning that God promised that David’s descendants (the “house of David”) would rule forever. This is important not only because it meant that the Savior would be a descendant of David, but it reveals that the promised Messiah would be royal. He would not be just a savior from sin, but a king, the ruler of the human race and all creation.
Exile and Return
The final point to focus on is that ultimately, Israel was a failure. Israel didn’t keep up its end of the Mosaic Covenant. Israel didn’t function as a light to other nations. Israel eventually was thrown out of God’s Promised Land, but after seventy years they were allowed to return, but not to have a king. So the Old Testament ends on a note of waiting. They have seen a partial fulfillment of what God promised, but not all. This shouldn’t surprise us, since the book of Genesis ended with Israel living several centuries in Egypt, growing, but not having what God had promised Abraham. Then Deuteronomy ends with Israel as a nation who have a special relationship with God, but they don’t possess the Promised Land. They have partial fulfillment, and are waiting for the rest. Then the whole Old Testament ends as Israel is brought back to the land, but are waiting for the full promises of God to come to completion. Then, Jesus came and we can think that with His death, Resurrection, and Ascension to rule at the Father’s right hand God’s promises are fulfilled. We can assume that Israel had to wait, but we have arrived. However, the world is still a broken and painful place. We see that many more of God’s promises are indeed fulfilled and we have a much clearer understanding of God’s plans than did the believers in the Old Testament, but we don’t have everything yet. Christians, too, are waiting. We experience a mix of fulfilled promises and waiting for the final fulfillment.
The Story of Israel and Humanity is Completed in Jesus
One important question that may be on your mind when you think of the Old Testament is what is the relationship between it and Jesus, or what is the role of Jesus in relation to the Old Testament? The answer is multifaceted because there are different ways of looking at it. The first thing to know is that, in some sense, Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20).
For right now I’d like to emphasize that Jesus came to God’s people after they had failed. They had not fulfilled what the Lord wanted them to do and were being ruled by a foreign nation (this is always a sign that there is a problem between them and God). Jesus came and completed Israel’s story. His life paralleled the experiences of the nation of Israel, and he did what they could not do. We see this most strongly in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew points out that as a baby Jesus escaped a slaughter of baby boys by a ruler, went down to Egypt, and came up out of Egypt; this parallels Israel’s experience. He passed through the waters of baptism like Israel through the Red Sea. God declared Jesus to be his beloved Son, like Israel (Mt. 3:17; Ex. 4:22). He then was lead by God into the wilderness for forty days where He was tempted, much like Israel coming through the Red Sea into the wilderness for forty years. However, unlike Israel, Jesus succeeded in remaining in submission to His Father. Jesus then died and rose from the dead so that now everyone who trusts Him is joined to Him and so is part of the people of God.
We see that the end of human history, a perfect world, is not reached by human efforts, but by God’s intervention. God’s purposes will be accomplished. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day thought that some day the promised Kingdom of God would come because Israel would be faithful enough to cause it. Israel never was and the Kingdom didn’t come, at least not in they way they assumed it would. Israel thought that when the Messiah came, that would be the beginning of the age to come. Jesus’ disciples had the same expectation, but Jesus didn’t bring the end. As I said above, we are still living in tension, just like Israel did. Christians generally have the expectation that when Jesus returns then the story will end. Sin and suffering will end, but not the story. When we read the description of the New Heavens and New Earth in the last two chapters of the Bible, it sounds like the opening of a whole new story. This is the story God had originally intended us to be involved in when He created us. Our sin could not prevent God from the perfect goals He had for us. This must be true because God is who He is.
|Name||Famous stories and people|
|Foundations||Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood|
|Family||Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph|
|Fulfillment and Failure||Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering
Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth
|Kings||Saul, David, Solomon|
|Kingdoms||Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah|
|Kicked Out||Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace|
|Came Back||Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther|