Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Understanding the Old Testament

I have a relatively new love for the Old Testament.  Like most people, I tended toward the New Testament for my Bible reading because it seemed more straight to the point to me; it was teaching instead of stories (a lot of which seemed to be repeated over and over).  And like most people, this was due to an improper understanding of what the Old Testament actually is.  The New Testament is full of propositions and logical arguments that, while maybe not easy to interpret per se, seem to "hit home" more than obscure Old Testament passages that are steeped in culture and history.  This is absolutely not true, and is due mostly to not understanding the way the Old Testament is to be read.

Before I get ahead of myself, I need to direct you to this very short and helpful article that details 10 principles for reading the Old Testament, particularly narrative portions of the OT.  The 10 principles are as follows, with my comments:

1. A narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine but rather illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere.  This basically means that the Old Testament doesn't tell you theology in direct statements, such as "God is love."  You won't find that in the OT.  But what you will find are stories that illustrate this truth.  A great study to do to see how this works is one on the names of God.  There is tons of theology in the names of God, and the way God communicates those portions of his character and nature are by stories of his interactions with people.

2. A narrative records simply what happened, not necessarily what should have happened or what should happen every time.  This is important to understand when reading the OT.  What we read is simply history.  It's a detailed retelling of events.  Maybe things didn't go as planned, or as God commanded them to go, but the author is retelling an event.  More on this below.

3. We're not always told at the end of the narrative what was good and bad; narratives invite reflection and thoughtful pondering based on other teachings.  This is incredibly important to get a grasp of.  Just because someone did something doesn't make a particular action good, profitable, or even godly.  This is one reason the argument that the Bible doesn't have a definition of marriage because the pattern for biblical marriage, especially in the OT, is polygamy.  While this may be true, it doesn't mean that that's the pattern for marriage that God endorses.  Again, the author is simply reporting the facts, not adding commentary.

4. The things that happen in a narrative are not necessarily a positive example for us, even if the person is a positive figure by and large.  To see the truth of this, just read the stories of Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc.  Guess what: people are sinners!  And they were sinners in the OT as well.  David was "a man after God's own heart" but committed terrible sins.  Does this nullify his status as being a man who was vehemently pursuing God?  No.

5. Most people are far from perfection; so are their actions.  This is very similar to the above point.  Just because people in the OT sinned, sometimes in grand ways, it doesn't mean they weren't one of God's people.

6. All narratives are incomplete and selective in details; sometimes what is left out is as important as what is included (what is important is that we know everything the inspired author intended us to know).  I would add to this that we know what the Holy Spirit wants us to know from what the author wrote or didn't write.  The point is, though, that when we read narratives, we need to realize that the author is writing with a purpose in mind, and what he chooses to include or not include is based on his purpose in recounting the story.

7. A narrative is not written to answer all our theological questions and they are misinterpreted if we come with our questions, rather than the questions the narrator wants to answer.  This is basic hermeneutics: letting the text do the talking while limiting the influence of our personal preunderstandings and presuppositions as much as possible.

8. God is the real "good" character and hero of all biblical narrative; he is the only one always worthy of emulation.  This is incredibly important, and is a lesson I learned while evaluating children's Sunday School curriculum for Riverview.  We tend to treat OT Bible stories as character examinations of the people in them without ever looking at the real star of the story: God.  In other words, in the story of David and Goliath, I am not to learn how to be brave from David's example; rather, I am to learn that God is a great God who can and does defeat all his enemies - no one is stronger than him.  God is the main character and hero of every story in the OT.

9. The historical narratives are always to be interpreted by the teaching material.  This is another basic lesson in hermeneutics: scripture interprets scripture.  This means that what we learn about God in the OT stories we interpret through propositional statements and teachings found elsewhere in scripture.

10. Always remember that Jesus told us the story is about him; you haven't finished understanding the narrative as a Christian until you see how it helps you to understand and know and love him.  This is made apparent when Jesus meets the two travelers after his resurrection.  He shows them how all of the scriptures (which was only the OT at the time) pointed to him.  Unless we are looking for Jesus in the OT (and he's there, in every verse), we are missing something.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I have grown to love the OT.  And for all of its supposed weirdness that I used to think it had, I actually find the OT easier to interpret and understand now than I do the New Testament!  I love stories, and I love learning from stories.  That's basically what a large part of the OT actually is: asking ourselves, what does this story tell us about God, and what does it tell us about me?

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