I think it is safe to say that, outside of a few famous Sunday School versions of a few Old Testament stories, a handful of Psalms, and a number of select Proverbs, the majority of the Old Testament is completely ignored by most Christians. The reason is obvious: most don’t really know what the Old Testament is, and all those genealogies and really odd laws seem not only foreign, but ultimately needless and irrelevant.
The thing is, though, as I’ve learned from personal experience, and as I tell my students, not only will you never fully understand the New Testament without a basic grasp of the Old Testament, but the Old Testament in and of itself is worthy of study. That being said, though, it can certainly be daunting: it is so massive, seemingly disjointed, and so very confusing. Now, no written introduction can ever clearly explain everything about the Old Testament, any more than a brief introduction in high school history textbook can adequately cover the long and complex history of the United States. If you want to come to a more complete understanding of the Old Testament, there really is only one way: start reading and exploring the Old Testament world. It is only through personal interaction that one will ever even begin to make sense of the Old Testament.
The next two posts will provide you a few “exploratory aides” to help you in your journey through the Old Testament. This is part of my introduction to my own translation of The Torah and Former Prophets that I’ve just self-published. Consider them a sort of compass and map to help you navigate the Old Testament world.
The Old Testament Itself
The Old Testament is actually a collection of 39 books, written roughly over a span of 1,000 years, and it covers the entire history of ancient Israel. It contains narratives (stories), laws, poetry, prophecies, proverbs, as well as many other genres. We are going to focus our attention on Old Testament narratives and prophecy, but before we can do so, we must be sure we have a good understanding of the overarching historical story found in the Old Testament. The reason why we need to be familiar with the Old Testament story is because it defines who the people of Israel are, what they believe, and how they view the world around them. The same is true for any people or nation. If we were to put together an “American Testament” that told the story of America, we would probably include historical accounts of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War; we would include personal stories about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and other presidents; we would include important documents like the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Gettysburg Address; we would include major cultural figures like Babe Ruth and Martin Luther King; and we would include culturally defining plays, movies, and music.
All of these things together help define what America is, what its values are, and how it views the world. The same is true of the Old Testament: it is the story of Israel; and the reason why the story of Israel is important is because Christianity has its roots in the story of Israel. Unless you have some sort of understanding on the Old Testament story, then you will never fully understand what Christianity is all about. So what is the Old Testament Story?
The Old Testament Worldview that Unfolds Throughout Israel’s History
In a nutshell, the Jews believed themselves to be chosen people of YHWH, the creator God who was the only true God. They believed that He had entered into a covenant relationship with them, and that somehow, through them YHWH was going to put the world to rights and redeem His fallen creation. Therefore, the over-arching “meta-narrative” that runs throughout the Old Testament is the story of how YHWH is slowly but surely bringing about His salvation of the world through the nation of Israel, a flawed and sinful people. Despite their sinfulness, and despite the fact they continually break YHWH’s covenant, YHWH nevertheless stays faithful to His covenant in order to bring about the salvation of the world and the renewal of His creation.
The place where this all starts is in Genesis 12, with YHWH’s covenant with Abraham. But before that, there is Genesis 1-11 to consider, for Genesis 1-11 acts as the prologue to the entire Old Testament. It tells the stories of creation, the fall, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, and the Tower of Babel. By the end of chapter 11, the situation is this: God’s creation is lost, fallen, and sinful, scattered throughout the earth. The main question at this point is simple: How is the creator God, YHWH (the God of Israel), going to fix His good, but fallen, creation? Simply put, how is YHWH going to redeem His creation?
The answer begins with Abraham in Genesis 12-25. The key passages we need to be familiar with are Genesis 12:1-3, and 17:1-22. It is God’s relationship with Abraham that really begins the Old Testament story of the Jews, the people of God.
In Genesis 12:1-3 we find three fundamental components to God’s covenant-promise with Abraham: (1) God promises to make Abraham’s name great; (2) God promises to make Abraham into a great nation; and (3) God promises that through Abraham all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Then, in Genesis 17:1-14, God promises a few additional things: (4) Abraham will not simply be the father of one nation, but of many nations; (5) the land of Canaan will be the Promised Land for Abraham’s descendants; and (6) as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, God orders that Abraham and every male in his household be circumcised. This is why Abraham’s descendants, the Jews, have always practiced circumcision—it serves as the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, and a sign of God’s promises in the covenant.
Moses and the Exodus
The rest of Genesis (26-50) tells the stories of the Patriarchs—Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—and ends with Jacob, now named Israel, bringing his family to Egypt to be with Joseph. The next major figure and event crucial to Jewish identity can be seen in Moses and the Exodus. The accounts surrounding Moses and the Exodus can be found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Most of us know the basic story: Moses, though a Hebrew, grew up in Pharaoh’s household, but had to flee when he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a Hebrew.
Forty years later, God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told Moses to go back to Egypt and lead Abraham’s descendants, the Hebrews, out of slavery from Egypt. It was there that God revealed to Moses His name, YHWH. When Moses returned to Egypt and demanded that Pharaoh let the Hebrews go, Pharaoh refused; therefore, YHWH sent ten plagues upon Egypt, the tenth being the Passover, when the angel of YHWH passed over every house in Egypt and killed the firstborn in every house that did not have blood on the doorposts. That night Pharaoh let the Hebrews go, but later he changed his mind tried to capture them again. It was there on the shores of the Red Sea when YHWH parted the waters to let the Hebrews pass through to the other side safely. YHWH led the Hebrews with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; YHWH’s presence was among the Hebrews in the desert—they all lived in tents, and right in the middle of them was the Tabernacle: the tent where YHWH’s presence dwelt.
Later on, they came to Mount Sinai, where YHWH made a covenant with the Hebrews and gave Moses the Ten Commandments: the Torah. It was also there where the Hebrews made the golden calf and worshiped it and were punished. It was there the Ark of the Covenant was made. In fact, all through the Exodus, the Hebrews continually rebelled against Moses and continually displayed a lack of faith in YHWH. At the end of the Exodus though, in Deuteronomy, we find Moses with the Hebrews, right outside of the Promised Land, ready to conquer it. Moses led them to the Promised Land, but it would be Joshua who would lead them in conquering it. Nevertheless, it was during the Exodus where several key things crucial to Jewish identity happened:
(1) Passover was to be celebrated every year, to commemorate Israel’s freedom from slavery.
(2) The crossing of the Red Sea became a major symbol for YHWH’s salvation and the freedom of His people.
(3) The Tabernacle was the visible proof that YHWH’s presence was among His people.
(4) The Torah was seen essentially as the “covenant charter” between YHWH and His people—if the Hebrews were being made into a nation, the Torah was basically its Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Law Code.
(5) The Ark of the Covenant held special significance because that was where the Torah Tablets were kept, and it was understood to be the very footstool of YHWH—the spot where Heaven and Earth met.
(6) The Promised Land itself represented YHWH’s salvation—as long as the Hebrews were living in the Promised Land, they were living in YHWH’s salvation.
When all these things are seen together, one is able to get a clearer understanding on the Jewish worldview: it was all about salvation, YHWH’s presence, the Torah, and the Land. Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea signaled YHWH’s salvation of His people, the descendants of Abraham, out of slavery into freedom; the existence of the Tabernacle in the desert, along with the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud, signaled YHWH’s presence among His people; the giving of the Torah and the making of the Ark of the Covenant defined YHWH’s covenant with His people; and the Promised Land summed up YHWH’s inheritance for His people—it was their salvation, it was where YHWH would dwell with them, it was where all the promises of the covenant would be fulfilled.
In addition to these things, we need to relate this back to God’s covenant with Abraham. The Hebrews held to the practice of circumcision. We find that Abraham’s descendants, the Hebrews, were indeed being made into a great nation, and were on the verge of entering into the Promised Land. But exactly how they would “be a blessing to the nations” is still to be seen. If anything, when one reads Joshua and Judges, one sees war, immorality, idol worship, and slaughter—no “blessing” seems anywhere near. The reason why, we are told in these books, is because the Hebrews failed to be faithful to YHWH’s covenant. They didn’t fully conquer the land, they fell into worshipping other gods, and they oppressed the poor and needy among them. The book of Judges shows a cycle of behavior among the Hebrews: (a) they fall away from YHWH, (b) YHWH allows them to be oppressed by foreign nations, (c) they repent and return to YHWH, (d) YHWH raises up a judge (a leader) who defeats the foreign nation and frees the Hebrews from foreign oppression. Then it all starts again.
Tomorrow, I’ll post “Part 2” of my Old Testament overview.