Because I’ve been teaching a couple of classes on the Old Testament for the past few weeks, it’s really been influencing my thinking of late. It seems a lot of Christians don’t like to spend much time in the Old Testament. Beyond the Creation story, a few character sketches about various heroes and villains we teach kids in Sunday School, and maybe some Psalms & Proverbs and the occasional well-selected prophesy, we tend to want to dwell on the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament for our spiritual foundations.
But I think we’re missing a lot if we don’t dig back and understand the teachings that formed the foundation for our own foundations. Because I’m convinced that EVERYTHING in what we call the Old Testament, which should probably more accurately and respectfully be referred to as the Hebrew Scriptures, points to Jesus, what he did in the world, and what he is continuing to do in our lives today.
One of the reasons I think we either spend little time or avoid altogether those ancient scriptures is that we think somehow Jesus “changed” everything when he appeared on the scene a couple thousand years ago. So somehow all of that “Old Testament Stuff” doesn’t apply to us anymore.
But I think we’re selling those teachings short by that way of thinking. Maybe instead of seeing Jesus as changing things, we should instead look at him as fulfilling them. And how we continue to live day by day in that fulfillment.
Part of our hang-up with the Hebrew Bible is its very “ancientness.” It’s hard to tell what we should take literally and what we should take figuratively. Which stories are real and historical, and which ones are symbolic and metaphorical? Was the universe really created in six literal 24-hour days? Was Abraham really in his 90s when Isaac was born? Where did manna come from? Was Goliath really 9 feet tall?
Then there are those long lists of family lines, detailed legal descriptions, and bizarre (to us) traditions…what’s up with that? Why does God seem so violent in his commands concerning the pagan nations surrounding Israel? And what on earth is Song of Songs all about?
I think sometimes we get so hung up on the minutiae, so lost in the details, that we miss the big picture of what’s happening as those narratives unfold in all of their distinct and diverse voices. And the big picture, at least to me, seems to be about preparation.
As in all things, context is the key. While individual stories, passages, and details certainly hold meaning and purpose for us today, they must be understood in their original context to be fully appreciated. And in a nutshell, the context of the Old Testament is Israel, growing into its role as God’s instrument to spread transformation and salvation to the world, learning how to know him and trust him, and, most importantly, working through all of the very human junk that gets in the way.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God is preparing Israel. He first prepares Abraham’s family to become a nation. He then prepares the nation to become set apart from the culture around them. And finally he prepares them to enter into a different kind of kingdom and to bring the rest of the world along. It is through their real context in time and space that this story of preparation unfolds.
And so to not understand this foundational context of preparation is to not really understand the fullness of Jesus and the movement to follow him. It’s not enough to say, “this is the way the world was and Jesus came to fix it.” As if God comes up with the whole Jesus plan as a last-ditch effort to save humanity after everything else has failed.
Rather, we need to see the entire scope of history unfolding, of how the Old Testament period of time was the period in which God prepared the world for something that was part of his plan all along, from the very beginning. And then to understand that there’s not a clean break between the end of the Old Testament narrative and the beginning of the New Testament, but that it was–and is–a continued–and continuing–revelation of God’s purposes.
To view Jesus simply as the solution (New Testament) to a problem (Old Testament) really sells him short. To understand his–and our–place in history, in time and space, as part of a continuing story that is still unfolding day by day, moment by moment, we need to reach back into those foundational narratives and see how we were–and still are–being prepared at every step for God to present what’s coming next.
Israel’s ancient story is still our story today. The more we embrace that notion, the closer we move to the reality God invites us into.