Why read the Old Testament?

At the theological college where I grew up (my father was the principal) the students would have an annual revue. You know the sort of thing: sketches gently ribbing their teachers, a couple of guys with guitars strumming through a tuneless ditty, even an attempt at stand-up comedy here or there.

One of the sketches has stayed with me since I saw it when I was about 14 years old. It was a pretend preaching class. The trainee preacher was given a verse from the Old Testament, and had been asked to prepare a sermon on it.

The verse was Obadiah 1:5b. Can’t recall it? I’ll quote it for you: “If grape pickers came to you, would they not leave a few grapes?”

Hmm … Think about it …

Much hilarity ensued as the poor trainee preacher struggled to make sense of this verse and to turn it into an intelligible and useful sermon. Who are the grape pickers, for us today? What are the grapes?

After all, Paul tells us in 2 Tim 3:16 that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

Still from The Prince of Egypt.

The Old Testament is back in fashion on the big screen. From The Prince of Egypt, Dreamworks Animated

Paul means in this verse the Old Testament in particular. And notice, he is telling us that the Old Testament does more for us than simply point us to Christ – although it certainly does do that. It is more than simply context for us. It is a book from which we learn the shape of the Christian life.

So, as Christians, we are committed to listening to Obadiah 1:5b, whatever it says! We cannot simply say it has no relevance to us. We need to read it as the Word of God which speaks to us today.

But then there’s the problem that the skit I watched made pretty clear: what the heck does this verse about grapes and grapepickers have to do with us in the 21st century? How is this possibly God’s Word for us today? What would you make of it if you had that as your quiet-time text for the morning?

This problem is especially acute for Gentile believers as we come to the Old Testament. The promises and stipulations of the Old Testament are not directed at us in the first instance. We realise that we are reading what is essentially someone else’s text about someone else’s history. We aren’t Jews. We’ve been invited in to look over the shoulders of the people of Israel at the history of their God and his people. The New Testament provides a lens through which we can do this. But still: we are included in the Old Testament only by special invitation.

So: how do we read the Old Testament as Holy Scripture, useful for teaching? One of the greatest early Christian theologians, Origen of Alexandria (d. 254), gave himself to this question wholeheartedly.

We too “journey” from Egypt to the Promised Land, although our exodus takes place in time not in space.

Origen is one of the most fascinating characters of the church period we call “the Patristic Era”. Origen was a determined and intense believer. And he was especially determined to listen to the whole Bible as Christian Scripture. He dedicated himself to philology, and to commentating on the Bible. He also worked out a way of interpreting the Old Testament so it made sense for Christians.

As he wrote: “We who belong to the Church accept Moses, and with good reason. We read his works because we think that he was a prophet and that God revealed himself to him. We believe that he described the mysteries to come, but with symbols and in figures and allegories, whereas before we ourselves began to teach men about the mysteries, they had already taken place, at the time appointed for them.”

This was his method of “allegorical” interpretation. What does that mean? Allegory is defined as “the representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form.”

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 6.11.20 pm

Origen’s method was to read the texts of the Old Testament in an allegorical way, acknowledging that the texts had a primary, historical sense, but that his spiritual reading would allow for those texts to have relevance for the present day – and non-Jewish – reader.

So, our ancient grape pickers? Origen would helpfully say “look at the context”: the verse is about God’s judgment on the people of Edom, Israel’s near-neighbours. Even thieves or grape pickers would leave something behind, but the judgment of God is more devastatingly complete than that.

But Origen might then be inquiring as to the moral and spiritual meaning of this verse, since we are not, as Christian readers, either Edom or Israel. Perhaps he might speculate as to what the grapes themselves symbolise, for example. His allegorising is, sadly, often fanciful. But clearly the allegorical way of reading the Old Testament isn’t going to work for us. So how do we read the Old Testament as New Testament Christians?

First, we do have to remember that the books of the Old Testament are part of a great history of the people of Israel. There are some key signposts along the way that make everything cohere. There are the promises to Abraham in Genesis 12; there’s the rescue of Israel by God through Moses and the giving to them of the law; there’s the kingship of David and the building of the temple in Jerusalem; and finally, there’s the exile of the people of Israel to Babylon.

We understand them best when we understand that we are not in the middle of that history – we are living after Christ, of course, and after the coming of the Holy Spirit. However much things might be the same, they are also crucially different for us. What might be a word to the Israel of the 6th-century BC will not be a word for us in exactly the same way.

Secondly, to read the Old Testament properly as Christians we do need to recognise that Christ is the key. The history and the promises and the commands of the Old Testament have to do with Jesus. As Paul says of Jesus in 2 Corinthians 1:20: “For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.”

What does this mean? Sometimes it means quite directly that the promises and prophecies in the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The servant in Isai
ah 53? Check. But not every passage has a promise in it. Before Origen and his fabulous allegories get to work, ask: How does this passage prefigure Christ? Many of the Psalms, for example, come to us in King David’s voice. Jesus is the King in the line of David. It helps to imagine Jesus as the speaker of many of the Psalms.

But, thirdly: while these first two steps are essential, they do not exhaust the Old Testament in its usefulness for Christians today. We know this because we can see how Paul (for one) uses the Old Testament sometimes to speak of Christian ethics, rather than to show how Christ was foreshadowed.

The great example of this comes from 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul uses the Exodus story as a warning to Christians. He writes, “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.”

The judgment of the people of Israel was a story with a moral for us today. We too “journey” from Egypt to the Promised Land, although our exodus takes place in time not in space. But we too may fall under the temptation that the Israelites fell under, and we should be warned about it.

In the words of blogger Dr William Varner,

“While not all Old Testament promises are directed individually to us, the New Testament is quite clear that they are for us.”

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Sydney and the author of several books.