In response to my previous posts on “Reading the Bible in the Right Direction,” one reader asked, “so where does one begin on this journey of rediscovering the full context of the bible through the old testament?” I think this is a great question. So in departure from my standard conceptual model of discussion, I purpose here to tease out a few practical suggestions in following the line of biblical interpretation I laid out previously.
First it would be appropriate to say that understanding the Bible in this manner (i.e., interpreting the NT through its OT context) is not only for scholars. We have to remember that the Jews in Jesus’ day were mostly illiterate, but were able to interpret his actions in their OT, Jewish context. While granted, they were living in that context, it at least tells us it is possible without a PhD in Jewish studies.
However, it also tells us that this is not something that will be fully grasped in a day or a week. The Jews in Jesus’ day had a lifetime of formation in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the story of God’s dealings with Israel. If we want to take Jesus life, words and actions seriously in their Jewish context we have to be willing to expend the effort to reorient ourselves from whatever story we have been living in (i.e., the Modern Progress Myth, the American Dream, the American Apathy, the MLB schedule, etc.) to the story of God’s dealings with his creation through the Jewish people. While not requiring post-graduate work, it does require that we immerse ourselves (this takes time and effort) in narrative thought world of the Old Testament.
And now for being practical…
1) Make reading the OT a regular part of your “spiritual diet.” Many Christians spend all their time in either the gospels or Paul (both of which I love!) but very little time elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to spend a few months reading and studying a section of the OT. Don’t worry – you won’t “get into law” and lose grace. When at a later time you come back to focus in the NT it will be richer and fuller, not diminished.
One easy way to do this is follow the OT readings in the Daily Office Lectionary, which gives two digestible portions of the OT each day, which covers most of the OT in a given year.
2) Don’t get bogged down in details. If your goal is to memorize the entire king list of Israel and Judah so be it. If your goal is to understand who Jesus is in his Jewish context and what God did in and through him, it is not critical to memorize every detail of every story in the OT. Neither is it necessary to glean every possible “principle” that can be squeezed out of each story. I think this is one of the reasons people avoid the OT – they think they need to master all the content – THIS IS NOT TRUE. What is critical is to notice the reoccurring themes and motifs and how they are functioning in the narrative. Some themes and motifs to pay attention to are: creation, covenant, exodus, promise, land, inheritance, children (progeny, childbirth, pregnancy), obedience/faithfulness, sin/idolatry, justice/injustice, forgiveness, exile, return from exile, restoration/redemption, king/kingship, life/death, temple, nations/foreigners. I’m sure there could be many others, but I think you get the point.
3) Though I may get shot for saying such, I do believe that certain parts of the OT are (a lot) more important than others. This is a corollary of the previous point. Memorizing every detail in the historical books is not essential for grasping the overall flow of the OT narrative and its primary messages. If you don’t remember who every king is and what they did, but do remember that king after king after king violated the covenant, led the people in sin and idolatry, promoting grave injustice, which was the ultimate reason for them being removed from the land, for the temple being destroyed and for them being sent into exile to be ruled over by foreign nations, you would not be far from the Kingdom of God. With that said, it is not necessary to spend months memorizing all the details unless you want to be a scholar whose expertise is in the historical books of the OT.
My humble (and open to change) opinion is that some of the more significant sections of the Bible (that bear the greatest weight in shaping first century Judaism and the NT) are Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms and Isaiah 40-55(or 66). I know these are long and scary books. Read them anyway! If you read them over and over they will in due time become familiar. As for the Psalms – I do not mean thirty selected verses in your favorite eight psalms – I mean ALL of them. There’s some weird stuff in those psalms, but they are the recorded prayer life of Israel. It is how Israel understood, interpreted and responded to the events described in the other books of the OT. I am really passionate about the book of Psalms in its entire. I am very tempted to digress, but will make a note to write an entire post on the Psalms in at a later date.
Spend time in these books attempting to grasp their key messages. If you memorize details but cannot say what the main themes are you are missing the point. Chill out with the memorization, read the books in long chunks and then reflect on what stands out as thematic.
4) Read the Bible in long chunks. I know I just said that, but it bears repeating. Do not content yourself with reading a list of isolated verses. Single verses are great for meditation and reflection, but that is not Bible study. Let there be frequent times when you read five or ten chapters of the Bible in a row. Read short books in one sitting. Find a Bible without chapter and verse divisions so to avoid artificial segmentation of sections of the Bible that need to go together (check out http://thebooksofthebible.info for a great new Bible like this).
It used to be assumed that the central unit of meaning was the smaller unit like the sentence, the word, or even parts of words. However, it is more and more being asserted that the primary unit of meaning are the larger units (paragraph, groups of paragraphs). Each individual unit only has its meaning with the whole. Apart from the whole the smaller units do not mean the same thing. For this reason it is essential that all the parts are incorporated into the larger whole. Reading verses one by one in isolation will not communicate the full meaning, because the meaning is likely in the larger unit (this approach is called discourse-analysis, in case you are interested).
5) When you see a quotation from the OT in the NT, go back and read the larger context of the quotation. I often hear remarks that the authors of the NT took OT scriptures out of context. Before you come to that conclusion, go back and read the entire passage. Then bring those ideas into the NT passage and see how interpretation may be impacted. The authors of the NT are much more subtle and their meaning is much more profound then simple proof-texting.
6) When reading the NT, regularly ask what concepts mean in the OT. What does sin and forgiveness mean in the OT? How does its connection with the exile and return in the OT impact our understanding its meaning in the NT? What does redemption mean in the OT? How does its connection with the exodus in the OT impact our understanding of it in the NT? What is a “soul” in the OT? How does this bear on our understanding of NT anthropology?
7) Stop treating the OT like a second-class member of the Bible. Last night I was talking with some people about the OT and interpreting a specific passage and someone said in jest (because they know what I think about these kind of things): “oh, its just the Old Testament,” as in, “we let weird things slide in the OT because now that we have the NT we can forget about all those other things we don’t understand.”
Let’s treat the Old Testament as real inspired and authoritative scripture. When we find things that don’t line up to our preconceived ideas, lets allow ourselves to be challenged by them rather than dismissing them as being “in the Old Testament.” The Bible is a book that refuses to be tamed by our contrived theological systems. The Bible does not need the sedatives of eisegesis to make it palatable to the modern Christian ethos. Much of what is in the OT can, will and should challenge our pre-existing ideas when we too-confidently have our concepts and ideology neatly arranged, cleaned, packaged and trimmed.