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An Introduction to the Old Testament (G.G.)

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This is an opinion article from a user of WikiChristian.

By Graham Llewellyn Grove, 2009

The following is a short introductory article prepared for a group of Christians who were preparing to read the Old Testament together over 100 days.

Lots of books or one book?

I reckon that the Old Testament is an amazing piece of literature. It contains lots of smaller books that were written between about 1400 BC and 200 BC in the ancient Hebrew language that have all been combined together into the one Old Testament. Although it is a collection of ancient books that were written by humans, it is also God's word. The Israelite people and Christians through the ages, and most importantly, Jesus, recognized that the words contained in the Old Testament, although human in origin, are also divine in origin. God has inspired the authors and spoken through them to bring us his message of the Old Testament (and of course, the New Testament).

What type of literature is it?

As I read through the Old Testament, I'm always struck by the varied styles of writing. Some of it is poetry. Some of it is history and some of that history is very detailed and yet other parts seem to skip over much of the detail. There are wise sayings and proverbs and there are prophecies, many of which are very poetic.

Behind all of these different types of writing though, is a sense of unity. The Old Testament (and indeed the whole Bible) seems to be giving us a clear message: God has created everything and everyone. People have not acknowledged this truth and God has been working through history, initially through one family (Abraham's family) and then through one country (Israel), to help people to again turn back to him. This process has been full of bumps on the way but the ultimate aim that becomes clear in the Old Testament is that God himself would come to restore the world - something that started to be fulfilled when Jesus came, but won't be completed until the end of time when he returns.

But what to do with those difficult questions that arise?

As I read the Old Testament, sometimes I'm struck by difficult questions. Most readers of the Old Testament sometimes find themselves asking questions. Questions like

  • How could God command Israel to destroy other nations?
  • How do you reconcile the creation account with scientific theories?
  • Are all these strange ancient laws really relevant to me today?

If you find yourself asking these sorts of questions from time to time, don't feel guilty. It's okay to ask questions. As a Christian though, I believe there are a few very important starting point that we should accept in faith

  • God is real
  • He is a loving and merciful God
  • He is a holy God who rightfully requires us to acknowledge who he is
  • The Bible is his message for us
  • The Bible is true

If we start with these principles, we can then acknowledge some other truths. These include:

  • When God caused the books of the Bible to be written, he wanted to speak into the culture and context of the time (as well as knowing that we would be reading it thousands of years after). Given that we are separated in time from the original readers by thousands of years, we don't actually understand their culture(s) well enough to understand everything that is in the Old Testament.
  • Likewise, God spoke using literature that made sense to the people of the time. So, their way of writing down and understanding history may have been different than our way of understanding history. For example:
    • People in the ancient world may not have had the same requirement for specific, exact, accurate chronology as we do today.
    • Similarly, their use of exaggeration and expressions may be different than ours. We say things like "never in a million years would I think that" or "I always do this". Its helpful therefore to bear in mind that people in the ancient world also would have used exaggeration and expressions that we may not be familiar with.
  • God sees the hearts of people in a way that we cannot. He will make judgements that are just and right, even if, from a human point of view, we can't see that.

So what does this look like in practice? Well, let's take a few obvious examples.

A great example is the creation account in Genesis. As you read it, you might decide that in Genesis 1-3 God is answering the question of how the world was created and how humans rebelled against God and so understand that it is like a video description of the world being created in 6 literal 24-hour days. In this case, you may decide that the common scientific belief that the universe is billions of years old must be wrong. You will have arrived at this decision in good faith and you should be comfortable with your view. On the other hand, you may instead think that God is answering the question of who created the world and what human nature is like, and so consider that it is more a poetic description that shows that there is only one true God who created the world, rather than many gods (such as the sun and the moon that were worshipped by many people in the ancient world) or no God (such as is a common belief today). In this case you may feel that there is no contradiction between the common scientific belief of an ancient universe and the Bible because they are looking at different things. This conclusion has also been arrived at in good faith and you should be comfortable with it. It is helpful to recognize that although ultimately only one of the two views is strictly correct, both views are reached in good faith believing that the Old Testament is God's true word. And so, it is important not to make others feel belittled because they have the opposite view to you.

Another good example is what to do with laws like the forbidding of getting tattoos in Leviticus 19. As you read it, you might decide that God is forbidding tattoos outright for all time (even though you don't understand exactly why). Thus you'll decide that to get a tattoo would be disobedient to God. You have arrived at this decision in good faith and should be comfortable with it. Conversely, you might decide that God was forbidding tattoos specifically for that time because tattoos where part of other local religions and God did not want his people to be associated with other religions in any way at all. Thus you'll have no issue with tattoos today. You have also arrived at this decision in good faith and should be comfortable with it.

Of course, there will be many questions that arise where the answer remains unclear. And that's okay - we don't have to understand everything - God increases our understanding over time as we continue our Christian walk, read his word, pray about it and talk to others about it. So when difficult questions arise, it's okay to ask them, to talk about them, to disagree and even to remain unsure.

Final thoughts

Enjoy reading the Old Testament. It's God's word! It's hard at times but it's also beautiful!

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