Here are 3 (interrelated) things about the Old Testament that have been driven home to me over the past 28 years ever since I set foot in a doctoral program, and that ring clear and true like a church bell on a crisp winter night.
No, these aren’t the only three things worth knowing. But once seen in action, there is no turning back, and pieces of the Old Testament puzzle come together.
1. The Old Testament contains diverse theologies and perspectives that reflect the personalities, purposes, and changing times of the biblical writers. Without accepting that, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Jonah and Nahum, and the contradictory law codes of the Pentateuch will forever be a problem.
2. The Old Testament as a collection of books took shape in response to the crisis of the Babylonian exile 586-539 BCE. Every book of our Old Testament was either composed or edited from the 6th century BCE on. Without an exile there would be no Bible because there would be no need for a Bible to recount and relive the past. And without the exile, the Judaism and the Christianity we know, which are rooted in the Bible, would not exist.
3. The writings of the Old Testament are more windows onto the times in which they were written than they are historical accounts of the events they describe. Though David was a historical figure, 1 Samuel doesn’t give us the “life of David” as much as how David came to be seen long after his death. Likewise, the story of Manasseh in 2 Chronicles does not tell us about the history of the 7th century king but how that king’s reign came to be understood in the 4th century BCE. In other words, wherever we are in the Old Testament, we are seeing the theology of the writer.
These are three vital insights of biblical studies that—I will shout from a rooftop—cannot be dismissed.
But that’s not my point. Yes, these are true, but so what?
What I find exciting about them is that they actually open doors for me to explore the Bible and my faith from fresh angles.
This isn’t about being edgy for edgy’s sake, but respecting and relating to the Bible’s own character, how it actually behaves, and not projecting onto it what we think has to be there or keeping it a safe distance away from our gaze, behind a glass partition.
A willingness to accept how Scripture comes to us is a mark of faith and trust in God, not an act of disloyalty to God.
On that point, here is one of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes about the nature of the Bible:
[There] is one argument [about the nature of Scripture] which we should beware of using [when trying to define the nature of Scripture]: God must have done what is best, this is best, therefore God has done this. For we are mortals and do not know what is best for us, and it is dangerous to prescribe what God must have done–especially when we cannot, for the life of us, see that He has after all done it. (Reflections on the Psalms)
Not the clearest Lewis has even been, and it may take a couple of times reading it before the lightbulb goes off, but it’s a pretty profound statement that we can keep in front of us anytime we open the Bible.
[I glimpse at these sorts of historical issues in down-to-earth language in The Bible Tells Me So.]