Thinking About Old Testament “History”

For four years, my husband and I worked with undergraduate students at the University of Virginia. Our biggest (and most favorite) responsibility was directing a residential program in which 20 students lived together and learned together. The culture of UVA is very high pressure and competitive, challenging students to always do more and do better. Generally speaking, our students were raised in the Evangelical tradition, committed to their Christian faith, active leaders in Christian groups on campus, and took the Bible very seriously. We were these students‘ landlords, mentors, and teachers. We spent a lot of time fighting their perfectionism and tendency toward legalism, and we were constantly encouraging them to have grace for themselves. They are the audience for my blog, and Ethan is my husband, in case that’s not clear.

We all know that I’m no theologian. How many times in our Bible studies and classes do you hear me say, “I have a theological fun fact for you!”? Never. It’s always “an exegetical fun fact!” or “a lexical fun fact!” But today, I must venture into the realm of theological discourse, and you must come with me, because what we’ve learned so far this semester has begged us to ask the question: What is the Old Testament? Or maybe more specifically, What is the Old Testament for?

Some of our readings and discussions this semester have challenged our views of Scripture, especially teachings about biblical inerrancy and affirmations we read in the Chicago Statement.  What part of the history told in the Old Testament is actually true? Did God write this? Is it all just Judah’s propaganda? What does this mean for the authority of Scripture over our lives? If I don’t agree 100% with the Chicago Statement, am I a bad Christian? Am I a Christian at all?

Well, let’s all stop spiraling for a minute and see if we can come up with any answers.

It is true that the Old Testament is a text with a bias, and we have to acknowledge that. (That’s why I’m over here trying to do theology. This can’t just be a biblical studies blog, because we might not be able to fully rely on the Bible’s self-definition…) But in some ways, isn’t all communication biased? When I talk or text or email or make a face at someone, I do that in order to elicit a response from them. How many of us proofread emails to our professors ten times before we send them, trying to anticipate how they’ll interpret our words and our punctuation choices? We know that what we say and how we say it has an effect, and we try to control that effect.

I am not a packrat. I literally threw away my childhood teddy bear before our last move. But Ethan won’t let me throw away any of my journals, because he says if I die, they’re going to be precious to him. This means I have to die before Ethan does, because I am horrified at the idea of him reading those journals. Those journals are me talking to God, and generally speaking I am more honest with God about my frustrations with Ethan than I am with Ethan himself. When Ethan and I are disagreeing, I am very careful about the language I use, because I am communicating with purpose. I want to reconcile or to clear up a misunderstanding; I don’t want to say something flippant that hurts his feelings and makes things worse. But with God? I sort of just spew words onto the page. So now, in addition to understanding why I have to outlive my husband, hopefully you see the point that communication is purposeful.

What is the purpose of the Old Testament? First, let’s acknowledge that the Old Testament only becomes “the Old Testament” when we get the New Testament. “Old Testament” is very Christian language, which leads us to consider how Christians use the Old Testament. We’ve talked a lot about the use of the OT in the NT, and some of it has also made us very uncomfortable. The way these NT authors use their sources would never fly for one of your papers for your classes, but they had different practices. And one of their major practices was to read Jesus into the Old Testament. They saw him everywhere! The Old Testament is like the interpretive key that unlocks who Jesus is and what he has done in the world. Sabbath. Promised land. Kingship. Presence of God. Sacrificial lamb. Joshua. Moses. Adam. Son of Abraham, son of David, son of God, son of human. These are just some of the themes we’ve traced throughout the biblical story, and each one of them is enriched by the Old Testament’s witness.

Second, let’s take the Christian focus away for a second and ask what the purpose of the Hebrew Bible was. Sure, they expected a Messiah, but they weren’t just writing these Scriptures in order to make Jesus way cooler when he arrived.

Much of the Hebrew Bible is origin stories, explanations for the way things are in the world. Why are there 7 days in a week? Why is work hard and childbirth painful? Where did the different languages and nations come from? And more theological questions, too. Who created the world and keeps it running? What is the relationship of humanity to the earth and the animals? Why is there evil in the world? These origin stories aren’t intended as historical narratives but as explanations for how Israel understood their world and their God. Another purpose for the Hebrew Bible is creating a unified identity for these Yahweh-worshipers, which they could hold onto despite their experience of exile and diaspora. These stories gave them a people to belong to and hope for a better future for them but also for the whole world.

Now that we’ve addressed our concern with the bias of the Old Testament and considered its purpose, we can remind ourselves that it’s a bit arrogant to judge this ancient book according to our (largely unreasonable) expectations that it be a 100% true and accurate depiction of historical fact… oh, and that it also reveals God to us. Is it possible that we’ve gotten our priorities mixed up? Maybe we should be focusing on the “reveal God” part.

Hebrews 1:1 talks about how God spoke previously by the prophets at many times and in many ways. But here’s an exegetical fun fact for you! (You knew I had to sneak in at least one, right?) The transition to Hebrews 1:2 in all of your translations (except Libby’s, shout out to the CSB!) uses the conjunction “but,” which is not at all present in the Greek text! A contrast between God speaking through the prophets and God speaking through Jesus becomes pronounced because of translation choices, while in the Greek we get a sense of continuity instead. What’s my point? (1) Learn Greek, and (2) When we talk about God revealing himself, we need to remember that the revelation in the prophets is continued and made more full in the Incarnation.

Advent is a great time to be thinking about this, because this season emphasizes the expectation for Jesus throughout the Old Testament and focuses us on the amazing reality that God became a human being. God’s revelation is always contextual, always embedded in the real human world, and the Incarnation is the best example of this. We talk about this principle all the time when we’re trying to discern which commands of Scripture are culturally-embedded and what the transcendent principles are. This is why learning about the culture of the biblical authors enriches our reading, and this is why we often have to do an extra step of applying the text to our contemporary context. The bias of the Old Testament is just another example of God’s ability to use genuinely human stuff for divine purposes. Despite the historical problems with the Old Testament, its perspective and its theology are useful in revealing God to us.

Some of what’s been disconcerting this semester is to see how negative the Old Testament’s portrayal of other peoples is. It’s one thing to say that Moab and Ammon came from Lot’s daughters raping their father if it actually happened that way in history, but it seems unnecessarily cruel to say something like that if it’s just because Israel thinks they’re better than Moab and Ammon. Buckle up, because I’m going to say something that might shock you: Not all parts of the Bible are equally edifying for the Christian.

I know, I know, I’m the one who is always trying to get you to read biblical genealogies and see the theology behind the summaries of the different Israelite kings. And I do think it’s worth reading the whole Bible! But we all know that when times are hard, there are certain books that you turn to. And you know there are passages you’ve heard preached a million times, but you’ve been doing just fine in your Christian walk without knowing what’s distinct about Zephaniah. 

Maybe we just don’t need to build our theology off the incestuous beginnings of Moab and Ammon.

Jesus is our lens for interpreting the Bible, so when we consider the stories in the Old Testament, we evaluate them based on their relationship to Jesus’s life and teaching. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reinterprets parts of the Old Testament law to show their true meaning. The command not to murder becomes a command not to harbor hatred toward another, and the command not to commit adultery becomes a command not to lust after another. Jesus dines with sinners, touches people who are unclean, and shows mercy to people the religious leaders turn away. The New Testament authors were selective in how they used the Old Testament, including which stories and themes they drew on. It’s okay for us to be the same way.

This approach to the Bible is not a disregarding of the authority of the text; it’s a recognition that this foreign text must be used carefully and applied with discernment. We honor the Bible when we consider it according to its own standards, rather than trying to wedge it into our contemporary ones. We also prioritize learning about the God it reveals rather than trying to harmonize the history it portrays, which seems like a much better use of our time!

And finally, I must remind you, friends, that asking whether or not you’re a bad Christian is the wrong question. Being a Christian is not a class you’ll be graded on. A Christian isn’t someone who perfectly follows the commands of the Bible, who manages to work Jesus into every conversation they have with a non-Christian classmate and never skips a single morning of Bible reading and prayer. Christians aren’t people who never get angry with their roommate or do their schoolwork with joy 100% of the time. And Christians aren’t even the people who have the correct interpretation of every biblical passage or can articulate perfect theology and deftly avoid heresy at every turn.

What is a Christian? A Christian is someone who knows they need the saving grace of Jesus Christ. If you’re still feeling troubled about the Old Testament, or if you aren’t ready to articulate a doctrine of Scripture right now, that’s okay. Remember: It’s not perfect theology that saves you.

One response to “Thinking About Old Testament “History””

  1. Thank you for your work on this article! I really appreciate your pastoral teaching tone throughout. The point where you highlight that being primarily concerned with historicity is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the text was brilliantly done. I also appreciated how you addressed the jarring nature of some OT passages. This article did a wonderful job of faithfully interacting with difficult concepts and accomplished its task well. Thank you!

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