Reading the Old Testament

Reading the Bible

Do you read the Old Testament much? Do you find it difficult or hard to accept?

I feel many christians have been on a journey about the Old Testament. A journey from the mountain of certainty through the marsh of doubt and ending up either in the desert of unbelief or the shoreline of new beginnings.

My journey is probably typical of many. Let me share a few glimpses of that journey in the hope that you can relate.

The mountain of certainty

I didn’t come from a religious family, but I was sent to Sunday School, and I just believed what I was taught, just like I believed in Santa. It’s not hard as a child to accept that amazing miracles, like parting the Red Sea and the sun standing still, actually happened. And it’s easy to overlook that the story of Noah entailed the violent deaths of many people.

Nothing really changed as I grew to be a teen. The Bible was true and things were simple. I don’t recall doubting anything in the Bible at that time.

I think this is the experience of many christians, whether they were raised christian or were teen converts. They believe what their parents, Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders and ministers tell them. Why wouldn’t they?

It feels good. It gives a sense of certainty, especially in the maelstrom of teenage angst.

The marsh of doubt

But sometime in my early twenties, things got more complicated.

I can’t remember for sure now, but I think the first crack in my certainty was reflecting on God’s commands for the Israelites to kill the Canaanites and take the land from them. That was hard to accept, especially since it wasn’t just killing fighting men in warfare, but killing women, children and the aged in cold blood afterwards..

It was OK for God to kill them himself, I reasoned, after all, he created them in the first place. But asking his people to commit genocide only a few years after telling them vehemently not to murder just seemed inconsistent, unfair and dangerous.

I remember coming to this conclusion and not knowing what to do with it, so I just put the whole question to one side.

Other doubts followed. I couldn’t really believe in evolution in those days, it just seemed impossible. But when I read Genesis it was just obvious to me that the creation story, with its trees with amazing powers, a talking snake and Adam giving names to all the animals, was not literally true. It was clearly a folk tale. I had read a few myths and legends, and this was much the same.

Over time I made a mental list of Old Testament difficulties – barbaric behaviour that God seemed to allow or even command (such as killing Egypt’s first born children) and bizarre stories like a talking donkey and cosmic beings that mate with women. I couldn’t believe it all, but I couldn’t feel comfortable totally rejecting it all either.

I know that many christians face up to the same difficulties.

Back to the mountain?

Some people find the marsh of doubt too scary. They don’t know how to deal with the doubts, or they simply don’t want to bother. Or perhaps other christians shame them into thinking they’re sinfully blaspheming God by questioning him.

And so they head back to certainty. They’re not really convinced, but it just seems less trouble to not question things.

These people can end up rather passive in their faith. They’re still believers, but they’re not really convinced, and so they can lack the drive needed to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.

I think many faithful but passive church attenders end up here, never totally at ease. I feel sorry for them. But fortunately, that wasn’t the path I chose.

The desert of unbelief

Many other christians also find the marsh of doubt just too much. The problems in the Old Testament show God to be a tyrant, the stories to be legendary and people who believe them to be deluded.

And so they give up their belief in Jesus, thinking that Jesus and their view of the Old Testament stand or fall together. Thinking it was all just a phase they went through. And like The Who, they won’t be fooled again. Some of them don’t find peace in their newfound scepticism, but many feel relieved to be free of it all.

I didn’t follow this path either. The New Testament was a different story. Jesus was clearly a historical character and one I felt drawn to. I had no trouble believing he was who his followers said. So I couldn’t give up belief in him.

So I found a third path.

The seashore of new beginnings

For years I just put the problems in the Old Testament to one side.

I explored the New Testament. I read dozens of books written by scholars of every persuasion – christian, Jewish, agnostic and atheist. And I learnt so much I hadn’t been taught before. It was revolutionary, in a good way.

I put my faith into practice, caring for children and teens, sharing with needy people on the margins, discussing with atheists and doubting christians.

I knew the problems were still unresolved but I could neither resolve them or deny them. So they sat on the shelf for years, probably decades. Until one day I decided it was time to look into the difficulties.

I began by praying, not intensely, but over a couple of years. I asked God to show me why the Old Testament was the way it is, and what I should do with it.

Then I started to read. Archaeology, history, science and theology. And answers started to come.

I found that CS Lewis, one of the major influences in my life, had already mapped out a way to see the Old Testament. He said it contained both myth and history. More myth at the beginning, more history at the end. This wasn’t watering down the faith, but, in his view, understanding God better.

The scholars agreed. I didn’t have to believe the Old Testament was all from God. I could believe it was a record of how God gradually revealed truth to a barbaric people living in a barbaric age. They didn’t get it all at first. They didn’t even get it all at the end when Jesus came. But the message was there for those with eyes to see it.

I was satisfied. My faith was enhanced, but not at the expense of evidence and reason. Evidence, reason and faith all came together. I’m still learning, but the jigsaw pieces all fit together.

Understanding the Old Testament

And so I have written a brief summary of what I have learnt, in How to read the Old Testament. I summarise it in these facts:

  1. The Old Testament was written in a different time and culture.
  2. It is old covenant.
  3. It was an unfolding revelation.
  4. It was written to make a point, not just to record events.
  5. It contains more than one perspective.
  6. It isn’t always literal and factual.

Reading the Old Testament

From these facts I draw seven conclusions on how we can read the Old Testament, faithfully, reasonably and profitable:

  1. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God.
  2. What was the author’s purpose?
  3. How does the passage fit in?
  4. Learn from the positive.
  5. Read it over and over again.
  6. Recognise themes and metaphors.
  7. The Holy Spirit is our friend.

Of course my journey hasn’t ended, there is still so much to learn. But the foundation is there, and I am at peace.

If these matters are relevant to you, I encourage you to read that page and check out the references.

Main photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels.
Smaller photos: Mountain by Yaroslav Shuraev from Pexels; Marsh by cottonbro from Pexels; Mountain(2) from Pixabay; Desert by Amine M’Siouri from Pexels; Seashore by Enric Cruz López from Pexels.

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