Good Questions: Why Bother with the Old Testament?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

So many good people I know never read from the Old Testament. I suppose I should be happy if they read any Bible at all. But I suspect that a thicket of misconceptions blind people to the marvelous treasure that these 39 books truly are.

My Ph.D. is in Old Testament, so I don’t want to appear defensive… It’s worth recalling that what we call the Old Testament was, for Jesus and all the first Christians, their Bible, the only Scriptures they knew. Mary knew it by heart, and its stories of Hannah, Miriam, Moses and Jeremiah prepared her to hear the angel inviting her to mother God’s Son. When the New Testament writers craft their portrayals of Jesus and why he matters, they quote and allude to the Old Testament on every page. As Martin Luther put it, those 39 books form the swaddling clothes in which the baby Jesus was laid.

The God of the Old Testament is the One Jesus prayed to as Abba, Father. We might think of this God as a wrathful rule-enforcer, launching genocide and preferring the Jews at the expense of other people. I’ll offer 3 replies. If the OT God seems wrathful and merciless, you haven’t read the New Testament – or the Old. Jesus and the NT writers voice plenty of hard threats, and the OT God displays tremendous mercy and patience.

The Old Testament does here and there (not often) depict God urging the Israelites to slaughter some enemies. We know for sure that the authors (or the slaughterers!) mis-heard God or imposed their rage onto God – and we know this from the Bible itself, which big picture is most clearly against war, rage and killing.

The Jews are God’s chosen people – but God chose them to be a light and hope for everybody else. Just as God used one guy, Jesus, and his small band of disciples to spread out and rescue a lost world, so God’s plan had been and continued to be using certain people to live not for themselves but others.

What I adore about the Old Testament that is hard to locate in the New is the omnipresence of real life. We read of rocky marriages, sibling squabbles, unspeakable human sorrow, harsh weather, farms, businesses, you name it: God in daily existence, which is where we meet and need God. We see corrupt leaders and political maneuvering – and God’s prophets exposing their chicanery and demanding goodness. The prophets turn their gaze also on regular folk, unveiling their vapid, self-indulgent lives and summoning them to holiness. The Old Testament even dares to study the long plot of the history of the world’s nations, and to make sense of what God is up to, judging the rapacious winners and pledging justice in the long run.

The Old Testament is chock full of thoughtful, moving prayers and songs. When Jesus prayed in his final hour, he picked prayers from the Psalms. We still sing hymns rich in Old Testament verbiage (like my favorites, “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Here I Am, Lord”). The book people say doesn’t speak to them gives us Job and his agonized outbursts at God when suffering so severely – and his lousy friends who blame him! And that book gives us astonishingly lovely romantic poetry: the Song of Solomon’s pair of lovers long for one another, praise one another, and converse eloquently, delicious erotic without ever being tawdry.

We’ve not even mentioned to glories of creation, God fashioning a mind-boggling world of astonishing scope, intricate detail, and diverse beauty. Or the emotionally riveting stories of God bringing good out of evil: the reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers (Genesis 45) may well be the zenith of all of Scripture, if not all of human literature.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, keeping his chin up in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote that “My thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like those of the Old Testament. It is only when knows the unutterability of the name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ; it is only when one loves life and this earth so much that one may believe in the resurrection; it is only when one submits to God’s law that one may speak of grace. It is not Christian to want to take our thoughts and feelings too directly from the New Testament.”