Reading the Old Testament with New Eyes

As Evangelicals we are quick to cite 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and affirm the sufficiency and usefulness of Scripture. Of course, when we read through the Gospels or Paul’s letters this is easy to believe. But when Paul says “all Scripture” he has the Old Testament primarily in mind. Therefore, the Old Testament is just as profitable as reading the New.

But when we start reading the Old Testament, however, it doesn’t appear to be useful in any way. Genesis gives us genealogies of people we know nothing about. Half of Exodus is blueprints for a building. Leviticus has chapters devoted entirely to skin diseases and bodily discharges. Numbers is full of  more lists and repetitive details about the tribes of Israel. Deuteronomy is an extended review of the covenant. Joshua breaks down each tribe’s land allotment. While Judges is certainly riveting, we wonder how any of it relates to us. Then we have seemingly endless cycle kings, followed by the confusing and mysterious poetry of the prophets who make references to people we don’t know and unfamiliar places.

If we haven’t given up on reading the Old Testament, we end up skimming or skipping much it. And yet, reading, understanding, and applying the Old Testament is a non-negotiable for all who follow Jesus Christ. So how do we come to see all of Scripture as profitable and glorious? We need new eyes.

Reading the Old Testament with New Eyes

Our difficulty with reading the Bible—aside from spiritual blindness and sinful hearts—often results from forgetting that it, like all literature, comes from a particular place and time in history. So, in order to read the Bible rightly, we need to understand it as Jewish Meditation Literature. What makes this type of ancient literature unique is that it is replete with mysteriousness and brevity, lacking details that we, as modern readers, have come to expect. And yet, every detail that is included—every jot and tittle—matters. In his excellent book, Through New Eyes, James Jordan writes:

The Biblical worldview is not given to us in the discursive and analytical language of philosophy and science, but in the rich and compact language of symbolism and art. It is pictured in ritual and architecture, in numerical structures and geographical directions, in symbols and types, in trees and stars. In short, it is given to us in a premodern package that seems at places very strange. (Through News Eyes, 1).

As a result, the Bible isn’t a book to be read once, in one sitting; it’s meant to be read over and over again for a lifetime: meditation literature (Psalm 1). The more it’s read, the more its strange, dense symbols and motifs unfold, and the more you begin to appreciate it. As Gregory the Great put it, the Bible is a river, shallow enough for a lambs to wade yet deep enough for elephants to swim.

So how do we read the Old Testament (and all of Scripture for that matter) with new eyes? Jordan writes, we need to “become as familiar as possible with the Bible’s own worldview, language and thought forms” (Through New Eyes, 4). And, at the very least, that requires the virtues of humility and patience.

Reading the Old Testament with Humility

Because the Old Testament is Jewish Meditation Literature, we must approach it with humility. In order to understand and appreciate the text we must set aside our own preconceived ideas and interests, letting the text shape us. James Jordan rightly notes that C.S. Lewis’ insights about art appreciation certainly apply to Scripture:

We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the [text] in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand [Scripture] makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive.

Of course, it’s not wrong to ask questions, like why primeval saints lived exceptionally long lives. But we need to learn to be content when Scripture remains silent. We need to trust that what God inspired the biblical authors to include in the text is not only there for a reason, but is sufficient. So, while we must ask questions of the text, we must ask the right questions. As Summer Lacy writes, “We [must] approach God’s Word with plenty of room to ask questions and seek understanding. As we do, though, we must not be arrogant, critical, or casual. We must acknowledge our own need to ‘receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls'” (James 1:21).

Reading the Old Testament with humility will cause us to pray for understanding when we come to a confusing or “boring” passage, rather than skip it. It leads us to meditate on strange passages rather than assume they’re pointless. Humility also keeps us from ever thinking we’ve “mastered” Scripture and have no need for it. Without humility, we will become careless readers of what God has graciously spoken to us.

Reading the Old Testament with Patience

Since the text is designed to be poured over, day and night (Ps 1:1-2; 119:97), another virtue necessary for reading the Old Testament is patience. The problem for us today, however, is that we are impatient and perpetually distracted. We need to know how many minutes an article will take to read before reading it. We want life-hacks and answers to our theological questions, and we want them now.

However, the Old Testament is not a BuzzFeed article. Simply skimming the headlines can never lead to a rich understanding and appreciation of the Scriptures. We must patiently study, dig deep, and mine the Scriptures, repeatedly exposing ourselves to its riches (cf. Acts 17:11). Jordan sums it up well:

patient reflection, meditation, and repeated exposure is required for good interpretation and full appreciation of Scripture. The impatient reader, looking for a new insight, trying to be creative, or whatever, will generally mishandle the text.

Reading with patience also shows trust in God. The patient reader knows that even when we don’t feel like we “struck gold” in our reading, we know God is working in us by his Spirit, through his word, so we keep digging.

Conclusion

For modern readers, the Old Testament is difficult and strange. The stories of the Old Testament, as Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart remind us, are selective, missing many details, and won’t always answer all our questions. To gain a rich understanding and deep appreciation of it we need to see it through new eyes, with the Spirit-produced virtues of humility and patience. Of course, this won’t happen over night. In fact, we can never exhaust the riches of God’s word. But over time, we will begin to make more connections, see what we’re supposed to see (explicitly and implicitly), and ultimately we will see Christ. Reading the Old Testament with new eyes will help us understand the theological significance of its seemingly bizarre and stories and their relevance today.

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