Every church has them: “Spare” Bibles. You know the Bibles your church keeps around for the absent minded, the lackadaisical and the stray atheist. Most of these “spares” are just copies that church members left at church and forgot to pick up again.
I vividly remember the “spare” Bibles from my youth Sunday School room. These “spares” were “reader versions” of the Bible, meaning that they only contained the New Testament and (occasionally) Psalms. Maybe Proverbs if you’re lucky. I used those “spare” Bibles a lot. So when the youth leader told you to take out your Bible and turn to the book of Exodus, you’d have to awkwardly read over the shoulder of your unsuspecting buddy in the folding chair next to you instead.
Now I fully understand the purpose of publishers printing copies of the Bible containing New Testament and Psalms / Proverbs only. Many outreach organizations (which I dearly love), such as Gideons International and the Navigators, hand out introductory (and free) “reader” copies of the Bible designed to point non-believers to the “Good News” of Jesus Christ. If you’ve got five minutes to make someone an evangelistic presentation, you want to point them to the solution to their problems without having to exposit Lamentations.
However, most Christians often treat the Old Testament like these “spare” copies of the Bible: We believe that the Old Testament is non-essential to the Gospel story. Or it’s filler that keeps you from the “good parts” of the Bible … It’s incomprehensible with its bloody sacrifices and levitical ceremonies … It’s boring with all of the strange names and tribes … It’s unnecessary so we take our mental scissors like Uncle Joey and cut … it … out.*
Moreover, my concern is also that most Christians simply don’t know what to do with 37 out of 39 books of the Old Testament. We treat the Old Testament like that odd uncle with a record that no one wants to talk about. Or like an unwashed child that must be immediately thrown into the bath to get cleaned up and presentable. We’re embarrassed by the levitical laws about mold and menstruation. We’re horrified of and perplexed by the violence perpetrated by God and His people, such as random judges killing Philistines with ox goads. We’re uncomfortable with the tawdry and morally ambiguous stories about the sex lives of the patriarchs. And we’re bored to tears by Chronicles, because … well … nobody likes Chronicles except my Seminary Hebrew professor. When atheists ask Christians fairly straightforward questions about Levitical food laws or the genocide found in the book of Joshua, we’re completely stumped to the point of stammering. We love our babies’ nurseries decked out in cute Noah ark themes but have no comprehension of the sheer carnage of the Flood narrative. Honestly, we’d rather just change the subject to the love of God instead of confront the messiness of the Old Testament.
Shame on us.
As a result, Christians often read the Old Testament in a variety of crazy (and incorrect) ways. Case in point: One of the retired pastors of my current church told me the mind boggling tale of how a former congregation member vehemently argued during an Old Testament Bible study that Jesus was – in fact – not Jewish. And – by osmosis – didn’t obey the Jewish festivals and food laws. I kid you not. Oy vey.
However, there are other quite popular methodologies that Christians commonly use to poorly interpret (or even attempt to make sense) of the Old Testament:
- Legalism: Legalism dumbs down the Bible into a laundry list of rules and regulations that mankind must comply with to keep oneself right with God. In this vein, every Old Testament command is taken extremely seriously, because one cannot be righteous in God’s sight without obeying every command. Like modern day Pharisees, the Old Testament commands are subsequently transformed in monstrous behemoths of legal hurdles for believers to navigate. Passages like Deuteronomy 22:5 are transformed into rules about women wearing dresses in worship. Essentially, the Bible is “life’s instruction manual,” and God will be pleased if you can just follow the rules. Of course, the Gospel informs us that people simply can’t “follow the rules,” so legalism winds up being complete non-sense (see Galatians in its entirety).
- Moralism: As a close second cousin to legalism, moralism communicates that the grand message of the Bible is one of self-improvement and good moral behavior. Moralism is rampant in Christian children literature, where the Old Testament narratives are routinely mashed up and remixed into Grimms’ fairy tales: Ruth is about family sticking together … Ester is about a proto-Disney princess … David vs. Goliath is about overcoming “giants” in your life. The grand Biblical narrative of God’s saving activity through Christ is ignored altogether. Of course, moralism faces the same fatal flaw of legalism: No one is moral or righteous apart from Christ (see Romans 3).
- Prooftexting: An agenda-driven interpretation where a snippet of obscure text is hijacked to make what you want it to say. Any shred of context must be ignored at all costs. Think Jeremiah 29:11 printed on all those coffee mugs and doormats at Family Christian bookstore.
- Bad Devotional Reading: Because randomly flipping to any given page of the Old Testament is a surefire recipe for confusion.
- Oddball Prophecy: Similar to Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, many Christians string together out-of-context Old Testament passages to justify their paranoia that (insert name of current president) is the anti-Christ and we should all build Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt bunkers. From Joseph Smith to Ellen G. White to Harold Camping, the history of Christianity is littered with charismatic leaders predicting the exact date of the end times based on obscure Old Testament passages, which – ironically – Jesus said is a pretty terrible idea.
- Patriotically: Many Christians cannot remove their cultural blinders, and apply the promises of the Abrahamic covenant to America. Tell me you haven’t seen 2 Chronicles 7:14 slapped on a bumper sticker surrounded by an American flag and a bald eagle in flight. Many believe that if only America could be more like ancient Israel, God would bring his covenant blessings upon America. Never mind that God never made a covenant with America. Or that God sent ancient Israel into exile. Certainly American exceptionalism can prevail where the Israelites failed, right?!?
- Complete Ignorance: When you don’t understand it … Just ignore it. Unfortunately, this ignorance can come from a very honest place. I have met many new Christians burning with desire to understand the Bible, so they start at Genesis 1 … Get confused by Leviticus … And give up by Deuteronomy. Like the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8, the church needs more mature believers to come alongside those yearning to learn.
Christians would do well to remember that Jesus revered the Old Testament. And – accordingly – so did Peter, Paul and the rest of the early Christian church. To reiterate the title of Philip Yancey’s popular book, the Old Testament was the Bible that Jesus (and the apostles) read. Christ never minimizes or apologizes for the Old Testament like that odd uncle that you have to invite over for Christmas. Christ never shies away from authoritatively quoting the Old Testament to disciples, Pharisees, rulers and even the Devil. Jesus publicly preaches that He came to fulfill every aspect of the Law – down to the smallest character – and not to abolish the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). And when Paul states that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” he’s referring to the Old Testament and not making a self-referential comment (2 Timothy 3:16). Similarly, both Jesus and Paul defended the message and the integrity of the Old Testament against Pharisees, Judaizers and anyone else who would defame its methods or message.
Moreover, there IS a proper methodology for Christians to read and interpret the Old Testament: Christ. In the prologue to John’s Gospel, Jesus is principally unveiled as the same Word of God that spoke creation and command into existence … now taken human flesh and tabernacling amongst mankind (John 1:1-14). In the beginning of Luke, Jesus reads a scroll containing Isaiah 61:1-2 and then tells a shellshocked crowd: “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:17-21). In the midst of John’s Gospel, Jesus brings the smack down to a bunch of legalistic Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” Similarly, Jesus taught the Emmaus Road disciples and the apostles that the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms were about Him and found fulfillment in Him (Luke 24:27, 44-49). Every sermon given by the apostles in Acts is a masterful exposition of how Christ fulfilled the Old Testament.
To get theologically nerdy for a moment, the proper hermeneutic (or interpretation) of the Old Testament is the lens of Christ and apostles. Of course, this Christocentric approach does not mean that expositors must wax allegorically about Song of Solomon or traverse a scavenger hunt for Christ in every minute detail of the Old Testament. But there is an overall Gospel narrative that frames the entirety of the Bible, and that grand story of man’s depravity and God’s gracious salvation cannot be ignored or minimized. Christ is the apex of God’s rescue. From start to finish, the New Testament is awash with the beauty and color of the Old Testament.
It’s time for Christians to stop treating the Old Testament like an awkward first date. Or a distant relative that we never go visit. We cannot understand what we don’t engage. And much of our failure to properly comprehend or interpret the Old Testament is simply an abject failure of engagement. The Psalmists’ passion for the Old Testament is described as a “deer panting for water” (Psalm 42:1) and as honey on the lips (Psalm 119:103). It’s essential for life as well as addictively sweet. In sharp contrast, our lack of passion for the Old Testament is like a child turning up his nose at broccoli … We know it’s good for us but we can’t bear digesting it. We’d rather stare at it sit on the plate, nibble around the edges and surreptitiously throw the majority out to the dogs under the table.
Is it any wonder why we treat the Old Testament as an embarrassment?
* Yes, that was a Full House joke. #sorrynotsorry