Understanding Old Testament Stories

desertYesterday morning at Kilmallie Free Church we were thinking about Moses’s encounter with Yahweh, the LORD, at the burning bush. I spoke a little about how we are to understand the stories of the Old Testament – and promised that more about this would appear here on World Without End…

In our churches, in our Bible studies, we often read Old Testament stories and then immediately try to relate them to the New Testament somehow, usually to Jesus Christ. Or, we immediately apply them to our lives today somehow. Or, we do both. The impulses that drive this aren’t wrong. The Jesus Storybook Bible is right: every story whispers His name. And, God’s word always has relevance to our daily lives. But, we need to make the right moves in the right order when we’re trying to understand God’s word.

First, we need to listen to the story we’re reading. How would this story sound to those that first read it? To God’s people before the coming of Messiah? We often make huge assumptions about the stories of the Old Testament. Although they might whisper the name of the Messiah, they are not straightforward allegories about Jesus. Not everything in the Old Testament, or in the New Testament for that matter, is about Jesus. The grand story of the Bible is a story of a God who is a Trinity – Father and Holy Spirit, as well as Son – and it’s about his created world, and humanity, and his chosen people. So it’s not all about Jesus. God speaks in the Old Testament about many things: about his creation, about sin, about justice, about forgiveness, about hope. Most of all, he speaks his intentions for this world, and for humanity, and about the redemption of those intentions from the jaws of disaster. If we make everything immediately about Jesus, we don’t hear God’s word. We become deaf to it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in terms of listening to the ‘next to last word’ if we are to understand the ‘last word’. He wrote ‘I don’t think it is Christian to want to get to the New Testament too soon and too directly.’

Second, and connected to this, we need to understand the place of the Old Testament story we’re reading within the grand story. This is to affirm the value of history. When we make any Old Testament story an allegory of some New Testament story, we deny the value of history. Ironically, we’re then acting like ancient pagans who tended to think of the world either as a ever-repeated cycle of stories, or of ‘lower’ earthly stories that mirrored ‘higher’ heavenly realities. As Christians, we ought to affirm history. God’s creative and redemptive action is in time. Always. And forever. A lot of our talk of eternity forgets this. We are created to exist in time, whether in this age, or the next. We affirm history – and the grand story of God’s purposes.

So, to take an example, the exodus of God’s people from Egypt, and their journey to the promised land is not primarily a picture of our redemption from sin and our pilgrimage to heaven. It’s a story of how God delivered his covenant people from oppression in order to establish his kingdom on earth. It’s part of the grand story of how from one man, Abraham, God’s promises for the redemption of all things are being made real. Without the exodus to the promised land, there would be no City of God, no King David, no promises of a Messiah, no Bethlehem, no Sermon on the Mount, no Calvary, no Empty Tomb, no Great Commission, no Church. By faith, we have become children of Abraham, and so this story is the story of our ancestors. It’s become part of our heritage, our history.

Once we approach the stories like this, we’re in a better position to see how they relate to the New Testament, and to Jesus himself. And to understand how they speak to us today. God’s promises of redemption for human beings and the world are being fulfilled step-by-step, in the grand story. That’s why themes keep re-appearing. And with Jesus Christ we see the guarantee of these promises, and the final movement towards their full realisation. And this is the trajectory along which we hear the whispers of His name, and understand our own place in the story.

Like the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, far from being allegories that require some lifting to a higher, spiritual plane (that whole idea is wrong), the stories of the Old Testament remind us of a God of humility who works the Extraordinary in the Everyday. They affirm the goodness of life in this world, in the nitty-gritty, the ordinariness. Whether it’s the compromised murderer Moses meeting God in a bramble bush amongst the dirt, dung and rocks of the desert, or left-handed Ehud stabbing Eglon with a homemade bowie knife in the toilet, God’s extraordinary purposes unfold through the nitty-gritty lives of ordinary extraordinary people who follow him in faith.

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