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Approaching the Old Testament
Studying the Old Testament is a monumental task, but proper preparation can help the student to reap a rich harvest. The sovereign God who created the universe, who controls history, and who will accomplish his plan in his time has chosen to speak. That in itself is an act of grace, and it behooves us to listen. However, listening may be hindered by many complicating factors. First, God's revelation did not come in the English language or through Western culture. As a result we may have to work harder to receive the message clearly. The more familiar students can become with ancient Near Eastern culture, particularly that of Israel, during the Old Testament period, the more barriers they can eliminate.
A second complicating factor is that even when we are listening, we have a tendency either to be selective about what we hear or to try to make the message conform to what we want to hear. The solution to this is to allow the Bible to speak for itself. We all have presuppositions about the Bible. These need to be constantly evaluated and refined lest they distort the teaching of the Bible. The objectives of the biblical authors must not be subordinated to our own objectives, however worthy the latter may be. There are many valuable things to be learned from the Old Testament, but not all are things that the Old Testament is trying to teach. If students desire to reap authoritative teaching from the text, they must learn to discern what the text is teaching rather than superimposing their own ideas on it. When the Bible is allowed to speak from its own vantage point and with its own agenda, the reader can be more open to learn what it is intending to teach.
As God's self-revelation, the objective of the Old Testament is that the reader comes to know God better. This process, however, is not intended to be merely cognitive. Instead, knowing God is accomplished by experiencing his attributes. Being able to list God's attributes is insignificant. What must be achieved is that his attributes become the framework of our worldview. By this we mean that our perspective on ourselves, our society, our world, our history, our conduct, our decisions--everything--should be knit together by an informed and integrated view of God. The Old Testament's objective is not transformed lives, though knowing God should transform one's life. The Old Testament's objective is not the adoption of a value system, though a value system would certainly be one outcome of knowing God in a real way. The Old Testament is not a repository of historical role models, dusty hymns, and obscure prophetic sayings, but God's invitation to hear his story.
This story of God begins with creation. The emphasis, however, is not on how the world began, but on how the plan began. Everything was just right for the execution of God's plan. In that sense, creation is simply the introduction to history. God's sovereignty is initially vouchsafed by the fact that he created. While this cannot help but deny any sovereignty to other deities, its intention is not to provide polemic against the pagan polytheism of the day. Rather than taking a negative approach that denounces and refutes other deities, the Old Testament takes the positive approach of telling what the one true God is like and what he has done.
As history begins, it will be observed that the Old Testament is concerned with political or social aspects of history only in a secondary way. The primary interest of this history is how God has revealed himself to people in the past. One reflection of this can be found in the names of God that permeate the pages of Scripture. These names portray him as a God who is holy, almighty, most high, and the one who has caused everything to be. Yet he is also a God who hears, sees, and provides. The habitual rebellion and feeblemindedness of mankind shows him by contrast a God of patience and grace.
Just as creation flows into history, so history flows into prophecy. God's plan was initiated in the beginning, was worked out through history, and will continue until all is accomplished. By seeing God's plan worked out in the past (the Pentateuch and the historical books) and projected into the future (prophetic literature), we can begin to appreciate the unfathomable wisdom of God, who is worthy of praise and worship (Psalms and wisdom literature). The Old Testament, then, should be viewed as a presentation of God's attributes in action. We can know who God is and what he is like by hearing what he has done and intends to do. Once we know who he is and what he is like, the appropriate responses are worship, commitment, and service.
At the core of this self-revelation, delineating the plan of God, is the covenant. Even the English designation 'Old Testament' indicates that the covenant is the core concept of this collection of books (testament = covenant). Through the covenant God both reveals what he is like and obliges himself to a particular course of action. His loyalty (hesed) to the covenant frequently leads him to acts of grace and mercy, but justice is also built into the covenant to ensure accountability by his people.
Since the covenant is the instrument used by God to effect self-revelation, the Old Testament often appears to be the history of the covenant, or of aspects of it, more than a history of Israel. So Genesis 12-50 is a history of the establishment of the Abrahamic covenant. Exodus-Deuteronomy is a history of the establishment of the covenant at Sinai. Joshua is a record of God's faithfulness to the covenant, while Judges is a record of Israel's unfaithfulness to the covenant. The books of Samuel and Kings are a history of the covenant of kingship (the Davidic covenant). It is the covenant as God's plan that is more in focus than the people who are involved generation after generation.