This post is about reasons why it is important to devote time to reading the Tanakh (Old Testament).
- Getting the full message
Years ago I was presented with a study bible, which is the main bible I read. I am very fortunate in that it not only contains guidance for understanding passages, but also has critical apparatus (textual variants) and intertextuality references. There was a phase when in my daily reading I would read not only the passage or chapter I had set myself, but would read any verses that were related as indicated in the margin.
The Old Testament is the foundation of the New Testament. It is frequently quoted directly and alluded to. However, if we were to rely only on the New Testament, we would not have the full picture. The New Testament authors and speakers usually assumed their audience was familiar with the underlying passage and expected them to contemplate the implications of the instant teaching for the rest of the passage. This might mean going to the local synagogue to read the scroll (or have it read) or recalling the rest of the passage from memory.
Let us consider the following example. In Luke 4 we see Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth (this also happens to be one of my favourite passages in Scripture, and I like the artistic presentation of it in Franco Zefirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”). Jesus reveals that He is the Messiah by reading from Isaiah 61:1 to beginning of verse 2.
If we go to the Isaiah passage we see that Jesus stopped part-way through a sentence. This tells us several things.
- The time of wrath mentioned in the rest of Isaiah 61:2 and following had not yet come.
- Jesus is the one who will execute God’s wrath on the Day of the LORD and He is the one who will rebuild Zion.
- The fulfilment of Isaiah in the first advent involved real, concrete actions: miraculous healing and provision. So too, will the eschatological wrath of God and deliverance of Zion involve real, concrete acts by Jesus the Messiah.
There are also questions arising from the New Testament that cannot (conclusively) be answered from the New Testament alone. The question of who or what the “restrainer” is in 2 Thessalonians 2 is one of these questions. Paul’s writings and the Book of Revelation provide important data, but eventually the reader has to consult the Book of Daniel, and possibly other Old Testament books.
2. The beauty of the Old Testament
The Old Testament contains some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring passages ever written. These in turn have inspired writers in subsequent cultures and periods. We would not have Milton’s Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes if the Old Testament had not been written.
For my part, like countless others, I love the rendering of these passages in the KJV. Consider the following.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
-Isaiah 53:3-6, KJV
I need not tell regular readers here what the import of this passage is – but I will say that it produces just as much awe as any passage in Revelation about the Day of the LORD – for we are sinners and that God should give His only Son to die for us is wondrous. Consider this passage therefore complementarily – for it too reveals what we truly are.
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
-Isaiah 64:6, KJV
3. The Old Testament is a candle in the dark night of the soul
The Old Testament does not shy away from the human condition – far from it. As Philip Yancey and various other authors have pointed out, it depicts us in all our moods and conditions. It shows God’s people railing at Him, crying out for an answer to the problem of evil.
St Peter tells us to cast all our cares on Christ, because Christ cares for us. This is one of the most beautiful verses of the New Testament – but it builds on people, such as the Psalmists, doing just that in the Old Testament. This crying out to God has sustained the Israelites in their sufferings through the generations, and is rendered powerfully in song in the animated film, The Prince of Egypt, which is an artistic depiction of the events of the Exodus. In the song, “Deliver us!”, we see an artistic echo of these verses from Exodus:
And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey…
-Exodus 3:7-8, KJV
In the early days of my conversion, when I read the bible in the course of a year, Ecclesiastes had little impact upon me. But when I started experiencing and coming to terms with depression, it spoke powerfully, and continues to do so. The Old Testament is a valuable resource for the dark moments in our lives.
4. It exposes us to the past
I have always been interested in history and archaeology. This is one of the reasons I studied Classics at university, went into teaching (for a season), continue to read academic material, and contribute here at AATW and on social media.
I am not the most conservative author here, but, unlike many others, in history I am so conservative as to consider that modernity begins with the classical period of Greece, particularly the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War. Although for much of history the rate of change has generally been very slow, especially compared with recent years, and although the cultures we see in the New Testament are, in many respects, far removed from our own, the New Testament has an immediacy about it that comes from its proximity to us on various basic levels.
The same is not necessarily true of the Old Testament, which reveals Bronze Age culture to us (and then goes into the Iron Age). This is a very different world and we have to work hard with ancient complementary sources to really understand it. This Bronze Age world is weird and exotic to our modern eyes.
5. Preserving the integrity of the Gospel
Lastly in this list of reasons, I should like to mention the danger posed to the integrity of the Gospel by various attacks on the Old Testament. This is essentially a slippery slope argument. The more we chip away at the historicity of the Old Testament, the more we undermine the New – because the one is based upon the other. Ultimately, if the whole edifice collapses, we are doomed – if Christ was not raised, neither will we be.
This does not mean that we should read the Old Testament crudely (I read Genesis in a manner compatible with evolution, the Big Bang, etc). It does mean, however, that we must be prepared to defend the historical core of the Old Testament and believe that God does and will act in history. This has implications for our eschatology also, which I often describe as “future history” (for I find the shock of this oxymoron to be useful as an aid for getting my point across and provoking my readers to reflection).