When I read from the Old Testament writers, I cannot escape the evidence that God was very important to them. I believe the many people who wrote the Old Testament over a period of many hundreds of years identified with God and felt strongly about God. In fact, I believe they often wrote insights about God well beyond the concepts of their times.
Whoever wrote down the stories of Abraham was one of these. The writer’s Abraham found a more reasonable understanding of God than was presented in his Mesopotamian culture. Moses seems also to have conceived new ideas about God. And the Psalmists produced wonderful poetry about what they thought God was like.
Later, the prophets began to see that God was concerned for the poor and helpless and opposed their oppression by the rulers of the time, and social justice made a great leap forward over the earlier days of Israel.
The Old Testament Writers and God
These writers were not passive recipients of developing ideas about God. They were energized; they were creative; they were consumed with their insights. Perhaps God himself sometimes inspired their thoughts; but this does not in any way make their writings inerrant–or revealed knowledge. The Old Testament writers were only human, and they wrote under the limitations of their eras, their cultures, and their comprehension of God.
What these writers thought and wrote over those many centuries matters a lot. We benefit from their efforts and conclusions, and it would be a great loss if we did not have their insights and stories. But the words they wrote are not revealed knowledge. They are not the inerrant word of God. They do not constitute an authority that we must heed.
We must not read the human Old Testament writings as God’s authoritative words, but we must read the Old Testament properly with the understanding that while many of the writers are amazing they are still humans writing under the limitations of their eras, their cultures, and their comprehension of God.
The Old Testament as Literature
I have come to read the books of the Old Testament as I do any book. Some parts are interesting; some parts are not. Some parts ring true; some do not. Some parts inspire me; some certainly do not.
One part of the Old Testament that really speaks to me is the quest of Abraham; I can identify with his quest. Another is the writings of the prophets about oppression, and a third is the philosophical questions of the book of Job. These Old Testament writings have influenced my life tremendously, but other readers might have different reading experiences.
A number of writers have significantly influenced my life—C. S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Richard Adams. They inspire me, but I do not think they are inerrant; their writings are not the authoritative word of God. The same is true of the Old Testament.
In some cases, I believe the Old Testament writers were mistaken. This is not to their discredit; for the most part, their understandings of God were improvements over what had gone before—but what they wrote was incomplete and sometimes deficient. Some writers misunderstood God as a god of anger, violence, and war; and this seems contrary to what Jesus tells us of the Father.
The Old Testament in the Light of Jesus
I also read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus. This does not mean that I ‘look for Jesus’ in the Old Testament or count the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus fulfilled. Rather, Jesus is my standard in understanding God, and Jesus’ picture of God often conflicts with what I see in the Old Testament. This definitely makes a difference in how I evaluate what I read.
I read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus because were it not for Jesus I would likely have no particular interest in the Old Testament at all. It is the story of a people who are not my people. I am very interested in stories of other peoples, but without Jesus I would not be any more interested in the story of the Old Testament than I am in the story of the people of England, or the people of China, or the people of India. The fact that the Old Testament story is part of the story of Jesus makes it of more interest to me.
Believers should follow the teachings and example of Jesus. We must not accept the record of the developing concepts of a people, rooted in the experiences of the wandering bronze-age Mesopotamian named Abraham, as the authoritative and inerrant words of God.
Let me know what you think regarding the nature of the Old Testament. Next time, we will discuss the nature of the New Testament.
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