Archives For Old Testament

Perhaps that sounds creepy. Let me clarify. Preston won’t be in your living room, he will be on your computer or tablet. The whole process will be simple, affordable, and effective. Here’s how.

Preston RedReaders who have had any exposure to Preston’s writing are familiar with his grasp of the Bible. I have always been particularly impressed with his ability to teach the Old Testament in a powerful, engaging, and clear manner. While his book Fight is about violence, Preston’s overview of the Old Testament’s teaching on the issue was hugely beneficial for me in simply understanding what the Old Testament is all about. The same is true of his book Charis, which is about Grace in the Old Testament. He knows these ancient books well, and he knows how to bring them to life.

You may or may not know that Preston has taught through the entire Old Testament in three Silo courses:

The Silo format means that each of these courses consists of roughly 15 sessions, and each session consists of a 5-7 minute video and some discussion questions. This is a great format for getting an overview of something as complicated and important as the Old Testament.

Normally Silo courses are $25 each, but if you use the coupon code “abraham” you can take 40% off each of these courses (offer expires December 31, 2014). This means you can cover the Old Testament in roughly 45 five-minute sessions for only $45. Or you can study these courses with a group for even less.

If you’d like to get a feel for what these three courses are like, the first two videos for each course are embedded below. If you’re ready to go, sign up for the first course here. And if you have any questions, let us know.

 

The First Two Sessions of the Pentateuch Course

 

Old Testament: Introduction to the Pentateuch from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

Old Testament: Two Ways of Reading the Old Testament from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

 

The First Two Sessions of the Historical Books Course

Old Testament: Introduction to the Historical Books from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

Old Testament: Joshua, Part 1 from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

 

 

The First Two Sessions of the Poetic & Prophetic Books Course

Old Testament: Introduction to the Poetic & Prophetic Books from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

Old Testament: Job from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

FootballThe passion for college football in Arkansas amazes me. What happened the previous Saturday on the field and what will happen the next one saturates life in between. It even seeps into my classes. For instance, my first year as a prof, the Razorbacks and their new coach were having a lousy season. 1-6 in conference play! This particular week, the Hogs were scheduled to play their hated rivals: the infamous LSU Tigers.

We were covering Exodus 17 in class. It’s the chapter that recounts when the Amalekites ambushed the Israelites. As you remember, Joshua responds by taking up arms and leading Israel into the valley to fight. But Moses goes the other direction. He ascends the mountain and raises his arms. As long as Moses held his hands high, the Israelites were winning. Whenever he lowered his arms, however, the Amalekites got the upper hand.

I asked my students what they thought Moses was doing when he lifted his arms. Some suggested he was praying, while others suspected that he was worshipping the Lord.  Then one student—fueled with football frenzy—blurted: “I think he was calling the Hogs!” The student raised his hands and cheered the University’s trademarked cheer: “Woooooo! Pig Soooie!”[1]  As a longtime Hog fan, I appreciated the student’s enthusiasm. I also chuckled at the notion of Moses, the great Jewish lawgiver, praising pigs. I thanked the student and reinforced that the patriarch was more likely interceding on Israel’s behalf.

I used the droll distraction to inform the class that this student wasn’t the first to apply a little eisegesis[2] to Exodus 17. In the second century, an early church father filled with Christian passion wrote that Moses went upon the hill and raised his hands to form the symbol of the cross (Epistle of Barnabas 12:2). Rather than to tell of Joshua’s battle in the valley, the story was meant to foreshadow Jesus climb onto Golgotha’s hill.  Whereas in Exodus 17, Joshua[3] was introduced as a son of man, “the son of Nun”, Jesus would be declared the “Son of God.” Therefore, for this church father, Moses wasn’t so much worshipping the Lord or praying for Israel (or cheering for his favorite team): he was sharing the gospel of Christ. To be fair, the author of Barnabas read the entire Old Testament cross-eyed.[4]

I admitted to my students that as much as the New Testament scholar in me liked this interpretation, I am ultimately skeptical of this option as well. Of course, if we are going to allow something to influence our reading of the Old Testament, our love for Christ and the church are better options than football and nationalism.[5] I ended the discussion by saying that no matter what Moses was really doing, my prayer for believers is that—on this side of Moses and Jesus—we will be passionately and invariably involved in all three of our best interpretative options: worship, witness, and prayer.

(Nevertheless, maybe Moses was praying for the Razorbacks that week. In almost miraculous fashion, the Hogs went on to upset the Tigers.)[6]

 

[1] Here is an example of fans “Calling the Hogs”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyY8oUXaTio .

[2] OED: ‘The interpretation of a word or passage (of the Scriptures) by reading into it one’s own ideas.’

[3]Joshua is spelled the same as “Jesus” in Greek.

[4] Unfortunately, Barnabas’ resentment for the Jews sullied his reading too.

[5] If you’ve never read Richard Hays’s book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, I recommend it.

[6] Here’s are the highlights of that game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVlqcM2125s

ProphecyThe prophetic books of the Old Testament can be tricky. But these are important books, so it’s important that we understand how to read them well.

Old Testament prophecy is not what we tend to think it is. Duvall & Hays summarize some surprising facts about the Old Testament prophetic books:

  • Less than 5% prophesies about the time between Jesus’ first and second comings.
  • Less than 2% prophesies about Jesus (the Messiah).
  • Less than 1% prophesies about events that have not yet occurred.

Most Christians know that the Old Testament is full of prophesies about Jesus. And it is. But those prophecies are only a small fraction of what Old Testament prophecy is about. So what does the vast majority of the prophetic books cover? Sin, really. Or more accurately, the call to repentance.

When we talked about the Law, we said that it was given in a very specific context. So it is with prophecy. In fact, the context of the Law and the context of the Prophets are integrally related. The Law was part of a covenant that God made with Israel. Israel agreed to this covenant along with its terms: if they obeyed, they would be blessed and remain in the Promised Land; if they disobeyed, they would be cursed and carried off into exile.

Now, as we read the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi), the context once again centers on Israel, the covenant, and the Law. Particularly, Israel (which has by this point split into two nations: Israel and Judah) has disobeyed the Law, they have not been faithful to the covenant, so now they are facing exile. The vast majority of the prophetic books, then, is either calling Israel or Judah to repent and remember God’s covenant, promising them judgment for their disobedience, speaking to Israel or Judah in the midst of their exile and explaining how they got to where they are, or speaking consoling words of a time when they will be allowed to return to the Promised Land. (Sometimes the prophets will turn and speak to surrounding nations about judgment and repentance.)

With all of that in mind, here are some tips for navigating this difficult but rewarding genre of Scripture:

 

1. Always start by considering the historical and covenantal context.

Remember that these words weren’t written directly to you. Remember that these people are being held accountable to the covenant that God made with Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai. The relevance of each prophetic passage will extend beyond that historical situation, but it always starts there. So consider the audience, the place in which they stand (is this book written before, during, or after the exile? is it written to Israel, to Judah, or to some other nation? is the passage speaking of hope, judgment, or foretelling the future?), and what these words would have meant to them before you decide what it means for us today.

Jeremiah 29;11 PlateAn example might be helpful. We love Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I estimate that this verse covers roughly half of the decorative plates in Christian homes. But we need to consider the context. These words were written as part of a letter from Jeremiah to the leaders of the Jewish people who were in exile. The letter tells them to settle into their new exilic “home”: they’re going to be there for awhile. And then, after 70 years of being cut off from the Promised Land, God is going to gather them from the nations and return them to their home. Why? Because “he knows the plans he has for Israel.”

Go ahead and read Jeremiah 29:1–23. These words are not a promise that God’s plan for my life is bright and sunny. They are a promise to a disobedient people that they will be punished for 70 years, and then they will be allowed to return home. The context makes all the difference in understanding this passage.

 

2. Feel & visualize the imagery used.

The prophetic books are full of powerful imagery. Just as we said for the genre of poetry, enter into the imagery of the prophets. What visuals is the imagery painting? How should the imagery makes us feel, what would it have us experience? For example, Isaiah 5 confronts Israel in their disobedient response to God’s grace. But it does so by comparing Israel to a vineyard and God to a viticulturist. Take the imagery in. Consider its overall impact. Ask how this imagery would have felt to those hearing it (would they be frightened? given hope? moved to repentance?). Until you let the imagery hit you, you haven’t understood the prophecy.

 

3. Ask what you can learn about God by the way he speaks to his people in this passage.

We have so much to learn about God’s greatness, wrath, mercy, patience, faithfulness, fatherhood, persistence, etc. by reading the prophets. So we haven’t finished reading these passages until we ask what we can learn about God through his words and actions in these books. Let’s revisit Jeremiah 29:11. While we need to understand that it’s not making a promise directly to us, it’s hugely instructive to see God making this kind of promise to such a persistently disobedient people. By reading this passage carefully, we find that even though God punishes his people, he still cares for them, and offers them even more grace in the future. (So you don’t need to smash your decorative plates after all—just make sure you understand the context.)

 

I’ll end with a note about some of the biggest difficulties of interpreting prophecy. One big area of disagreement is how literally the imagery should be taken. When we are told that the lion will lie down with the lamb (Is. 11:6), is that giving us a non-literal mental image of peace or giving us a literal example of what will happen when peace reigns on earth? It’s not an easy question to settle, though the main point is clear (peace is coming!).

Then there are the prophecies about a future restoration for Israel. Are they going to be literally fulfilled in the literal nation of Israel at some point, or are these promises spiritually fulfilled in the church, the New Testament people of God? There are good arguments to be made either way. This is one of the biggest debates in biblical interpretation.

Finally, for that minority of passages that are predicting future events, when will those events occur? Once again, it’s not easy to determine. Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” While God’s Word is sure and we can trust that God knows what these events are referring to, Christians often disagree on precisely when and how these predictions of the future will play out. But don’t worry, it gets even more controversial when we get to the book of Revelation.

With this series of blog posts, I want to help you better understand the way in which the Bible was written so that you can get more out of your Bible reading. Specifically, I will be exploring the different literary genres in which the Bible was written.

Perhaps that sounds startling: “I thought the Bible was the Word of God. Why are we considering literary genres?” The simple answer is: because that’s the way God chose to record his inerrant, infallible Word. Leland Ryken explains:

“The Bible is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) a work of literature. The one thing that the Bible is not is what Christians so often picture it as being—a theological outline with proof texts attached. The characteristic way of expressing religious truth in the Bible is through story, poem, vision, and letter. By comparison, expository essays, theological discourses and sermons are a relative rarity.”[1]

So if God chose to use literary genres in communicating with us, we need to understand those genres so that we can better understand what he is saying to us. (Note to overachievers: If you want to go more in depth, Grasping God’s Word by Duvall & Hays has clear and helpful discussions of each of these genres.)

 

Tips for Reading Narrative

NarrativeHere’s how narrative passages tend to function: they tell stories. Mind blowing, I know. But it’s important to recognize this simple fact. (Keep in mind that when I call them stories, I’m not implying that they’re fictional.)

Narrative passages aren’t written about us. They’re relaying past events. Narrative passages describe more than they prescribe. They show more than they tell. These stories describe what happened. They’re not prescribing a course of action for us. They’re showing us what God and his people have done. They’re not directly telling us what to do.

Now, there is much that we can learn from narrative passages about God, his truth, and his will for our lives. But we have to first examine the stories as they have been recorded, and then we can wrestle with how these passages might or might not relate to us today. Here are some tips for doing that:

 

1. Read theologically, not moralistically.

I stole this concept from Preston Sprinkle. So often, we read narratives to find moral examples to follow. We want to imitate Joseph or David or Abraham. But we shouldn’t do what they did in every case. For one thing, these characters are flawed, so we need to ask which aspects of their lives are worthy of imitation. For another thing, God has plans for us that probably don’t involve ruling Egypt, slaying literal giants, or fathering nations. I suggest that we read not primarily to find out what the narrative tells us about David, but to find out what the narrative tells us about God. The passage tells us about God by telling us about David, but the hero in every biblical story is ultimately God, and we would do well to always keep that at the front of our minds.

 

2. Identify the setting.

While Greek mythology takes place in an imaginary world, biblical narratives are set against a real life backdrop. These events took place in real history, in real nations, in the midst of real cultures. So identifying the setting of the story will help us better understand what is going on. Sometimes you can figure this out from the passage itself, other times consulting a good Study Bible will be helpful in learning more about the setting.

 

3. Identify and assess the important characters.

Gandalf vs. SarumanWho is being set up as the hero? Who comes out looking like a villain? Does the narrator provide any clues as to who is “good” and who is “bad”? What makes the difference between a good and bad character in this story? (E.g., Is Jonah a good character because he’s a prophet of God? Are the Ninevites bad characters because they were a godless nation at the beginning of the story?) Are certain characters contrasted? How do we learn more about a given character by the comparison that is made to another character? (E.g., in The Lord of the Rings, we learn more about Gandalf the Grey by contrasting him with Saruman the White. Or looking at the Bible, what do we learn about David by comparing him to Saul when Goliath confronts the Israelites? What do we learn about David by comparing him to Uriah when David steals his wife?)

 

4. Trace the Plot

What is the setting at the beginning of the story? What conflict arises that needs to be addressed? How is that conflict addressed, and what is the outcome? If we don’t understand the plot line, we don’t understand the story.

 

5. Look for repetition.

Is the narrator repeating any phrases in the story? If so, these can be significant for understanding what he wants us to see in the story. For example, the entire book of Genesis is structured by the phrase “these are the generations of…” which turns up 12 times in the book. The book of Judges tells us four times that “in those days, there was no king in Israel” and twice that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Acknowledging these features can help us see what the narrator wants us to see.

 

6. Assess the story as a whole and ask why God wanted you to hear it.

God recorded each story in the Bible for a reason. Analyze the story as a whole, and then consider why God put that in the Bible. How should it affect you? The story isn’t about you, and you’re not meant to go out and directly repeat it. But God wanted you to have the story. What do you learn about God by reading the story? What do you gain by seeing the ways that God has worked in history? What do you learn about the nature of bravery and fear and hope and faith by reading this story?

And perhaps most importantly, what do we gain by having this story as opposed to a simple statement? (E.g., Why is it beneficial to have the story of God leading his people miraculously out of slavery in Egypt, rather than a simple statement that “God cares for his people”?)



[1] Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1989) 41.

As a Greek prof, I have fun “cold busting” my students reading contraband Bibles: namely, English translations. Some give me the old lame excuse: “But I was reading the Old Testament.” On cue, I launch into my lecture about how reading the Greek Old Testament is just as valuable because (1) it predates our current Hebrew text and (2) was the version that the NT authors chiefly quoted. I teach them Greek so that they can read both the Old and New Testaments. To drive this point home, I often begin class by having my students compare a Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) to our Hebrew text (MT). Here’s an example from my class this past week. Before you read my comments below, what differences do you see between the two versions?

 

Ps 85:6-8 (NIV based on the Hebrew text—MT) Ps 84:7-8 (My translation of the Greek OT—LXX)
Will you not revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your unfailing love, Lord,
and grant us your salvation.I will listen to what God the Lord says;
he promises peace to his people,
his faithful servants but let them not turn to folly.

 

God, after you turn to us, you will revive us,
and your people will rejoice in you.
Show us your mercy, Lord,
and grant us your salvation.I will listen to what the Lord God will say to me;
for he will speak peace to his people,
his faithful servants who are turning their heart to him.

After we translated the two versions, my students said they enjoyed how the LXX turned the rhetorical question from the MT into a confident pronouncement. That is, the MT asks God whether he will revive his people so that in return they would be able to rejoice in him. But in the LXX, it is not a matter of “if”: it’s a matter of time—“after God turns” he will give new life to his people and they will delight in him.

The students also liked how the Psalmist in the LXX makes the song more personal. In the LXX, God won’t just speak: he will speak “to me.” And finally, my students said they actually preferred the happier ending of verse 8 in the LXX to that of the MT. Rather than a prohibition to avoid turning to folly (MT), the LXX gives the positive promise to those who turn to the Lord.

A couple of my students expressed a bit of fear that I was trying to undermine their Old Testament translations. To allay their concerns, I contrasted the LXX with Siri on my iPhone. Just a few days before that class, I had decided to take a powernap. I grabbed my iPhone, pushed the button for Siri and said: “Wake me up in 25 minutes.” I am not sure what happened, but something went terribly wrong. Siri responded in her feminine robotic voice: “Okay, playing Keith Sweat songs for 25 minutes.” Wait…what? That wasn’t even close to what I said!

I told the students that unlike Siri in this instance, the LXX doesn’t totally miss what the MT was saying. Rather, it often nuances the MT and sometimes even enhances it. Some of our English translations and paraphrases do the same thing as they look for the best way to express a Hebrew word, phrase, or concept in English. To be clear, I am not arguing that we should read one over the other—just that there’s value in reading them both side by side.

(And for the record, I do not have 25 minutes worth of Keith Sweat music on my phone. Five maybe, but not 25.)

If you’d like to try it, you can read the English translation of the Greek OT here: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/ or here http://ecmarsh.com/lxx/.

I recommend starting with the popular Psalm 23 (which is Psalm 22 in the LXX).