4 Practical Guidelines for Reading Old Testament Stories
Harold Goddard writes, "The history of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in." As we live in the modern world, we see the evidence of Goddard's statement all around us. People have particular views of the world, and those views often are driven by the stories they have embraced.
God wants to pull us into his Story and shape us by it. You may not be terribly familiar with the Old Testament stories, which play a vitally important role in telling the Grand Story, but there are a number of reasons why you should read those stories (which make up a bit less than 50% of the Old Testament). You really can't make sense of the New Testament unless you “get” the Old Testament (see Hebrews 1:1-2a). The Old Testament narrative material is great literature, and the people, events, power struggles, personal crises, and hope we find in these stories often are as relevant as this morning's news. Thus, the Old Testament stories, read in the right way, form an indispensable resource for Christian living.
But if you are like most of us, you need a bit of help in how to engage those stories really well. Here are four beginning thoughts.
1. Read the story in light of the bigger STORY of which it is a part!
Most of the Old Testament stories have a broader literary context—and a broader historical context—that can help us understand the dynamics we see in a given story. For example, when we read the story of Jacob, Esau, and "the stolen blessing" of Genesis 27, it may be a bit hard to understand why Rebekah, Jacob and Esau's mom, instructed Jacob to deceive Isaac, taking the blessing that by order of birth should have gone to his slightly older brother. From the story it is clear that a) Rebekah was partial to Jacob, who was a momma's boy (Gen. 25:28, so that is one reason she acted as she did) and b) this family had some dysfunction going! But was there something else behind Rebekah's action? In Gen. 25:21-24 we read an important bit of context:
Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife because she was childless. The LORD heard his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22 But the children inside her struggled with each other, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 And the LORD said to her:
Two nations are in your womb;
two people will come from you and be separated.
One people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.
24 When her time came to give birth, there were indeed twins in her womb.
(Gen 25:21–24 HCSB)
Notice the prophecy Rebekah received: "The older will serve the younger." It may be, therefore, that Rebekah was motivated to help Jacob get the blessing from Isaac because she felt that his superiority over Esau was ordained by God. This doesn't excuse the deception involved (that trait is woven through this family), but it may help explain it.
2. Read the story in light of its purpose.
Sometimes there are clues in the story or its broader context that tell us something about what the author wants us to learn from the story. For instance, have you ever been put off by the story of Jephthah in Judges 11:29-40? I have. In that story Jephthah makes a very stupid vow, saying to the Lord, “If you will hand over the Ammonites to me, whatever comes out of the doors of my house to greet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites will belong to the Lord, and I will offer it as a burnt offering” (11:30-31). While animals at times were kept in a stall area of a house, his family also lived there, of course. So when Jephthah had come home from his victory, his daughter came out to meet him. He was devastated and said, “I have given my word to the Lord and cannot take it back” (11:35). She got burned—literally. Horrible story!! It is meant to be horrible to make a point. Do you know the purpose? It is one of many stories in Judges that demonstrate, “This is the kind of stupidity that happens when you forget God’s law!” You see if Jephthah had known the law of God he would have known the part that said:
“Or if someone swears rashly to do what is good or evil—concerning anything a person may speak rashly in an oath—without being aware of it, but later recognizes it, he incurs guilt in such an instance.” (Leviticus 5:4)
The passage goes on to tell how such a guilty person can be forgiven by making a restitution offering. The sin is atoned for. You see, Jephthah did not have to keep his vow to offer his daughter as a burnt offering. He could have offered a female lamb instead and could have been forgiven for his sin of making a rash vow. Judges uses Jephthah, in others words, as a bad example, an example of a person who does not know God’s word!
3. Understand important cultural elements in the story.
When we understand more about the culture surrounding a biblical story, it can help us get the full effect of the story. These often can make a story more meaningful or the impact more powerful. For instance, think about the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. Now when we think of a “sling shot,” we think of a children’s toy. But did you know that slings were used as serious weapons in the Ancient Near East? In Israel shepherds used slings to fight off wild animals, but they also could be used in battle, as reflected in this striking story (pardon the pun). Sling stones could be 3+ inches in diameter (the size of a peach!), could be slung hundreds of feet, and could travel over 100 miles per hour! Can you imagine what such a rock would do if it hit you in the head?!! David did not strike Goliath down with a toy. Rather, he was skilled with a weapon that gave him a strategic advantage! He could kill the big brute without ever getting near him! That type of information can bring a story to life.
4. Read the story, recognizing God as the Hero.
For instance, the David and Goliath story of 1 Samuel 17 often is presented with David as the paradigmatic hero. But notice what we read on the lips of David himself:
"The Lord will rescue me . . . from the hand of this Philistine!" (17:37)
“I come against you in the name of Yahweh of Hosts, the God of Israel’s armies—you have defied Him!” (17:45)
“Today the Lord will hand you over to me.” (17:46)
“The battle is the Lord’s! He will hand you over to us.” (17:47)
In the Old Testament stories, God is the ultimate hero, not any human being. God is the one working out the salvation of his people. Seeing him as the ultimate hero gives us an important frame of reference for reading the Old Testament stories.
For more help on reading the various parts of the Bible well, see my book Read the Bible for Life in the sidebar of this page.