Why Study the Old Testament?

This post is part of an online Intro to Old Testament “class” for the person on the go. Check it out.

For many people the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) feels like a tough nut to crack. Even for Christians and Jews who view it as sacred text, some of the content is puzzling or overwhelming. For those who do not believe the Old Testament is inspired by God, the stories might seem archaic and completely irrelevant for today. Sometimes it’s easier to set it aside, chalk it up to mystery, and move on.

But, studying the Old Testament has significant implications socially, culturally, politically, and spiritually.  Here are a few reasons I believe everyone, religious or not, can benefit from studying Old Testament.

Social Movements

The Old Testament has been used to advance social movements and action—some noble and others devastating. On the noble side, the passionate rabbi Abraham Heschel fought for social justice because of the God he found in the Hebrew Bible. He marched alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma. Heschel’s daughter Susannah writes:

“My father felt that the prophetic tradition of Judaism had come alive at Selma . . . When he returned, he famously said, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’”

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Library of Congress. Photo by Marion Trikosko. Public Domain.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also drew from the Old Testament to articulate his hopes for America. In his famous “I have a Dream” speech, he said:

“We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.'” (Amos 5:24).

For Heschel and King, the Old Testament was a source of vital inspiration. It gave words to cast a vision for what the world can be at its best.

But, the Bible has also been interpreted to fuel another kind of vision, one that is deadly. Christian Afrikaners readily turned to the Old Testament to support the terror of apartheid. Starting with the story of Babel to make their case, they perpetuated significant abuse.

Dr. Kevin Giles, an Anglican priest recalls hearing first-hand Afrikaner theologians make their case:

“In the 20th century, in the face of external attacks on white rule, the best Reformed theologians gave their able minds to developing biblical support for separate development (Apartheid). They argued that the Bible taught that humankind, by the will of God, was separated into different races that should each have their own lands. They insisted that Apartheid was pleasing to God because it was endorsed by Scripture. . . This theology was backed by virtually every Reformed theologian in South Africa.”

On American soil, the argument in favor of slavery also drew heavily from the Bible. Dr. Mark Noll, historian of American Christianity provides a compelling window into this debate in the book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

What should we to make of this vast disparity in the influence of the Bible? Reading it has inspired some of the most life-giving social movements, while also fueling destructive systems. The contrast reveals the power of interpretation. Not all readings of the Bible are equal. It also reveals how the harmful use of scriptural texts is often recognized in hindsight. That means every generation must look for its current blind spots. Studying the Old Testament and interpretive methods is a proactive way to do that.

Art

Art is powerful. Like the Bible, it can create and inspire ways of being. Art is how we make sense of life and speak the things that cannot be said in any other way but poetry. Some of the most famous art in the world depicts biblical scenes.

An obvious example is Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. We often think of biblical interpretation as a scholar parsing Hebrew or Greek. But Michelangelo vividly shows us how he understands Genesis. His interpretation has affected millions, having been prolifically distributed worldwide.

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Michelangelo Buonarroti. Photo Reproduction in Public Domain.

Another example is Bob Dylan, world renowned singer/songwriter and winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. He often alludes to the Bible in his work:

“Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake. Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break. In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand. In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.” – from song “Every Grain of Sand” (Genesis 4)

Studying the Old Testament can enrich a person’s experience of art in paintings, songs, architecture, film, poetry and beyond. Imagine being able to catch the nuances and depth that would otherwise be missed.

Politics

American politicians frequently quote or allude to the Bible. Quoting the Bible is politically effective because so many people find it authoritative. It taps into people’s desires to please God. A lot of power can be leveraged by that. Both Democrats and Republicans bring the Bible into politics. Hillary Clinton cited it in her concession speech and says it “remains the biggest influence” on her thinking. When President-elect, Donald Trump was asked if he had a favorite Bible verse, he said:

“I mean, when we get into the Bible, I think many, so many. And some people, look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country . . . And we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”

Biblical interpretation affects how people vote.  In fact, political scientists are working to improve methods for accurately analyzing this phenomenon. Religious voter blocs can impact national election outcomes, as well as determine advocacy for or against issues like climate change. For example, Jewish communities and Anglicans tend to support efforts to address climate change, while more conservative denominations like Assemblies of God or Southern Baptists are more likely to oppose efforts. The positions are tied to underlying theological commitments.

Faith

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the Old Testament also impacts the spiritual lives of many people. It has been the source of great comfort, nurture, and wisdom. It has provided life even amid great pain. When Elizabeth was being raped in a brothel after she was kidnapped, words from Psalm 27:1 kept her sane. Across the wall of her prison she wrote: “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?”

Bottom Line

For 2.2 billion Christians and 14.2 million Jews (about 30% of the world’s population) the Bible is sacred. That does not count all the friends, family, acquaintances, or co-workers who rub shoulders with this vast population of Bible believers. The Bible has sold more copies than any other book in history (5 billion) and has been translated into more than 500 languages (almost 3,000 languages have some portion of it). That is a lot of people who are affected directly or indirectly by scriptural interpretation. Like it or not, religious or not, interpretation of the Bible equals power. Power to affect culture, laws, politics and every facet of life, whether for good or ill. And that is a compelling reason to study the Old Testament.

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