Understanding the Old Testament


One of the difficulties people sometimes experience with Christianity is understanding how the Old Testament and New Testament relate to one another.

This is nothing new, as far back as the second century there were guys like Marion who struggled with this, teaching that the god of the Old Testament was not the true God, but rather, that the true God had been revealed only with Jesus. But a significant problem with split level approaches like this is that they come at the cost of discounting the fact the Jesus was himself a Jew.

For my own part, the aspect of this problem that I struggled with most in my first year as a disciple was the Old Testament wars, and the book of Joshua in particular. What helped me work through this, to begin to see how the Bible fit together as a whole, was “The Politics of Jesus” by John Howard Yoder. Written in 1972, way before the new perspectives on Paul became blog worthy, “The Politics of Jesus” sits solidly within my personal “most influential books” list. Following are a few samples from the book that I hope may wet your appetite.

In particular I draw attention to chapter 4, “God will fight for us”. It starts:

When modern Christians approach the Old Testament with the question of war in mind, our attitude tends to be a legalistic one and the questions we ask tend to generalize. We ask, “Can a Christian who rejects all war reconcile his position with the Old Testament story?” If the generalization that “war is always contrary to the will of God” can be juxtaposed with the wars in the Old Testament, which are reported as having been according to the will of God, the generalization is destroyed.

This approach hides us from the realization that for the believing Israelite the Scriptures would not have been read with the modern question in mind.

I think this is a very important point. All too often we can project our expectations anachronistically back onto the Old Testament in a way which does violence to the text and the original intentions of the authors. Yoder challenges us to think contextually as we engage the text.

One of the traits of the Old Testament story, sometimes linked with bloody battles but also sometimes notably free of violence, is the identification of YHWH as the God who saves his people without their needing to act. When we seek to test a modern moral statement, we are struck by the parts of the story that do not fit our modern pattern; but the Israelite reading the story was more likely struck by the other cases, where Israel was saved by the mighty deeds of God on their behalf.

Yoder begins to hint here how it links up with the New Testament gospel and Christian soteriology.

Wars are the outworking of the unwillingness of Israel, especially of the kings, to trust YHWH.

The more Israel came to trust in kings, standing armies and foreign alliances for their national survival, the more the prophets God sent them, to warn them of the consequences of such idolatry and invite Israel to trust in God as the “one who would fight for them”.

The crowning example of this theme of Chronicles is chapter 20, recording the response of Jehoshaphat to a massive attack from the neighbouring tribes to the south. The whole population of Judah, led by the prophet Jahaziel, paraded out to meet the enemy, with the temple singers, the Kohathites and the Korahites, groups of Levitical musicians, leading the total people in songs of praise. As the singing procession advanced they discovered that the enemies had come to blows among themselves and destroyed one another before they even got to Judah.

Yoder then moves beyond the exilic period.

It had thus become a part  of the standard devotional ritual of Israel to look over the nation’s history as one of miraculous preservation. Sometimes this preservation had included the Israelite’s military activity; at other times no weapons were used. In both kinds of case, however, the point was the same: confidence in YHWH is an alternative to the self-determining use of Israel’s own military resources in the defense of their existence as God’s people.

Our purpose in summarizing this story here is not to seek to reconstruct in just what way whatever happened did happen when YHWH saved Israel, or whether in each case any of the Israelites used weapons or not. Our present concern is rather with what it meant for Jesus and his contemporaries and his disciples to read this kind of story in their Bible.

There is more of course, but hopefully that provokes some thinking.

You see, in this age of fear over religiously motivated violence and rumours of holy war, I feel it is important for Christians to re-examine the wars of YHWH as depicted in the Old Testament with fresh eyes. As we come to realise that the true heir to Israel and agent of God in this generation is the church and not nation-states, Christian or otherwise, and that reliance on military superiority was regarded as idolatry by the prophets of old, the claims of modern day crusaders to be fighting in the tradition of the Old Testament, and under the authority of God, begins to look decidedly shaky.

The truth is the wars of YHWH and the cross of Christ are directly related to one another, they are both about how kings of Israel exercise trust, how holy wars are won, and how kingdoms are established. Both are equally political and our understanding of war, as Christians, should be grounded in both testaments. They are complementary, not contradictory.

  • The Old Testament lays the foundation for the New Testament.
  • The New Testament is the fulfilment of the Old Testament.

6 thoughts on “Understanding the Old Testament

  1. Quote: ‘Our present concern is rather with what it meant for Jesus and his contemporaries and his disciples to read this kind of story in their Bible.’
    This is the key to me. Reading NT Wright it seems clear that although there were many 1st Century Jews whose reading of scripture was that God encouraged a military solution, Jesus emphatically rejected this approach.
    The amazing thing is that God sticks with his people even when they do the wrong thing. You could use this fact to say that God endorses these wrong actions, but that would be to misread the OT.


  2. Speaking of politics here is an interesting thought via my Teacher.
    When Christians invented the term “New” as distinct from “Old” in relation to their Sacred Texts they were in effect saying to the Jews that your Texts are now old hat and obsolete and therefore false.
    This act of one-upmanship has been a key determining factor in the Christian animosity/hostility to Jews over the centuries.
    It still is.


  3. I think your teachers understanding lack depth and subtlety here John. Christians who have denounced the Old Testament as “false” as you say have tended to be excommunicated as heretics. Did I mention Marcion earlier?
    Think of it instead in the way that Einstein’s theory of relativity trumps Newton’s laws of gravity in the scientific community. The older theories are not considered “false” and if fact are still used to this very day, but they don’t go as deep.


  4. Mike, yes I think it is important to distinguish between the execution of justice and the restoration of justice, and to note the preference of God, in both New and Old Testaments, for the latter, and that the latter requires an end to cycles of revenge. With Jesus we see God taking this preference to its conclusion.


  5. Matt, My Teacher always considers everything from the deepest possible perspective, including every aspect of Christianity which He has, by necessity,thoroughly investigated for fifty years.
    He never ever writes and publishes frivolous or unsubstantiated commentaries on any topic re the Great Tradition of Humankind.
    Please find the paragraph which inspired by original comment. It is from an essay titlerd “The Forgotten Spiritual Esotericism of Saint Jesus and the Christian Social Exotericism That Succeeded It.”
    Which is a long essay that thoroughly examines the origins of the New Testament, and which points out the obvious contradictions and enormous holes in the usual accounts.
    “The writers (or inventors and fabricators) of the “New Testament” wrote largely for the purposes of institutionalization, and, therefore, in order to achieve a “victory” for their particular faction, and to “concretize” the self-image (as well as the public image) of their institution, and to give their institution the characteristic of “authority”, and to differentiate it from other views and institutions—and especially to differentiate it from the “rival” institution of Judaism, by referring to “Christianity” as the “true Israel” (therebysuggesting that the historical tradition of the Jews had been superceded). And this purpose of the “New Testament” has created terrible problems for the Jews (and even the entire world) ever since.”


  6. Interesting post, Matt…as always!
    I have found, as will not be surprising to you, that understanding the centrality of covenant makes all the difference in understanding the Old Testament history…a history of God’s complete faithfulness and man’s intermittent faithfulness.
    Just finished Nehemiah with the boys tonight. The amazing cycles of faith, obedience, shalom, forgetfulness, idolatry, prophecy, punishment, repentance, renewal, restoration…are both amazing and pitiful. The Old Testament/Old Covenant is foundational to being able to understand who God is and how he relates and what his plan is in the New Covenant through Jesus Christ.


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