Interpreting the Bible: Interpreting the Old Testament

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

The Old Testament is a significant part of the Bible and often can be highly relevant to our faith. It is good for us, then, to consider how we ought to interpret its contents and message.

As always, we must first read the text so as to understand it, asking the basic questions regarding the author and the material itself. As we then consider how to interpret the text, it is good for us to keep in mind four levels of interpretation which we are about to explain. A given text may not have all four levels present; nevertheless, we must consider which levels are present so as to properly understand God’s revelation (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15).

The first level of interpretation is to consider the message as it relates to its direct audience. For instance, the “Ten Commandments” are given in Exodus 20 to the Israelites in the wilderness standing near Mount Sinai; Isaiah the prophet has material relevant to the Israelites from the eighth through sixth centuries BCE. Genesis 38 represents a good example of why this is important: Judah and Tamar are acting at a time before the Law of Moses and therefore not specifically subject to it, and it would not be consistent to apply a law given later upon this situation where it may not have yet belonged. It is important to first consider what the material or message meant to the people involved or the people to whom it was first spoken.

The second level of interpretation is to consider what message may be presented to later Israelites. A good example of this is in Genesis 2:2-3: God rests on the seventh day of the creation. In Exodus 20:9-11 this idea is used to demonstrate the reason for the Sabbath– as God rested from His work on the seventh day, so all Israelites are to rest on the seventh day. This level of interpretation, while perhaps not immediately seen as relevant, is actually extremely important: Hebrews 4:1-11 demonstrates that for the Christian there is another layer of interpretation of God’s Sabbath rest– God permanently rests from creation, and therefore we await our permanent rest. Since the same event may carry different implications for Israelites and Christians, we must discern this level of interpretation.

The third level of interpretation involves whether there is a reference to the coming Christ within the message. We see in Luke 24:27, Acts 17:2-3, and Acts 18:28, among other passages, how critical the prophecies of the Old Testament were in the early preaching of the Gospel. These references take two forms: types and prophecies. A type is a shadow in contrast to the substance (cf. Colossians 2:17); we see that Jesus is the true substance for which earlier Israelites provided a glimpse in shadow. As Moses delivers God’s people by His power, Jesus Himself delivers the people (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15-19). As Elijah and Elisha could perform many signs, so Jesus was able to perform similar signs and then some (cf. 1-2 Kings) . There are also many prophecies of Jesus, establishing things true of Himself and His life before they occurred: born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), to suffer and die (Isaiah 53), to be raised again (Jonah 1, Hosea 6:2).

The fourth level of interpretation is to discern what message and applications Christians can derive from the text. We must tread carefully, for the Bible is clear that the Old Testament on its own does not establish truth in the new covenant (Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-17, Hebrews 7-9). On the other hand, the Old Testament often reinforces truths revealed in the New (2 Timothy 3:16-17; e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:6-9, 1 Timothy 2:11-15), can provide instruction (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-11), and a source of encouragement and hope (Romans 15:3, Hebrews 11). It is clear, then, that the Old Testament is extremely valuable to the Christian and can help us learn God’s will. Let us strive to interpret God’s Word properly!


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