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).

Despite its reputation the Old Testament proves extremely important to the faith and understanding of the Christian. In the pages of the Old Testament we learn how God interacted with His people; we can learn from their mistakes and their successes. We are given an opportunity to understand matters of holiness, righteousness, justice; the words of the prophets resonate to this day. Above all things we learn about the promised Christ and the Kingdom God would give Him, a Kingdom without end. We do well, therefore, to explore how we can most effectively understand and interpret the Old Testament.

As always, we must first read the text so as to understand it, asking the basic questions regarding the author and the material itself (who is speaking/acting, and to/towards whom? When did it happen? What is being done/said? Why is it being said/done? Etc.). 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. What did the message mean for the people who first heard it? How does understanding the immediate context help us understand what is going on in the passage? For instance, the “Ten Commandments” are given in Exodus 20:1-17 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. We also must make sure we maintain appropriate covenant and time distinctions. Genesis 38:1-30 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 so 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. In what ways might later Israelites repurpose or apply a given law, story, or message? 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, proves extremely important in a later time: 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 Kings 17:1-2 Kings 13:21). 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 52:13-53:12), to be raised again (Jonah 1:17, Hosea 6:2). We do well to be careful; not everything has a Messianic referent, and we must make sure our interpretation of the Old Testament maintains integrity even as we look for the Christ in the story.

The fourth level of interpretation is to discern what message and applications Christians can derive from the text. How can we gain encouragement from those who came before us? 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 7:1-9:28). 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 11:1-40). 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!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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