How to Read the Old Testament and How Not to Read It

This is the 5th Blog in this series which began with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy.   The immediate preceding blog is Reading the Scriptures with St. John Cassian.  In the previous blog, we considered the method by which St. John Cassian advocated Christians to allow the written Word of God to enter into their hearts and minds:  repetitive reading and memorization of the Scriptures as the planting of God’s Word as seed in the heart, which would then bear fruit at later times in prayer and meditation.


Memorizing passages, or simply reading them so often that we become intimately familiar with them, is not the same as memorizing spells that we can cast like Harry Potter or other wizards and witches.   We are not domesticating God’s word for our personal pleasure and use!   Rather we are endeavoring to make ourselves servants of God, learning His will, rather than trying to conform Him to ours.   As has oft been noted, if we only read or memorize those biblical passages we like or approve of, then we are listening not to God but to ourselves when we recite those passages!

Memorizing the Scriptures allows various passages to percolate in our hearts and minds for a time in order for us to be able to connect the verses from the Bible to our personal experiences and meditations.  We then can draw on the wisdom of Scripture to inform our minds, to form our hearts, and to conform our personal will to God’s will.   This is not a passive process – waiting for God’s Word to work on us.  It is a process of actively engaging the Word and of preparing the soil of our heart to receive the fecund divine seed from God so that it can produce good fruit in us.  It is not magic, like Jack and the beanstalk, but is more organic farming, requiring patience and hard labor to produce the harvest despite spiritual draughts, disease or adverse conditions.   Fr. Paul Tarazi, Orthodox scripture professor, warns about reading the Scriptures with a magical outlook.

 “The first and basic scripture of Judaism is the Torah or Pentateuch.  As with any set of scriptures, even those containing apparently independent ‘rules’ within them, this one was never intended to be used as it were ‘magically,’ by a reader who would pick and choose passages that seem at face value to apply to any given situation.  But for those who read it both then and now, the temptation to do that is too strong to resist.  Consider, for example, the typical section in a present-day Bible where the reader is given a list of biblical passages to read and refer to for each and every situation in life: birth or bereavement, sorrow or joy, success or failure, and so forth.  It is as though the biblical God were the sum total of a collection of pagan deities, each in charge of a different area or aspect of our lives!*  But as I have shown throughout my Old Testament Introduction series and am now showing again with regard to the New Testament, the scriptural books are individually and collectively written as a story with a beginning and an end, a story whose meaning cannot be gathered except when taken in its entirety.”  [*Note: “This is a best a slothful attitude: while the poor pagans had to remember the name and the function of each deity in order to make the proper request and insure prompt answer, we circumvent this nuisance and ask from the same god whatever behooves us and according to our need or pleasure.  At its worst, this attitude makes out of the living biblical God who does ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived’ (1 Cor 2:9), a web-site masterminded by humans to satisfy their whims of the moment.”]   (Paul Nadim Tarazi, THE NEW TESTAMENT INTRODUCTION: PAUL AND MARK, pp 29-30)

The Bible is not a book of magical incantations.  It is a written witness to God’s Word becoming flesh.  It is a treasure of the depth and riches of God’s Wisdom.  It is theology in the form of narrative, guiding us to the Kingdom of heaven.  It is the revelation of God’s plan through history, and of our salvation.  Though the Bible contains historical fact, it is not mostly a history book, rather it is a book of theology which in turn reveals what it means to be human.

“For Orthodox, then, the Old Testament doesn’t function as a history book or as a science text.  We believe it’s a book that exists to point to Christ, to give understanding about who Christ was and what he achieved through his life-giving death.  The New Testament, for its part, wasn’t written as a cold recitation of uninterpreted events.  Merely recording the ‘historic facts,’ to the extent that it’s possible, wouldn’t have been enough to convey the gospel for all to see.  The apostles saw everything Jesus did and still didn’t understand and internalize the meaning of it all until after he was crucified, when their minds were opened to who he is and how the Scriptures spoke of him.  They then recounted the events in the Gospel in such a way that reveals Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture, his significance for us and for our salvation.  The Gospels simultaneously recount and interpret the events of Jesus Christ’s life.”     (Peter Bouteneff, SWEETER THAN HONEY: ORTHODOX THINKING ON DOGMA AND TRUTH, pp 88-89)

The main purpose of the Old Testament was not to simply record the deeds of God’s people in history, nor to preserve the Ten Commandments.  Its purpose was and remains to reveal Christ to us.

Next:   Reading the Old Testament in Consonance with the Saints