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

17 thoughts on “How to Read the Old Testament and How Not to Read It

  1. Pingback: Reading the Scriptures with St. John Cassian | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: The old testament | Zurch

  3. cindy

    Am I correct to conclude that the Old Testament was written in hind sight for the purpose of building a case for salvation through Christ?

    1. Fr. Ted

      My direct answer to your question is NO, but perhaps I am not understanding what you are asking. The OT was not written in hind sight, but very much was a foretelling of things to come. What is true of prophecy is that while the prophets speak what God is “laying upon them” and they use words and phrases that make some sense to them, they are speaking about things they cannot fully comprehend or see. Thus their writings/sayings are considered to be foreshadowings of things not yet made fully clear. If people had paid attention to them, they would have been looking for the fulfillment of what the OT writers were speaking about. The only modern equivalent I can think of is that sometimes 2oth Century science fiction writers imagine future technologies, and put these technologies in their books. Often what they wrote about was considered so fututistic when they first mentioned it, but years later when we look back and read such science fiction we realize how much of it was totally conditioned by their times and what was actually known by scientists/engineers of their day. Many science fiction writers of the past imagine communication devices in the future, but the real devices now commonly available in digital communications, through nanotechnologies, and the Internet far exceed what was imagined.

      The Old Testament writers were given glimpses of something God was going to do in the future and they wrote about these glimpses using the language and knowledge of their own day to try to capture what was being revealed to them. So what they wrote about was “clouded” by what they knew, thus left in a shadow, only to be revealed fully in the time of Christ.

      1. cindy

        Okay, let me try again. These writings existed and are authentic to their time but were assembled later according to their relevance in support of the Gospel and documentation of historical events. I realize the first five books constitute the torah and were the original scripture. The Old Testament wasn’t always the Old Testament. It was edited, correct?

      2. Fr. Ted

        No, the Jewish Scriptures existed long before the birth of Christ. The canon (what officially was considered Scritpure) was not closed nor hard and steadfast according to the various Jewish sects which existed before the time of Christ. There was some fluidity in what was read as Scripture by Jews, and what versions were read and accepted as authtentic. For example the Jewish Scriptures in their Hebrew or Aramaic language version were somehat different than in their Greek version, but many Jews accepted any of these versions/translations as canonically valid Scritpures. Some Jesus however more narrowly focused on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and gave less attention to the prophets or other writings. From the beginning of Christianity, as seen especially in the writings of St. Paul, the Christians relied very heavily on the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures (the Greek version, known as the Septuagint, was translated by Jews and for Jews into the Greek language). The Christians believed that the Jewish Scriptures prophesied of the coming of Christ and believed Jesus fulfilled those prophecies and is the Christ. The Christians also began reading the Old Testament scriptures in the light of Christ. This means that they looked to Jesus being the Christ to understand the Old Testament. In other words, the Christians began to read the Old Testament as a Christian document. The disagreement between Christians and Jews was not at first about which Scriptures do we read: both were reading the same Jewish Scriptures whether in Greek or Aramaic/Hebrew. The orginal disagreement was about the interpretation of these Jewish Scriptures. Did the scriptures prophecy of a Messiah? Did Jesus fulfill the prophecy? Is it through Jesus that the Jewish Scriptures should be understood and interpreted? Christians said yes.

        Then about 100 years after the birth of Jesus, Jews who did not believe Jesus is the Messiah began to criticize not just how the Christians interpreted the Scriptures, but began to cast doubt on the Scriptures the Christians relied on. The Jews decided that since the Christians made such successful and exclusive use of the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures, that they would forbid all Jews from reading the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Jewish bible).

        From that point on the Christians claimed the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures for themselves and the Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus accepted only the Hebrew/Aramaic version of their Scriptures. Several hundred years later the Jews officially canonized a particular version of their Scriptures which turns out to be an interpretation of the older Hebrew texts.

        So on one level the Christians rely on an interpretation of the original Hebrew texts into Greek, which is actually older than the interpretation/versions the Jews formally canonize several hundred years after Christ.

        So both Christians and Jews are relying on texts for their Scriptures whose history is older than Christ. But they do rely on different versions of this text.

        I am not sure that this exposition will help you, I feel unsure about what your original assumption is that is leading to your questions.

    1. cindy

      I have just recently been introduced to this blog and find it very interesting. I really just want to understand the Bible in the context in which it was written and for authenticity.

  4. cindy

    Yes, I remember the Septuagint. I realize that the scriptures existed before the birth of Jesus.

    Thanks for trying to answer my question. I guess that I will have to take it by faith that the Old Testament that exists today is as God intended it to be.

    1. Fr. Ted

      Yes, believing in God or believing in His Word, requires faith. We accept it on faith. Of course, we would also say there is the witness of the people of God – the Church – so we don’t have to just decide for ourselves, we can accept the witness of countless others through time who have faithfully handed on the Tradition to the next generation down to our own time. It means having faith, not only in God, but in His chosen people. The people of God, His saints, become witnesses to His truth through their own lives.

  5. Pingback: Reading the Old Testament in Consonance with the Saints | Fr. Ted's Blog

  6. Cindy

    I have a favorite scripture, Job 23:10, “But he knows the way that I take and when he has tested me I will come forth as gold”. I often refer to this scripture when I need encouragement. Are you saying that it is wrong to do this?

    1. Fr. Ted

      I don’t think having a favorite passage is a problem, and certainly calling to mind scripture verses is not a problem. The problem comes when that is our only use of scripture. If we think of each sentence of scripture as almost a magical talisman which if we call to mind or recite just right, my will will be done.

      What the authors in the blog are advocating is for us to read the scriptures in larger sections, to understand that every text has a context, and we need to situate each verse within its context so that we aren’t treating the verses like independent magical spells.

      Scripture is meant to be read not just for information, but also for formation – to form and transform our hearts and minds. So we also have to read the Scriptures witih the intent not just of using them, but of allowing them to transform our way of thinking, believing and acting.

      A number of years ago I went through a very spiritually and emotionally difficult time. I experienced it as a very dark time. But every day one simple scriptural phrase from Psalm 118:17 kept playing through my mind: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.” It was a phrase I say each morning when I sing Matins. Somehow that phrase playing through my mind and heart gave me hope and kept me going. It was shaping and leading me. It was God’s voice speaking to me and it helped me through an awful period of my life.

      1. Cindy

        Thanks for sharing. Your verse is a good one , too. My verse always encourgages me to power through and that I will be better for it.

  7. Pingback: Week in Review: 01/22/2011 « Near Emmaus

  8. Pingback: Thou shalt be historically literate! – moreorthodoxy

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