3 Things to Remember When Reading the Old Testament

by Jen Pollock Mitchel
Time: 4 Minutes

I found myself at the beginning of Leviticus this morning. Not by choice, really, but because this is where my Bible reading plan had me for the day.

3 Things to Remember When Reading the Old Testament

I have to admit I did sigh a little bit, even think to myself, “I have so much I could be reading. Maybe I can skip Leviticus.” And it’s true that I could have very easily opted to linger longer in the New Testament passage for the day or the assigned Psalm. Those wouldn’t have been wrong choices—and yet I didn’t want to let myself on the hook so easily.

Leviticus it was.

I opened my copy of Robert Alter’s translation and commentary. I love how Alter renders his English translation with the poetic language of the original Hebrew. It doesn’t always make for the smoothest read, but it allows you to see some of the linguistic play the original authors had in mind.

Before I started into chapter 1, I started with Alter’s introduction. Yes, that was an extra step, but I knew it would give me a framework for the book before jumping in.

1

Take Your Time

This will take time, you tell yourself, reading the Old Testament. You remember it might not come as easily to you as a Psalm or a passage from the gospels, and that’s one reason you’ll want to avoid it. But then again, you’ll know all learning is slow, incremental, and plodding.

2

Get Help

Standing at the cliff face of a book like Leviticus, time of your side, you might still feel daunted: I will need help, you will say.

On the one hand, there is an important doctrine called the perspicuity of Scripture. This is a fancy way to say that Scripture is clear, that it’s plain, that it’s accessible and understandable for the reader. Importantly, however, this plainness, which the Reformers emphasized, has to do with the message of salvation.

What’s clear and plain in the Bible is that the story of the world centers around the breach between God and his creation a breach that was repaired in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

What is not always immediately clear is what a book like Leviticus—which details a lot of the sacrificial laws for ancient Israel—is meant for you today, as a Christian. So, you get help: you get a good commentary, a good study Bible, a good general introduction to the Old Testament. You avail yourself of the many, many resources, which are preferably books and not short blog posts by people like me.

This morning, here’s what this looked like for me:

Reading Robert Alter’s introduction today (not long, by the way—maybe six pages), I learned that the “single verb that focuses the major themes of Leviticus [is] ‘divide’ (Hebrew, hivdil).” Alter notes this is verb is the same verb used in Genesis 1, when God “divides” light from darkness, day from night, the upper waters from the lower waters, the dry land from the sea. It’s also the same word to name how God “sets apart” the nation of Israel as his own treasured possession.

Suddenly, I’m getting a sense of what this means for me today, as a Christian: God’s always consecrating a people to himself, making them holy, calling them out from the world and its prevailing idolatries, setting them on a hill to shine the light of his goodness and holiness. All this: from an introduction to the book of Leviticus. Six pages – and probably 15 minutes!

It took time. (Not too much, but some.)

I needed help. (In this case, a good introduction.)

The effort was valuable.

3

Persevere

This last principle for reading the Old Testament is probably the hardest one. The value of Bible reading is not always immediately apparent. In fact, sometimes you walk away thinking, that was a waste of my time. You didn’t learn anything, didn’t hear God’s thunderous voice on a decision you needed to make, didn’t even get the reassurance of God’s forgiveness, which you so desperately needed after the day you just lived.

It’s okay. You’re not doing it wrong. The value of reading the Bible grows with a kind of exponential interest. What you need to understand is that the Bible is a coherent whole, a book of resonances, of recurring images. It’s a world of echoes, and at first, you don’t know exactly what you’re listening for.

So: you just keeping listening, keep taking the time, keeping availing yourself of the tools you need to train your ear. And then, some thirty years later (if, like me, you’re a slow learner), you make the connection between the “dividing” of Leviticus and the sermon your pastor preached last Sunday, from 2 Corinthians, and Paul’s command to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of the God.”

Ah-ha! you will say to yourself, and the word of God will make sense of the very decision you’ve been lying awake worrying over since Monday.

It is a gift—and a labor: as most of life is.

This article was kindly contributed by Jen Pollock Michael, and first appeared on her blog.
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